Being on vacation for a week is hard for a blogger, especially a political blogger. Were it not for the fact that I was co-presenting a blogging seminar during the R Family Vacations cruise, it would have been healthier (and cheaper, considering the cost of buying internet minutes at sea) to leave the laptop at home. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t resist keeping abreast of the news by grabbing my RSS feeds for offline reading. The problem was, I ended up watching stories unfold while I was dying to comment on them, but didn’t want to take time from my vacation with my family to blog about them. So, the next few posts may fall into the “day late and a dollar short” category, but there were a couple of things I couldn’t let go unaddressed.
One of them was the launching of OpenLeft, by Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, formerly of MyDD fame, which describes itself as “a news, analysis and action website dedicated toward building a progressive governing majority in America.” Stoller, however, goes a bit further in a post titled “What is OpenLeft.com?”.
It’s time to get over the idea that ‘the left’, liberals, progressives, or anyone who believes that power should be distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few is a scary hippy. And that’s why we called the site ‘OpenLeft’; we see our ideas as a mark of pride, not shame. We think that businesses – like Google – have built highly profitable organizations based on principles of sharing information and distributing power. The genuine radical threat at this moment in history is coming from elites who believe that concentrating power, information, and wealth in their hands should be America’s priority. The response to this threat is a new era of left-wing activism, promoted by normal Americans, who have innovated with the tools we have.
That’s interesting in and of itself, but it’s Bower’s post on the end of the flat blogosphere that particularly piqued my interest, especially in light of what’s been written about blogging recently and in the past couple of years.
Over the past five years, as the audience and political effectiveness of the progressive, political blogosphere has exploded, the “short head” of the progressive, political blogosphere has undergone a transformation from a loose collection of small, independent, solo projects into a sophisticated media and activist structure driving the national political scene. This transformation has the side-effect of significantly increasing the entry costs into the “short head” of the progressive, political, blogosphere for new, independent actors. As a result, what was once a fluid, “outsider” and “open” form of new media is now, quite possibly, crystallizing into a new “establishment” all its own.
The summary alone is a rather astounding indicator of what amounts to a seismic shift in the progressive blogosphere: an acknowledgment of the existence of an insular “A-List” of blogging from one who can be legitimately identified as one of its members. Up to this point, the unwavering assertion from most people residing on what Bowers calls the “short head” of the progressive blogosphere has been that the “short head” doesn’t exist and that the blogosphere is “flat.” Meaning that anyone who wants to can attain “short head” status if they simply work hard enough and produce quality output.
The result was a kind of schizophrenic response that (a) there was no “A-List” but (b) membership on this non-existent “A-List” was open to anyone who worked hard enough and proved themselves good enough. In other words, the blogosphere was a meritocracy, and those who couldn’t reach “A-list” status had nobody but themselves to blame, because equality of opportunity gave everyone an equal shot of making it. Bowers’ closest I’ve yet seen of a top-tier blogger basically acknowledging the myth of a flat blogosphere or the existence of a meritocracy, assumptions that are evident in this Howard Kurtz column in the Washington Post, which labels the Huffington Post as a “blog that made it big.”
Few people, of course, are as visible as Huffington, the author turned activist, conservative turned liberal and California gubernatorial candidate turned online entrepreneur. When she launched her group blog in 2005, skeptics dismissed it as a vanity outlet for her and her Hollywood friends. But the Huffington Post has become an undeniable success, its evolution offering a road map of what works on the Web.
The most notable change is that HuffPost has morphed from a left-leaning site with a modest conservative presence to a pugnaciously liberal operation in which the banner headlines and majority of bloggers holler about the latest outrage perpetrated by the Bush administration.
…Beyond ideology, though, the Huffington site has succeeded through its relentless updating, serving up links to all manner of news and entertainment in a manner pioneered by conservative cybergossip Matt Drudge.
Kurtz almost appears to present the Huffington Post as “the little blog that could” or gives the impression that the odds were stacked against the blog from the beginning. It’s the same blindspot I noted over a year ago, when a New York Magazine article on the “A-List” of blogging included Technorati’s Dave Sifry offering Huffington Post as an example of how “open” the “A-List” is.
