What if there were no blogosphere?

Media | Access/Network
What if there were no blogosphere? Would participitory media still thrive? I’d like to introduce some alternative constructs which may perhaps be as virtual as the blogosphere, and just as instructive in understanding the new media.

The “blogsosphere” is the term encompassing all weblogs– all four million of them. The wikipedia definition continues: “Weblogs are heavily interconnected; bloggers read other blogs, link to them, and reference them in their own writing. Because of this, the interconnected blogs have grown their own culture.”

It’s now commonly accepted folk wisdom that blogs, bloggers, and/or the blogosphere helped amplify a couple of scandals of poor articulation: Senator Trent Lott’s racist defense of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 “Dixiecrat” campaign and CBS anchor Dan Rather’s unverifiable defense of forged documents. Joel David Bloom, of the University of Oregon Political Science Department, reached that conclusion for a preliminary paper on The Blogosphere which he presented at a conference in August 2003.


Bloom could have reached the same conclusion had he instead called it the “pundisphere”. This the small group of influential bloggers pundisphere contains many of the names from the green/blue spectrum on the Scorecard– Josh Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, Joe Conason, Timothy Noah– along with a couple of the independents, Atrios and Glenn Reynolds. Marshall wrote twenty posts, many of them original research, in the week following Lott’s the original airing of comments. He didn’t reference other blogs (aside from Sullivan); other blogs referenced him. More importantly, national columnists starting referencing him, too.

Paul Krugman wrote that Marshall “more than anyone else, is responsible for making Trent Lott’s offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be.” (after prodding by the Opinion Journal for failing to cite it as a source.)

Marshall was characteristically modest about his role:

“I’d certainly like to think that this site played some role in keeping this story alive while the bigs were ignoring. But I’m certain that the web generally — and particularly a lot of different weblogs — kept this story in front of people and forced attention to it long enough that it became impossible to ignore.”

Would Marshall still write his own blog if there were no blogosphere? I would wager yes. Would people read Talking Points Memo and send in tips? I would suppose yes, again. Slate’s “Chatterbox” column, which had been written in the same quick-reaction style by Jack Shafer, Mickey Kaus, and for the last 6 years, Timothy Noah, largely preceded the political-blogger phenomenon.

There’s one thing peculiar to the pundisphere, if you have a look at the pundit players scorecard— many of them have turned off the commenting feature that is pretty much standard in the regular blogosphere. They get many comments via email, and post what they feel like is pertinent. It brings to mind what Tim McCarver said about pitcher Steve Carlton, “The batter hardly exists for Steve. He’s playing an elevated game of catch.”

Of course, the pundisphere would be no fun, as there’d be some sort of standards to meet or initation process to go through. So we like to pretend that there’s no special pundisphere, only a blogosphere, where all blogs are equal– just more blogs are more equal than others.

What about 60 Minutes and the blogosphere?

This year’s big blogosphere triumph is the shaming of CBS’s 60 Minutes franchise and its news anchor, Dan Rather. Peggy Noonan crowed in the Wall Street Journal: “[T]he yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down.” Jonathan Last’s analysis in the Weekly Standard highlights the role of the blogs:

When National Review Online’s blogger Jim Geraghty asked readers about James J. Pierce, a new document expert CBS trotted out on September 15, he was deluged with responses. Within an hour, Geraghty had been furnished with a link to a website showing the sort of low-level expert witness business Pierce usually does. As Little Green Footballs’s Charles Johnson noted, “It’s sort of an open-source intelligence gathering network that draws on expertise from around the world.”

Last’s analysis is thorough; but my own research indicates that by the 15th, the blogosphere was mostly just playing along. In just a day the story front and center of the Washington Post. It took only several hours, to go from Powerline to the pundisphere of Marshall, Sullivan, and the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, and the Post the next day reported of knowledge of the Internet rumors “in the morning.” At around 2:40pm the conservative Cybercast News Service By 2:50pm the Drudge Report, and by the end of the day it reached AP, Fox News, and everyone else. What is noteworthy is how much faster this story spread than the Lott comments. The Presidential election season in its final two-month stretch may have perked up the political antennae a bit. Also, as Internet research company BuzzMetrics told the Times: “When a few critics raised doubts about the documents that Mr. Rather included in his report, the infrastructure was already in place to spread and amplify the questions.” There is no comparable infrastructure tracking whether certain public figures are racist, or possess any other demerits related to their ability to carry out their job. But perhaps there should be.

Steven Johnson, one of the pioneers of Internet journalism with FEED, was thrilled about the team effort, and the “power of bottom-up media and distributed intelligence,” expressed skepticism after the denouement as to whether this was indeed a watershed event for the blogosphere:

Think about the other major stories that broke in the last year or so involving misrepresentations or other abuses of power: the Plame Affair, Abu Ghraib, the whole missing-WMD madness. Did the bloggers contribute anything substantive to the reporting — to the facts, not the opinions — of those stories? No, because the central elements in those stories were not matters of typography….

