Friday, June 15, 2007

Blogging and elitism

I am a serious consumer of political opinion, probably more than is good for me. The other day I spoke to a friend who says he turns his television set on only every two years or so. Admirable! Once upon a time I was in that position, but gradually the addiction creeps up on one. So I spend a fair amount of time looking at MSNBC and CNN. I also listen to National Public Radio.

I never used to read the New York Times, except on weekends--until my ex-partner convinced me to subscribe. Now looking at the rag is part of my morning ritual.

Paradoxically, if one takes this political opinion stuff seriously, one should disregard most of it. But that is hard to do. The asymmetry of the relationship eventually becomes maddening. As the tide washes over one’s consciousness, one feels twinges of rage. “I’m mad as hell,” etc. Well, one can write a letter to the New York Times or NPR. I’ve had a few published at those venues, but the results are scarcely satisfying. For a long time there has been a tremendous disparity between the punditocracy--largely ensconced nowadays in the Heart of Darkness, Washington--and the educated person who is “merely out there.” As we found recently when they almost unanimously drank the Kool-Ade on the way to war in Iraq, the arrogance of the punditocracy can pose a serious national danger. Millions of us siting in our living rooms knew that the war was a very bad idea, but it was as if we didn’t exist.

What to do? Well, along came blogging some eight years or so ago. There was a kind of first-past-the-post advantage to those who jumped in right away. I was a little slow on the uptake, but three years ago I started blogging at There were indications that I had some readers abroad, in Britain, France, and Germany. Occasional commentary appeared. But gradually these gratifying results diminished.

To be sure, I still have a faithful band of readers, and I am grateful for the attention. But my pieces are rarely copied and when I oppose the next Iraq war I doubt if my voice will register at all.

The old media were dominated by A-list elite, those who had privileged access to the public prints by columns and news beats. Blogging, it seemed, would make everything democratic. Any number can play. Yes, we do play after a fashion. But the high-rollers always elbow us out.

Of course blogs come in all sorts of forms. Quite common are the diary blogs, in which the proprietary offers a continuing rundown of his or her personal experience. These sites have a therapeutic function--and may sometimes offer something more. Then there are the “short burst” blogs, generally dealing with current events. At these sites the blogger may post fifteen or twenty times a day. A serious form of blogging has to do with local issues. For some reason, Brooklyn is one of the best represented of these regions. A good friend writes a thoughtful blog largely devoted to issues of the state of Virginia. Since I don’t know much about Virginia politics I only consult it once and a while.

A common stereotype is the “pajama person,” a blogger who sits in a room without going out much. So what? Some people are shut-ins, and access to the cybersphere enriches their lives, and quite possibly those of their readers as well. Another point is that most bloggers have no editor. This can be a disadvantage when the blogger veers off into some idiosyncrasy that has little to do with the topic at hand. In my classes (and blog entries too) I have been charged with a propensity for digression. I guess I am guilty. Yet some journalists report that their editors sometimes repress their interest in writing about topics that actually are important. Editorial control works both ways.

The type of blogging I prefer consists of essays of 800-1200 words. I am particularly interested in the history of ideas. I like to connect past and present, so that my findings often have a contemporary application. Only rarely though do I succeed in finding a “hook” (as I did with the film Kinsey and the Foley affair) that generates attention outside of a small circle of friends.

The upshot of the recent flurry of blogging is that democratization didn’t work. The A-list reasserted itself, though with a few new members. Only a few elite blogs get the hundreds of thousands of hits that guarantee influence.

The result is an extreme version of Wilfredo Pareto’s 80-20 law. Pareto’s original study showed that in Italy a hundred years ago, 20% of the people owned 80% of the land. He went on to document these effects in other fields, including his humble efforts to weed his own garden.

The situation that has set in now in the new media is the same as the old. We have hyper-Pareto. 1% of the people have 99% of the influence.

The A-list reasserts itself: the iron law of oligarchy. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

ADDITIONAL NOTE (July 11). Footnote to blogger pessimism

A few years ago James Surowiecki made a splash with his book “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Here is the gist:

Our society, like most others, generally trusts experts and discounts the wisdom of the masses. The latter is virtually an oxymoron. In his incisive, though counterintuive book, the New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that ‘under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.’ The writer offers much supporting evidence, exploring problems in cognition, coordination, and cooperation. Provided that four basic conditions are met, a crowd's ‘collective intelligence’ will produce better outcomes than a gaggle of experts, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or elect, individually, to act irrationally. ‘Wise crowds’ need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions.

The operative term, I suppose, is “under the right circumstances.” Still, there are many confirming instances. The most egregious recent one occurred during the run-up to the Iraq war. Millions of us humble folks, sitting in our living rooms, recognized that the case for the war was nonexistent. Yet the elite media, centered in Washington, DC and environs, bought the whole package. They drank the Kool Ade. These experts then did their best to sell it to the whole country, with the disastrous results that are still unfolding.

Now comes Andrew Keen with his new book “Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.” Contradicting Surowiecki, Keen forcefully argues that a sea of amateur content in the cybersphere threatens to swamp the most vital information. Blogs, he holds, often reinforce one's own views rather than expand horizons. Yet his jeremiad about the death of "our cultural standards and moral values" seems overstated.

Keen should be told not to worry, for the “sea of amateur content" is yielding to the old domination of elites, as I sought to show in my piece.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of what you say is true about the "A-list." Much of it sadly is a function of the majority of the public being lazy. Check a few sites and do not take the time or initiative to seek further.

Personally, I enjoy blogging even if I am not the most widely readed. I have met great people - you included - and enjoy the exchange of ideas. Moreover, it's fun when I see that I have blogged on an issue or events before the "A-lister" have posted. :)

Quantity and the number of hits do not necessarily equate to quality. On "Best Gay Blogs" the porno sites score much higher than my site, yet they are devoid of thought and serious discussion. Often, the public gets what it deserves and/or supports.

Keep on doing you thing my friend.


7:49 PM  

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