Need it be pointed out that Huffington, who was already famous as a columnist/author/comentator before she started her blog, is hardly a “rags to riches”commentator/celebrity starting a blog is an event in and of itself, sure to attract a great deal of traffic and get a great many links? Hell, even I linked to it, in a post about not being on the blogroll . The article points out that Huffington used linking to her advantage with a a blogroll full of A-Listers, many of whom returned the favor. In the world of Sifry’s Technorati, that’s instant “authority.” Huffington was also able to leverage her celebrity status to attract a wide range of famous people from various fields (includng blogging) to share her platform. That’s a long way from Joe or Jane Blow starting a political blog and quickly rising to Technorati’s top 100, as Clay Shirky points out.
Bowers is right indeed that the “entry cost” for the elite tiers of progressive bloggerdome are beyond the means of most individual bloggers, just starting their own blogs.
Since late 2002, a dramatic change has taken place where virtually every blog with a large audience (1,000 or more daily readers) has begun to shed at least one, and sometimes all five, of the original characteristics. In every case, the shift away from these five characteristics has caused a significant increase in the time and resources necessary to keep a so-called “short head” progressive, political blog operational. This increase in maintenance costs has resulted in significantly increased entry costs to the “short head,” “A-list,” or whatever term best describes the small number of progressive, political blogs that receive both the lion’s share of readers and inbound hyperlinks. In other words, it has become far more difficult for a new and relatively unknown blogger to attract a large, national readership on his or her own than it was even in the very recent past.
Perhaps most importantly, since at least November of 2005, the entry costs to the “short head” of the national, progressive, political blogosphere have become so extreme that a new “establishment” within the progressive, political blogosphere has begun to crystallize. Less than a decade into its existence, the rise of the progressive, political blogosphere establishment represents a dramatic, and potentially dangerous, shift for an important branch of supposed “flat” and “open” new media (in other words, media where the barriers to participation in the production and distribution of new content are minimal for the majority of American citizens).
Earlier, Bowers lists five characteristics of progressive blogging that have been rendered obsolete by the development of what he calls the “establishment” tier of progressive blogging. Bowers refers to this now extinct style of blogging as “micro-punditry.” But here’s the thing. The development that Bowers seems to think he discovered was predicted four years ago by Clay Shirky.
Though there are more new bloggers and more new readers every day, most of the new readers are adding to the traffic of the top few blogs, while most new blogs are getting below average traffic, a gap that will grow as the weblog world does. It’s not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it’s harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year….
…At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean “media we’ve gotten used to.”) The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.
Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can’t be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.
In between blogs-as-mainstream-media and blogs-as-dinner-conversation will be Blogging Classic, blogs published by one or a few people, for a moderately-sized audience, with whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship. Because of the continuing growth of the weblog world, more blogs in the future will follow this pattern than today. However, these blogs will be in the minority for both traffic (dwarfed by the mainstream media blogs) and overall number of blogs (outnumbered by the conversational blogs.)
As Shirky notes, “It’s not impossible to launch a good blog and become widely read, but it’s harder than it was last year,” and gets increasingly harder as time passes, the medium matures, and the field becomes more crowded. This is something that’s been all but ignored in earlier posts from the “short head” bloggers, including Stoller himself, in a post about “pet issues” and their constituencies in the progressive blogosphere.
The big difference between the blogs and the media is that you don’t have to go through a cable booker to get onto the internet. To get a big blog, you have to create compelling content and market it. No one is stopping you but you. And if you are reading this then arguments about class and access to the internet are not applicable to you. If you are part of an underserved niche, great, that means there’s a market opportunity. Seize it.
It’s more clearly stated by bloggers like Jane Hamsher in the Mother Jones article about the very same “establishment” of progressive blogging that Bowers addresses in his post.
I think it’s a meritocracy. You have to put in the time to figure out how the blogosphere works. If you’re willing to do that, I don’t think being female is any barrier. In fact, I think it’s an advantage at this point. The A-list bloggers are hungry and looking to give exposure to women who write really well. Most of those criticisms of male A-list bloggers shutting out women—I really don’t have any other word to call it except just “bullshit.”
Micha Sifry echoes a similar sentiment when he says “It’s no coincidence that you see a flowering of voices and people earning their status based on merit, rather than going to the right college.
The problem is that meritocracy is largely myth, particularly once early starters in a particular field achieve a degree of success and status, the advantages of which can be employed to help preserve that status long after its ceased to be earned by merit. The myth of a meritocracy, then, must be propped up as another means of protecting status by convincing oneself that “the playing field is already level” and anyone who can’t seem to reach the peak (never mind that a level field shouldn’t have a peak) must simply not be good enough or must not be working hard enough.
