July 30, 2004

Blogging, Democratic Convention, and Reaction

[Given the Big Media reaction, maybe I can write this without A-list revenge]

Many (though by no means all) things in life can be clarified by mathematics, if properly understood. There are some basic principles that are key to keep in mind: For example, everyone can't be above average. Or, if there are N pigeons and K holes, and N > K, at least one hole *must* have two pigeons.

Don't laugh. A simple calculation from the latter: If there are 15,000 journalists and approximately zero news stories ... The outcome of "BLOGGERS AT THE CONVENTION" could not have been other than it was.

The blog-writers who in fact do journalism, were stuck in an event where there was no news, so they spun their wheels. The bloggers who do diary-style writing, were doing diary-style writing. Which was as interesting as you'd find it otherwise (note the deliberate ambiguity of that statement). All was as it must be, could only be, any hype to the contrary.

When people speak of "bloggers as the new pamphleteers" or some such, that almost always has a patronizing undertone to me. I hear an unvoiced aspect of "Aren't they C-U-T-E!". Like what you would say to a child doing finger-painting. "That's such a gorgeous picture, err, blog-post. Maybe someday you'll be a famous artist, err, pundit". It's like "Model United Nations" or "Class President". It's not meaningful in terms of power, except perhaps as play-act training in how to behave in those roles. And the flip-side of the "Junior Achievement" expectation is the "Juvenile Delinquent" archetype, those rotten kids today who have no standards, not like their elders.

In the 18th century, being a "pamphleteer" meant you had the comparative social position not only to engage in a life of leisure (very rare), but even the wealth to pay to have your political views distributed to others people (even rarer). A significant amount of the population wasn't even literate, or barely so. It was discussion among the upper classes, not the rabble.

It's all a bit like calling people who own their houses: "the new plantation-masters". Or not understanding who is a really a "gentleman".

The pamphlet demanded attention. But this was because the mere fact of being able to produce it was proof that you were rich and educated. Which then strongly implied you were worth listening to. In more sociological terms, the pamphlet was not just the message, but also a token indicating that the pamphleteer was likely socially influential. However, the influence didn't come from the pamphlet _per se_, but rather from the wealth and influence it represented. And obviously, if the mere fact of production eventually becomes so cheap that it's widely available beyond the tip of the social pyramid, it no longer represents an indicator of being a worthwhile speaker.

The blunt question of readers is always "Why should I read you"? They're asking, what power and influence do you have, what intellectual worth do you possess, what is your place in the social hierarchy? It's not impressive to answer: "Because I am a unique and special snowflake".

You're not cyber-revolutionaries. You're a freak show.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on July 30, 2004 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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I like to think I'm both a cyber revolutionary AND a freak show, thanks. :)

Posted by: jessamyn at July 31, 2004 10:10 PM

I strongly suspect this insight of yours on colonial era pamphlet dynamics is begging to be demolished by facts.

But since no one is likely to care, that's still a win isn't it?

Posted by: sean broderick at August 1, 2004 11:15 PM

I am not allowed to even post a comment on Hugh M.'s site? I have done nothing wrong or mean. That's the future of web democracy, good intentions notwithstanding. Pariah me.

Posted by: bw at August 2, 2004 09:28 AM

I agree that there is no credible reason to read any individual blogger who's not affiliated with a large well-known organization. Having said that, there are individual bloggers who I read because I think they're worth reading. They have no wealth or influence; they have no position or power in society; they may not even have any intellectual merit. But a friend of mine reads them, or a separate blog post I was reading linked to them, so I decided to check out their site. Once in, I read what they wrote, found it (some nonempty subset of) entertaining, interesting, and enlightening, and decided it was worth further reading.

This is the ideal of publishing, I believe. Bloggers who have something to say, who can regularly come up with original, interesting material to post, will be followed, and their following will grow, regardless of their credentials or social connections. Sure, they may be spreading lies... but let's face it, for all we know so is Fox News. Sure they may be dumb... (repeat previous comment). But if we like reading their blog we will keep doing it and we will tell our friends.

Yes, there are far too many people blogging in the world. I'm one of them, even though I'm not any good at it. I think that someday I will be, so I am practicing for that eventual day. For the many, many other people who write meaningless blogs, they will eventually stop when they realize that nobody cares, or they won't, they'll keep writing, and it won't make a bit of difference. I don't have to read it, so I don't care how much of their life they pour into it.

