Why My Column Doesn’t Matter

Risky Business

In the early days of the Internet, media tycoons from the old line venues looked to the Internet with fear. Ubiquitous and cheap, the new medium threatened their businesses with extinction or, worse, irrelevance. They did what any responsible business owner would do when faced with such a situation: they attempted, quite successfully, to co-opt the revolution by launching their own Internet news and analysis sites. By 2001, CBS Marketwatch, CNN.com and Dow Jones OpinionJournal.com had proven far more influential and popular than their upstart new economy challengers TheStreet.com, Slate.com and Salon.com. The revolution, it appeared, was over.

Or so we thought. Stand-alone for-profit journalism on the web may in fact be dead or irrelevant, despite the modest rebound experienced by web sites like Salon in recent months. Yet a new form of journalism—nonprofit, collaborative, cheap and outside the control of professional editors—is rapidly changing forever the business of setting the national agenda. The phenomenon and the technology behind it are called weblogging, or “blogging” for short. Using free, easy-to-use software like Greymatter and Blogger, anyone can set up a personal website in minutes. While this is no real innovation, blogging software allows users to post additional content to their site immediately, with the newest entries displayed at the top of the page and older ones scrolling down. Blogging software organizes these entries into archives that can be browsed and searched as well. The combination of easy updating and easy archiving is the real advance that has created the blogging movement, because it allows a person to post his thoughts to the Internet at anytime, with minimal effort and less technical knowledge than it takes to print a letter.

Most blogs, to put it mildly, reflect just how bad writing would be without editors. Thousands of bloggers think, for reasons wholly unknown, that we care about what they had for breakfast or the saga of their leaking refrigerators. Conventional journalists, like Alex Beam in the Boston Globe, have seized on these slice-of-life bloggers to condemn the whole movement as justification of their own privileged status as those few who should be trusted to wield the pen in a public forum. Beam is half right—the world needs thrice daily updates on somebody’s leaking fridge like the world needs leaking refrigerators in the first place.

What Beam misses, but what much of the media world is beginning to realize, is the power of meaningful blogs that post news and commentary without respect to deadlines, advertising or length. Prolific, influential bloggers now cover every topic imaginable, linking to articles they agree with, dissecting those they find offensive, and often breaking stories before the mainstream media does. In fact, the mainstream media regards blogs as sources now, because they leverage the power of thousands of people close to the news. And, because of technological reasons that are too long to explain here, when acting in unison, bloggers can definitively bring an issue into the public forum, because their frequent updates and plentiful hyperlinks to information sources and to other blogs make them influential sites for search engines. Using a technique called “googlebombing,” concerted bloggers have successfully elevated chosen websites to the top of the Google search results page for chosen search words. In a world that relies on search engines so heavily to sift through information, this is power indeed.

The range of successful blogs is staggering. Little Green Footballs, run by a Los Angeles web designer, monitors the conflict in the Middle East and links to translated articles from Arabic language newspapers that are otherwise little regarded in the mainstream media. Steve McLaughlin’s Saltire blog offers links to the best business and technology stories on the net. Virginia Postrel’s The Scene has made the author and speaker, who is a frequent critic of irrational economic policy like the Bush steel tariffs, one of the most influential libertarians in the country. At Harvard, biology postdoc Charles Murtaugh runs a blog offering conservative viewpoints on developments ranging from science to politics to culture. And Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, vaulted to instant influence last October when he set up his Instapundit blog, which is updated almost frenetically on a range of political issues that defies categorization. (Any of these blogs can be found by typing their names into the Google search engine; all are the top link for the given keywords.)

Blogs have become the supreme information filter, replacing in function the ineffective software that was supposed to help us avoid information overload by supplying us only with information we want. Such software is imprecise, but find a blogger, you like and you will almost always find interesting the links and posts he makes to his blog. Taken together, blogs represent a new addition to the media landscape, filtering the wheat from the chaff, elevating marginal issues to national importance and calling the mistakes of the mainstream media with unrelenting scrutiny (Ira Stoll ’94, former President of the Crimson and Managing Editor of the soon-to-be-launched New York Sun, gained prominence by publishing Smartertimes.com, a daily critique of the reporting mistakes and editorial inconsistencies in the New York Times). I, for one, knowing the days are numbered for traditional print pundits, plan to move my writing to my own blog when I graduate. Watch for it at www.alexrubalcava.com starting this summer.

Alex F. Rubalcava ’02 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.