Story location:

October 9, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview With Jeff Jarvis, Part Two

It's a struggle to understand what the weblog form is capable of doing. Jeff Jarvis and I discover that in part two of my dialogue with Mr. Buzzmachine.

Jeff Jarvis has been a TV critic, a columnist, an editor at a big newspaper (NY Daily News) and at national magazines. Now he holds court at his weblog, Buzzmachine. Here’s the second part of our exchange:

PressThink: You and I have just returned from Blogger.con and we thought: why not compare notes? For me, relatively new to the we-do-weblogs world, it was like visiting a tribe whose din had been growing louder, and being asked to one of their ceremonies — and to stay overnight! What surprised me was the tight focus and excellent crap detection managed by crowd, leaders and hosts: minimal grandstanding, low tolerance for liberal cant, a natural tendency to return to place after tangents, and not much mumbo jumbo all ‘round. That, and my overwhelming sense of people on the move with the weblog and allied arts. They were temporarily encamped in Cambridge, and had a clear sense of mission.

Except they had something else too, sites that were each the rolling voice of one person, their individual Buzz Machines, their weblogs… bound together through the harsh rule of the Link. It was a typical writer’s conference, but then it wasn’t, because the People of Digital Paper (a term I was introduced to at Blogger.con) use this strange and wonderful surface, bearing powers unknown. So there you have it…. A tribe bearing digital tablets and crossing over, through Trent Lott Pass, onto the undefended edges of the mainstream media. Of course, I dramatize for effect and amusement. Nonetheless, there’s your first note. Now compare.

Jarvis: There’s another important angle that you will experience the deeper into this weblog addiction you fall: the personal connection. You come to know these people before you meet them — and when you do, they are exactly who you think they will be. One hears that at all these confabs: You’re just like your blog. Well, know my blog, know me. That was what struck me most after I started my weblog: I wasn’t just writing for a new audience, I was making new friends who now linked to me and said things to and about me and in the process, we got to know and like each other. It’s a vastly more intimate relationship than I’ve seen in any other medium. And that’s because, when you think about it, it’s the first true two-way relationship in any medium.

Also, you’re right, this is like a writer’s conference in that these people are driven not by money (there is none here) or power (though that is growing) but by passion (charitably) and ego (uncharitably): They do it for the love of it.

Now not to logroll my blogroll, but you said some lines that I heard quoted frequently at Bloggercon. You said that the mass audience is passing, that there never were any masses, only ways of seeing people as masses, and that readers are now writers (and the writers are now readers). I agree wholeheartedly; I believe the revolution is upon us. But many criticize the self-congratulatory air of Bloggercon, the utopianism, the bubble-blowing. So here’s my question, which I ask precisely because you are new to the party, you don’t yet have the glazed look of the addict: Are we overblowing this phenomenon?

PressThink: Well, I would be cautious about proclaiming any revolution. That was the one thing in the Harvard conference I found unwise and unnecessary. The weblog is an exciting form, the Internet holds many marvels, and the more I think about it, the more different the emerging pattern seems — compared to what we’re used to with The Media. But it’s a big leap from, “wow, this is way different” to “the revolution is upon us.”

First, there’s the problem Esther Dyson pointed to: when readers become writers, where do all the new writers get their readers? There may be answers to that (like the break up of huge impersonal audiences into smaller chunks) but it’s not a simple issue. Smart people in the media industry have known for some time that the hard limit on growth is people’s time: video games eat into television watching because there’s only so much time in the day.

Weblogs are a rich resource, but digging into that richness does take time. We’re still a speck on the big information screen; the number of users is tiny, and the number using weblogs in place of Big Media even smaller. Precisely because the tools are so easy to use, we can expect a flood of earnest mediocrity, which only adds to Dyson’s doubts.

But beyond these practical difficulties is another problem. The rhetoric of revolution—plus the excitement of being “in” on the new thing—can warp your expectations. People criticize the weblog world for being self-referential, and of course it is. But that doesn’t bother me. The danger is in expecting revolution on top of revolution. This came to a head at Harvard when Dave Winer, a skilled provocateur, said to the Dean campaign reps, “why are you taking the money raised on the Internet and spending it on TV ads?” Why not keep it where you got it, investing the money in even newer forms of two-way campaigning? This is where Josh Marshall of Talking Points and Scott Rosenberg of Salon started shaking their heads, and I understood why.

Sometimes reform has more radical effects than revolution. If Dean spent the money on TV ads to remain competitive, but used the two-way weblog world to explain, restrain, justify, and correct the ads he was putting out, so that they didn’t look, feel or sound like anyone else’s ads, that would be a significant reform, and it would shift power from consultants to supporters, forcing him to legitimate his propaganda. Pretty radical, no?

Jarvis: Right, getting back down to earth, the impact of weblogs is perhaps more practical than revolutionary. For example…

In politics: At the Bloggercon session on presidential politics at which I played Phil Donahue, Eric Foley of the Democratic National Committee said his best of use of weblogs is to hear the way voters are talking about issues so he can gather new and improved arguments in favor of the stances the party already takes, arguments that will resonate with voters because they come from voters. Beats focus groups.

For media: If they/we are smart, weblogs are a way for us to see what our marketplace really cares about. And weblogs are a way for us to find good stories (the Chicago Tribune has a reporter, Maureen Ryan, who’s dedicated to trolling the Web for stories— very smart).

For marketers: Once advertisers figure it out, weblogs will be a tremendous tool for targeted marketing, giving messages to consumers that they actually care about. As Chris Locke said in his book, Gonzo Marketing, weblogs will be a way for marketers to find common ground with their markets (for example, a wise food company would had underwritten the Julie/Julia blog project to say to its fans, “We like this too; we have taste, just like you; let’s hug”).

For (the-people-formerly-known-as) the audience: I disagree with Esther Dyson and you on the overload of mediocrity. Links solve that problem. If the blog is good and useful, it will get links and it will get discovered; if it’s bad and doesn’t get linked, it won’t waste your time. In fact, blogs should save you time, for that is their real value: “We read everything so you don’t have to. We find the best and link you to it.” Weblogs edit the world for us. And if you also write weblogs, they empower the writer to influence politics and commerce and culture. Is that a revolution? Perhaps not. But it is change. It’s change that will make a difference, change that will matter.

PressThink: Alright, maybe the Darwinian struggle for links does work. I will cross that off my list of worries for now. And if I were a weblog, I would be way more comfortable with the kind of slow, steady, practical changes you describe. If there is something radical afoot, I think it’s best grasped by reference to the last 300 years of communication history. The dawn of public opinion was in the eighteenth century when someone said: the Greeks were wrong, you can have a republic over an extended territory. Government by discussion does not have to be limited to a state so small that all its citizens can gather in one place, like the agora in ancient Athens.

What made this previously unthinkable thing possible? The existence of the press, which can amplify or extend public conversation, and sustain it through time. By putting citizens of an enlarged democracy at the receiving end of the press, we connected them to the nation and its affairs, but not to each other. Now we have a chance to correct for that, and bring government by discussion forward a full step. Maybe that chance is the weblog.

Click here for part one of this dialogue.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 9, 2003 11:37 PM