Monday, April 30, 2007

Blog Summit Reaction: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

There seemed to be two big themes that cut through the various panels at the second annual WisPolitics Blog Summit on Saturday:
  1. The democratizing effect of the blogosphere.
  2. How this democratization interacts with the traditional media in an attempt to garner influence.
The democratizing effect of the blogosphere is somewhat self-explanatory -- anyone with a basic ability to navigate the web and access to the Internet can start a blog. But some good critical discussion did take place on this topic in the third panel with Eugene Kane, Dasha Kelly, and Jennifer Morales regarding who's opted to participate in the democratization and, subsequently, the impact of that on the blogosphere.

But the focus of the other panels seemed to lean most heavily on the second theme, while largely taking the first as a given. Aside from a few comments here and there -- like one by John Kraus about the need for blogs to take their message deeper into the community via activism and organizing -- the majority of the discussion seemed to agree that working through the traditional media defined the blogosphere's influence and, as a result, its success.

A number of instances of blog stories "breaking through" into the traditional media were tossed about by panelists and commenters alike to serve as examples of how blogging is making -- or, at least, can make -- a difference.

But it wasn't noted that most, if not all, of these breakthrough stories are essentially muckraking in nature. A blogger records something a politician says, other bloggers pick up on it, eventually it hits the traditional media, and then the politician is forced to issue a comment on the matter.

I don't want to take away from this purpose of blogging. More accountability is certainly important (although it could be argued that the fact everything politicians say can be recorded and used against them simply reduces candor and increases the use of strictly rehearsed canned comments).

But there is a whole other side to blogging that doesn't really have any way of participating in this -- that is, the policy discussion side. This is the side of blogging that isn't seeking to report any new stories, but rather critically discuss issues of importance more in the manner that an op-ed columnist would.

The awesome power of the Internet not only allows voices to be recorded and easily reproduced, it also allows access to a variety of information that bloggers can pull together and share with readers through links that can enhance discussion and awareness of a topic. What's more, the comments allowed on most blogs create a space for immediate engagement with readers and it also provides an opportunity for the reader to use the awesome power of the Internet to call the blogger on half-baked analyses or outright disingenuousness.

There's really no way this side of blogging can be fully replicated in traditional media formats like print, television, or radio. So the idea that bloggers gain their influence and, as a result, their success through breaking stories that eventually get picked up in the traditional media leaves the policy side of blogging entirely behind.

And, to the extent that bloggers are trying to be influential, the belief that bloggers best (or only) shot at success comes through muckraking makes issue-oriented blogging largely irrelevant.

I admit to being a bit biased on this question since I see this blog as more of an issue-oriented blog than one that does any sort of actual reporting in the journalistic sense. To me, the main problem with politics is its commercialization, which has come largely through the way the media packages it into easily consumable soundbites along with coverage that focuses on stories aimed at eliciting the same type of emotional reaction that people get from watching "Desperate Housewives" or "24" (i.e., scandals, violence, etc.).

There seem to be fewer and fewer places people can go to get hard-hitting critical news pieces, and it was always my hope that the blogosphere -- or at least a portion of it -- could serve as one of those places.

And, to an extent, I think that parts of the blogosphere do provide this type of place, but the discussion at the blog summit seemed to be aimed at the other parts of the blogosphere that are seeking to interact or compete, depending on your perspective, with the traditional media, which, I fear, is simply going to result in the commercialization of the blogosphere in much the same way that our political culture in general has been commercialized.

Muckraking, while undoubtedly important, is tailor-made for the type of emotionally-based political coverage that's become the favored style of the business-minded media. Scandalous and horrifying sells, the critical examination of a policy issue simply doesn't.

So where does this leave issue-oriented blogging?

It seems to me success for issue-oriented blogging just isn't going to come through direct interaction with the traditional media in the same way as muckraker-blogging. And I understand the argument that issue-oriented blogging can be important in the sense that opinion leaders may be reading it, and they just might spread the message through their traditional media megaphones.

But this, to me, leaves things too much to chance, while also unjustifiably legitimizing the place of those opinion leaders as the gatekeepers for how issues should be perceived by the public. What's more, it's essentially tossing in the towel on the democratizing potential of the blogosphere, and succumbing to the belief that the hierarchy of the traditional media is and should be the name of the game.

Rather, the best bet for issue-oriented blogging influence and, as a result, success is for it to become a piece of a larger puzzle. It gets back to Kraus' point about the need for blogging to turn to grassroots activism to create a human element where the virtual discussion can be played out.

