Friday, June 18, 2010

Back in my day …. Hey! Get off my lawn kid.

The other day I was reading (via Matt Yglesias) a piece by blogger Chris Bowers in which he posits that the progressive political blogosphere is now dominated by political and media professionals who get 95% of the audience share and that the old amateur progressive blogosphere is almost completely dead. I think he has a point. (And by the way, although I won’t blog about politics here I have no problem with blogging about blogging.)

Oh, sure, we could argue about what he means by “amateur blogosphere”. As he says, 99% of progressive political bloggers blog for no money as a labor of love. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean them when he says the progressive blogosphere is dead. Because they haven’t changed much and they aren’t going anywhere because they never had much audience share anyway. What they have is a deep interest in some particular area often arising out of their demographics or their life experience. So the feminist bloggers aren’t going away. The Latino bloggers aren’t going away. The LGBT bloggers aren’t going away. Law bloggers aren’t going away. The professorial foreign policy blogs aren’t going away. But the general national level progressive political blogger? Yeah, things have changed.

A couple of days later I came across (via Henry at Crooked Timber), a really interesting essay (PDF) by Laura McKenna also about the way blogs are changing. She notices the same professionalization of bloggers that Bowers notices. She also talks about some specific ways that bloggers have changed the way they blog. She points out that independent bloggers used to link to each other a lot but now that they are professionals they don’t link to the “amateurs”.

Perhaps because these newly professional bloggers felt pressured to distance themselves from their amateur roots, they stopped linking to independent bloggers. They were more likely to link to academic studies, foundation reports, newspaper articles, or live-blogged events.

I’ve been noticing the lack of links too.

Then, a couple of days after that I was reading this Felix Salmon blog post about a professionalized blogger named Kouwe (who I’ve never heard of) who was fired first from the New York Times and now from Dealbreaker. In this post Salmon says:

Kouwe himself, interestingly, never left a comment on the site. I said after he was fired from the NYT that he simply didn’t understand what blogs were all about, and this episode only reinforces that judgment. One of the biggest differences between journalists and bloggers is that journalists often have a bizarre phobia of making an appearance in their own comments sections, while bloggers feel that’s an important part of what they do daily. But if you’re a journalist who feels constrained from engaging with commenters directly, then maybe that helps push you towards less kosher means of engagement.

I’m not sure I agree with Salmon on that. There was a time that I would have agreed but I’m not sure I do now. I see fewer and fewer bloggers engaging in comments sections these days and I draw the conclusions that bloggers today don’t think it is an important part of what they do anymore. But, again, maybe we’re talking about two different types of blogs.

Then, tonight, via Boomantribune, I saw that professional blogger Keith Olbermann, who I think does TV when he isn’t blogging, has written a GBCW diary at DailyKos because the comment threads there have gotten so bad. (Actually it wasn’t a GBCW diary because they got tired of phony GBCW diaries over there and made a rule that if you wrote one you’d better really be gone so now people write them but make sure to say that it isn’t a GBCW because they might want to come back some day to which I say if you don’t want to be somewhere just stop being there and then if it turns out you’d like to go back, go back and don’t make a big production about it because, really, nobody cares.)

But. Anyway.

All of that made me start thinking about my blog-reading past and realize that I’ve come almost full circle in the way I read political blogs. If you have no interest in a personal memoir, stop reading now. Because, really, it isn’t very interesting to anyone except me.

I was trying to remember what year it was that we got access to the internet in my office and I just can’t remember! I feel like my grandma. I used to ask her questions like that and she would say “oh, I just can’t remember. One day we didn’t have indoor plumbing and then one day we did.” I remember not having email and the internet (heck I remember when only a small group of people had computers for word processing in our office). I think we got it in the late 1990’s. I’m pretty sure we had it by the 2000 presidential election. I know we had it by 9/11. I remember trying to follow things on CNN but still had to keep walking down the hall to an office whose owner kept a small television for emergencies and baseball playoff games.

I remember reading the Washington Post site religiously when it first got going. I remember emailing Howard Kurtz about something he wrote and being surprised that he answered me almost immediately (a very pleasant response too). I assumed that he had the “I get too many emails to answer yours” excuse (and I always have this example in the back of my mind when bloggers notify their readers that they are just too busy to answer emails. Really? You’re that important? You have more readers emailing you than someone at the Washington Post? I should point out that I was pleasantly surprised this year when James Fallows answered one of my emails and we had a nice, albeit brief, multi-email conversation.)

I don’t remember the first blog I read. I remember reading the Howard Dean blogs in 2003. His campaign didn’t have its own blog at first and there was a separate blog that some people put together. I loved reading the blog posts and the comments. I never commented. (At least I don’t remember ever commenting). But reading it gave me a lift during a time that felt very dark. Finding other people who felt the same way I did when I was stuck in red-state Missouri was such a relief.

