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Blog Nation
Are weblogs the blinking neurons of an emerging, chatterbox superbrain? Or are these proliferating online diaries merely podiums for bush-league blowhards? Truth be told, they're a bit of both -- and that's precisely what makes them so damn addictive.
By James Wolcott, May 2002 Issue





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Blogs, bloggers, blogging -- sounds like plumbing jargon, something to do with stopped-up drains. But new coinages are seldom pretty, and "blogs" -- short for weblogs, those rapid-fire online jottings of political opinions, media critiques, and Andy Rooney-ish kvetches -- at least has a nice, clunky sci-fi ring to it (likewise "blogging," which doesn't sound as precious as "journaling"). A sci-fi handle suits this phenomenon, since blogs have exploded faster than tribbles, snowballing from a smattering of isolated outposts into an avalanche of babble threatening to engulf entire quadrants.

When professional and semipro writers first poked their furry heads into the Internet in the mid- to late 1990s, they played it conservatively, setting up promotional sites for their latest books (linked to Amazon.com, natch); the average site, containing a capsule biography, a charming author's photo, and -- big whoop -- a list of recent magazine articles, was simply a flier posted in cyberspace. Writers schooled in the New Yorker chapel of self-effacement nurtured the romantic notion that a true writer toils inside an opaque, impregnable bubble, arranging twiglike phrases into a beautiful, patterned whole -- the ideal personified by language priests from Flaubert to Nabokov. To air one's thoughts online, publishing sentences that hadn't been properly groomed -- why, that made a writer no better than a floozy!

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Nonliterary journalists, who have a less highfalutin sense of calling and a more cheerful acceptance of how perishable writing is (newsprint today, fish wrap tomorrow), didn't hesitate to use their websites to take target practice at whatever piqued them on a particular day. Blogs allowed such writers to reach an immediate audience without some editor exercising veto powers, concerned that someone somewhere might be offended, and to avoid the personal agendas of higher-ups ("You can't poke fun at George Stephanopolous -- he and the publisher's wife go to the same hairstylist!"). It's a matter of comic dispute as to who was the original blogger to rise from the ooze, but certainly one of blogdom's best-known grizzled pioneers is neoliberal author Mickey Kaus (The End of Equality), whose Kausfiles is a must-scan for political junkies. Washington journalist Joshua Micah Marshall occupies a more traditional patch of liberalism on his Talking Points Memo blog. Another byline vet -- and yet so young -- is Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies, who issues reality checks from a libertarian-technocrat perspective. Emerging as the prince of bloggers is Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic and gay Catholic conservative pundit extraordinaire, whose posts generate their own news (he broke the story on Bill Kristol's Enron contributions and flogged those of Paul Krugman until Krugman felt obliged to address the controversy in his New York Times op-ed column). Moreover, Sullivan has become the online Oprah by founding his own book club. Within days, his first selection, Robert D. Kaplan's Warrior Politics, zoomed up the Amazon charts into the top five -- evidence that blogging was quickly graduating from a personal megaphone into a market mover.

Blogs scrolled down the screen before Sept. 11, but the horrors of that day had a "big bang" impact, energizing a constellation of individual voices united by a communal understanding that a hole had been blown in the very architecture of our lives. I belong to a number of chat boards, and it soon became glaringly apparent to me that the bloggers had a far keener existential grasp of the trauma wound and the magnitude of the task ahead than these online "communities," which swiftly reverted to their customary crabby infighting and sneer responses. Blogs are far less parochial, the New York-Washington axis of mainstream media coverage offset by the strong presence of West Coast bloggers (Ken Layne, Matt Welch), with others chiming in from Australia (the acerbic and hilarious Tim Blair), Croatia (Natalija Radic, who appears on the libertarian Samizdata site), and Norway (Bjorn Staerk), nearly all of them citing and providing links to one another, fostering a global clubhouse atmosphere. In the early days of the anti-Taliban campaign, foreign and domestic bloggers countered the defeatism of the dominant media -- which was then in its "quagmire" funk -- and corrected the falsehoods, exaggerations, and rote groupthink of the punditry. "We can fact-check your ass!" Ken Layne crowed, and the phrase quickly became the rallying cry of blogland.

The macho bluster of the bloggers, coupled with their hawkish bent, inspired a predictable backlash. To detractors, blogs are simply voluble ego trips, a cheap podium for bush-league blowhards -- a text version of talk radio. These critics decry the incestuous chumminess of bloggers parroting each other like Rush Limbaugh dittoheads (the Weekly Standard ran a back-page parody of a blog that carried nothing but hallelujahs for other blogs). The case for the opposition was made most thumpingly by former Suck.com editor Tim Cavanaugh in his essay "Let Slip the Blogs of War" for Online Journalism Review. His litany of indictments charged bloggers with gang-whacking easy left-wing pinatas (such as the fatuous novelist Barbara Kingsolver, the ranting cartoonist-reporter Ted Rall, and the irresistibly annoying Susan Sontag), wallowing in an orgy of mutual admiration he called blogrolling ("Outside Jerry Lewis telethons, I can't remember the last time I've seen so many references to 'my good friend so-and-so,' 'consistently excellent work by X,' and so on"), and feeding parasitically off the mainstream media they so cavalierly scorned. None of these snipers, Cavanaugh complained, did any reporting grunt work themselves: "You can cut on Salon all you like, Mr. Blogger, but they have a man in Afghanistan. Do you?"



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 May 2002 Magazine Contents
Blog Nation
  -  By James Wolcott 
Business 2.0 Blog Guide
  -  By Colleen Bazdarich 
Erasing ReplayTV
  -  By Ian Mount, Brian Caulfield 
Fashion Fast Forward
  -  By Miguel Helft 
Hollywood vs. High-Tech
  -  By James Lardner 
Morpheus Pleads Ignorance
  -  By Ian Mount 
Technophobia Over the Years
  -  By Matthew Maier 
This Is Your Father's IBM, Only Smarter
  -  By Erick Schonfeld 

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