Blogger Hubris 3.0

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Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and a guru when it comes to the impact of technology on politics, was not pleased—not pleased at all—with my piece on the lefty blogosphere in our latest issue. “You study a few trees and decide that you can describe a forest,” he writes, in the comments section of MoJo’s blog, and questions the premise that top liberal bloggers have become an elite or part of the Democratic power structure. I’m sure the numerous bloggers (some of whom I note in my piece), who have parlayed their online musings into political consulting work and prominent staff positions on campaigns, would plainly disagree with the latter.

As for his contention that the liberal blogosphere doesn’t have an elite—look no further than “Blogroll Amnesty Day,” when, last February, a handful of big kahuna bloggers, including Atrios and Kos, purged their blogrolls of the small fish who had secured coveted spots there. Explaining the move, Atrios wrote, “one of the big complaints by new bloggers is that it’s impossible to get onto blogrolls because established bloggers tend not to add them. They’re right. A big reason for that is that everyone feels a wee bit guilty about removing blogs from their blogroll, so they’re hesitant to add new ones to an ever-expanding list.” So, he decided to purge his roll and “grow it again naturally, adding blogs I find myself wanting to read on a regular basis.”

Fair enough. His blog; his decision. But the casualties of this purge could also be forgiven for feeling that they were at the mercy of an elite, who, on a whim, decided to stop directing traffic to them, cutting down their readerships considerably. As one angry blogger wrote:

Fuck the big boys. They’re the blogospheric equivalent of the Washington pundits who think they’re better than bloggers because they get invited to the right parties and of the Democrats who hold fundraisers where they take money from corporations. We hold bake sales and support our candidates twenty-five bucks at a time. What’s hilarious is that most of these guys come out of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, only a taste of success has made them forget all about people-powered.

And Chris Bowers, himself an elite blogger who writes at MyDD, noted at the time: “The blogosphere may have started as a new form of individual punditry, but at its elite levels, the progressive blogosphere has now moved beyond that. Take a quick look at the structure of the new progressive blogosphere elite, and consider how difficult it is for a new blog to break into this group.” He also posited that “it is very possible that the blogosphere will either collapse due to a lack of funding, or develop into a new form of establishment elite.” I think there’s evidence to suggest that certain top tier bloggers have already become firmly entrenched in the political establishment —unless dining at John Edwards’ Georgetown digs or strategizing weekly with Democratic leadership aides doesn’t count.

Sifry is also upset about my depiction of Townhouse, the invite-only email list administered by blogger/activist/consultant Matt Stoller whose members (Micah, are you one of them?) are select blogger/activists/consultants.

“You have one on-the-record source attacking Kos and other ‘elite’ bloggers for running a ‘Skull and Bones’ like email list,” he writes. “That hardly is proof of anything in my mind.”

Given that the first rule of Townhouse is that there is no Townhouse, it was quite a challenge to get even one person to talk about the list on record (though I spoke to several people about the list who did not want to be quoted, even anonymously). It’s my understanding that any list member who speaks about it publicly, or even acknowledges that it exists, risks immediate expulsion from the list. Incidentally, that’s precisely what happened to Maryscott O’Connor of My Left Wing, who was unceremoniously dumped from Townhouse after my article came out. O’Connor had this to say about Townhouse: “It’s fucking Skull and Bones, man. The very secretive, behind-closed-doors nature of it is anathema to everything that blogging is supposed to be about: accountability. We are supposed to be showing the way, not skulking around behind closed doors, coming up with strategies. Those are the people who we’re trying to fight. I know about ‘the real world’ and all that shit. But we’re the idealists, aren’t we?”

(Fun fact: According to an email I obtained, sent out to Townhouse members by Stoller in March, the list is now a commercial enterprise. Subscriptions run $60 per year for individual subscribers and up to $1000 for organizations, the proceeds of which will go to pay Stoller’s rent and health care costs, according to his message.)

One of the questions O’Connor raised when we spoke, an interesting one I thought, is what will become of the once independent bloggers, the idealists, now that they’ve worked their way into the inner sanctum of the Democratic machine. Will they change it for the better from the inside, or simply become a new generation of win-at-any-cost political operatives. It’s a question worth asking, but I don’t think anyone has any answer just yet.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t disrupt the sanctity of Stoller’s semi-secret blogger thinktank for the heck of it. I did so because I thought it was worth raising an episode that occurred last summer, when Kos appealed to list members to “starve” a particular story of “oxygen,” one that was damaging to his friend and business associate Jerome Armstrong. As TNR’s Jason Zengerle noted at the time, the episode seemed “just another case of politics as usual.” It also seemed a bit hypocritical, given that the spirit of blogging, at least as I understand it, is about transparency and accountability, not about squelching unfavorable stories.

Sifry calls my piece an “indictment of all progressive bloggers” and “humbly” suggests that my “attitude towards online journalism and blogging could use an update.” While I fully acknowledge that I have a lot more to learn about the brave new world of online journalism, politics, and activism, I would suggest, just as humbly, that the egalitarian blogtopia Sifry knows and loves is changing—and not always for the better.


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