Notes from the Massachusetts BlogLeft conference

Massachusetts | Politics | Building/Consensus
I was at the Massachusetts BlogLeft conference this past Saturday– I should have posted a stub post earlier letting people know I’d be there. One of my readers, Bruce Wilson, told me about it a few weeks ago, and suggested to conference organizer Lynne Lupien, that I’d be a good person to lead a breakout session.


I was hesitant at first. Most of the work here is still theoretical, and most of the Drupal contributions are still promised. So people have to take it on faith that I know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, I was looking forward to meet Bruce and others. I did enjoy taking in the keynote experience: Sterling Newberry breathed in some useful insight from his experience in campaigns, and Frederick Carlson rallied the assembled with some passion.

Overall, it was a nice counterpart to the few Berkman conferences I’ve been to. As I’ve written on conference inclusiveness before, I should do the same thing here: of around thirty people, it was all white (roughly 5% of the state is black; and 5% is Hispanic); mostly men; a handful of people under 30. There was some occupational diversity; a handful were the stock mix of writers, software people, and politicos.

I really wanted to hear from the average bloggers/activists as to whether what I was modeling made sense. I have much to say, but I always am ready to listen. That said, I still regret that I haven’t finished the testing on my updated viewpoints module, so readers won’t be able to directly comment here. But I will read if there are followups on other blogs.

If I have an overall thesis to my work here at Civilities, it’s that values underlie technology and that technology governs our usage. Understanding the values of the designers helps us break out of their habits(I covered this at length in The New Gatekeepers series). So, for the start of my breakout session, I asked a lot of questions of the dozen people in the group about how they currently used the technology. Dick Howe took the notes, and I regret I haven’t prepared there. Still here’s a summary of two of the key issues we covered, along with two other issues discussed in the larger group that I wanted to add thoughts on.

  1. Ideology: Individual vs. Coordinated (or bottom-up vs. top-down). Here’s the central paradox to blogging. It’s celebrated as an individualistic. Activism requires collaborating. But the more people who blog, the harder it is for others (i.e., busy people, politicians) to find out any onepost or make sense of it all. They may end up choosing “gatekeepers” based on brand or visibility– which could lead to the same old problem as old media.

    More blogging may not be the answer. It’s better tagging and classification that’s needed. Consider my article about the Maynard High School radio station— I’d like to have a tag which unambiguously marks it being about Maynard, MA. At the conference, Charley of Blue Mass Group recommended LeftyBlogs, service provides an aggregation of posts from Massachusetts as well as other states. It’s good, but we need more. Furthermore I would indicate that it requires action, and by a certain day. Through aggregation/syndication services, this information would be tailored for any citizen at any given point in time. Presently the tagging that’s most familiar to bloggers is free form “folksonomies”. One reason for this is the populist ideology that’s driving it. After hearing from people who worked on the 2004 campaigns, I concluded that the best network model for organization needed to include both top-down and bottom-up.

  2. Technology: Blogging vs. the Other Stuff: This sort of conference could never have happened without the cultural phenomenon known as “blogging” and “bloggers.” But the term bloggers is still used ambiguously. In vernacular use it’s someone who’s an online activist. In the conventional sense, it’s someone who maintains a their own weblog. But sometimes even if one blogs in the conventional sense, one is’s legitimacy is questioned if one is participating in the community (of forums and newsfeeds and tagging and and commenting and many other things).

    I’m afraid that people are quickly drawn into blogging, but then learn that they need to do a whole lot more other tasks beyond simply posting things. And by “people” I also mean campaigns and committees. My conception of the civ structure was to pull this all together in a single website technology.

    And ultimately, instead of focussing on getting more of these groups to blog (which varries with it certain expectations), a better effort towards open information would be to get these groups to publish their content in such a way that it carries the qualities that blogs carry: through an RSS feed, with the proper taxonomies, with the ability to post comments and/or a trackback-like reverse-linking facility.

  3. Law: Grassroots vs. Serious Business. While I led my session, Stirling Newberry led his on the proposed HR 4194 amendmant. The amendment, as co-sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan, clarifies that individual bloggers’s writings would not count as in-kind contributions to a campaign unless it were valued at over $1000, at which point it would be governed by the campaign finance laws. .The conventional wisdom among bloggers is that any whiff of regulation is bad, and that blogs should not be treated differently from established media. But that conventional wisdom is driven on the liberal side by a very large megaphone-holder, who has the most to lose if . Chris Nolan, a San Francisco-based blogger and self-styled “stand alone journalist,” wrote a terrific column in June questioning the conventional wisdom, and I agree with it all. The worry is that as special interest groups see that blogs are “serious business” they could well exploit.

    As it stands now, the coordination comes together in the liberal megaphones in more efficiently (i.e., without a human editor) across different sites, we wouldn’t have to worry about individual bloggers growing too big. Consider this model insteed: Anybody registered with the party, or a PAC (such as DfA) contributes real a token amount ($10 would be plenty enough) earmarked towards a server which handles the aggregation. Still, the question remains– would special interest groups (including the “good” ones on our side) be able to feed into a party site? What about the individuals who work for those groups? The more that content comes from entrenched sources, the more we’ll have to be concerned that this is serious business as well.

  4. Ethics: Journalists vs. Activists: I think “ethics” at one point was used as a punchline. But with politics and money in the mix, there’s enough to worry about (see previous section). As bloggers get to be more visible in the political system, many people want to have a better idea of what a blogger is and what they stand for. The:Media Bloggers Association appears to be on the verge of introducing a Statement of Principals.

    During the Kerry campaign, I had imagined myself to be a “journalactivist” as there were lessons to apply from both. But it didn’t resolve all the issues. The journalist has to choose truth ultimately, while the activist might find discretion a safer move for the good of the campaign. See my piece, The Journalactivist’s Concerns.

Hope that helps. I may be adding to this as my memory sharpens.