The power of reason, the top of the heap.
We're the ones who can kill the things we don't eat .
Sharper than a serpent's tongue,
Tighter than a bongo drum,
Quicker than a one-night stand,
Slicker than a mambo band.
And now the day is come.
Soon he will be released.
We're building the Perfect Beast .
-- Don Henley
The Blog is in the Bias
An offhand comment at an online forum I sometimes frequent noted that political blogs, presenting themselves as unbiased in order to criticize the bias of the mainstream media, were actually the most biased form of media around. Blogs biased? Inconceivable! The statement elicited virtual nods all around as if the participant had discovered the spherical nature of the Earth.
This is the sort of statement that always gives me pause. Could it possibly be that an intelligent person, reading through the endless variety of political blogs available, would come to the conclusion that blogs present themselves, as a group, as an unbiased medium? I've read many thousands and I've yet to discover one. To aim a spotlight on bias in the media does not, it seems to me, wrap the handler of the spotlight in the noble robes of balanced fairness. Quite the opposite.
Indeed, the signal strength -- beyond all others -- that blogs bring to the multi-media festival of the 21st century is their clear and present bias. Show me a blog without an easily discernible bias and I'll show you a link farm formed by a Commodore 64 running untended in a basement closet since 1988 on a 300 baud dialup line with a full frontal ASCII interface. An unbiased blog? There is no such animal.
The bias makes the blog. Without bias there is no reason for a blog to exist and, if one does exist, it's readership can be counted on the digits of a one-legged three-toed sloth. The force of the blog flows from its bias.
For good or ill, blogs are a force to be reckoned with on the national and international scene. What remains to be seen is whether or not blogs, as a medium -- or better still "a multi-medium of the multitudes" -- can build upon this position, bootstrapping themselves into ever widening spheres of influence. This is, as is the manner of blogs, already happening on an ad hoc basis. It will continue to happen at an accelerating pace. But it can be accelerated through applications of capital, organization, planning, and most importantly, intent.
CamoCasters of the Airwaves and Newsstands
Before the consolidation of newspapers that took place across the last few decades of the 20th century, a signal strength of print journalism was, taken on a title by title basis, that it was neither fair nor balanced. Instead, these newspapers dealt in a specific bias and looked to readers with similar feelings to seek them out. Pro-union, anti-union; Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Communist -- all these and more made for a heady brew at newsstands in city and town.
With the rise of mass media and the concurrent expense of publishing and distribution, the realm of newspaper choice became much narrower, and the publishers' financial impulse to seem to be all things to all men more imperative. And as it was in the newspapers and magazines, so it was even more in the rise of the television networks and their gradual assimilation by larger companies.
The drive for ratings and circulation that led to profits decreed that large media outlets take on the protective coloration of "impartiality." From this arose the myth of the 'unbiased journalist' that real journalists emulated so intensely that, in time, they came to believe in it themselves. At the same time they learned to disguise their own predilections from the public while letting them be known to their coworkers and employers. In this wise, bias became hidden and denied - even, worse still, normalized within the social set of media careerists. Like all lies of the soul, this one was easily seen through by the mass of news consumers and, if the camouflaged biases went against those of the consumer, he or she was not shy about pointing it out.
If, however, the camouflaged bias validated the consumer's world view he or she was only too pleased to affirm, along with the news organization, that there was no bias present at all -- only the proper vision and interpretation of the world as it actually was. After all, if what you are saying is seen as the received truth, what's bias got to do, got to do with it?
Hiding in Plain Sight
Bias, it turns out, has quite a bit to do with received truth, as we have seen in the last electoral campaign. There a now famous remark by a Newsweek editor promised a 15 point advantage to the Democratic candidates through the sheer fact that the mainstream media liked them. At the end of the day, 15 points of blatant bias wasn't enough to sweep the media's anointed into power. Indeed, it is doubtful that the full 15 points was delivered. But assuming that some portion of it was, the electoral results makes the victory of the Republicans that much more impressive since, if there had been an unbiased coverage of the election, many of the bias points would have accrued to the victor's column widening an already substantial margin.
It is not too much to say that, in the tangled web of multiple media in which campaigns are fought, blogs in conjunction with radio and cable television, foiled the 15 point plot of the mainstream media in 2004. It is also fair to say that the mainstream media were utterly unprepared for their own bias to be overthrown by the more diffuse but deeper bias of the blogs.
Action? No. Reaction.
The very act of foiling a plot indicates the current weakness of the Blogosphere -- that it is still, by and large, a reactive medium. While many of today's events and stories are discussed, exposed, hammered and judged by the Blogosphere, few events or stories are initiated there - other than 'inside-blogball' stories such as this.
This reactive factor leads to the well-worn images of bloggers as "Robe Warriors" or "Pajama Revolutionaries." Bloggers are quick to mock these images, but not a few bridle at them all the same. The reason? There's more than a modicum of truth in the image of the 'Pajama Pundit,' as a photograph of myself at 2:05 on this Monday afternoon would confirm.
In a reactive medium such as blogging, one brings one's opinions and expertise (limited, expansive or non-existent) to any question that engages one's interest. At times, the confluence of these factors -- most famously in the CBS False Documents scandal -- creates a situation that causes what is sometimes referred to as "blowback" in the analog world. But these cases are still few and far between since there are not that many situations where the elements (documents, pdf files, computer and typewriter and word processing knowledge) combine to form a perfect storm of blogging blowback.
Goading More Than Leading
A more common situation of the influence of the Blogosphere is the current slow moves against the United Nations' Oil-for-Food corruption scandal. Here one or two bloggers, Roger Simon the most
notable among them, saw early reports of the facts and were able to keep it on life support long enough for it to gain traction in the mainstream media.
