Through the progressive lens, a foreshortened view of blogs
Today, Lakshmi Chaudhry has an interesting article up on In These Times: Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics?
The article runs down the usual dichotomy blog observers dwell on: how blogs are at odds with mainstream media. Prospects for how blogs might change the future are measured not in how the interactive media form is changing our culture and the very way we engage with the world, but in whether blogs can generate a specific outcome in the 2006 elections.
An Internet-fueled victory at the polls would certainly be impressive—no candidate backed by the most popular progressive blogs has yet won an election. But electoral success may merely confirm the value of blogs as an effective organizing tool to conduct politics as usual, cementing the influence of a select group of bloggers who will likely be crowned by the media as the new kingmakers.
Winning an election does not, however, guarantee a radical change in the relations of power. Technology is only as revolutionary as the people who use it, and the progressive blogosphere has thus far remained the realm of the privileged —a weakness that may well prove fatal in the long run.
In 2006, the biggest question facing blogs and bloggers is: Will their ascendancy empower the American people—in the broadest sense of the word—or merely add to the clout of an elite online constituency?
I don't think I agree with that conclusion -- or even the question. And I think the problem gets down to preconceptions of what a blogger is.
Blogs are literally vox populi—or at the least the voice of the people who post entries and comments, and, to a lesser extent, of their devoted readers. Telling bloggers that they’re wrong or to shut up is somewhat like telling respondents to an opinion survey to simply change their mind. When journalists reject bloggers as cranks or wingnuts, they also do the same to a large segment of the American public who seeblogs as an expression of their views. Such dismissals feed the very alienation that makes blogs and bloggers popular.
The irony is that bloggers are most powerful when they work in tandem with the very media establishment they despise. “Bloggers alone cannot create conventional wisdom, cannot make a story break, cannot directly reach the vast population that isn’t directly activist and involved in politics,” says Peter Daou, who coordinated the Kerry campaign’s blog outreach operations. Blogs instead exert an indirect form of power, amplifying and channeling the pressure of netroots opinion upwards to pressure politicians and journalists. “It’s really a rising up,” says Daou.
Can this online rebellion lead to real political change? The prognosis thus far is encouraging, but far from definitive. [emphasis added]
See, this is where I have a problem. I submit that the only reason we have what might be called "Establishment Bloggers" is because, today, the information media environment is still dominated by the international media conglomerates. Of course blogs can't take on the mainstream media alone right now! Blogs are totally outgunned financially and in terms of audience.
But there's no reason at all to assume that things will stay this way. Because what we're seeing is a cultural and economic transition from the hit-driven, passively experienced information and entertainment marketplace to the long-tail-driven, actively engaged information and entertainment marketplace. And the megacorporations are institutionally not well-equipped to take advantage of this, for while they have the money, they do not have the vision. And their corporate cultures are lost in ideas that no longer can thrive, yet are beholden to the interests of a well-fed management that generally has treated content producers with disrespect, if not outright contempt.
It cannot last.
Let's go back a little bit. Once upon a time, television was considered a toy for the wealthy. I have heard enough stories about that day when the Phelps' or the Johnsons got the first TV on the block to make it clear to me that the world was a lot different then.
A lot different.
Flash forward to the 1990s and everyone had a television. Heck, everyone had three televisions! By the time the dot-bomb happened, the only people who didn't have televisions were people who deliberately chose not to have televisions. What once was a luxury item for the upper middle class became a staple item for just about every American's life.
There's no reason to assume that today's blogging demographics will be any different.
To be sure, there are barriers that separate the blogging public from the non-blogging public -- but ultimately they are not economic. I know enough working moms, disabled poor and unemployed students who are blogging to know that the assumptions of an economically-defined "blogging elite" are way off target. While one needs a computer to blog, it doesn't have to be an expensive one. And unless one is of the baby boomer generation, and did not grow up to some extent with computers around, having a computer in the house increasingly is seen as essential -- for shopping, for job hunting, for keeping in touch with friends and family. When you can buy a Dell for $250, and use free blogging software or a free blogging service, the barrier to having the tools to blog is rather low.