It’s the kind of psychological defense that allows George W. Bush to go on thinking he “hit a triple” when he was really “born on third base.” What kind of merit can be cited as the basis of his status as president, other than having been born to a wealthy, powerful, political family named “Bush”? It’s the kind of psychological defense that led to Forbes listing as “self-made” people who inherited their wealth and merely speculated their way to greater wealth, based on the advantage of wealth and status they did not earn. Without that advantage, while retaining whatever gifts and talents he may have, would he have been likely to reach the White House? Take Paris Hilton as another example. Without the “merit” of her family name, would she have even the most remote shot at a television series or a recording contract?
In his book Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank Robert Fuller writes about the myth of meritocracy.
America sees itself as a meritocracy, in contrast to aristocratic Europe. But while opportunity is more equal here than it was in aristocracies, it is still far from merit-based. …the surface on which we compete for recognition is a steep hill, not a level playing field.
Paradoxically, it is rank itself that now poses the greatest obstacle to basing rewards on merit. This is because rank acquired in one realm often confers advantages in other, unrelated ones. …Why should it be harder for those of low rank to improve their station than for those of high rank to retain theirs? If rank is based on merit, high rank today should not be a guarantor of high rank tomorrow. Nor should low rank carry the stigma of perpetual loser…
…Achievers of high rank often use their positions to disadvantage those who would challenge them, or to hand on to rewards they may once have earned but ceased to merit. An aura of social rank — a vestige of aristocratic class — envelopes winners (who are seen as somebodies) and is denied to runners-up (who are seen as nobodies).
Renee at My Left Wing touched on as much when she posted a response to one “short head” bloggers post about why other blogs “suck”.
Until just a couple days ago, when I saw comments about his recent entry, “Why your blog sucks.” Damn, he’s got a lot of nerve. He cuts all these links from his blogroll, damaging the traffic levels and rankings of those “lesser blogs,” and now he’s got the nerve to start opining about how these other bloggers can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” I refuse to link to Mr. Blogging Elite, but if you want to read what he had to say, I’ve made the url of that post the alt text for this image.
The thing is, just like in the “real world”, it is easier to make money when you already have money, Atrios and other big blogs get people linking to them automatically, simply because everyone else links to them. Recently I looked at the DNC blog, and some of the candidate blogs (the ones that actually have blogrolls), and his site was linked on all of them. Does he have to suck up and ingratiate himself for that honor? Somehow I doubt it. People who work for these campaigns most likely link to Atrios and Kos and a few others because “everybody reads them.”
So forgive me if I think it’s a bit disengenuous for someone who makes his living at blogging, and is in a position where people link to him, without him asking, and without expecting a link in return. Certainly he deserves credit for his success. But it’s absurd to suggest that other bloggers could make it, if only they tried hard enough. That attitude among the “haves” towards those who are struggling is not something I find charming in the economic world. I certainly don’t find it any more appealing when I see bloggers copping that attitude.
It’s the same attitude that Kos himself displayed in his post responding to the outrage over the blogroll purge, and it parallels one commonly seen in other systems, like economics.
In a blog economy where links are currency – especially from a site like DailyKos — there is power in bestowing them and taking them away; but it is only power over those who have or would like to have more of that currency. I’ve probably fallen into that latter category on some occasions, but lately I find myself appreciating my somewhat unique position in the progressive blogging universe.
… There’s a certain freedom in not being the kind of insider that Stirling describes in his second post. It means that most of the time it doesn’t matter whether I jump on the latest lefty bloggers’ bandwagon, because most of the time nobody at insider level Stirling describes is going to care whether I do or not. And if I’m not coveting the link-currency that comes with that attention, then I only have to consider what I want to post about and what interests the folks who do read this blog. And if the big kids happen to look down here every once in a while and spotlight something I’ve blogged, well that’s just gravy.
But, as the New York Magazine article noted, it’s hard not to crave that currency and the attention of those with the power to bestow it, in an economy where links are currency and traffic is wealth and — as Bowers notes — the great bulk of that wealth is in the hands of a tiny minority of the population.
…for the remainder of this article, the terms “Short Head” and “Long Tail” will refer, respectively, to the roughly 1% of progressive, political blogs that receive over 95% of all progressive blogosphere traffic, and the 99% of progressive political blogs that receive less than 5% of all progressive, political blogosphere traffic. More information on the great traffic imbalance can also be found in the The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere, co-written by Matt Stoller and myself.
The report Bowers refers to was, to me, kind of the handwriting on the wall in terms of the existence of a “short head” of blogging, and a sign of things to come regarding what the rest of us would be left to deal with.
