The Blog and the Blogosphere

To Blog or not to blog… that is the question.

The rise of the internet as a new medium of mass communication is illustrated no better than with the acceptance and growth of personal, political, issue-oriented and business web logs, or blogs. Within the eight years that have passed since its birth, blogging has been on a meteoric rise and is rivaling all established, traditional forms of media dissemination. It is difficult to define a real and accurate statistic on how many blogs exist today. Due to the nature of the medium, many blog sites are set for a short time and then abandoned, while others have been spewing forth their content and have no plans on stopping.

A February 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more than 53 million American adults or 44 percent of adult internet users have used the internet to “publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online. Twenty-one percent of Internet users say they have posted photographs to Web sites. Thirteen percent of internet users maintain their own web sites. Around 7 percent have web cams running on their computers that allow other internet users to see live pictures of them and their surroundings.”[1]

Various estimates put the number of blogs and blog users anywhere from 2.5 million to over 8 million. Regardless of the exact number, blogging is fast becoming an important part of the fourth estate.


Benkler’s Sphere

Yale University law professor Yochai Benkler defines the “public sphere” as how the “people in a given society speak to each other in their relationship as constituents about what their condition is and what they ought to or ought not to do as a political unit.[2] Blogs allow for low-cost participation in the discourse of the “public sphere.” The blog is the catalyst of change in the transformation of the old-guard media to the new collaborative and participation-based media. The dominance of single sources of media is being challenged on a daily basis by the blogosphere and all its members.

For example, the Drudge Report started as an email-based news aggregator produced from an apartment in California. But Matt Drudge’s web site achieved real media gravitas and legitimacy when it broke the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal story. The Drudge Report scooped all other news outlets, including the weekly news giant Newsweek, that decided not to run the story. Drudge took the citizen journalism approach and put his site on the map. Today the Drudge Report takes in annual revenue of $800,000 and attracts millions of unique visitors every month.

Many people are critical of the blogosphere, claiming that individuals like Matt Drudge are too risky in that they are willing to put things out that other established news outlets want to stay away from. “The refrain of “Manifesto” is that Drudge, a “nobody,” is now a “player” in medialand.”[3]

There are many other great examples of citizen journalism and information activism, and how they are fighting the establishment media and winning. CBS news was the victim of this new type of journalism. Bloggers mobilized quickly to expose Dan Rather and his producer from the CBS news program 60 Minutes for running a negative story about George W. Bush and his military service record. The story was based on forged documents that CBS and Rather never took the time to investigate.

The blog littlegreenfootballs.com posted a document experiment on the documents. The authors ran re-typed documents from 1972 in Microsoft Word and were able to make an exact duplicate of the document, kerning, spacing, text wrapping, hyphenation and fonts. “I’ve received more than a hundred emails pointing out serious new problems in the CBS News documents. Several readers mentioned the “19 May 1972” document as a particularly striking example; so I typed this document into Microsoft Word as well, again with default margins and tab stops… and once again, the character spacing, line spacing, line breaks (and remember, any 1972 typewriter would have had a manual or manually triggered carriage return), and letter forms in my MS Word document exactly match the CBS News ‘original.’”

The Playing Field is Being Leveled
Is the elite status of journalism being brought down to the proletariat? Are the masses staging a revolution and over throwing the media czars? It seems so.

The new media is one of interaction and participation. This doesn’t only apply to journalism. Today musicians, artists, writers are sharing and collaborating like never before. Movements such as the Collective Commons are setting the stage for this type of license free sharing. Not that all of this is new. For years DJ’s have been sampling, mixing, and mashing up music and lyrics in live performances and in recorded tracks, but today the ease of distribution has opened up global exposure for these artists.

For years there have been alternative press news papers and magazines, most operating on small budgets and servicing a local community. But today these alternative media outlets can gain international exposure with even smaller budgets than before. The cost barriers have been removed completely. There is no need for printing presses, ink, paper or postage. Today most blog hosting is free, broad-band internet connections get cheaper almost daily, and computers are so cheap they are the throw away commodity of the year.

Not only has the creation and distribution of media changed, but so has the consumption of it. Users today want information delivered quickly, and conveniently. The news cycle has gone from 24 hours to 5 minutes. The “Scoop” is a thing of the past. Sure an outlet can be the first to put something out there, but within seconds other outlets will pull that information via RSS feeds, email, or other means and make it their own, or simply credit the source.

The consumer of media has shifted from a complacent, passive receptacle of information to a social and active hunter and gatherer of media. The user has the tools at their disposal to seek truth, to dig through the bias, and dodge the spin. Hopefully, the playing field is being leveled not only because more people can reach the field, but also because the quality level of those opting in and choosing to participate is getting better. Much like professional sports, as free agency allows players to move from one team to another, and the quality of players entering the league increases, parity slowly moves through and reshapes the leagues. Teams become better, records become closer, and you never know who will win the Super Bowl.


Notes

  1. Amanda Lenhart, Deborah Fallows, and John Horrigan, “Content Creation Online,” Pew Internet & American Life Report (February 29, 2008), http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=113.
  2. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 263
  3. Scott Rosenberg, “Drudge Work,” Salon.com, November 9, 2000, http://archive.salon.com/tech/col/rose/2000/11/09/drudge/

This essay is from a book being produced as a collaborative exercise and assignment from the class Communications, Media and Society in the Interactive Communications Masters program at Quinnipiac University.

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