U.S. Netroots Nation grows up, and in some cases goes pro
The liberal blogosphere isn't what it use to be, becoming both more institutionalized and more atomized
by Adrienne LaFrance | Nieman Journalism Lab
PROVIDENCE, RI, June 12 — There’s a kind of summer camp vibe to Netroots Nation. The annual liberal blogger/activist/campaigner/organizer get-together had its seventh iteration last weekend, and by now it’s built up traditions, inside jokes, legends from years past — and a nagging sense that, for some, Netroots Nation might be a thing you outgrow, whether you want to or not. This may be because, as the progressive blogosphere grows up (and grows out of the now dated-sounding “blogosphere” term), it’s also undergone some significant changes. “It’s getting institutionalized, even for the people who aren’t part of institutions.”
“Four to six years ago, there were certainly a lot more state-level bloggers; folks really covering local politics,” Netroots Nation communications director Mary Rickles told me. “I think that has become harder to do for a lot of people. They’ve realized that it’s hard to make a living. You not only have to write, but you basically have to run a small business. So I think here we’ve seen a lot of those folks continue to do their blogging, but do it paid for by organizations or campaigns. There definitely has been a professionalization of what we used to see a lot more of in the state-level coverage.”
There’s a tinge of irony there, since many of those blogs cropped up in earlier web days expressly to do things that old-school journalism outlets wouldn’t. While traditional news organizations may have at first derided and then been slow to adopt the blog format, they’ve gotten better at plucking up independent talent. By now, it’s probably easy for some to forget Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has only been a New York Times blog for about two years, or that Talking Points Memo was once Josh Marshall’s one-man show and not a media company with more than two dozen staffers across two newsrooms.
“There’s definitely been a professionalization,” said Susan Gardner, executive editor of Daily Kos. (Netroots Nation, first conceived as a way for the Kos community to meet in real life, was originally known as Yearly Kos.) “As organizations hire bloggers, there are fewer spontaneous grassroots people taking to YouTube. It’s all professionalized. Traditional media people are working on viral stuff. Twitter wasn’t around back at the beginning of Netroots, and you get in a bubble on Twitter just like anything else. Journalists create bubbles. Information bubbles want to be created, and it’s really hard to break out of them. I think at the beginning of Netroots, what was so exciting was it was breaking out of the bubble, saying, ‘We’re not going to talk about the same things they’re talking about in The Washington Post.’”
But then The Washington Post started hiring people like Ezra Klein, who was a fixture in the blogging world at a time when a “Web log” was still a novel concept. In those days, back in 2004, The New York Times characterized blogs as a biased “boisterous cyberrabble” where “anything goes.” (For the record, the Times still printed the term “Web log” as recently as 2010.) It’s worth noting, too, that even Netroots Nation sponsorship has a professional sheen: Facebook and Google both chipped in this year.
And as sites like Daily Kos mature — it turned 10 years old a couple weeks ago — Gardner says that some of the institutional barriers to entry that are associated with old media have seeped into the progressive blogging world. These changes begin to close the gap between independent and institutionalized media.
The fracturing of a monoculture
The Blogosphere Authority Index has ranked the influence of blogs around the web since 2008 by weighing factors like network centrality, link density, site traffic, and community activity. Dave Karpf, an assistant professor at Rutgers who runs the site, says one of the critical changes since the early 2000s is that, today, there is no longer a single, overarching political “blogosphere.” (No wonder the term seems so quaint.)
“Early political blogs were a monoculture,” Karpf wrote in the untitled book he’s working on. “All sites shared a host of overlapping structural elements. They were authored by individual bloggers, usually operating under pseudonym, who used online self-publishing to challenge a variety of existing media institutions.” “All” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but anyone who remembers those endless blogrolls that used to be in every sidebar gets the idea.
Today, the top political blogs include media companies like The Huffington Post, while blogs like Daily Kos have evolved into “quasi-advocacy groups” more than media organizations, he says.
“My impression is that the progressive blogosphere has plateaued in influence, but hasn’t really lost it,” Karpf said in an email. “The big progressive blogs of a few years ago (DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, HuffingtonPost) have gotten bigger and also more institutional. There’s less bubbling up from below, but that’s part of the maturation process…In terms of media influence, the institutionalization (particularly of HuffPo and TPM, which are now basically indistinguishable from journalism outfits) is a good thing for existing bloggers, and a tough thing for newer ones.”
Daily Kos’ Gardner, too, acknowledges that it’s “harder for new people to break in,” which in turn makes the progressive blogging community more insular. “It is a loss to a certain extent, in that it’s harder to break into,” she said. “It’s getting institutionalized, even for the people who aren’t part of institutions.”
On the other hand, this shift carries a sense of validation for those who have been a part of the progressive blogging scene all along. The outsiders are becoming insiders — their voices amplified, and their means of communication more widely adopted and accepted.
Getting what you want sometimes comes with an identity crisis. (Sports fans who have watched the way that winning championships obliterates a generations-long underdog narrative — what up, Red Sox Nation! — know what I’m talking about.) That may be a confusing change, but it’s not necessarily for the worse.
“I think the fact that blogging is becoming professionalized and adopted by larger organizations and companies speaks to the influence & power that the NetRoots had had in changing the culture,” said Cheryl Contee, who runs Jack & Jill Politics, in an email. “Citizen journalism is no longer considered marginalized — it’s a technique that is normalized. While some folks may have stopped blogging in the traditional sense, there’s been a huge explosion in mobile micro-blogging sites” like Twitter.
While that may be a good thing for the marketplace of ideas — more and easier-to-use platforms, a generation of people who grew up online, etc. — it also illustrates some of the disruption to a network of influential blogs that formed back in the day. Netroots’ Rickles says that the conference remains important in part because it’s a forum that enables bloggers and activists to navigate many of these changes, including the areas in which their goals overlap.
“There’s a trend that we’re seeing more of: this sort of hybrid of activism and journalism,” Rickles said “I think it’s just people realizing that if you can get people informed and then provide them with ways to plug in, and ways to get involved, that’s powerful. It’s just a fine line. How much can you tell people to get involved? Do you provide them with options or do you really push them to do something? It will be interesting to see how that evolves in the next few years.”
At the same time, online and offline behaviors are blurring as computing becomes more mobile and more social. Instead of the real-life experience informing the online experience, the reverse is now happening, too. That’s the sort of concept that has organizers like Max Berger, who’s involved with the Occupy movement, thinking about how much the world has changed even in the past year. He sees structural collapses in the real-life and online ways that people share and organize, “like people pulling themselves out of the Matrix but using the Matrix to do it.”
“If you look at what’s happening internationally right now, you have these movements that look incredibly similar arising in vastly different political and cultural circumstances,” Berger said. “Why is that happening? I don’t want to be technologically deterministic in the sense that it’s because of social media. But I do think social media has a huge role in that it taught young people — who are now leading these movements — how to interact with each other. So our expectations of what social interaction looks like are based on our experience of growing up on the Internet. When we go out into the world and try to create social action, and interact with other people, we do it in ways that are collaborative, non-hierarchical, participatory. It’s the culture of social media in real life.”