It’s hard to prove for sure who invented what on the internet. Innovations spread rapidly and sometimes seem to materialize simultaneously in many places. So I can’t really prove that Andrew Sullivan, who announced Wednesday that he was quitting blogging, came up with all of the approaches I’m about to list. But I will say I’ve been immersed in digital content since 1998, and it was Sullivan who first exposed me to many aspects of what we now consider commonplace:
Changing your mind in public. In the early days of blogging, most people wrote on the Web the same as they did in print—as if they had one shot, and being wrong was an embarrassment, not to be acknowledged. Sullivan decided that the new form provided the opportunity to put one’s thought process on display. The advantage was not only that it was interesting, but also that one’s arguments might sharpen, or even change. He has been unabashed in fessing up to his changes of heart, perhaps realizing that the searchability of the Web made hiding one’s flip-flopping views an impossibility anyway. His public self-analysis and mea culpas about his passionate advocacy of the Iraq war should win awards for intellectual honesty.
How to use a link. No, he didn’t invent the “a href,” but he was one of the first to understand that “merely” pointing to something interesting written by someone else was a service to readers, not an admission of inadequacy. And he was among the first to follow (or create) proper “netiquette” of giving attribution. It was on Sullivan’s blog that I first saw the annotation “h/t.”
The readers as experts. In the early days of the internet, there was deep suspicion and confusion about how to incorporate user input. Most media outlets decided to bring in readers through raucous commenting areas. Sullivan was one of the first to feature deep, detailed stories from his readers—stories that provided expertise either on a technical topic or a personal experience. He has viewed his readers as teachers, reporters, and collaborators. I learned as much from his “the view from your Obamacare” as most newspaper survey pieces. The “it’s so personal” thread provided textured accounts by women who’d had abortions.
The digital anchorman. During the 2009 Iran election protests, Sullivan played Walter Cronkite in a way I hadn’t seen before. Instead of calling on correspondents in the field, he did something unheard of: He sampled interesting bits of media from around the internet—a tweet from a civilian, a quote from a foreign journalist, pictures from websites, blogger analysis, etc. This kind of curating function has since become a staple of modern digital media, but Sullivan was one of the first to understand its value.
Pacing. Sullivan has been a great blogger in part because he was a great magazine editor. He has understood the importance of pacing, mixing serious topics with light, long with short—items about his dog mixed with pieces about torture. He was among the first to embrace one of the core benefits of digital writing—that you needn’t exaggerate the importance of an item to make it stretch to 750 words or squish it beyond recognition to make it fit in a confined space. Again, this is now a given among bloggers, but he’s the master.
Digital crusading. In the olden days, a newspaper might crusade on a topic by doing a massive series. Sullivan was among the first to fashion a blog-crusade. He takes a particular issue and returns to it repeatedly, sometimes with magnum opuses and sometimes with a one-sentence giblet of insight or reporting. Each post might stimulate reaction from readers, which often feed him new information or insight. Among his most enduring: calling out the US posture on torture, Sarah Palin’s dishonesty, the scourge of native advertising and of course, the case for gay marriage.
His 1989 piece in the New Republic, “a (conservative) case for gay marriage” and his subsequent blogging, played a visible role in the drive for gay marriage. He is the William Lloyd Garrison of the cause.
Heterodoxy. While most of these innovations have since become so common it’s hard to believe they weren’t always so, this last one, alas, hasn’t spread enough. Sullivan did not view political and policy writing as a team sport. He rigorously followed his personal path without fear of alienating friends or delighting enemies. He was a huge champion of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Barack Obama. He’s a leading advocate for gay rights and a fierce critic of hate crime laws. He’s a passionate religious pluralist but an explicit critic of Islamicist radicalism. He has written more eloquently in support of Obama than just about anyone—and yet has been among the most effective critics of Obama’s approach to torture. He skewers religious fundamentalists yet writes more respectfully, and spiritually, about faith than any other political writer. He didn’t take the view that you can’t criticize the “good guys” lest you comfort the enemy.
I certainly disagreed with Sullivan on many things, but I read most everything he put out there. I did so not only because I was stimulated by his writing, but because I knew I could improve my own craft. Add to these innovations the fact that he was the intellectual father of gay marriage, and you have a case for Sullivan as one of the most significant writers of our time.Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist.