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Monday, September 27, 2004

The party's over

Here lies blogs, says Billmon

Blogging Sells, and Sells Out

By Billmon, Billmon is the author of Whiskey Bar, online at

By most accounts, blogs — web logs to the uninitiated — scored a major coup last week when CBS News admitted that it couldn't vouch for the authenticity of memos supposedly written by George W. Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard. The conservative bloggers who led the charge against the CBS story were hailed as giant slayers. And yet it's the blogging phenomenon itself that may need the last rites.

That may seem a strange thing to say, given the flattering coverage of blogs triggered by the CBS affair. But the media's infatuation has a distinct odor of the deathbed about it — not for the blogosphere, which has a commercially bright future, but for the idea of blogging as a grass-roots challenge to the increasingly sanitized "content" peddled by the Time Warner-Capital Cities-Disney-General Electric-Viacom-Tribune media oligopoly.

Count me among the mourners. For almost two years, I blogged the political scene, first as a guest writer on the popular Daily Kos site, and then on my own blog, Whiskey Bar. During that time, I was able to indulge my passion for long-form writing — a relative rarity in the blogging world, which leans toward snippy one-liners and news nuggets — and to mix satirical humor with serious analysis, all without the worries of deadlines, editors and advertisers.

It was intoxicating while it lasted, as was the sense of community I found with my readers. At the peak of Whiskey Bar's popularity, I could count on receiving 100 or more comments about each post — articulate, querulous and sometimes profane voices from the Internet hinterland.

Recently, however, I've watched the commercialization of this culture of dissent with growing unease. When I recently decided to take a long break from blogging, it was for a mix of personal and philosophical reasons. But the direction the blogosphere is going makes me wonder whether I'll ever go back.


When I say blogging is headed for a kind of commercialized senility, I'm talking primarily about political blogs — those that have, or claim to have, something to say about government, economics, foreign policy, etc. Not surprisingly, these are the blogs most likely to show up on the media's radar screen.

Media exposure, in turn, is intensifying an existing trend toward a "winner take all" concentration of audience share. Even before blogs hit the big time, Web stats showed the blogosphere to be a surprisingly unequal place, with a relative handful of blogs — say, the top several hundred — accounting for the lion's share of all page hits.

I should have seen the writing on the wall earlier this year when the World Economic Forum, the ferociously trend-following CEO club, sponsored a panel session on blogging at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The discussion quickly turned to the commercial possibilities of blogging, leading one advertising executive to wonder why the big media companies didn't swoop down and buy up the popular blogs while they were still cheap.

At the time, the idea of buying a blog struck me as funny, like trying to buy a conversation. Now, having seen blogs I admired mutate into glorified billboards, and having witnessed the emergence of the "sponsored" blog (in which the blogger is literally an employee of, or contractor to, a corporate owner), I can see who's likely to have the last laugh.

As blogs commercialize, they are tied ever closer to the mainstream media and its increasingly frivolous news agenda. The political blogosphere already has a bad habit of chasing the scandal du jour. This election season, that's meant a laser-like focus on such profound matters as the mysteries of Bush's National Guard service or whether John Kerry deserved his Vietnam War medals.

To be sure, there are still plenty of bloggers out there putting the 1st Amendment through its paces, their only compensation the satisfaction of speaking the truth to power. But it's going to become more difficult for those voices to reach a broad audience. If the mainstream media are true to past form, they will treat the A-list blogs — commercialized, domesticated — as if they are the entire blogosphere, while studiously ignoring the more eccentric, subversive currents swirling deeper down.Not the most glorious ending for a would-be revolution, but also not a surprising one. Bloggers aren't the first, and won't be the last, rebellious critics to try to storm the castle, only to be invited to come inside and make themselves at home.

Rule one: never trust a burnout.

Now I like Billmon, but this is a unadulterated pile of burnout horseshit.

Sorry, but kind of whining makes me want to vomit. Oh, it's getting more professional, people are getting paid. Wow, it's not as much fun anymore.

