Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, April 13, 2003  

The Alchemy of the Blog

As I understand it, blogs have been around now for a number of years. They reached enough of a critical mass some time last year to emerge as source material for national media. And thanks to the war, with national reporters blogging in Baghdad, all of as sudden, they hit the big time.

But what are "they?" Essentially, blogs are just personal websites (though blogging interfaces have made them available even to people with no website-hosting experience). As such, their character is individual. Whether they're news filters, commentary, or a combination, they reflect the single mind and interests of one person.

Where blogs emerge as a medium is when they're read collectively. Together, they create a kind of neural net of information and opinion. Here their weaknesses become the medium's strength. That blogs are slight and erratically-published means a reader can visit several in a short space of time. That they're personal and uncommercial means that often they offer a distinct point of view. Taken collectively, they offer a real alternative to news. Each reader selects a group of blogs that forms a personal neural net. Generally this will include some of the bigger blogs like Atrios, Altercation, Tom Tomorrow, and Talking Points Memo, along with several of the lesser-read blogs, like this one. What results is a brain that is fairly likely to get the really fascinating alternative news (like the astroturf campaigns or the Saddam statue incident) as well as unique commentary you won't find on the major news sources.

If there's a danger for the blogosphere, I think it's if bloggers try to compete with major news sources or abandon their unique voices to get more hits. Anyone who's started up a blog in the past six months knows that it's hard to attract a readership. Obvioulsy, part of this has to do with profile: you're competing against a million other bloggers for eyeballs. But there's something else, too: a lot of the commentary bloggers offer is cool because it isn't mainstream.

In my mind, the best bloggers are those with the most character--which often means they'll appeal only to an audience that shares the tastes and interests of that blogger (Jack Bogdanski, one of the most literate and interesting writers on the net, tends to cover local Portland politics and attracts--by his own estimate--fewer than a hundred readers a day). Bogdanski is idiosyncratic, which means I need to read other blogs as well But without his blog, I would literally not understand the world in the way I do. So while I am a faithful reader of Josh Marshall, I also want to know about what someone's thinking about, say, feminism or hear a thoughtful person remark on why Dubya's cool. Voila!--my world is now more comprehensible than if I only read the Times.

Over the course of the next months and years, the blogosphere will become a heavily-scrutinized new medium. People will try to figure out where it fits in the world of journalism, what its utility is. I don't think it's possible to nail it down--the utility of the blog is limited to the deftness with which the reader navigates it. It will never replace or compete with professional journalism, and effots to make it into that are doomed to failure. The blogosphere is alchemy. But for those who lament they only have 100 readers a day, there's a big flip-side: for those hundred people, your blog is essential and unique reading. If your blog winks out of existence, that nueron on the net is lost.

Small, yes; insignificant--far from it.

posted by Jeff | 6:29 PM |
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