I think they can be cyber-revolutionaries, because they post what they feel like posting, and they have no corporate agenda or filter to follow. The power of the social network to spread their message is still limited - but it's stronger than many people think, and it's still increasing. The world of mass publishing will never be the same now that blogging has entered the picture.

Posted by: Chris Riley at August 2, 2004 10:23 AM

I have always taught my students and political interns to be extremely cautious in making any categorical statement about some historical circumstance, since there may very well be a counter-example they have failed to uncover or consider.

So when you write about pamphleteers:
"In the 18th century, being a "pamphleteer" meant you had the comparative social position not only to engage in a life of leisure (very rare), but even the wealth to pay to have your political views distributed to others people (even rarer). A significant amount of the population wasn't even literate, or barely so. It was discussion among the upper classes, not the rabble."

One of the most successful pamphleteers in American history did not achieve success because of his wealth. Tom Paine's pamphlets were wildly successful, but he was not a rich man when he wrote them. And while hundreds of thousands of copies of Common Sense were printed, Paine may very little money from them because most of them were what might be called "pirated" editions printed in other cities with Paine's knowledge or permission.

It may be true that "most' pamphleteers were wealthy, but the correlation is murky at best.

Posted by: Dick Bell at August 2, 2004 08:56 PM

Sean, the earliest data I could find quickly, states: http://nces.ed.gov/naal/historicaldata/illiteracy.asp

"However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, illiteracy was very common. In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate."

Now go back yet *another* century (1700's). If 20%+ of the population can't even read, the idea of some grand broad-based pamphlet participation is nonsense. It's a fantasy based on a mythology, a lost Golden Age of popular involvement. We're clearly dealing with a very elite segment of that society.

Which segues to my reply to Dick Bell. Consider this statement: "The Senate is a rich white men's club". It is 100.0% true, as an absolute categorization? No, there are exceptions. But there's a great amount of truth in it, which would be missed by regarding it as if it were the equivalent of "There is a formal requirement to be a rich white man to be a Senator".

It's not that you achieve pamphleteering success because of wealth. But rather, Revolutionary pamphleteering was not some mass democratic form. It was an extremely elite activity, like, say "Running for a Senate seat". Can you do it, in theory, even if you're poor and marginal? Sure! Does someone win against great odds every once in a while? Absolutely! But pointing to exceptional cases can obscure the general case.

And so, to Chris, what I'm trying to do is examine the structures here. I believe the thought that "their following will grow, regardless of their credentials or social connections", is akin to saying "people with good ideas will rise in politics, regardless of their wealth or social connections". One need only look at our current President to see the falsity of that statement.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 2, 2004 11:34 PM


I don't think you can make the analogy that you made, because politics and publishing aren't identical, but still, I admit I am young and somewhat idealistic. I would also love to believe that people with good ideas can rise in politics regardless of wealth or social connections, and while I'm sure that some do, I would be willing to believe that a great deal of luck is involved. I do think, however, that there are a few counterexamples of individuals achieving a very wide following, people like Instapundit and Wonkette, people who have not made it because of their position but because of the quality of their work.

I also want to point out that your logic is questionable. Having a current president who achieved success with wealth and connections and without good ideas does not in and of itself demonstrate that it is impossible to rise through good ideas alone. You're saying that my claim, "A can lead to success without B", is disproven by your correct observation, "There exists a B who succeeded without A", and that's just not true.

I'm not trying to pick a fight; I'm a big fan of your blog and other writings of yours I've read. But I enjoy continuing a discussion once it is started.

Posted by: Chris Riley at August 3, 2004 12:43 AM

Chris, no offense taken at the criticize, glad someone somewhere is reading :-).

Now, regarding: "people like Instapundit and Wonkette, people who have not made it because of their position but because of the quality of their work."

Would it cause you to rethink anything if you learned that Wonkette is the wife of a Washington Post editor?


I don't know what Instapundit's story is exactly, but I'm sure there is one, given what I know of his social networks.

Often we are told an inspiring by-one's-bootstraps fairy-tale, only later to find there is a whole sweatshop-labor shoe factory lurking in the background.

You're in fact correct that my logic wasn't foolproof - the missing part is that, given a limited number of slots, the ones occupied by those who clearly got their position by wealth and connections, shows that merit is that much less relevant.

Certainly, I'm not saying it's utterly impossible to succeed on merit. But distaste to confront just how much all the other factors matter, often severely distorts thinking (in my view).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 3, 2004 02:11 AM