On the Howard Dean blogs they would talk about people who were starting their own blogs. That’s how I eventually started reading Ezra Klein who, ironically, is now almost the only reason I go to the Washington Post. That’s how I started reading Kos, in the days when it was mostly just him blogging with a little help from some other people on the weekends. I never commented (that I can remember). Most of the time I didn’t even read comment threads. I didn’t have time to make informed comments that would stand up to the scrutiny of other commenters. The commenters kept bloggers honest in those days and also seemed to provide fodder for other blog posts. If a comment thread got really interesting the blogger would usually get inspiration and write a follow up post. Or, once there were community sites, one of the commenters would write a post of their own. It was usually at that point that I would go back and read the comments and sometimes I’d flag particular bloggers in my mind who gave as much information through their interaction in their comment threads as in the actual blog post.

Those substantive comments began to entice me in and the platform that the big community blog, DailyKos, gave to other independent bloggers sent me over to their sites to check out what else they were writing. The coverage by Marcy Wheeler of the Scooter Libby prosecution was what really made me start to want to be more than a mere reader. The comment threads were real discussions and they were about something that I knew off the top of my head - law. So I had something to add and also questions that needed to be answered. They drew me in and I started giving commenting a shot. It was hard to break into good commenting threads in those days though. People didn’t want to talk to someone until they knew that person had a clue what they were talking about or at least was commenting in good faith. Some of the comment threads were, frankly, a little cliquish. So, even though I had no need to spend time socializing on the web, I started popping into social comment threads just to get to know other commenters so they would know who I was when I decided it was worth the time to engage in a substantive conversation. Eventually I started reading and commenting at other blogs like BoomanTribune and Firedoglake. I made some friends in the comments. Some of them I eventually met in real life. Some of them I’m still friends with. I never wrote “diaries” on those blogs, I had no interest in blogging about politics. I mostly wanted to learn and discuss. My reading list of blogs kept getting longer and longer and I wondered where and when I would hit the wall and have to stop.

I shouldn’t have worried, things were changing. And not for the better. By 2005 and 2006 the sheer numbers present in the blogosphere began to create a lot of noise. Comment threads at the larger blogs grew too large to have an effective conversation; too many other commenters would jump into any good conversation. Too many diaries began to be published that looked as if they took a total of 5 minutes to put together. A push toward homogenization of the “Democratic” blogs caused huge flame wars that eventually pushed out a lot of people. And the so-called A-List bloggers seemed more interested in having private email conversations in which they discussed how to “guide” their readers in activism than in actually having a conversation with their readers. (And activism always seemed to involve giving money to candidates through the mechanisms set up by the A-list bloggers.)

Then beginning in 2007, as the election began to become the focal point of the progressive blogs, the signal to noise ratio in the progressive amateur blogosphere deteriorated to the point where all I could hear was static. The partisans took over. They seemed to think that the candidate who had the most supporters on any particular blog, as evidenced by the comments posted by supporters in the comment threads and by supportive diaries (many of which had no analysis and were the equivalent of campaign literature), would win the election. Battles broke out. It became almost impossible to have a conversation that included real analysis in the comment threads of any user diaries and it even slowly began to move to the comments on the front pages of a lot of blogs. Although the trend had started prior to the election, many blog front pagers reduced their interaction in their own comment threads.

And really, who can blame them? On some blogs the comment threads had become absurd. I think some of them thought that all the time they had spent writing some kind of serious analysis would be wasted once they were in the comment threads arguing with people who saw themselves as no more than political canvassers for their candidates. Just as it really isn’t particularly fruitful to try to have a serious debate with the average campaign volunteer who rings your doorbell to hand you a piece of literature, it was pointless to try to have a conversation in the comment sections of most blogs during the campaign. In any event, blogging had gradually ceased being a fruitful dialog with readers in most parts of the blogosphere.

By June of 2008 I was getting bored. The All-Election All-The-Time content of the blogs had been going on for months as the primary dragged on and on. That was understandable but it didn’t reflect what I wanted to spend most of my time reading. I started cutting back on the number of blogs I read. And pretty much stopped commenting. I thought that was temporary, as a way to preserve my state of mind about the political season. Unlike the days of the Howard Dean blogs, when the whole point seemed to be to get people energized to leave their computers and go out into their communities and meet other like minded people in real life and become part of a real life on-the-ground process, it seemed that comment threads and diaries were full of people who thought that blogging, especially posting comments in support of your candidate, was the process. And most of the so-called activist bloggers were still interested only in the online money angle. If I was heartened during the days of the online Dean campaign I was disheartened by the online 2008 campaign. They were bringing me down and all I wanted to do was avoid them.

I think I hoped that things would eventually go back to the way they were before the election. But they didn’t. So I drifted away. I still read blogs but I was detached from them.

With rare exceptions, I’ve pretty much stopped commenting on political posts. My exceptions usually are law related posts, but I find even those frustrating these days. My tolerance for the mostly inane comment threads that follow pretty much every substantive post is at the lowest point it has ever been. Occasionally I post comments in non-political threads but not really very often unless it involves books.

I don’t really have a point to all of these reminiscences except to point out that I’m right back to where I began. Just reading. And I’m really ok with that.