BLOG! HOW THE NEWEST MEDIA REVOLUTION IS CHANGING POLITICS, BUSINESS, AND CULTURE
By David Kline and Dan Burstein
CDS, $24.95, 402 pages
REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS
There are many possible futures for the humble blog. I had a glimpse of one of them recently when I met Bill Quick, aka Daily Pundit, at Vesuvio, the San Francisco saloon that was once the haunt of Jack Kerouac and the Beats. As Internet aficionados may be aware, Mr. Quick is the man who, way back in the mists of time (well, three years ago, to be precise, but that is almost an aeon in the on-line universe) coined the phrase “blogosphere” to describe the jostling, irreverent and tireless network of virtual-reality writers, critics and hobbyists.
Mr. Quick, a libertarian author of bestselling genre fiction, updates his site several times a day. He even managed to file a post while we were sitting in the bar. Out came his laptop, his mini-video camera, digital stills, camera and a wireless card. Within the space of 10 minutes, he had written a short paragraph about our conversation, snapped a photograph of me and posted the text and picture on his blog. This, he explained to me, is what that much-used new term, “citizen journalism” means in practice. Once dismissed as misfits in pajamas, bloggers are beginning to flex their muscles. It is no coincidence that the worldwide blogger news and advertising agency due to be launched later this month has been using Pajamas Media as its working title. (At this point I should declare an interest and explain that I have already signed up to the new venture.)
So where are we heading? In one sense, it’s impossible to say. The phenomenon has grown at such a headlong pace that only a fool would try to forecast what the next few years will bring. One of the most eye-catching statistics in Dan Burstein’s and David Kline’s book indicates that more than half of all bloggers are aged between 13 and 19. It is a fair bet that very few of them take much interest in Dan Rather, typewriter fonts or who spoke to whom in the Valerie Plame case. In their hands, the blog world could take a radically different turn to the one we have known. That celebrated line from William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade” comes to mind: Nobody knows anything.
It is quite possible, for instance, as one of the insiders interviewed in this book observes, that the word “blog” could fall out of our vocabulary just as suddenly as it appeared. As interactivity becomes a more and more common feature of daily life, as we shift further towards a multimedia existence, “weblog” may come to be seen as a bizarrely archaic term. By the same token, newspapers could end up being driven out of business by blogs, or they might just find a way of beating them at their own game.
All we can be sure about is that we are entering a period of profound upheaval. Big business has not yet shoved the free spirits aside; media titans such as Rupert Murdoch are still trying to work out how to tame the unpredictable new beast. Everything is in flux. As the publisher, journalist and blog evangelist Jeff Jarvis puts it in his interview: “Think about it: we in the so-called cathedral of journalism have owned the printing press (and later the broadcasting tower) for centuries. Now the people own the printing press.”
Still, for all the unknowns, if you want to gauge how far we have actually traveled, “Blog!” does a fine job of assembling a road map. Mixing interviews with reportage and previously published articles by a variety of authors, Mr. Burstein and Mr. Kline — both seasoned journalists— address the main trends in the media and commercial realms. Whereas Hugh Hewitt’s book of the same name struck a defiantly triumphalist note, Mr. Burstein and Mr. Kline ponder the pros and cons. Will it be possible for heavyweight bloggers such as the left’s champion Daily Kos (run by Army veteran Markos Moulitsas) to maintain their independence and their quirkiness as they spend more time working alongside mainstream reporters? Matthew Kam’s New York Times magazine article on how bloggers covered the 2004 campaign is full of judicious insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the so-called “fifth estate.” And the interview with lapsed blogger Ayelet Waldman (aka Bad Mother) demonstrates how, as well as generating support communities across the ether, the routine of turning out lively copy can sometimes be the enemy of creativity. Ms. Waldman’s reflections on how on-line writing differs from the more literary variety reminded me of a recent cartoon in The Spectator. Two men are talking at a cocktail party; one, who is holding an open laptop in front of him, says “I thought I had a book inside me but it was just a blog.”
As for how corporate America will rise to the challenge, one observer neatly sums up the opportunities and the hazards: “Blogs are good for companies that are good, and bad for companies that are bad.” Thriving on transparency and interaction, the new media allow companies unprecedented intimacy with their customers for good or ill. Engineers and designers need no longer be shunted away, unseen and unheard, in the back office; company blogs give them the means to communicate directly with the people who buy their products.
The flip side, of course, is that enterprises are every bit as vulnerable to so-called “blog swarms” as Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose off-the-cuff remarks about Strom Thurmond were first tracked by Josh Marshall and other on-line commentators. One salutary tale involves the bicycle lock company Kryptonite, which was nearly brought to its knees last year when a cycling enthusiast pointed out on a discussion blog that the company’s U-shaped locks could be picked with a ballpoint pen. In the space of 10 days, nearly two million people read postings on the subject, and executives were obliged to earmark nearly half annual revenues to the provision of free replacements.
The Kryptonite story, like some of the political anecdotes, turns up more than once in the text. Tighter editing would have been welcome. But the book’s scope makes it a valuable introduction to an uncharted realm. The authors take a global view as well, examining how the technology can encourage democratic stirrings in China. (Former CNN reporter Rebecca MacKinnon, the driving force behind the the invaluable hands-across-the-ocean site Global Voices, is particularly incisive on this subject.) The main lesson of this book is that blogs, whatever their ultimate future, have given individuals a voice all their own. Oppressive governments and fast-buck corporations are still struggling to find a way of silencing them.
Clive Davis writes for the London Times. He keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.