And it's not like you have to spend all day blogging. Nearly all the people I know blog in their spare time, in addition to one or two jobs, family commitments and so on. You don't have to be part of the idle rich to blog. So let's just dismiss notions that blogging is done just by "the privileged."
Rather, the dominant demographic distinction is along educational and cultural lines. Let's look at the latter first.
Take television: Today, people are starting to find they don't have as much time for television. And so people try to squeeze it into other parts of their day: in the car, in the shower, on in the background while eating or getting dressed or paying the bills. Once upon a time, some 58% (if memory serves) of the television viewing audience watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. Today no show comes close to that. Not by half. Not by half of half. And it's not just because people are watching more channels. It's because more and more people are finding that they just don't have time to watch.
There's also a new generation now that doesn't watch at all. No news, no cartoons, no sitcoms, no Law & Order.... The TV sits there, turned off, unused. They don't want to watch. They'd rather be online. Or gaming.
The other main divide between bloggers and non-bloggers, I believe, is education -- and while that to an extent can be proscribed by economic class, it's not impossible to obtain. In fact, those fortunate enough to have gone to a competent high school probably learned how to write well back when they were learning how to drive well. (Me, I couldn't write a coherent paragraph until my last third year in the state university, and I got two tickets for speeding and one for rolling through a stop sign before I turned 18.)
The format of blogs today is the written word. And let's face it, you have to have at least some education to communicate in writing. If you can't write what you mean, then blogging probably won't work out too well, because nobody will understand you! (And if you podcast or vlog, you need to be able to competently put the piece together, which also takes some technical and/or learning skills -- in addition to communication skills. And, of course, you'll have to have "it" -- that compelling presence that makes people want to listen or watch.) But education can be obtained, and it's an area where the poor can out-perform the trust-fund babies.
Yet given these economic and cultural barriers to blogging, it may seem to some that blogging is doomed to marginalia in the media realm. But these barriers to blogging are going to fall, and rather quickly. Why? Because while blogs will almost certainly morph -- into visual and aural communications in addition to textual -- one thing will not change: the interactivity of (what we call) blogging.
On the web, people interact. People find their voices and express themselves -- which is a far cry from the common television experience. Bloggers are not couch potatoes. Bloggers do not sit back and watch whatever is on. Bloggers do not sit passively through commercials. Bloggers choose.
It is the active, interactive, decisive way of getting information that defines blogging more than stereotypical notions of Joe Bloggs sitting at his computer in his PJs. And it is the active, interactive, decisive way of connecting with the world that is just starting to sweep through the media world today.
I would go so far as to say that there's no way blogs -- or what blogs become -- won't transform our society. They're already transforming our culture. And while the mega-media companies are the big players today, and still dominate, in the end they will have to adapt or die, because times, they are a' changin', and they won't wait for nobody.
Yet Chaundhry's analysis remains plodding in the present:
But many like Daou remain skeptical about the power of blogs to directly impact politics at the grassroots level. “You’re not going to go out there and mobilize a million people and have them all come to the polls and donate money. Blogs will never do that,” he says
And they may be even less effective in areas that are traditionally not as internet-savvy as the rest of the country, be it the rural red states or impoverished inner cities. Creating a virtual “community center” is unlikely to compensate for the Democrats’ disadvantage on the ground. Due to the eroding presence of unions, Democrats no longer possess a physical meeting place where they can target and mobilize voters—unlike Republicans, who rely on a well-organized network of churches, gun clubs and chambers of commerce.
"Never" is a word rarely proven true. And viewing blogs through the lens of today's economy and today's demographics is a mistake. We do not stand at the end of time. Our society is changing incredibly rapidly. And the old paradigm of hierarchical authority presenting information from the mount will gradually fade away to a world of lateral networks, interconnections and multilateral conversations. What that eventually will look like, who can say? But it won't look like Fox News or the Washington Post.