A Swarm of Bloggers

A conference on blogging and politics reveals that blogs are increasingly serving as important political tools, but nobody seems to understand how, or why.

I may be woefully behind in my understanding of the blogosphere’s collective will, but one thing I took away from the Politics Online conference at George Washington University earlier this week was that bloggers — at least the big names — are growing more organized than many casual observers might expect.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it’s long been clear that groups like Pajamas Media (are they still kicking around?), Josh Marshall’s TPMCafe, HuffingtonPost, Kos, and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of conservative bloggers in Minnesota, among others, have been pooling their resources for some time now. And then there are the one-off nationwide campaigns run by bloggers to promote a Congressional candidate in a particular district, a tactic that has been stirring up some debate over the past couple days.

Some of that was touched on at a conference panel called, “How Technology is Changing the Media.” I was looking forward to hearing panelist Dan Gillmor, founder of the Center for Citizen Media and author of the book, “We the Media.” Unquestionably intelligent and provocative, he could be criticized for being a little too excited by the power of the Internet, and has the tendency to overreach in his Jeff Jarvis-like conviction in the Internet’s epoch-making potential. (Some of the biggest Webvangelists tend to overlook the relatively small number of Americans who actually use the Internet on a regular basis, and the paucity of broadband users in the country as a whole.)

Regardless, sharing the stage were Alex Jones, Director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, David Weinberger from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Chris Nolan, founder of Spot-on.com.

The panel kicked off with Weinberger excitedly proclaiming that the Internet has allowed for the traditional concept of “editorial judgment” to fall away because, as we’ve been hearing for the better part of five years now, “we all make our own front page” as Internet news consumers. Gillmor actually played the role of the adult here, countering that the “vast majority” of Americans still get their news in the “traditional way” — that is, through the evening news and local newspapers.

But Weinberger was having none of it. Newspapers speak in a dead language, he said, adding that “newspapers are increasingly going to sound anachronistic,” while blogs speak in a more personal language, which adds to their appeal. What’s more, he said, the public no longer needs “a single hierarchy telling us what is important.”

This led Jones to play up an old-as-the-Internet argument about how this growth of hierarchies may lead readers to become more insular in their reading habits than they have been in the past. (Bill Gates and Cass Sunstein, respectively, argued for and against this point of view years ago.) Gillmor dismissed this concern by citing a study that purported to show that during the last presidential election, people who went online for their news tended to know more about their opponents’ views than those who relied solely on television and newspapers.

But this freewheeling, self-selecting nature of the Internet is beginning to transform, Jones said, noting that he felt that bloggers and the Internet in general were “increasingly becoming aware of [their] influence.” As a result, the “anything goes” mentality of blogs was falling away, and the medium was “growing up.”

This idea of a more mature blogosphere was taken up later in the day by the “Blogs - It’s the Network, Stupid” panel. In an otherwise interminable discussion, a big fight seemed to erupt over the “collective intelligence” of the blogosphere. Peter Daou from Salon’s Daou Report went on — for far too long — about how groups of bloggers working together to digest information and collectively take information apart worked something like an ant colony in building a community.

Mike Krempasky of Redstate.org (who also works for the PR firm Edelman PR) didn’t seem to like the metaphor so much, but agreed that “the collective intelligence of the right wing blogosphere [combined] to tear Dan Rather apart,” over the Texas Air National Guard memos.

No doubt, collective action in the blogosphere has created a lot of defiant noise in the political arena. But John Aravosis of AMERICAblog said that while blogs have successfully worked together, he was “not sure blogs know where they’re heading.” As for so-called “blogswarms” (involving multiple bloggers who simultaneously take up an issue, linking to one another to increase the sense of urgency), Aravosis noted that everybody knows they work, but nobody can explain how.

It was that thought that summed up the conference for me. It’s obvious that blogs are increasingly serving as important political tools, but it doesn’t seem like anyone has any concrete answers as to how, or why. But, as every blogger knows, talking about issues without offering solutions is what the blogosphere, in some respects, does best.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.