Friday, August 26, 2005

Just guys with blogs

First it was Buzzmachine, now it's Daily Kos: in the wake of a post which took a couple of uncharitable swipes at "hippies" and "pacifists" in the course of staking out his position critical of the Iraq War, by way of defending himself Kos founder Markos Moulitsas makes the claim that he's not a leader, but merely a guy with a blog -- just like you and me. Of course the Daily Kos gets over half a million visits a day (whereas I get twenty on a good day), coordinates Democratic fundraising and grass-roots political action, and is increasingly cited by mainstream media pundits both on the left and the right. The Jersey Exile, on the other hand, is lucky to get a backward link that isn't from a spamblog and a comment which isn't an advertisement for Cialis.

With an argument that could easily have been cribbed from Jeff Jarvis' post on August 2nd about the meaninglessness of the so-called "A-List" in our new media paradigm, Markos essentially rejects the notion that his status as a hub in the blogosphere comes with any leadership mandate beyond that of the average blogger, although he does admit a nebulous responsibility "to the medium". Instead of being a leader, he somewhat perversely characterizes his role as that of a follower, as if it is the net aggregate of voices on his site that determines what merits his attention and what does not:

I don't generally lead. All of the campaigns that have grabbed notice in the past couple of years were launched by regular people, and I simply lent my support. I think it's important for people to realize that this is a new model of activism. The press and politicians still think it's a traditional model -- from top to bottom. So they come to me and think that by "reaching out" to me they can reach my audience. That's complete crap. It needs to be the exact opposite, they need to reach out to my audience. And if my audience decides its an endeavor worthy of support, then I'll get involved.

At least Jarvis is unapologetic about not giving a damn about his power and influence, although I find his most recent writings about the role of "trust" as the currency of the new media to be interesting insofar as they seem to undermine his previous notions about the "A-List"'s lack of moral obligation to the rest of the 'sphere. If trust is indeed now king, then how can such a thing exist outside of responsibility?

So don’t own the content. Help people make and find and remake and recommend and save the content they want. Don’t own the distribution. Gain the trust of the people to help them use whatever distribution and medium they like to find what they want.

This is a far cry from the Jeff Jarvis who left this comment to one of my posts earlier in the month:

Who's to say which N-list bloggers I'm supposed to link to? What if I told you whom you're not linking to enough? It's quota-think. What if I came to your house and said I didn't like your friends; you say you're of Jersey but you don't have enough Italians, damnit. That's absurd, of course. Well, my blog is my house and I do what I want in it. It's that simple, really.

Granted, when Jeff wrote what he did his back was more or less against the wall as he tried to respond to multiple criticisms about the power relations which supposedly do not exist in the new media (speaking of which, Snarkaholic has a succinct rundown of who gets to be who in the blogosphere, and surprise, surprise, it's more or less a repeat of traditional media's pecking order). While I'm not really interested in rehashing that old fight, I understand why at the time Jarvis would come down so hard on the side of a fundamentally amoral blogosphere, whereas now it seems a little bit of the opposing viewpoint has crept into his theorizing.

A blogger who "helps" seems to me to be a blogger who understands his or her role, position, power, and trust in the blogosphere, and acts accordingly. If trust is now the currency of the new media, it is won through responsible action and -- dare I say it? -- successful leadership. Every good blog is a beacon that cuts through the smothering fog of information overload and lays bare what is useful, what is meaningful, what is worth more than a passing glance. Here is where trust is earned. Leadership is not something that only happens outside of the blog or parallel to it (or, as Markos would maintain, in spite of it), but can/should/must be an essential element to blogging ethically. As the blogosphere matures and evolves, it's not enough anymore to throw up one's hands and say, "Hey, I'm just this guy with a blog!" To paraphrase a Kos commenter, that's like saying that Rupert Murdoch is just a man with a television station. Trust is power, and with that power comes responsibility, which manifests itself as leadership -- as paradigm-shattering as the new media may be, it cannot avoid this basic truth.

I have to admit, however, that I do not completely buy into the notion that trust has supplanted content and distribution as the most important factor in the blogosphere. Instead I like to think of all three concepts as functions of one another which are inextricably linked in this brave new paradigm. You cannot conceive of trust without reckoning for content and distribution as well, and likewise for the other two as well. But Jeff is definitely onto something here in identifying trust as a critical component of the new media, and he deserves many kudos for articulating as much as well as he has and in a manner that has provoked much discussion both at Buzzmachine and elsewhere.


Jeff Jarvis said...

I think you make a leap, or at least a giant step, from the notion that trust brings a responsibility to -- what? -- link? Trust is a transaction that occurs in every interaction: You trust what I say in one instance and not in another and you judge each on its own. You can keep that to yourself or you can react to it in public; I say that's an option more than a responsibility.

Tom said...

But if you "keep it to yourself" you're not really blogging then, are you?

I think you yourself began to articulate what one's responsibility is to the blogosphere in your recent posts about trust having displaced content and distrubution as king of the new media (although I would say that instead of trumping content and distribution trust has become inextricably intertwined with them):

"But in this new age, you don’t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don’t want to extract value. You want to add value. You don’t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in."

Your responsibility is a function of the trust people invest in you. The more your readers trust you, the more you'll hear it when you put your foot in your mouth as Markos did over at Daily Kos by broadsiding a not-insignificant segment of his own community. Kos wants to have the trust but not the responsibility, but that's not how it works -- in the real or virtual worlds.

And yet Markos does acknowledges that he does have some responsibility "to the medium", just as you now seem to be dancing around the notion of a blogging ethics that goes beyond a simple journalist's code. I'll admit that it's a slippery thing to wrap one's brain around, but I think you'll admit that there is something deeper to the notion of trust than you're conceding here.