Bloggers on the Bus
Simon and Schuster, 2009
“In many ways Clinton was the AOL to Obama’s Google during the campaign season. Online, she represented the more lumbering, established giant, and he was the nimble newcomer. Poor John McCain. He was the CompuServ of 2008 (p. 258).”
Mainstream media tend to speak of the individuals who write weblogs—bloggers—as a homogenous mass; “bloggers” this or “the blogosphere” that. Maybe they make a distinction between the political poles and cite the “liberal bloggers,” but even within that subdivision, there’s a sense that bloggers are a uniform, cloned mass.
Eric Boehlert, who wrote for The Rolling Stone and Salon, challenges that assumption, using the 2008 presidential campaign as his argument. He focuses on liberal or progressive bloggers. The book explores the diverse personalities that comprise what some call “the netroots.”
Boehlert is interested in those personalities, and the impact of these quirky individuals, combined with the technologies that allowed sites like YouTube to grow up alongside them.
Each chapter in Bloggers is discrete, allowing the reader to browse. Of course I flipped right to “Sarahdise Lost,” because here was a chapter about bloggers AK Muckraker and Shannyn Moore, whose blogs I actually read. Once I’d scratched that itch, I went to the beginning, following the story of a groundswell of bloggers who stopped Nevada Democrats from teaming up with Fox News (that’s right, Fox News) to cosponsor a Democratic primary debate.
The demographics of the bloggers profiled in the book captured my attention. One sixty-something homemaker broke two high-profile stories on Huffington Post. Long-lost sixties liberals and twenty-something libertarian-progressives find their voices through blogging. Women are well-represented, many in the thirty-five-to-fifty age range, and young males are solidly in evidence too. Several of the bloggers Boehlert interviewed have faced serious and even life-threatening illnesses. Perhaps surviving lends a sense of urgency, a desire to do something meaningful before it’s too late, or just a recognition that time can be precious.
The chapter that gave me a true “Aha” moment was Chapter Three, “Whose Space?” Boehlert compassionately and fairly explores the story of Joe Anthony, a twenty-eight-year old who, on his own initiative, created a Barack Obama My Space fan page. The page was so successful that it directed tens of thousands of people into the Obama campaign, and also sucked up every second of Anthony’s free time. The site came to attention of the Obama campaign, and the subsequent events give real insight into what happens when a shy, tech-savvy “supervolunteer” interacts with a polished, highly-functioning political team that wants control. Obama’s campaign does not look good here, but the reader can see how Anthony’s own personal conflicts, and some of his actions, helped create problems. The campaign tried to work with Anthony, Anthony tried to work with the campaign, and ultimately both parties failed. There is an object lesson here for anyone who thinks they are going to “harness the blogosphere” for any purpose other than its own.
Beohlert doesn’t shy away from the shadowy side of blogging. In two chapters he recounts the examples of misogyny Clinton supporters encountered in the blogosphere. Chapter Nine discusses this in detail. Susie Madrak, a blue-collar blogger who doesn’t like bullies, characterized the vitriol spewed toward Clinton and her supporters this way; “She thought the venom suggested that more than a few of the netroots members had mother issues, that they looked at Clinton, saw somebody their mothers’ age, and got very angry at the idea of her running for president. Clinton seemed to tap into something, something that Madrak thought said more about the bloggers than it did about the candidate (p 148).”
Part of the reason blog commentors or bloggers themselves feel they can be so vicious might be the relative anonymity of the medium. Here’s a paragraph about Duncan Black who blogs as Atrios on Eschaton:
“The snark and sarcasm at Eschaton came in thick doses. The funny part was that the smart-aleck, ballbusting persona of Atrios online was nothing like Black offline, who in person is exceedingly shy and unassuming, with a perpetually sleepy look on his face. He’s the guy at the cocktail party who hovers on the outer circles of the room, speaking quietly. . . and who enjoys discussing mass transit (p.50). ”
Later in the same paragraph Boehlert says that people who meet Black are expecting Atrios, and that Black “. . . isn’t that person in person (p 50).”
Like Black, another well-respected blogger hides behind a single name; Digby. Many people, she says, assume that Digby is male, and they relate to her differently once they find out she is middle-aged and a woman.
Boehlert makes the reader realize how important YouTube was to the growing blog community. It’s not just hamsters on a piano. The netroots, through tools like Google and YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, have the ability to hold politicians of any party immediately responsible for what they say. They can fact-check and communicate the correct information within a few hours. They can pass along rumors and misinformation just as quickly. They can literally change the course of events.
This leads inevitably to a discussion of Barack Obama. Boehlert’s conclusion; Obama did not utilize the blogoshere as much as he could have, preferring to use social networking sites as his main internet tool. Boehlert describes Obama as keeping his distance from the blogger community. Obama ran a grassroots campaign, not an online campaign, and he saw the netroots as part of that, but only a part.
If anything was missing from this educational and entertaining book, it was a deeper discussion of the ethics of blogging and the idea of “citizen journalists.” Boehlert touches on this in Chapter Ten, “The Most Unlikely Instrument for Change.” Mayhill Fowler brought the Huffington Post the now infamous Obama comment about bitter people in small towns clinging to “guns and religion.” She was attending an event for campaign contributors that was off-limits to the press. Fowler had contributed to the Obama campaign, in fact had maxed out her contribution, but she was working as a “citizen journalist” for HuffPo’s Off the Bus Initiative. Fowler herself recounts that her reluctance to give the quote to her editor came from her sympathy for the candidate, not an ethical conflict. Similarly, Fowler did not identify herself as a “citizen journalist” when she asked Bill Clinton, at the rope line of a meet-and-greet event, what he thought of the recent Vanity Fair hit piece about him. Fowler was not just an eager member of the public who had great tape on both famous men; she was working as a quasi-journalist, at least, for HuffPo. Shouldn’t she have identified herself as one?
The reverse of this situation is problematic also. Bloggers aren’t journalists. They aren’t required to confirm a fact from a second independent source. They aren’t even required to state something is an opinion because we all assume it’s an opinion; yet the phrase “citizen journalist” seems to imply a right to access that, back in the old days—like, 2007– only journalists had. And what happens when blogging bleeds through into the mainstream media, in places like MSNBC, who apparently feel perfectly comfortable releasing an “unconfirmed report” (for example,) that police found a potent pre-operative anesthetic in Michael Jackson’s house? Does MSNBC, a subsidiary of NBC, think it’s a televised blog? Bloggers and pundits are quick to give out the “buyer beware” spiel, that it is the reader’s/viewer’s job to check their facts and know their data, but how exactly is one to do that when there are no standards, when anyone can call themselves a journalist?
Boehlert lets his narrative raise these questions, but seems reluctant to express his own opinions on the matter.
Perhaps this is a topic for another book. Something tells me that Boehlert may have enough material for a second. If you’re a commentary junkie or a political science major, then get this book. You’ll learn a lot and it will be fun.