So, if you’re a campaign looking for the biggest bang for your buck in terms of getting your message out to politically-minded blog readers, who are you gonna call first? Someone in that 0.1% who get 99% of the traffic? Or someone in the 99.9% who share the remaining 1% of the traffic? Likewise, if you’re a blogger hoping to increase your traffic and increase your cache in political blogging circles, who are you going to try and solicit links from? The 0.1% with 99% of the traffic? Or your compatriots in the 99.9% that share 1% of the traffic?
Is it becoming clear now how the “gatekeeper” concept figures into all this? Whether your a blogger or a political campaign, if you want access to the vast majority of politically-minded blog readers, the fastest route is through those bloggers at the top of the heap in terms of readership. Start with the top ten, and work your way down through the top 100. Start with the top because if you can get a link or a post from one of them, you don’t need to bother with the rest of us. Really.
Why? Well, they’re at the top because a lot of people read them. And a lot of people read them because they’re at the top. It’s a kind of never-ending cycle in which the participants pretty much stay the same, though the relatively young age of the medium makes it hard to predict how long that will be the case. A link from one of them “opens the gate” in terms of traffic and readership. Occasionally, someone who get’s linked regularly enough by the folks at the top will increase their readership to the point of being able to join those ranks.
In other words, the “haves,” essentially, get to decide whom among the “have nots” will get to join their ranks. It’s probably more by chance than design, but that’s the way it is.
Bowers is clear to state that the development of an “establishment” in progressive blogging was more by chance than by design, and to some degree he’s supported in that by Clay Shirky’s model (mentioned above) for what happens to a blogger who “goes mainstream.
…The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.
In that sense the development is more by chance than design. The tremendous growth in blogging combines with the simply human limitation of only being able to do so much with a limited amount of time. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that, as Shirky and Fuller point out “rank has it’s privileges,” and it is very human to preserve ones rank and the privileges that come with it.
When you have a fairly static system, again like the economic model mentioned above, where it’s in the interest of those at the top to keep things the way they are, you have to find a way to keep the unrest of the “have nots” down to a managable level. One of the ways you do that is to (a) convince them that the peak is reachable by almost anyone and (b) make them feel better about where they are. Make the middle sound better, look better, and reward them a little bit and you’ve created a “middle class” that’s satisfied enough to act as a buffer between the top and the bottom. Do it will enough and they’ll continue to admire those at the top, and probably even link to them.
And of course, the entire system itself must never be spoken of and it’s existance should be denied. The articles states that “[t]he very subject of the A-list is so toxic” that none of the big-timers mentioned in the article would agree to be interviewed for it.
And the Mother Jones article points the concerted effort to establish a power structure among progressive blogs.
“It’s a very conscious effort to build a power structure,” says [Matt] Gross, the former Dean staffer who’s now advising John Edwards. “These are people who are not just blogging, but who are thinking very sophisticatedly about what the Republicans did for 20 years to get to the point of being able to dominate the cultural discourse.”
In many ways, says Gross, “it’s the oldest story in the book. The establishment sort of loses its bearings, loses its compass, and from the bottom people come up, get involved, and make their way into the centers of power.” He laughed. “Then in 20 years someone’s going to come along and lop off all our heads.”
Or perhaps a little sooner. “The consultancies, the Jerome Armstrong ‘scandal,’ the tnr kerfuffle—all these things are cropping up because the power of the blogosphere is undeniable and will NOT go away,” wrote Maryscott O’Connor, of My Left Wing, in a post titled “Something Is Rotten in Blogmark,” shortly after the Moulitsas-tnr spat. “This is what happens when you crash the gates. All of a sudden, you’re not just a pajama-clad kid in his parents’ basement; once you’ve demonstrated your power and influence, people start demanding accountability and transparency. They want to know, for instance, that you aren’t pushing a candidate MERELY because you (or your friends) have been paid by that candidate to do so.”
