I was given the opportunity to speak at the Manassas GOP Gala this evening on the subject of political blogs and their influence on the political process, and it was a real pleasure to have this opportunity to speak in front of so many friends and readers. I followed 29th Senate District candidate Bob Fitzsimmonds and 50th House District representative Jackson Miller, which was pretty tough since they’re both very experienced public speakers and gave great speeches. While I varied quite a bit from my prepared remarks, I thought readers might like to see what I spoke about.
When J.C.R. Licklider of MIT drafted his memos about enabling social interaction through a global network of computers in 1962, I’m not entirely sure that he intended to alter the nature of the political discourse, but that’s pretty much what he ended up causing. The “galactic network” concept, as he labeled it, is pretty much an accurate description of the internet we have today. Those computer scientists who gave us switching packet networks, the TCP/IP protocol, and hypertext markup language — the tools that I use today to pollute the internet with my diatribes, weren’t just looking for neat technical problems to mull over. They were crafting a new means of human interaction which would fulfill a specific sociological function. These “geeks” deliberately tried to reinvent our society, to close the distance between us, to allow us to access more information and use that to solve ever more complex problems. One of those problems they intended to address was to improve the quality of our democracy by lowering the barriers to entry hindering citizens from participating in it. They didn’t specifically say they intended to create blogs, but they certainly foresaw that their creation would enable and encourage discourse and allow citizens to more easily obtain information.
Weblogs, or as we generally call them, blogs, started appearing in 1997. They covered all sorts of different topics, but by 2001 a few came into prominence, and perhaps unsurprisingly they were all politically themed. Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Little Green Footballs and MyDD exploded onto the scene in 2001, for example. Today, political blogs covering national politics are the among the most visited websites on the internet, and depending on whose data you take seriously, they as a category may be second in traffic only to web search sites such as Google. There are upwards of fifteen million blogs today, and about a million and a half of them are considered active, posting new content at least once a month. Many of them cover politics to some degree, but the average blog, we are told, is written by a fourteen year old girl who likes to talk about her cat.
The last time the venerable, although now generally inactive “The Truth Laid Bear” political blog ranking system tallied political blogs about four months ago, there were about 50 thousand blogs recorded on their site. That would tell us that there are probably somewhere in the range of a two to three thousand politically themed blogs managed by Virginia residents. Of this number, about 175 of them focus on Virginia politics to some degree, and only about fifty of them are active enough to maintain any kind of sustained traffic. More locally, you can count about ten which will say anything about retail Prince William County area politics during any election cycle absent some dramatic breaking story. So while it might seem that everyone and their uncle have a blog, the proportion of those that have much affect on the political landscape is vanishingly small. That’s pretty consistent with most people’s experience about internet resources in general. Most of what’s out there on the internet isn’t much worth the electrons sacrificed to support them. It’s a big haystack, and the worthwhile needles are few.
So of the bloggers that do have the potential to make a difference, what allows them to do that? Some depend on considerable powers of intellect and mastery of the language to opine on the daily discourse in meaningful and relevant ways, bringing to light hidden facets of public policy and enlightening the public discourse. Very few people actually read these blogs. Some dutifully report the campaign press releases of selected candidates, or news coverage about those candidates in order to improve public understanding of them and their issues. Even fewer tend to read these. Some bloggers get up on their high horse and throw bombs around by way of their partisan and opinionated views, and people do tend to read these modern muckrakers to some degree. There are some that largely aggregate political news, such as the Drudge report, and while they get visitors they rarely impact the public discourse.
And then you have the diggers, the blog equivalent of the national enquirer, who dig for stories the mainstream media either can’t get, or don’t want to cover. They break the stories before the mainstream media. They conduct full-time opposition research and present their findings in real-time. These are the blogs that get the most traffic, and shape the political discourse the most. This is precisely the kind of blog that is most likely to drive Republicans to distraction, and it is the kind of blog that gets the most eyeballs.
I’m deeply honored to run one of those blogs.
I started blogging a little more than a year ago, which actually makes me a middle-aged veteran of sorts within the Virginia political blogosphere. Most blogs don’t last an entire year, and the currently highest trafficked Virginia political blog has only been in existence since 2005. In July of 2006, when I moved my site to my own servers and could obtain traffic statistics, I served about 23 thousand pages. In March of this year, I served 166 thousand. I’ve served over 28 thousand different IP addresses, which is substantially higher than the daily circulation of the Manassas Journal-Messenger, I believe. Yesterday I had visits from 933 distinct IP addresses which made over four thousand requests for pages. Since I tend to cover local retail politics, I’d tend to think I’ve gone a bit beyond the local “political junkies” crowd. My focus, and my readership, is mostly local, and being the third most visited political blog in Virginia compared to sites that have more statewide readership, you’d have to conclude that there’s some ability to impact the political discourse right here in Manassas, Prince William, and Manassas Park.