In this sense, the issue-oriented blog would be a facet that works in conjunction with meet-ups, forums, leafleting, etc., where the rubber, so to speak, would actually meet the road. While it may work for some national blogs to remain predominantly online and still have an effect on public opinion due to their extensive readership, the issue-oriented state and local blogs -- for the most part -- simply can't in order to gain wide influence and success.

This presents severe limits for someone like me who doesn't have the time or mindset for the activism that could take my issue-oriented blogging to the next level. But I suppose it's somewhat comforting to think that I could if I would.

UPDATE: Go here to see my follow-up on who I think the issue-oriented blogging should be influencing.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

I dunno.

The "activism" stuff is not the same as "blogging," in my mind.

Those spheres may intersect with some folks, but by no means with all of them.

April 30, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I agree blogging and activism are two different things. I'm a blogger, not an activist. But the question is how state/local issue-oriented blogging can have a significant influence. I just don't think it can staying completely online.

Most state/local political blogs probably get somewhere between 75 and 300 readers a day on average. That's great, but in the big picture, it really doesn't translate into much influence in a state with over 2 million registered voters.

April 30, 2007  
Anonymous Dailytakes said...

Seth, certain bloggers have influence with certain decision makers regarding certain issues at certain times. Hopefully it will never amount to more than that!

To use a traditional media reference, some bloggers are like the insightful letter to the editor that, if read by a decision maker, could stimulate debate or affect policy. Very few blogs offer something akin to the unsigned editorial, which back in the day when newspapers had more influence, were the marching orders for a lot of politicians. And I think that's a good thing.

I have said that the blogosphere’s reaction can serve as a free focus group, but the key is the filter through which you view the results. I would hope decision makers would understand that the blogosphere is not an instant referenda on what is the best course of action.Policy makers need to have minds of their own. From my perspective, an elected official who bends to every desire of a conservative blogger would be as derelict in his duty as the lawmaker who only jumps when the liberal daily paper orders.

I believe the strength is in the message, not the medium. Bloggers who impact policy do so because they highlight an issue that may have been ignored or slighted by traditional information sources. Even blogs that do not have huge audiences can have that impact because of the viral nature of the blogoshere. More information is being delivered from more sources than ever in the history of man.

I think of yours as a good blog, not because it influences my thinking or the decisions made by those I work with and for, but rather because it is well written, and interesting. It can be thought provoking, and at the very least, is a glimpse into how 'the other side' may perceive an issue or a news event.

I've noticed a course correction in the Wisconsin blogs as of late. There has been a prolonged lull from many, including my own. And many have bitten the dust. New ones will arise, and I suspect they will continue to have an impact on policy as long as they examine issues of merit and report incidents worth noting.

Muckracking? Perhaps you're right. But I think that's ok.

April 30, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian.

I agree that muckraking is a fine avenue for blogs. I also think that too much emphasis on muckraking merely oversensitizes politicians and the political sphere in general so that every utterance is overly protected at the expense of free and critical debate; but a solid dose of accountability that muckraking -- when not taken to hysterical levels -- can bring is a useful and worthwhile goal for bloggers.

As I re-read my post, it became clear that it could be construed as a plea to have individual bloggers get more of a say in policy matters. That's not what I meant. My point is that the main problem with politics, as I see it, is its commercialization that has largely come through the media breaking it down into soundbites and emotionally-driven storylines. And while this is understandable from a business perspective -- reaction sells better than reflection -- the dominance of this commericialization has begun to effect, in my view, the health of our democracy.

For instance, I don't think people should vote for the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the Bush administration. But just as feelings about the scandals of the Clinton administration influenced votes in 2000, so too will the scandals of the Bush administration influence votes in 2008. I think that's a load of crap, and I'm sure anyone who takes the time to think about political issues critically would agree.

So when I talk about the influence of issue-oriented blogging, I'm not exactly referring to its influence on politicians. What I'm referring to is its influence on other people. I would like to see the blogosphere serve as a model for how citizens should critically engage with issues and, in a sense, circumvent the mainstream media that in many ways has failed our democracy by focusing more on reaction than reflection.

And my point in the end about activism is that people simply aren't going to gravitate to state/local bloggers on their own -- the bloggers are going to need to go to them, probably in person, if they want to have an impact on the way those people engage with the political world and, in effect, the way our political culture operates.

May 01, 2007  

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