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Scott Larson

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Getting blogged down

Every so often my friend Melanie sends me links to interesting articles. For instance, a couple of weeks ago she sent me one that led to a commentary by Newsweek magazine senior editor Steven Levy. “I thought of you when I read this,” wrote Mel, “since you now self-identify as a blogger.”

This was in reaction to my piece of six weeks ago in which I formally accepted that this web page could probably technically be considered a blog. Levy’s article, which appeared in the March 21 issue of Newsweek, carried the headline “Blogging Beyond the Men’s Club” followed by the subhead “Since anyone can write a Weblog, why is the blogosphere dominated by white males?”

I have to say that Levy’s piece was absolutely brilliant, although not for the reasons that the author himself may have hoped. It was brilliant because it was a perfect illustration of the mindset of the mainstream media (MSM for short, also called “old media”) and why many bloggers are annoyed by the world view of the MSM, while many others simply find the MSM increasingly irrelevant. The question at issue in Levy’s piece can be summed up with this line: Does the Blogosphere have a diversity problem? The question is raised because, at “a recent Harvard conference on bloggers and the media,” two attendees noticed “that there weren’t many other women in attendance.” Levy further describes the attendees as not “representative of the human quiltwork one would see in the streets of Cambridge or New York City, let alone overseas.” I take that to mean that they were overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Now, before I proceed, let me try to make sure that you don’t get me wrong. A lack of diversity in the media and in other areas of public life has long been a serious problem, and people who have been working to increase it deserve nothing but praise. But there is something rich about someone immersed in the traditional big national media (which is selective and elite by the mere virtue of the fact that it takes huge quantities of money to publish a major newspaper or magazine or to acquire and run a television network and therefore is accessible to only a small number of people) to proclaim that the millions of people who self-publish on the internet are not diverse enough. Levy himself concedes the paradoxical nature of his own point by saying, “Viewed one way, the issue seems a bit absurd. These self-generated personal Web sites are supposed to be the ultimate grass-roots phenomenon.”

That’s right. The prejudice and biases that afflict other areas of work and life, logically, shouldn’t be as severe on the internet. After all, when read a blog, you don’t necessarily even know who is writing it. I have quite a few entries on my links page, and I have no idea what gender or ethnicity most of the authors are. Sure, you usually have a sense of whether it is a man or a woman, someone old or young, one nationality or another, depending on how much they refer to themselves in their writing. But not always or inevitably. When the focus of the content is on issues or information (rather than on the writer), race and gender become relevant only if the writer wants them to be. (And that’s assuming that the writer is even being truthful about who she or he is.) It’s a bit like that famous New Yorker cartoon, in which a canine on a computer says to a fellow pooch, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

This is not to say that factors like economic status or education, which can be correlated to things like race or gender, have no effect on who can become a blogger or how “successful” one can be at it. Obviously, the poorest of the poor can’t afford the hardware or software to self-publish. And other factors may make it harder for some to blog than others. But, thanks to the current state of technology, it is really hard to imagine a more level playing field for individuals to publish and reach a potentially vast audience than what exists today.

But the problem is that Levy isn’t talking about the entire community of bloggers. He is narrowing his Blogosphere to what he calls “alpha bloggers,” that is, the ones who get huge numbers of hits on their web sites, who get conference invitations and who get White House press passes. It is what he refers to as “the top rung,” the sort of bloggers who, well, attend Harvard conferences on “bloggers and the media.” And who get a high ranking from Technorati, a web site that tracks how many links blogs have to other blogs. This blogger upper class is summed up by blogger Halley Suitt (one of the aforementioned attendees) as “white people linking to other white people!”

The image spawned by Levy’s description is perfect. Many politically oriented bloggers disdain the mainstream media because it is elite and can’t perceive the world any other way than through the filter of their own elite-ness. So, when the elite media turn their attention to bloggers, what do they do? They filter their coverage by creating a blogger elite! This isn’t to say that such an elite doesn’t exist. Some bloggers are more famous than others, and some get zillions more hits than others. But to the individual reader (aside from people in the mainstream media who cover blogs), it doesn’t really matter how many hits a web site gets or whether the author is mentioned on TV or in The New York Times. If the reader finds a particular blog’s content interesting, she or he will read it and perhaps be influenced by it. The beauty of the vastness of the worldwide web is that there is enough bandwidth for everyone. Publishing doesn’t have to be a competition. There don’t have to be winners and losers.

There are a ton of ideas out there and they are there for the picking by anyone who wants to go looking for them. The idea of a “top” or “bottom” rung in the Blogosphere doesn’t really mean anything, except to people counting money, prestige and influence and who have a need to turn everything into a horserace. In others, the old media. Now competition has always meant a lot to the old media because, for traditional publications, it means the difference between economic survival and disappearing. Blogs need little or no profit to keep on churning out ideas and information. As for influence, yes, there once was a day when all the movers and shakers in New York and Washington faithfully read The Times and The Post every morning. But those days are gone, and not because of blogs, but another technological advance. Now people with power are reading briefings of the overnight poll numbers.

So, if the MSM’s idea of an elite rung of bloggers seems white-dominated and male-dominated, then there is a simple explanation. It is because the MSM have more or less created their own blogger elite, and they have made it in their own image. That is why it is so funny when Levy pats himself and the rest of the MSM on the back for tackling its diversity problem (“to some degree,” he qualifies) and suggests that bloggers need to do the same. He admires the suggestion of Halley Suitt, who urged the attendees of the Harvard conference to “find 10 bloggers who weren’t male, white or English-speaking—and link to them.”

Now, this conforms perfectly to the conservative’s stereotype of the well-meaning liberal. It is the notion that minorities and the downtrodden cannot have equality until the elite class deigns to bequeath it to them. It’s a fine gesture, but you know what? I read quite a few blogs, but until I read Levy’s article, I had never heard of the two bloggers he mentions—even though they clearly get quite a few hits. You see, in the Blogosphere, the “elite” are just what they have always been in every other walk of life: a minority. The difference is that, on the internet, they’re a minority that doesn’t have a monopoly.

-S.L., 21 April 2005

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