This effect is exaggerated during primary season, when the politically active, who are more likely to both participate in a convention or primary, and who are more likely to read blogs find that the best source for regular information on campaigns happens to be the blogs. Primary season also tends to be a more target-rich environment for someone like me, as previously untested and unexamined candidates tend to provide a richer smorgasboard of gaffes, misstatements, dumb moves, skeleton-filled closets and rookie mistakes for someone out there like me to use as fodder. Ask some of these primary candidates how much fun a primary campaign can be when you have bloggers putting you under the microscope every day. While the mainstream press pretty much isn’t paying attention to the daily activities of primary campaigns, for someone like me primary season is when most of the fun actually happens. Blogs can have a significant impact in these campaigns.
During the general election season, the dynamic changes quite a bit. The number of participants in the political process grows, and the proportion of those participants who read a blog diminishes considerably, although voters doing a google search start to increase traffic by quite a bit. Candidates tend to be more tested, and it’s harder to find skeletons or be the first to report on a dumb move. But with the mainstream media now more fully engaged, blogs tend to be the proving ground for the concepts and stories that eventually make it into the mainstream media, where there is far more impact. Reporters do tend to like having a small army of amateur reporters digging out the stories for them, and as a result I’ve seen that mediageneral, which owns our local newspapers, has made about 37,000 page requests on my blog since the November ‘06 elections and are my most frequent visitor. What they’re looking for is their next story, and sometimes, the genesis of that story is me.
As the political blogosphere matures, and really it’s in it’s adolescence at best, I believe it will be an ever more significant feature of the political landscape. Website traffic for me increases by twenty to sixty percent per month and only lately has started to level off as I’ve taken on some other responsibilities which limit how much time I can devote to digging up stories. Ad revenue, while rather disappointing right now, can potentially grow to permit blogging as a full-time profession. Advertisers will discover the potential for exposing their businesses to a wider audience, and website traffic will continue to grow making the value proposition of advertising ever more compelling. As the revenue model for an aspiring blogger solidifies, the political blogosphere will transition from a collection of part-time amateurs into a professional media corps competing in the only media marketplace where there are no barriers to entry.
So how do local campaigns and elected officials deal with this rapidly developing dynamic? Pretty much the same way they dealt with every other dynamic media opportunity in the past. Years ago, when there were competing local newspapers which actually covered local politics in depth, the key was establishing relationships with the media, helping reporters learn the political landscape, and perhaps feeding them the information on the side that would help the reporters do their jobs better. Ignoring blogs is as counterproductive now as it might have been to ignore the Potomac News and the Manassas Journal when they were fighting for relevance. It’s easier to have a relationship that encourages discussion before a story appears rather than to deal with the aftermath, and that hasn’t changed regardless of the medium in which the story appears.
Just as it’s not a great idea to get into a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, it’s also not wise to get into a fight with someone who obtains electrons for free. I think it’s been pretty well demonstrated that lawsuit threats against bloggers have long-term, crushing negative consequences. One local candidate filed suit against me and in doing so likely killed all future political viability. One current candidate believed that keeping that ridiculous lawsuit on life support could somehow discourage critical coverage of his campaign. That’s worked, well, not so much. The city of Manassas Park thought it could muzzle criticism of widespread corruption within the city government and the police department, which resulted in national attention, embarrassment for the city, and exposed coverage of what has happened there to a national audience. During that incident, within 48 hours I was getting over a thousand visitors an hour, and that lasted for the better part of a day. Legal threats as a means of getting someone to shut up don’t work.
Constructive engagement does work. A call or email where you stick to the facts can pretty quickly get your side of the story out there, and can even defuse a bad situation. Bloggers like facts, just as any other media source. Trying to spin doctor the issue usually backfires, as established bloggers are pretty sophisticated when it comes to candidate statements and relish the opportunity to keep a story alive by picking apart defensive statements. It also risks just getting the blogger upset, which can turn a bad situation into a worse one. Recently some of you may have seen where a candidate for a local office directed his supporters to try to spin doctor a political problem, and mishandled this so badly it’s even resulted in a dedicated withering fire of critical commentary being directed at the campaign, and even a complaint being filed with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. If that candidate had just admitted that offering to donate ten thousand dollars to the county committee if elected was a dumb rookie misstatement, it would have prompted a few chuckles, but not howls of outrage at what might be considered the solicitation of a bribe. Who knows what might have happened last election if George Allen had come right out and explained what happened that fateful day in southside rather than try to spin doctor the controversy. We probably wouldn’t have people trying to sneak Jim Webb’s loaded firearms into the Russell Senate Office Building for him, I’ll bet.
From folks standing on a soap box, to pamphleteers, to newspapers, radio and television, and now to blogs. It’s in many ways the same concept, but it’s dressed up in a new package, where anyone can easily establish themselves, that exists in real-time, where readers can actively engage, and where the effective distance between blogger and reader is no more than the space between the reader’s eyes and his computer’s monitor. The realization of Licklider’s “galactic network” concept has changed the way citizens learn about and participate in the political process, and that transformation is not at all complete. The blogs have just begun.
Hang on to your hats, folks. It’s going to be a wild ride.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
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