Thursday, June 15, 2006

[Media, Politics]

Taxonomy of the Blogosphere.

Yesterday, I got a question about YearlyKos* and whether I thought the blogosphere had gone mainstream. The answer, plainly, is yes--when Tim Russert devotes half his show to blogging, it's mainstream. But the frame of that question is wrong--it's not a dichotomous question. Better would have been to ask, "now that the blogosphere has emerged as a force on the left, what is its role and what kind of influence can it hope to exercise?"

Unsurprisingly, the amorphous blogosphere is being molded by the pre-existing forms of politics. Kari Chisholm, Oregon's pied piper of political internet virality (he calls himself a strategist), divides the political world (lightheartedly) into "hacks" and "wonks." Hacks are the folks who get people elected. Wonks are the people who study and analyze policy. Both are key in politics, but they have pretty distinct functions. As the political blogosphere has grown, blogs peopled by wonks and hacks have begun to look wonky or hacky, performing complimentary, but distinct functions. There's a bonus function, which I'll throw on at the end.

1. Strategic Blogs. One thing that Russert et. al. miss when they look at the blogosphere is that it's not hinged on a left-right axis. During the week of Kos last week, everyone kept trying to pin Kos with the "extreme liberal" label. Wrong. He's actually pretty moderate (he loves Harry Reid), but even more to the point, he's surprisingly disinterested in policy. He's a hack, and he's extremely partisan. He likes Dems who don't sell out other Dems:
I mean, one of the things that we’re learning is that if we want the kind of Democrats that we think we need to have in Washington D.C., not left, not right, but the kind of Democrats that don’t undermine the party, that work up—the have—that, that maintain party unity and work for a stronger Democratic Party, that we’re going to have to use the primary process in order to start to help on that selection.
The goal of bloggers like Kos is to find loyal Dems and get them elected. These are the guys (and gals!) who raise big money for candidates online, who organize volunteers, and who create a virtual water cooler for other activists to gather 'round and bond. They talk policy, of course, but not in the fashion of these folks:

2. Wonks. Although the hacks have gotten all the credit in the blogosphere, arguably the more important bloggers are the wonks like Max Sawicky and Juan Cole. These are professionals who discuss policy almost exclusively, and generally policy associated with their field of expertise. Max is forever offering analysis about pretty sophisticated economic reports, and Juan, a professor of the Mideast and South Asia, offers a rarity in the multiverse of commentary: actual informed analysis of what's happening in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The growth of the wonky blogosphere has in many ways offered a counter to the fatuous "research" gushing forth from the right wing think tanks. Those think tanks, of course, were a reaction to actual research done in universities which--surprise!--tended to support things like global warming. The media, in response, took to balancing the research with think tank spin, and then the media itself actually became spin (talk radio, Fox), and reality began to lose ground. Wonky bloggers function as footsoldiers for reality, able to quickly react to lies and propaganda in real time, with supporting documentation. I don't think it's overstating the point to say that one of the central reasons the media quit giving Bush the benefit of every doubt after Iraq wasn't because of the failure to find WMD--it was the wonky bloggers. The Iraq invasion just happened to go down at the same time the MSM was discovering blogs.

3. Media/Commentary. Another major type of blogger (and I suspect we could extend the taxonomy beyond three) are blogs who have become micro media outlets. Josh Marshall is a charter member of this camp. They have functioned mainly as a corrective to an MSM corrupted by the spin of the majority party. Where they tend to blur the lines with other blogs is in offering commentary alongside reportage, though I think you can see in the case of Josh that the intention is different. Where Kos's interest in biased news is how it damages Democrats, Josh's is a more classic journalistic orientation--he just chafes at misinformation.

You could divide blogs across a political spectrum, as the MSM, who now see the entire political world in shades of blue and red, have done, but it's not particularly useful. As an emerging medium, function is a more valuable metric to understanding how the blogosphere works.

*The blogosphere's biggest blogger, Markos Moulitsas, of DailyKos, hosted a blogging conference this year to organize and professionalize bloggers as we move toward the midterms. Markos made the rounds on the talk shows, and the event gave everyone an opportunity to debate the influence of the blogosphere on politics. I interviewed Jerome Armstrong and Kos when they came through Portland on their book tour.


Kari Chisholm said...

One minor correction...

The blogosphere's biggest blogger

Markos may run the most-trafficked political blog - but there are certainly plenty of non-political blogs that get more traffic.

Get write-up, btw, though the mention of me seems gratuitous and unnecessary (even if flattering.)

Jeff Alworth said...

Wait a minute--you're trying to tell me there are non-political blogs? I don't buy it. Let's see, if I go to Google and type in Britney Spears...

And I'll mention whomever I wish; my entire site's pretty much gratuitous and unnecessary. Hmm, that's not a bad tag line...