Ten Years Ago at Ed Driscoll.com...
Ten years ago at Ed Driscoll.com, A blog was born -- after first stumbling across something called Instapundit.blogspot.com in early September of 2001, a story I've told before, and can be found here. But since my first post consisted of this, allow me instead to reprint an article I wrote in February of 2002, which went online in March of 2002 at the libertarian Spintech Website, which is now sadly offline. It was titled "The New, New Journalism," and began by channeling the ghost of a 1960s-era critic of new technology, last seen being plucked out of a Manhattan movie line in 1977 by Alvy Singer...
Marshall McLuhan, the nerdy but influential pop prophet of the 1960s, who coined those hip aphorisms “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, would probably love today’s phenomenon of Web logs. In fact, I checked with him, at my last séance. Here’s what he had to say:
Web logs make the reader both author and publisher in tendency. The highly centralized activity of publishing naturally breaks down into extreme decentralism when anybody can, by means of Web logging, assemble printed, or written, or photographic materials which can be supplied with sound tracks.
But Web logging is electricity invading the world of typography, and it means a total revolution in this old sphere, or this old technology.
OK, to be honest, I wasn’t rapping with McLuhan at some 1960s cultural icon séance. But this is a direct quote, although it was actually about Xerography, or photocopying, as we like to call these days. I just changed “Xerography” to “Web log.”
And like Xerography, err photocopying, Web logging is a revolution, albeit, at the moment, a minor one.
In the past, essayists and critics became figures of some importance, largely because the print medium was so expensive to operate. The end product (newspapers, magazines and books) didn’t cost the consumer much, but the production of it, via the printing press, wasn’t cheap. So anybody who was in print, expressing his views (as opposed to simply slogging it out in the trenches as a reporter), had to be, and therefore became a very serious and important figure.
Today, the cost of putting a Web site up ranges from free to a hundred bucks or so a month (that’s simply the monthly fee for a server such as Verio, Hosting.com or Exodus. I’m not talking about graphic design, content, etc.) Compare that to the late 1980s. When Rush Limbaugh began his national radio show in 1988, Ed McLaughlin, his producer, had to go from station to station, to get them to buy his show. In comparison, ten years or so later, when Limbaugh put up a Web site, he was able to reach a national audience (heck, a planetary audience, although I don’t know how well El Rushbo translates in other countries) simultaneously, for the cost of his Web server.
So all of a sudden, a whole lot of folks are running around, kicking up a storm on the ‘Net, expressing views that are not necessarily anywhere near being “all the news that's fit to print.”
Ground Zero for the Bloggers
Ground Zero for all of these textual shenanigans is Blogger.com, the most well known of several providers of free software that allows even the technically and artistically incompetent to present their ideas in a pleasing and easy to follow format. It also provides instructions, encouragement and its own awards. It’s like a film school, a camera store and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science all rolled up in one place…for bloggers.
When the Web log concept first debuted, it was largely used for on-line personal diaries. Lots of “day in the life” stuff; lots of updates of family information; lots of photographs of nature and birthday parties; lots of nice pretty, stopping and smelling the flowers commentary by assorted emotional exhibitionists. And this is still a common use for Web logs.
Then September 11th happened.
One interesting byproduct of that awful day was that the servers on most major news sites (CNN, The New York Times, etc.) were blown out from over capacity. Since a big chunk of America either didn’t go into work, or left early that day, they went home, turned the TV on, fired up the computer, and wanted to know just…what…the…hell…was…going…on.
But with the Web sites of news biggies jammed to capacity, some people started going to alternative sites. Little funky one man or one woman sites. And some of those men and women, such as Virginia Postrel on her page, The Scene, and Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.com, spent the day keeping the nation, hell, the world, just as informed as the traditional news sites people couldn’t get into.
Then, as the dust settled, that hoary old standby, media bias, started rearing its ugly head again, especially in newspapers, where the reporters seemed to pull out style guides left over from the Tet Offensive. Quagmire! Failure! Evil imperialism! The brutal Afghan winter! Remember the Soviets!
Seeking opinions and news that didn’t seem to be outtakes from the Johnson years, many, many people stuck with the bloggers. And sometimes it seems that just as many people saw how much fun the bloggers were having and decided to get into the act themselves.
“Sgt. Stryker” (complete with a photo of John Wayne in full leatherneck regalia) is the nom de blog of a U.S. Air Force Mechanic (“to prevent being ‘called onto the carpet’ by anyone in my immediate chain of command.”). He says, “I stumbled across InstaPundit and thought to myself, 'Hey, I can do this!' I followed the Blogger link on InstaPundit's site and set up my own weblog, thus killing two birds with one stone. I had a website I could point my friends to, and I could "talk back" to the news in a more quiet manner which helped ensure domestic tranquility”, with his wife, who by then was sick of the Sarge taking back to the news on TV.”
One reason Sgt. Stryker may have been so eager to give his views about September 11th and our efforts at payback, is “the impression the press tends to give of the military is of a monolithic and impersonal force, but if somebody stumbles upon my site, perhaps they can see that there are real, normal human beings who are doing all this stuff. When you read my site, you get a good idea of what some of us think and say when there are no reporters or Public Affairs Officers around.”
