We, the blog mob
by Joseph Hughes, Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 05:37:39 AM EST
Call bloggers a mob and watch as they act like one. Say their posts lack substance and enjoy a stream of ad hominem attacks. Accuse their discourse of being little more than a partisan shouting match and sit back as one erupts. "The petty interpolitical feuding mainly points out that someone is a liar or an idiot or both," Rago writes. To be honest, I was considering titling this story "Joseph Rago: Liar, idiot or both?", but I remembered what he said about our humor being "cringe-making" and our "irony present only in its conspicuous absence". In Rago's bubble, he's constructed a flawless argument in response to which only three things can happen. One, we mock him and confirm his hypothesis. Two, we don't mock him and instead briefly cite his story, also confirming his hypothesis. Or three, we neither mock nor briefly cite his story, instead offering a nuanced response, while still confirming his hypothesis. Why? Because he can claim that he knew all along that there were some good examples of blogging out there, yet not enough to truly give the medium legitimacy. Further, he can pat us on our heads, like a father does his son, telling us he knew we could act like big boys if we tried hard enough. When you write the rules of the game, you always win. Even when you lose.
If the climate of distrust and skepticism toward the political blogosphere exemplified by Rago's editorial continues to remain the dominant frame through which the media view their online lessers, we all lose. Not just the bloggers, but all of us. A careful examination of Rago's piece reveals not only a condescension toward the blogosphere, but also a condescension toward democracy itself. "Blogs are very important these days," Rago begins the piece by writing. "Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one." Nice. From there, Rago, on more than one occasion, employs the royal "we", something that speaks to the hypocrisy inherent whenever well-placed conservatives or their colleagues in the Beltway media discuss the elitism of we liberals. (To that end, and this may be burying the lead a bit, it should be noted that the grizzled newspaper veteran behind this stinging, surely experience-based criticism is, in fact, a 23-year-old recent Dartmouth graduate.) Rago first sets the bar high by saying that the development of blogs, "we are told, is as transformative as Gutenberg's press, and has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution." Later, Rago tells us that "We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought - instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition."
Perhaps Rago's repeated use of the pluralis majestatis could be explained away as an isolated rhetorical flourish if the remainder of his editorial didn't drip with a similar antipathy toward the online community. He refers to "the inferiority of the medium" when negatively comparing blogs to his ham-handed definition of journalism ("Journalism requires journalists"). He speaks of the "participatory Internet" as appearing to "encourage mobs and mob behavior." He attributes the success of the blogosphere to the notion that "everyone likes shows and entertainments" and that the "the Internet, like all free markets, has a way of gratifying the mediocrity of the masses." In again confusing people-powered online activism with his idealistic regard for print journalism, Rago tells us that "The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness." Given the currentstate of journalism, I'll let the irony of that statement speak for itself.
It doesn't take an editorship at a paper supposedly at the pinnacle of a field that has, for centuries, championed originality, expertise and seriousness to recognize Rago's dislike of the blogosphere. Millions of Americans - myself included - are active participants in the online community. And by becoming active participants in the online community, we've become equally active participants in our democracy. The progressive blogosphere (I wouldn't feel qualified, nor sufficiently motivated, to discuss the inner workings of the conservative blogosphere) has helped foster new activist networks, candidate recruitment, rigorous campaign coverage, issue advancement, fundraising and a host of other democratizing outcomes. To limit the extent of the blogosphere, as Rago has, to online journalism and media criticism is to purposely limit one's understanding of a complex medium. There's brilliant, in-depth reportage to be found online, just as there's top-shelf media criticism that has kept the Fourth Estate's feet to the fire. But those things, which Rago likens to "decay" masked as progress, aren't at the core of what makes the blogosphere so special. What Rago doesn't understand, doesn't respect and therefore cannot tolerate is the influence the people-powered community has given its participants.
Thanks to the Internet, the very Americans Rago considers mediocre no longer have to settle for having the conventional wisdom as determined by a select few forced upon them. The days of a cliquish elite determining the direction and rules of our national discussion are over, though the Ragos of the world - in their inexperience, ignorance or both - haven't yet realized it. Maybe they have, and their desperate attempts to marginalize a medium Rago's editorial shows he has very little grasp upon are to be expected. But such arguments, ones that "[grieve] over the lost establishment" are, in Rago's own words, "pointless, and kind of sad." On that account, he's right. Instead of treating the online community as a curiosity, its critics would be far better suited trying to understand why the blogosphere is so popular. Further, tracing its popularity to the so-called appeal of the mob and the appeal to the mediocre masses dismisses the root causes of its advent while also dismissing the value of millions of people. Democracy is only appealing to the ruling class when it allows them to retain power. When the ruled begin to realize that they havethe power, the rulers feel threatened. And that, not the threat blogs pose to journalism, is the true kernel of Rago's argument: He fears us. They fear us.