In this instance, the "web of influence" spun in both directions giving credibility to the bloggers who were early on the story at the same time it gave credibility and legs to the story itself. Although the expanding attention of the Blogosphere was a prime force in kicking the UN story into the light, it remained an exercise in reactive media.
From Reaction to Interaction to Future Action
Since November 3, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the passion of the blogs has suffered a palpable slump. Because blogs are powered by individuals, this is understandable, even predictable. I would be surprised if it didn't occur. Still, if blogs are to both consolidate and expand their position in the media-ecology of the 21st century, they need to consider how to assemble themselves to avoid the slump that follows a full-court press.
Mainstream media, especially those institutions who were the biggest losers in the election, have had no such lag. They are not individuals but organizations and, as such, are not subject to the vagaries of personal lives and other commitments. The other edge they enjoy is, for now, an economic viability that blogs cannot, as presently constituted, hope to emulate. For while information wants to be free, people need to be paid.
While it may be true, if you pay attention to the paths of convergence in digital media sweeping the globe, that blogs will at some time become viable businesses, there's nothing wrong with giving the future a boost and hurrying things along a bit.
Blogs, in 2004, broke through to gain traction in the media host of the world's Infosphere. Using the power of blatant bias, they were able to expose the hidden bias of the mainstream media until it could no longer be denied. That is not to say they have stopped it. Quite the opposite. Through the rising power of bias, blogs have freed bias in the mainstream media to assume its full form.
Blogs have also shown mainstream media in its current configuration to be a threatened life form. As such big media won't be slow in trying to put the threat to its rice bowl out of the non-business it currently enjoys.
We've seen the standard axe jobs against the Blogosphere proliferate for a bit in the wake of the election, but those will pass. More important is the tendency of mainstream media to assimilate that which it cannot control.
Already we see corporate blogs beginning and more than a few mainstream media are beginning to assign internal bloggers and Blogosphere patrols. While on one level, these are only post-mortem effects of MSM's reaction to the assault of the blogs, on another they are an attempt to pre-empt many of the larger blogs with big media blogs.
Individual bloggers typically begin their pages with a few friends and family and slowly build readership, if they build it at all, over months and years. Three focused group blogs bannered at the top of newyorktimes.com would achieve in a matter of weeks a readership that most bloggers only dream of. And corporate bloggers would also have something most bloggers don't even begin to dream of, a paycheck. NYTimesBlogs.com would also enjoy many other advantages that could, left to their own devices, take them to the top of the Technorati 100 and reduce the readership of other pages across the board.
At the moment, the news gathering organization of something like The New York Times is focused on delivering news and 'analysis' from a thousand different sources to a newsroom and from there to patterns of ink pressed into bleached wood pulp. If that focus shifts, only a little bit, to the electronic streams of blogs the effect on blog readership will be profound. Currently, the Blogosphere is relying on the fact that organizations like the Times are square and retrograde. As they say, hope in one hand and ....
Up from the Blog Bog: Growing Pains
Although both readership and advertising revenues are growing across the Blogosphere, neither resource is infinite. We've not yet seen, at least as an overt phenomenon, circulation wars in the Blogosphere, but that is only because the material stakes are still very small. At the same time, you can see without looking very hard that with influence comes funding, and once the money washing through the Blogosphere becomes significant enough, circulation wars are what you will see.
Indeed, we have seen a small model of one blogger attempting to increase revenues and visits via reader manipulation over the last year at andrewsullivan.com. We will see others in the not too distant future. As the song says, "Money changes everything."
We will also see another level of interaction, and hence organization, as blogs move beyond the primitive Internet applications of comments and conferencing into parallel podcasting and spontaneous videoconferencing through affinity rather than degrees of separation.
Recently some wag secure in her mainstream media "career" remarked that revolutions don't happen when people don't leave their houses. In the past, that may have been true. But in the past, the controls of revolution were always found somewhere outside the house. This is not necessarily any longer the case. Through rudimentary linking and interactivity, blogs are able to raise money, promote candidates and issues to victory in elections, send supplies to those in need a continent or a world away, and even shake the foundations of governments around the world. If the seeds of revolution are in the ideas of men, then blogs are the means to scatter these seeds far and wide with little regard for borders. Revolutionary ideas and information once needed, at the very least, printing presses, paper, and committed couriers. No longer.
Begun as off-hand public journals of lives, thoughts, and opinions, the muscular growth of blogs powered by a public thirsty for a bias they could make their own is still in the phase that can only be thought of as "The Great Proliferation."
The numbers concerning growth provided by Technorati, dubious though they may be, still indicate a new media universe expanding at an increasing velocity. At the same time, we need to start looking at the next phase of the Blogosphere, "The Great Consolidation."
As it is with nearly everything else one can say about a phenomena as large and vital as the Blogosphere, "The Great Consolidation" is already taking place in small fits and starts, as experiments and as ad hoc actions. This trend too will continue to accelerate. But the acceleration can be boosted even more with a modest effort of intent and with a brief overlay of structures gleaned both from the legacy media and the new.
Having gained traction in the attention of many, blogging now needs to blog forward towards a greater focus. It needs to move from being reactive towards the active through a kind of Aikido point interactivity. The power implicit in the raw number of the now fully engaged minds of the Blogosphere make this possible. The fuel source will continue to be the strength of observable bias in which we are, to quote Mike Godwin of Godwin's Law, "Mainlining each other's thoughts." A medium that broadcasts a vast spectrum of insights and knowledge will always be a medium worthy of attention. A medium that can learn to focus that broad spectrum is a medium transform the world far beyond the one to many broadcast model that has dominated the mediascape for centuries.
How this transformation should be and, indeed, is being accomplished will be the subject of the second part of this series.Posted by Vanderleun at March 26, 2005 8:30 PM | TrackBack