What’s past is archived, so let’s turn our attention to the future. Most of the issues Johnson cites, are obviously, liberal ones, as the Republicans are in power. As the conservatives are still going to maintain their laser focus on what they see as the liberal media, the liberals are actually going to worry about the government for the forseeable future. The undisputed champion of the liberal pundisphere, the researcher non pareil, is Josh Marshall. For the last few weeks he’s been preparing for the social security showdown, outing the “Fainthearted Faction” of Democrats who might support the privatization of social security. But who’s minding the legal front– from tort reform to the Attorney General nomination?

Somebody is, of course. But if you limited your search to the blogosphere– blogs or nearblogs, which primarily reference other blogs, there’s a lot you may be missing.


Let’s suppose another alternative to the blogosphere, and call it the “contrasphere.” The contrasphere has websites which have a dedication and focus on critiquing a single entity. One of the flagship stations would be RatherBiased. It could be joined in its liberal-bias checking by Times Watch, a project of Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. In the other corner would be David Brock’s new Media Matters which tracks and confronts journalistic sloppiness of the sort that doesn’t challenge conservative statements. An easy test whether something’s in the contrasphere: there’s an open “file” on it– a web page where someone can go to read criticism and analysis of the marked entity, and add some more testimony to the mix.

This needn’t limited to media and politics. Boston’s much-maligned “T”, known officially as Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has a contra-site in BadTransit. The reliable bogeymen of corporate retail, Walmart and StarBucks have contra-sites. The patron saint of contra-sites may have been Dunkin Donuts, which David Felton created the air his complaints about getting skim milk in his coffee. His reward was that the company sued him for trademark infringment; he later settled for the never-disclosed sum. David Weinberger cited it as an example for the Cluetrain Manifesto book he co-authored. The Cluetrain Manifesto, while rather bombastic and obvious in some places, suggested five years ago that that companies ought to just open up their online communities to allow all sorts of ideas and criticism. If there’s still a website in the contrasphere, it’s a good sign the company is not doing it on their own.

What’s holding the contrasphere back?

It would seem that the Contrasphere would be embraced– it would be an orderly place where information can be found. But there’s a few problems though that are holding it back.

The contrasphere is old, in Internet terms. Many sites were built before the blog era. There’s of course, as I’ve documented, many different attributes to blogs, and not all of them are as necessary as the common bloggers may like. Obviously, the first thing that the blog approach brings is a sense that the heart of the website is fresh content. A popular format for a contra-site is an straight forum. But forums look rather skeletal and thus don’t spotlight the strong voices as the blog and civ formats do.

The tendency of blogs to dwell on personal minutae (gratuitous pet pictures, for example) is not all that necessary for subject-specific website. Nonetheless, a personal site has the benefit that it’s not always so negative— as most of the contra-sites are, by their nature. The generally-partisan blogs and talk show hosts aren’t fully negative, since they spend a good deal of time chearleading their own team, and more importantly, their readers. Mainstream media, which is even less negative, plays the contrarian role more effectively. The Boston Globe‘s Sunday “Starts and Stops” column is a lot more folksy than the BadTransit site, and on occasion commends the transportation authorities. If the contra-site can offer the good and the bad, it will attract more people– maybe even the authorities who provide the very product or service that the people are interested in.

With all that, there’s no guarantee that the contrasphere would be the natural place to go. Matthew Sheffield, editor of RatherBiased, told me that they held out on the forgery story until they got better verification; by that time Powerline had picked up the ball and run with it. Sheffield accepted his site’s being part of this separate ‘sphere (though groans at the term), and explained the playout of the Rather scandal this way:

What was interesting, however, is that since we are a contrasphere site, while our message was being injested very readily by the legacy media, many bloggers were not as aware of much it since perhaps the majority of them turn to blogs exclusively as their source for news analysis.

(In providing feedback for the scorecard, Sheffield told me that he didn’t consider the site a blog.) The key role of RatherBiased was in leading up to the outbreak of the scandal, laying the groundwork, as BuzzMetrics reported.


If the contrasphere sets the framework, and the pundisphere amplify the story for a larger audience, what is the effective role of the blogosphere? Perhaps they serve as runners between the sites, and occasional fact-finders. But this group of citizen-activists includes just plain old readers, forum participants, consultants with simple websites. There could have been three million blogs or just three, and the outcome would have likely been the same. These were extras in a Hollywood movie: card-carrying Screen Actors Guild members, who could very well be stars one day, but for the moment, were not vital to the plot, and merely there to provide the verisimilitude of a newsroom sniffing out the truth. That bloggers, particularly those who rage against the mainstream media, became an image of the media swarm themselves, is of delicious irony.

I’m not sure anyone will be defecting from the blogosphere pretty soon. The blogger/pundits-come-lately never a miss a chance to inflate the role of blogs, and the journalist-pundits like Marshall bless the blogosphere which anoints him king. The contrasphere, may yet take shape from the disparate contra-sites, or it may assimilate. So the blogosphere will continue as a neat folk symbol for an egalitarian network, and a convenient grouping for blog critics to step on when they’re feeling tired. Patient researchers would do best to consider sharper tools for analyzing the online media.