The Ignored Public Sphere

What has blogging become? To me and to many others in the middle of the last decade, it looked like a turnaround, a revitalization of what Jürgen Habermas called “the public sphere,” something that had been all but destroyed by the rise of commercial media. We were realistic enough to see that there would always be a corporate and money-driven side to blogging (particularly in the political realm), but we also believed that blogs, with their ease of entry, would expand connection and discussion in all sorts of arenas.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book by Brooklyn College professor Tanni Haas, Making It in the Political Blogosphere: The World’s Top Political Bloggers Share the Secrets to Success (for Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 13 (6), August, 2012, 825-826). In the review, I wrote, “Even though the blogosphere has often been cast as another great leveler, putting everyone on an equal footing at the start, at least, it has never been far removed from the general inequities of American culture. The people in the Rolodexes of schedulers for radio and TV shows are also the people who are going to get the most initial attention when they turn to blogging.” I had become a little jaded, I suppose, and saw the advice provided through Haas as only relevant to those who already had a media platform—or a lot of money. That did not mean, however, that the blogosphere was declining.

I thought of this the other day, while reading the first part of what will be a three-part piece by journalist Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books. Massing isn’t concentrating on blogging, but on ‘Digital Journalism,’ and his intent is to explore just how good it is, or isn’t. As a result, Massing’s interest is somewhat different from mine when I look at the blogs. He admits this, at least tacitly:

[T]here are many thousands of knowledgeable people blogging in their areas of expertise. Paul Krugman, for one, has saluted the contributions of the “econoblogs” that constantly check and assess work in the field. “As far as real, insightful, useful discussion of matters economic is concerned,” he has written, “this is actually a golden age.” When I checked some of those blogs, however, I found that most of the discussion on them is quite specialized. More generally, blogs have become niche-ified. Gone are the days when a Michigan-based scholar like Juan Cole could single-handedly challenge the Bush administration’s narrative on Iraq or the blogging collective Firedoglake could gain national attention for “liveblogging” the Scooter Libby trial.

I was part of those days—in fact, Firedoglake hosted one of its earliest book “salons” for my 2007 The Rise of the Blogosphere and I was involved in the “outing’ of fake journalist Jeff Gannon a couple of years earlier. I don’t miss those times: I watched the fast-paced changes in the blogosphere and saw pretty accurately where blogging was going and who was scrambling to the top. In the sequel to The Rise of the Blogosphere, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, I deliberately focus on blogging a little less high-profile than that interesting to Haas or Massing. The blogs, in fact, that Massing dismisses, those looking for niche audiences, always were, to me, the heart of the blogosphere, the thing that makes it different from journalism (and the constricted public sphere) of the past. They beat strongly today, though the focus in the media has turned to the celebrity blogs almost exclusively.

High-profile blogging was always a part of the blogosphere, but it was never the whole of it. The assumption of many of those in the media, however, is that the point of blogging is to accrue fame and fortune—just as it often seems to be the point of journalism itself, at least since the days of Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate Scandal. The media generally ignore blogging as an element of community, for those communities are often small and specialized, as Massing points out, and of little interest to anyone who has an established national audience.

As I wrote toward the end of my review, “Haas, in his conclusion, does write of the importance of community to blogging, but sees building community more as a tool towards success than the blog as a tool for building community. That, however, is to be expected from a book whose focus is success in blogging, not success in community. Still, blogging, as a whole, is extremely intertwined with community – and success in it can be measured in ways quite distinct from the numbers of readers and comments that Haas uses as benchmarks.” Today’s robust niche bloggers are not trying to establish national reputations but are trying to advance their particular communities.

When I tried my hand at political blogging in the middle of the last decade, but I found it too insane and just too big for me. It wasn’t what I wanted from blogging and, eventually, I abandoned it (for the most part). Today, most of my posts are for the niche blog academeblog.org, the blog of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors of which I am Faculty Editor. That suits me much better. In addition, I do have a personal blog, but I really don’t do much with it by comparison.

Haas and Massing would dismiss me as an unimportant blogger and, probably, as not much of a journalist. They are reflecting the move in some parts of American culture toward commodification of everything. The only reason to blog, by the logic they follow, is to achieve fame and fortune. Fortunately, the bloggers they ignore in their focus on numerical success are doing just fine. Blog inspired aspects of the public sphere grow daily, in part because they are ignored by much of the rest of the media.

I hope that continues.

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