Archive for May, 2009

More on pamphleteers

May 5, 2009

After my post on how bloggers are the new pamphleteers, my capstone adviser raised a couple points about the comparison. To summarize, he basically pointed out that a) early pamphleteers, although they had a limited distribution, they also had a “larger share of mind,” and b) that while pamphleteers had this large share of mind and nothing comparable to immediately counter it, today’s blogging pamphleteers are subject to almost immediate scrutiny.

To the first point, I would agree with Bill. As he pointed out to me, it is easier to gain notice when your diatribe is the only only printed and hanging up in the town square. But with literally thousands and thousands of blogs up there, it is much harder to make your diatribe noticeable and have it gain that valued “share of mind.”

So how to build this audience and “share of mind?” Well, The Huffington Post seems to have a great formula. As one of the leading liberal blogs, it offers plenty of viewpoints, from liberal bloggers and authors to journalists to celebrities (at the moment of writing this, Drew Barrymore, Katie Couric and Baron Davis are all featured on the front page). They offer their own comedy channel. And, of course, they have news stories (with their own takes and those of their commenters) on the front page. It is essentially a one-stop shop for all things new and liberal. A virtual community, if you will.

Virtual community is something that also describes liberal blog DailyKos. Here, posters, both full-time and volunteer, offer perspectives on the news and happenings of the day. While there is a main page, where top posts go, there is a whole sub world of user diaries, in which people can rate and post their own thoughts and comments on those of others (much like they do with the posts on the main page). In addition to the (often-pernicious) liberal commentary, the site also has polls (which seem to always have their chosen candidate/cause slightly higher than more traditional national polls). But what is interesting is that just about everyone goes by a screen name (kos, BarbinMD, mcjoan, etc.) rather than a real name. These nicknames seem to reinforce the idea of “blog-as-community.”

These are examples of blogs that have grown and flourished into leaders, to the point now where gaining more readers is almost automatic: if you want a certain point of view, go to one of these sites. On a wall of pamphlets, theirs are among the largest and attention-grabbing. So how do smaller, lesser-known blogs get attention? Most often, through links from these larger blogs. For example, a post on the liberal blog Eschaton was linked to on DailyKos. By having this link from a more popular blog, the site receives exposure. If people like what they see, maybe they come back. But if a blog get enough links often enough, people begin visiting the site more and more often, even without being linked to by a bigger blog. This system of earning your readership is called a meritocracy.

This meritocracy makes it harder to capture the share of mind. As my last post pointed out, blogging allows any half-witted opinion large-scale publication. But, as we can see, it does not guarantee that opinion the share of mind that the pamphleteers of old could capture.

As this blog has often illustrated, these blogs of all sizes are reliant upon the content generated by news organizations, especially newspapers. So why, then, with the growth and expansion of blogs, are newspapers continuing to fall by the wayside? To this point, I will defer to Bill:

When its easy for a user to get the facts — ie, using digital delivery instead of pulp and petrol — suddenly the host of purveryors of “facts” are in less demand. Facts are a commodity, and whether you are getting your facts from the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune or the Picayune Register, they are just facts, and by definition are the same. And so why do we need 500 organizations supplying us with the facts?

To put it another way, the internet puts the world, and its news, at our fingertips. Whereas before, if someone in Billings, Mont. wanted the news from Washington, they would have to wait for that morning’s Billings Gazette. And if someone in D.C. was looking for who won the governor’s race in Montana, they would have to hope it was in that morning’s Washington Post. But the internet no longer makes that the case. Someone in Billings can just go to washingtonpost.com to find out what is going on in Washington without needing to consult their Gazette. And someone in Washington can go to billingsgazette.com for news about Montana. Neither of them needs the newspaper on their front stoop in the morning to find out what is going on in the world. For that reason, the old “pulp and petrol” model is falling by the wayside.

But where do blogs fit in with all this? Well, as we mentioned, they are places where people can go to discuss (or read the opinions of like-minded people talking about) the news of the day. Blogs can gather it (or that of it which fits their worldview) from the many sources out there and comment on it all in the same place. Essentially, they aggregate what they believe is the important news of the day, commenting on it how they will, and publishing it. Only instead of publishing it for the people of their city or town (like both the pamphleteers of old and newspapers), they now publish for a global audience.

With that instant global audience comes a global collection of instant critics. Part of the pamphleteers advantage in having the only flier on the wall was that their share of mind could grow because the flier would remain unchallenged for readers for a long period of time. Even if the opposition to the pamphlet was in the same town and had a printing press of its own, the production time involved in responding would put it at a significant disadvantage since word of mouth would have carried the original diatribe around. Now, however, blogs are subject to immediate scrutiny from all over, meaning something outlandish can be met with immediate scrutiny.

For example, let’s consider the case of Sarah Palin being accused of secretly being baby Trig’s grandmother, not the mother as was reported. In the days of the original pamphleteers, a pamphlet may have gone up or been distributed saying that Palin was actually the baby’s grandmother and laying out the case for it, however truthful it may or may not be. This would then spread around the town, making it’s way into other towns by work of mouth or flier. Eventually this rumor would grow and persist anywhere from days to months until Palin or an ally caught wind of it, when they would counter with another flier decrying the rumor or attacking the suspected source of the original flier. This is assuming that she had access to a printer. Otherwise, the best she could hope for is a word-of-mouth campaign to counter the claims.

But in the days of the new pamphleteers, it actually went down much differently. The accusation came in the form of a diary entry on DailyKos, and was spread throughout the blogosphere. Initial resistance came in the comments of that diary that day. Then more bloggers from the left and right began disputing it, both that day in the days following. Within a couple of day, most people thought that the opinion was both wrong and in poor taste.

And so you see, there remain some differences between the pamphleteers of old and those of today. But what remains the same is that they still do not replace the need for fair, honest reporting that the traditional media provides. In fact, if anything, it highlights the needs of a trustworthy, independent-minded media. Without one, we would be caught in the dueling crossfire of America’s new pamphleteers with no one to show us out.

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