[3 July 2009]
I found the weirdly joyous response by some of the most renowned bloggers to this interesting post about the death of the freewheeling blogosphere of old a little unseemly, an object lesson of what a small world that it is among them. They all seem to lament the loss of “charm” from blogging, since it is no longer a casual activity for them. Yes, they seem to collectively be saying, we were once young and foolish and not as professional as we should have been, but our social capital pulled through for us in the end. Our example proved that the blogosphere was nothing revolutionary, just a new tool for the ambitious to display their talents and make useful connections. It’s sort of a bummer that all those new voices allegedly coming from outside the established power networks in America will continue to be ignored, but oh well! We are all paid pundits now!
Of course I don’t blame them for professionalizing—would that I were paid for blogging. But with professionalization comes all the customary ways in which the fantasy of “meritocracy” is thwarted, or rather, the fantasy that raw merit could triumph over a lack of soft-power skills—cozying up to idols, self-promoting without being annoying, etc., etc. The promise of the blogosphere early on was that it was to provide a new path to the public sphere, a way for new voices to be heard. But instead it was just a new media for journalists to do their woodshedding. I think the idea that you could make it big in the blogopsphere was always a bit of a distortion, since those people who did make it big most likely would have succeeded in journalism anyway. What seemed to have happened is that the early bloggers formed a network and were able to help each other along into the establishment as they began to advance in their careers. In the past, those sort of networks would not unfold in a public forum, as they did in blogs with all the reciprocal links and log-rolling. If the charm is gone in a certain sector of the blogosphere, it’s because the pretense that it’s not an audition for big media punditry has been dropped.
Still, when Ezra Klein writes, “The blogosphere isn’t thrumming with the joyous, raucous, weirdness of the early years. And that’s a shame. But the upside is that it’s more careful. It reports and investigates and uncovers”, he’s mainly referring to his generation of analysts and journalists. I’m guessing he doesn’t bother to read around much in the weird blog world that is certainly still out there (and I’m sure there is a lot of “charm” in the non-professional blogging and video making and so on happening online), because he has a responsibility to keep up with all the big league pundits and have opinions about them. Professional opinion makers who now write blog posts as part of their repertoire for their job are naturally going to assimilate journalistic seriousness to their practice. Laura, the author of the original post, argues that this has somehow made the blogosphere “less hierarchical”—I’m not sure if that is a typo, but it seems that the hierarchy has reasserted itself almost totally, in that most of the bloggers that people link to are established in a reputable big media post or an established think tank. Bloggers establish credibility by becoming affiliated to established brands, by publishing under well-respected banners. It is harder now to create a brand for yourself that extends its reach beyond Facebook, the base camp for inconsequential self-branding.
What was revolutionary about blogging then is merely that it allowed those traditional networks to metastasize in front of the jealous outsiders who, with their own unacknowledged blogs, feel even more bereft. They perpetuate for those outsiders the idea that the world is somehow rigged, and help them continue to fail to see that part of “merit” is the ability to push your meritorious work among the people who can bring it wider repute. In other words, blogging seemed a way to sneak around the whole self-marketing thing—you just put your awesome writing online and wait for the plaudits to roll in. But of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, it is tempting to do even less of the self-marketing, since the work is already out there, and easier to become overwhelmingly discouraged, since it is being ignored. Talent is a matter of taking your own work seriously, and the “freewheeling world of the blogosphere” early on had the illusion of being a place where such serious career-mindedness wasn’t necessary. Now we know better.