In contrast, Joanne Jacobs is an ex-San Jose Mercury columnist who left the paper in late 2000 to write a book about a charter school in San Jose. She started her Web log after being inspired by Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan and Virginia Postrel (all three of whom were part of the first generation of bloggers, dating back to the Jurassic blogging days of the late 1990s.) Most of her blogging was on the state of America’s education system, until September 11th. Then a good bit of her coverage, shifted, not surprisingly, to the terrorists and our response to them. “I never meant to do a warblog”, she says. “I simply had strong feelings that my country had been attacked and should be defended-militarily and in the field of ideas.”
Before Kaus, Sullivan and Postrel, the Internet precursors to the Web log were arguably Matt Drudge and Jonah Goldberg, [this was back during Jonah's blog-like G-File Days -- Ed] and long before that, gossip columnists like Walter Winchell and editorialists like Mike Royko. Drudge’s legendary breaking of the Lewinsky scandal when Newsweek was sitting on the story made him a famous/infamous journalist (depending upon which side of the aisle his critics were on). Goldberg came to NRO during the same scandal, initially, he arguably trading on his mother’s name (Lucianne Goldberg), but quickly established a niche for himself as a Star Trek-following, rap music lingo quoting gen-X Conservative hipster.
However, unlike somebody like Winchell, who traded in brief tidbits and snippets of scintillating information, most Web logs take advantage of hyperlinks to allow their readers to “drill down” to an article, or some other more detailed content on a topic.
It’s tough to do an impersonal Web log. A “blog” tells several things about the person writing it: politics (if it has articles about politics), sense of humor, writing skills, interests, background, and of course all of the writer’s personal biases, etc. Of course, columnists writing for a print newspaper do the same thing, but to a much lesser degree. And all political biases are communal, reflecting not only the personal ideas of the writers, but of the editor and publisher as well. No traditional media, print or electronic, gives the day in, day out content producer (the writer) the Hearst-like power to absolutely control editorial policy.
Where HipHop and Libertarianism Meet
And Web logs allow for all sorts of interesting biases: since anybody can do one, then any group has a shot at finding a blogger who’ll represent them. Gay Republican Trekkies? Lesbian Libertarian Keynesian professional wrestling fans? There’s almost certainly a Web log that fits your interests, and if there isn’t, that’s probably reason alone to start one. Like the one titled “Where HipHop and Libertarianism Meet” and subtitled “Ayn Rand meets KRS-ONE.”
Ohhhhhhhhhhkay… Of course, don’t expect to make the beaucoup bucks with a Web log. Unfortunately, at the moment, most are labors of love, not cash cows. Even Glenn Reynolds, the 800-pound gorilla of bloggers, (or as a Pravda article recently called him, “The New York Times of the Bloggers”), says that for him, any money is secondary. “So far I'm showing a profit. It won't ever pay my bills, but it's a hobby that generates a positive cash flow. That's more than you can say for golf, or other time-consuming outside interests. But it doesn't matter. Most anyone can afford the low cost of server space, etc., and there's not much more overhead besides time.”
Incidentally, speaking of libertarians, (as we were a moment ago in Ayn Rand ’s fly crib, when hip-hop and libertarians were styling and profiling each other), several of the most prominent bloggers seem to have a strong cant in that direction. This is not entirely surprising given the autonomy that a blogger has.
And with this unprecedented level of autonomy, many bloggers have become effective gadflies. Reynolds once wrote, “What bloggers are more than anything, I think, is anti-idiot. That makes life tough for Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and the Revs. Falwell, Robertson, Jackson, & Sharpton, for reasons that transcend traditional partisanship and ideology.”
And as with just about any period in recorded history, there’s enough idiocy to go around: Harvard professors cutting rap records, European intellectuals “concerned” about American treatment of POWs held in the backyard of a Communist country infamous for its torture of prisoners, economists and columnists with both hands buried deep in Enron’s cookie jar, a gun control advocate who fabricates entire centuries worth of history to justify his case, and a whole smorgasbord of other silliness.
All of this guarantees that Bloggers will have a field day covering it all. Tom Wolfe once wrote that novelists virtually ignored the 1960s, leaving the decade wide open to reporters and The New Journalism. Bloggers are discovering acres, valleys, whole continents of material being left unexploited by traditional “dead-tree” journalists, and are digging in to explore it with cable modems and keyboards locked and loaded. Or as Joanne Jacob puts it, “By the time my New Republic arrives, it's either horribly outdated or I've read it all online. The monthlies -- Harper’s and Atlantic -- are even more dated by the time they can be edited, printed and shipped. I want my news and opinion NOW!”
Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. is a writer based in San Jose, California, who has launched his own website at eddriscoll.com.
Update (1:40 PM): The introduction to this post was written late last night, the night before news of Andrew Breitbart's death broke throughout the Internet this morning. For my thoughts on Andrew's career and the shock of his passing, click here. He's not mentioned in the article above, because as of early 2002, he was still very much anonymously behind the scenes of The Drudge Report -- which was still thought of as a one-man enterprise. Read the 1996 quote from David Gelernter on what we now call Old Media in the above post. It places into context both Andrew's career and our snapshot below of where new media stood in early 2002. In retrospect, it's a reminder of how quickly the Internet can level the playing field, and how quickly the Web can make the reputation of a man who had truly mastered all of its possibilities.