Sunday, December 19, 2004

Michael Kinsley is Shocked -- Shocked! -- at the Blogosphere

If you haven't had a look at Michael Kinsley's opinion piece at the Washington Post, take a good and thoughtful read. You don't need to understand about social security to get the main message: the mainstream media still hasn't quite figured out the true power of the blogosphere.

Note Kinsley's self-definition as a pundit-columnist. His description of his job can pretty much fit every pundit from both sides of the border, from Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail to Paul Krugman of the New York Times. And this makes what he has to say all the more poignant to those commentators who are paid to air their views in public, including the Internet sites of their media organizations.

We should expect some disingenuity from Kinsley, of course -- he did edit, after all, so it's not as if he wasn't aware of the blogosphere. It was only when he threw in a challenge to a couple of blogs to refute his positions on Social Security that he got to appreciate its full power.

"What floored me was not just the volume and speed of the feedback but its seriousness and sophistication. Sure, there were some simpletons and some name-calling nasties echoing rote-learned propa- ganda. But we get those in letters to the editor. What we don't get, nearly as much, is smart and sincere intellectual engagement -- mostly from people who are not intellectuals by profession -- with obscure and tedious, but important, issues ...

"Most interesting, though, is how the Web enables people who are scattered physically around the globe, who share an interest in a topic as naturally uninteresting as the economic theory behind Social Security privatization, to find one another and enjoy a gabfest. Webheads like to call this phenomenon "community." I used to think that was a little grand and a little misleading. Populist electronic conversation mechanisms like blogs and Web bulletin boards are more about the opportunity to talk than about the opportunity to listen. But that may be true of physical communities as well."

Kinsley, who has a more intimate knowledge of the blogosphere than most MSMers, is stopped dead in his tracks by the sheer volume and intellectual capacity of people who maintain blogs on the topic. His analysis of these responses is also worthy of note, pointing out two factors that give blogs an edge over a letter to the editor when reacting to a pundit: no limit on space or word count, and certainty of publication. Implied in this is the advantage of self-editing: the blogger's opinion is most purely his or her own because no one else can edit what is posted.

And if a blog-savvy fellow like Kinsley can be overwhelmed by the blogosphere's power, what about those poor non-blogging pundits like Maureen Dowd, or Nick Coleman in Minneapolis? There is, alas for them, only one lesson that can be drawn: if you challenge a blogger, prepare for an avalanche.