Managing expectations

Protobloggers Matt Welch and Ken Layne taught me my first and most important lesson about blogs. A day or so after I started this blog shortly following 9/11, they linked to and said something about what I’d written and I linked back to them. When I tell this story in my blogboy PowerPoint dance, I snap my fingers over my head and call this a ding! moment: I realized then that this is a conversation and it doesn’t happen in one place; it is a distributed conversation brought together by links. This, I learned, is how news should operate. I became friends with both men, though I’ve met only one of them, and worked on various aborted though worthy projects with them. But more than that, I continued this blog that I thought I’d do for only a few weeks until it changed my view of news and my career and thanks to that, I’m much poorer and happier today. I never expected much of this blogging thing.

Matt, on the other hand, had high expectations for blogging — warblogging, in particular — and now he’s disappointed. In his valedictory piece for Reason, Matt — who just rode the Wayback Machine back a few decades to become assistant editor of the LA Times editorial page — says he’s disappointed if not disillusioned by blogging:

I had launched my blog (or shall I say “warblog,” which is what I named it, apparently coining a term I’ve come to loathe) five days after the September 11 massacre and almost immediately found myself swept up in an exhilarating whirlwind of grassroots media creation. As a consumer, it was exponentially more edifying to me than the post-9/11 fumblings of the mainstream media’s binary, Crossfire-style opinion slinging.

“What do warbloggers have in common, that most pundits do not?” I enthused. “I’d say a yen for critical thinking, a sense of humor that actually translates into people laughing out loud, a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalized left-right split of the 1990s…a readiness to admit error [and] a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review.”

Man, was I wrong….

So where did I go wrong?

Mostly by confusing what I’d like to see with what was actually happening. September 11 did indeed lay a linebacker-style hit on many people’s political views (including my own, to a degree), opening them up to formerly incompatible or simply unknown ideas and thinkers. But instead of separating them permanently from any particular political tribe (something that I, as a longtime nonpartisan and critic of ideological warp, would have celebrated), the effect turned out to be short-lived.

What was wrong here? Only Matt’s optimism, I’d say.

At another moment in my blogboy bugga-bugga dance, I say (paraphrasing Stuart Butterfield and Ross Mayfield) that the web, weblogs, web 2.0, whatever are — like Soylent Green — simply made of people. I define blogs now as people in converation. It’s that distributed conversation Matt and Ken taught me about. Some people are thinking with the open-minded discipline Matt yearns for. Others are closed-minded black holes. That’s life. No medium is going to change that human nature. But it is exhilerating that we get to hear new voices of more people now — people like Matt.

: Meanwhile, Richard Bennett characteristically turns up the bass on Matt’s melody:

Matt hoped that a new form of publishing would give voice to the silent center not caught up in the partisan system of political labels and allegiances, and so did many of us. The prototypical warblogger was an “anti-idiotarian” who would fearlessly criticize spin doctors on both sides in a relentless search for truth….

But now the blogosphere has been taken over by apologists for partisan causes, spin doctors, and profiteers: Atrios, Hugh Hewitt, Daily Kos, Michele Malkin, America Blog, Captain’s Quarters, Talk Left, Powerline, and the like. Where did it all go wrong?

In some sense it had to, because the 2002 warblog was a utopian enterprise and therefore destined to fail. People don’t have to time to approach politics issue-by-issue so we naturally fall back on party affiliation when other concerns are more pressing.

The discovery that money could be made serving up red meat to partisan loonies was a key turning point as well, and I thank Atrios for cementing that in the minds of the bloggers. Atrios is the father of Michele Malkin as a blogging phenom, ironic as that may be.

I think the problem starts when people get big enough to think that they speak for others… just like newspaper editorial pages. The real blogger speaks only for himself or herself. It’s just people talking.