Uh, some of us don't get free trips to Switzerland or Jordan as part of our jobs. Sorry. I want to hit people with the sharp end of shovels when they complain about people making money from their work.


Because I worked like a dog for four years to make a dime from NetSlaves. We all did. Not because we were greedy but because we wanted to do what we did full time. And despite overtures, no one ever came up with cash, and by the end, people said "oh, that didn't help your career at all".

Well, Billmon, that's what happens when people don't get paid for their work. They have to pay rent somehow, and a blog which doesn't become a job becomes a liability. It wasn't like he quit his job to blog, Atrios did. In fact, Billmon went to his readers to keep his server up and not take the money from his family. Did his readers mind? No. They supported him when he needed the money. Now, he's bored or burned out or whatever, and it's no longer fun.

I wish he wouldn't toss this bullshit about philosophy around when he should really say he can no longer hack it. Walking away is fine, bullshit excuses are an insult.

But my main disagreement is that he has confused the medium with the method. Blogs are a method, which can be used by anyone to say anything. There is no rule that CBS can't use blogs to make their point.

There is no rule that says only men in their 20's and 30's get to run quirky, independent blogs and when other people join that the party is over. It's a tool, a method, not some kind of revolution. Anyone can use it. The revolution, such that it is, is in who gets to play.

It is a GOOD thing Kos can make money from his site. That he doesn't have a boss to pressure. And that his advertisers believe in him. That's a revolution on it's own, but so many people are caught up in this avant guarde, outsider bullshit, that when someone makes money, they're "selling out". Which is the argument of the bitter and immature.

Here's a thought: in America, financial success equals freedom. This idea that only those who go broke are pure is a sad fucking joke. I saw so much waste, so much sloppy work in the dotcom era, I would have thought people would have been estatic that a guy in a room can make enough from a blog to support his family, not this crap of some lost ideal of pure commentary.

Someone in Kos's thread on the topic asked if now that Atrios was living off of his blog, would he now change his opinion. Earth to poster, the only way you can NOW get to him is to work his advertisers, and that takes a lot of effort. You can't zip off a letter to his department chairman to pressure him. He is now free to work with Medi a Matters and other groups. In short, money gives, not restricts, freedom of action.

I would be more charitable if I hadn't heard this bullshit argument about the net as a whole. Too many people started to make money, people had to pay for things, there were ads.

You know who made the argument then, all these tenured professors who had lifetime jobs and income and were paid to bullshit. Then you had the San Jose Bandits, the internet pundits and their financiers. We see how they ran shit into the ground.

But what's even worse is that this is a dumb argument refuted by common sense and HBO/Showtime.

Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, The Hughes Brothers, Spike Lee, Michael Moore.

What do they all have in common?

They are independent film makers who are financially successful.

Did their vision change with money? Did they conform to Hollywood standards? Do they make movies people want to see? The "mainstream" made Fahrenheit 9/11 a massive hit and sent Republicans into apoplexy. Despite Disney's cowardice, it found a route to the market.

So all this nonsense about blogging being commercialized is so much bullshit masqurading as regret. Commercialization is what happens when people can live off their blogs, which is still pretty rare. But the possibilities of it happening should be a chance to rejoice, not mourn.


Because it gives the writer economic freedom. The way blogads works is simple: the buyer picks a site, one they should be somewhat familiar with, and then buys space. Why in God's name should that affect the blogger? They're buying into a known quantity at a set price and if they don't like it, they don't come back.

I'm tired of employed people being upset that people have found a way to work and make a living. That is the best kind of editorial freedom.

When a certain unnamed college professor/blogger posted anonymously and threatened to call the Chicago Tribune about my use of an article, I laughed at him. What was he going to do? Call my boss? Jen's a lawyer, so she would have laughed, and since I don't have a boss, Billmon, he was powerless. I, however, was not, when this unnamed blogger wore an overtly racist t-shirt on a web site. Now, I know tenured professors don't get fired, and I didn't want him to get fired. But I did suggest people write his boss. And several politicians.