When I reached O’Connor this spring at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, she said the Townhouse flap had been on her mind recently. A 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, she has earned a devoted following with her intemperate, gripping screeds on her blog and on Daily Kos. (A month after we spoke, Moulitsas banned her from the site over a copyright violation.) O’Connor speaks like she writes, in stream-of-consciousness bursts, and she told me she had begun to feel there was a “schism” in the blogosphere. “I think that certain bloggers, the big ones, think politics is sexy,” she said. “They want in, and they’re getting in. They’ll do anything to get in, almost. They want a seat at the table. They want to be in the inner circle of the Democratic Party.” A member of Townhouse, she was at first reluctant to talk about the list but changed her mind midway through our conversation, predicting that her comments would get her banished. “It’s fucking Skull and Bones, man,” she said. “The very secretive, behind-closed-doors nature of it is anathema to everything that blogging is supposed to be about: accountability. We are supposed to be showing the way, not skulking around behind closed doors, coming up with strategies. Those are the people who we’re trying to fight. I know about ‘the real world’ and all that shit. But we’re the idealists, aren’t we?“
And that would be fine, maybe, if there were any kind of real progressive blogging movement or community, but that requires the very kind of accountability that some at the pinnacle of progressive blogging absolutely refuse to accept or acknowledge. Kos stated it clearly in his post about the purge.
Don’t you have a responsibility as a big site to help other blogs get attention?
No. I don’t. Just like no one else has any responsibility to help Daily Kos.
And even more clearly in a quote from the Mother Jones article.
Part of the problem, says Armstrong, is that journalists wrongly apply their own ethical standards to nonjournalists. “From my perspective, I’m like, what are you talking about? You know I’m a Democrat. If I wasn’t working for the person, I’d still be advocating for them. I’m a full-time partisan operative.” Back in 2005, Armstrong set out his own ethics rule of thumb: “What the campus blogethicists don’t understand is that we are at war out here every day on the front lines as partisan Democratic activist bloggers against a Republican machine that uses whatever means it takes to win. So, if it’s not against the law, I don’t want to hear about it, because in the political arena, the first thing that matters in elections and campaigns is winning, with the only accountability being the electioneering laws of Congress. Only after winning do we have a chance at enacting a progressive agenda.” Moulitsas chimed in on Daily Kos: “Anyone that tries to tell me how to act will get a big middle finger shoved up their face.”
Let it never be said that Kos is not as good as his word, in that regard. However, It underscores what separates progressive blogging from anything that could be called a movement or a community. In a movement, leadership — whether it develops organically or is elected democratically — is responsible to the rest of the participants (in this case, those “lesser” blogs whose links help boost the ranks of the bigger blogs in the first place, a favor that is not and cannot be equally returned). In a community people are responsible to and for one another.
There’a little evidence of either flowing “from the top down” in progressive blogging, and that may be due in part to the aforementioned limitations, which probably lead to a number of major progressive bloggers holding forth at length about why they will not link to other blogs. There is only so much any one blogger can do, but by the same token there is much any one blogger can do.
As Bowers pointed out earlier, there are practical difficulties.
It is not an easy problem to solve. Until the problem is solved, it will result in our demographics skewing toward groups who have the time, access, and relative resource safety to participate in it without reliable compensation. That means people without children or other dependents to care for, people with more free time to spend online, people with regular broadband access, people who can more easily move between jobs, and people with an already established high level of digital literacy. Given all of this, is it any wonder that the progressive, political blogosphere skews toward the wealthy, the highly educated, and the white male? Generally speaking, in America today, those are the demographic groups who can more safely participate in the progressive, political blogosphere despite the low resources the general lack of compensation it has to offer its most dedicated participants. It isn’t simply matter of the “leaders” of the community having a more open mind and effective outreach program. The progressive, political blogosphere faces serious, structural resources problems on multiple fronts, and the diversity problem will not be solved until those structural resource problems are also solved. Suggestions on how to do so are extremely welcome.
I’ve offered suggestions on how those who don’t reside on the “short head” can help themselves, but when it comes to the leaders of the “community” I can only offer the same humble suggestion I’ve offered before.
’ll say it again, when it comes to blogging, identity and everything that goes with it—race, gender, orientation, economics, education, etc.—affects what you look at and filters what you see. To extend what Stirling was getting at, how you identify not only affects how you see other people, but whether you see them at all. Chances are the first people you’ll “see”—those first blips on your radar, the people you’ll automatically pay attention to—will be those with whom you share some element of identity. It’s inevitable. That is, unless you make a conscious effort to do otherwise.
Perhaps OpenLeft is an honest attempt to do just that. Time will tell. Its existence if encouraging and frustrating. Frustrating in the sense that it announces a reality that so many of us have been living with and blogging about for years now. Encouraging because now that someone of Bowers status has finally spoken it into existence, there may be some real efforts made to change that reality. The suggestions Bowers offers at the end of his post don’t offer concrete solutions to the problems he addresses.
But, again, now that someone of his status is finally talking about it, perhaps the discussion that’s been going on for so long further down the “long tail” can finally filter up to the top. Now, of course, that there is a top to speak of.