Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Political blogging: just where is it headed?

I’m going to start this post with an extended (and I think, under the circumstances, fair use) quote of a Washington Times editorial dated Oct. 12, 2005, regarding campaign finance reform and blogging (in reply to a related Washington Post editorial the day before). Unfortunately, the Times editorial doesn’t pull up now, but I had saved it because it figured, through a bizarre chain of coincidental circumstances, into a serious incident when I was substitute teaching (see July 27, 2007 here) – events that sound like a humdinger and deserving of movie treatment now.

Here’s the quote:

“Political blogs aren't widely read because they are funded by some multimillion-dollar company through political advertising. As Michael Krempasky, director of RedState.org, testified before Congress last month, money has very little to do with it. ‘Bloggers don't have influence because they start with large chunks of capital -- in fact, most if not all start out as relatively lonely voices with tiny audiences. By delivering credible, interesting, and valuable content, their audience and influence grows over time, ‘ he said. In other words, blogging is an endeavor subject to the rules of the free market. Inside this unbridled exercise in free speech, the good rise to the top, while the hacks and frauds go ignored or quickly disappear. “

This editorial appeared just as social networking sites were heating up, with the public (including newspaper editorial staffs) still not quite grasping how the nature of “online reputation” was soon going to grow. Recently, I covered here how “socializing” and “publishing” online are interrelated but still different concepts. “Socializing” doesn’t always imply a desire for the limelight – and we know that Facebook, when it was started, recognized this fact much more than did Myspace.

But the Washington Times has a terrific point: an individual blogger, just out of the quality of his or her postings, could be in a position to influence how millions think about a particular issue. And the blogger didn’t compete for the approval of others by the usual routes expected in the past, and doesn’t seem answerable to any specific hierarchy, whether business-related, political or familial. Of course that point, as noted here before, invokes the problem of “the privilege of being listened to.” And most of this happened because the "due diligence" and supervision element of publishing simply got dropped as unnecessary (sort of the way junk bonds were justified), with the help of some fortunate legislation (Section 230) and a certain naivete about the ultimate downstream legal risks.

There seems to be a fundamental question: just how significant can a blog be, then, since it can have such unbounded reach? Is this just a theoretical artifact of technology (including the powerful broadcasting effect of search engines – and you really don’t have to pay for placement), or is it something “real” with ethically significant consequences for our social and political system?

But the growth in the concern s about “online reputation” – and the attention that companies like Michael Fertik’s Reputation Defender, or a competitor Reputation Hawk – now garner, seems to answer that question. Online self-publishing, freed from the restraints of supervision and accountability (and especially the expectation of financial returns) can have a real effect on things, ranging from people’s employment prospects to the future of conventional newspapers.

That leads to another concern: it self-produced content seems gratuitous or designed only to grab attention without having to compete through “normal” means or step into taking responsibility for others in manners that often determined by social and familial hierarchies, then the “purpose” of content becomes an important part of it, leading to the novel legal notion called “implicit content”, hardly mentioned before 2006 but mentioned during the COPA trial. Curiously, this notion has grown while bloggers remained largely oblivious to the fact that their public postings bore the same technical legal risks of liability (for libel or copyright infringment, among other things) as more conventionally "published" literature -- leading to the new controversy over pricing media perils insurance.

On the other side of all of this, consider the way our “conventional” way of competing for reward and limelight used to work. “You” were expected to prove that you could serve as an authority figure over others, or that “you” could manipulate others into buying things that you did not produce or invent yourself but that you peddled in order to prove that you could produce more revenue for somebody else’s bottom line than your neighbor across the street. No wonder blogging, maybe combined with a prolonged period of offering free content, seems like such an attractive opportunities for the introvert. Truth counts as much as power.

Back in 2006, Fairfax County Public Schools English teacher Erica Jacobs wrote in the DC Examiner about introducing blogging to her students as a form of literature, but caused nervousness and fear among her school administrators.

All of this melds together, as new modes for the best way of representing oneself online develop, with ideas as to how to develop an integrated presence, coordinating Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, professional publications and perhaps blogs. Gone are the days that I evolved my own presence, the 90s environment where one had one life at work and another “private-public” life online. Peaceful coexistence couldn’t last forever. It was no longer “sustainable” when social media stirred the pot.

Social networking and self-publishing have evolved side by side, interlocked, but gradually coming together. The whole process is one grand “reconciliation” (one of novelist Clive Barker’s favorite temrs) as two views of life: one centered on the value of the individual as a member of the group (especially family), and another on the individual as “competitive” global citizen.

Although I didn’t make much money at it (I’m no “accidental billionaire”, not even by a factor of thousands), I do believe that I helped to “innovate” “political blogging” in the late 1990s, motivated by a couple of specific issues (“don’t ask don’t tell” and COPA) that would engulf other issues like Steve McQueen’s “Blob”. That became the path for the second half of my life, for better or worse.

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