Personally, it would be a lot better if said person lived off his site, so he couldn't be threatened. But since the miserable bastard had that weakness, I gleefully used it and would do so again.

You can't have it both ways, blogs people read and blogs produced for free. The two do NOT go hand in hand. While some subjects, like sex, lend themselves to personal writing, blogs which deal with politics and economics need research, they need time, people have to attend events. They can't do that and have a job. Something has to give and since eating is manditory, well, guess which suffers. The money creates, not limits indpendendence.

Why did the blogs jump on the story of the day? Because it WAS the story of the day. The media shouldn't pick the news, like they did in North Carolina in Jesse Helms last race. The News and Observer, the state's largest paper, decided to ignore Jesse Helms racist tactics and cover only the issues. Well, guess what? Those tactics decided the race. Only a blinkered idiot would miss the tactics of the race to discuss the issues. Because politics is not a high minded profession, but often more about the gutter and always has been. As Carville and Begala once said: "if you had to choose between Coke and Pepsi ever four years, they would say anything to change your mind".

Why Billmon expects the internet to differ from the rest of American life is beyond me. There is always a commerical layer, after all Us and People are sold next to Foreign Affairs in my local Barnes and Noble.

What I would say to Digby is not that commericalization fuels blogs, but that it makes professionalism possible, and that is a good thing.

Professional writers are not just corporate sellouts, as people seem to think. James Wolcott may write for Vanity Fair, but he says things meaner than I would. And after, what two years of posting on blogs, he got his own. Now, what's the difference between his blog and oh, LGF? Well, for one thing, he can write briefly and on target and his professionalism makes for a readable blog. That and he's not an insane racist.

When I was in school, I trained in both journalism and history, and my career, such as it is, is as a professional writer.

What does my professionalism bring? The ability to find relevant stories, the ability to write coherently under different conditions, the ability to actually discuss facts and opinions seperately. It doesn't always bring the greatest spelling or typo-free copy, but perfection is a dream, not reality.

Many of the people who blog are professional writers, like Billmon, Josh Marshall, Wonkette, Big Media Matt, Kevin Drum, Wolcott, Sullivan and many others. Other are professional writers by extenion like Atrios and Juan Cole, aqs academics must write to keep their jobs.

When I want good amateur writing, I read sex blogs. But when it comes to politics, I want people with ethics and some skill. Because skill and judgment matter here.

I think a lot of people have been misled. Writing is hard work, Few amateurs have the discipline or the tenacity to write hard and long for years. Most start out brightly, then either get bored or addicted. Of course, professionals and those who become professionals will thrive.

Look, we don't like dealing with editors and agents. Blogging is perfect for people who make their living at writing. If people can make a living from a blog with ads or contributions or both, then more people, who are skilled, who can write, will blog.

But I wish Billmon would have admitted that this is hard work and he grew tired of the strain, than whine a pathetic self-justification that because people are making money and getting paid salaries to blog, the party's over.

Look, when I was at the Tank, the people were very nice, but the number of minorities there meant Kos, I and three South Asian bloggers could have had our own Minority blogger conference. When I think about blogs, I think there are so many voices missing, so many perspectives not heard from, that we're at the begining of a movement, not the end. Blogging now looks like your average city newsroom, mostly guys, mostly white. There need to be more and different voices, but I have news for you, they will not come if they cannot support themselves. They can't afford to lose a job over a blog. They need the blog to be a job before they can provide that different voice. You can't expect a single mom to risk her livelihood to keep you amused and interested. That's too much risk with too much potential for a painful fallout.

If she cannot protect her family and feed them, she's going to get a straight job to do just that.

To me, blogs haven't even begun to make their presence felt in the media. We're at the begining, not the end.

posted by Steve @ 9:39:00 AM

9:39:00 AM

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