"War! Blog! Good Gawd, Y'all! What Are They Good For?"
Issue #63, April 2003
In "The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head", Jim Moore notes that "The current enthusiasm for blogging is changing the way that people relate to publication, as it allows realtime dialogue about world events as bloggers log in daily to share their insights." This kind of dialogue, whether or not it's actually "real time," is indeed valuable, and potentially global. What is not clear is if blogging is something new to the online world. "Blogs" are new; real time dialogue amongst the online community has been going on for quite awhile, preceding blogging by many years. One might argue that email lists, for instance, are not "real time," but they are as real time as blogging, and if real time is the only standard for revolutionary change, than instant messaging time, not only online, but on cell phones, is far more "real." Usenet newsgroups have been around, hosting fevered "real time" dialogue, almost since the beginning of the net.
What blogging does offer are easy tools for producing voluminous text without much specialized knowledge in webpage creation, tools that, if not new, are at least usefully user-friendly. Blogs produced using one of the many popular boilerplate creators like Blogger look "professional"; a blog is more appealing, and more accessible in every sense of the word, than the average Usenet post. And blogs more frequently now include comment sections that allow readers to add to discussions growing out of the original blogger's post. This ease of use is the new thing, for sure, but it doesn't mark the beginning of real time net dialogue, any more than Mosaic marked the beginning of the World Wide Web. Blogs (like Mosaic) mark a new step in accessibility, no more (and no less).
Neither does the explosion of war blogs negate existing critique of the value of blogging. As I argued recently, blogging tools give more people more chances to blather about more stuff, but blogging is not inherently left-wing, not inherently community-building, not inherently revolutionary.
Part of the reason war blogs are having such an impact right now is precisely because they are being noticed by the mainstream news media. Some critics of modern journalism will argue that the mainstream has proven itself irrelevant, with the proof lying in those very blogs that are the topic of this discussion. But everyone who wishes to have an impact with their writing needs an audience. There are a few blogging "superstars" with a relatively large audience, and there are new, budding blogstars arising during this time of war. None of them have as large an audience, none of them are as influential, as Dan Rather. For many, probably most, Americans, the primary source of information about blogs is what they read, see, and hear in the mainstream media.
Which isn't to argue that blogs are useless, or that only mainstream media counts. But even if Jim Moore is right, that a second superpower of global-oriented net activists is arising, and that blogs (among other tools) are an essential marker of this emerging power, it's unclear why blogs are assumed to be the innovative new beginning of net activism. As I suggested above, online communal activism existed long before blogs. And war blogs may make "stars" of some, but stardom is the antithesis of community. Blogging isn't creating a new underground movement as much as it's creating a new batch of Norman Mailers.
Kevin Sites is a reporter for CNN. On March 9, he started up a blog. The first couple of posts look to be material that had already appeared on CNN.com, but soon he was posting like any other blogger, explaining about cell-phone ring tones and screen savers, and the technological changes surrounding war reporting in the 21st century. He throws in the occasional audio file, a picture here and there. He includes links to diaries he wrote covering other wars in other places in other times. By March 17, Sites is really getting the blogger's rush: "This experience has really made me rethink my rather orthodox views of reaching folks via mass media. Blogging is an incredible tool, with amazing potential. The feedback readers are posting motivates me to provide as much as I can for all of these folks hungry for first-hand info."
Unfortunately for readers of Sites' blog, someone didn't approve. On March 21, after an absence of a few days, Sites posted a message titled "Pausing the warblog, for now" in which he informed his audience, "I've been asked to suspend my war blogging for awhile." It wasn't clear who was doing the asking, although the assumption was CNN. Sites didn't quit reporting; you can find his work on CNN and their website to this day. The blog and the "pause" have inspired plenty of fervent discussion about the role of blogging in contemporary journalism; CNN has been reported (in the Online Journalism Review among other places) as stating through a spokesperson that "We do not blog." Meanwhile, despite Sites' absence from his own blog, kevinsites.net continues to gather an impressive crowd: as I type these words, the discussion thread in response to Sites' "pause" announcement has grown to more than 1500 replies, and while the earliest messages were about the Pause, weeks later it has mostly become another place to discuss the war online.
While the Sites blog is paused, Sites himself has not been silenced. Salam Pax is apparently not so lucky. His blog, which detailed the daily life of people in Baghdad, was noteworthy in part for the way it brought to the surface the fears of many who mistrust the Internet: no one seemed able to establish whether or not "Salam Pax" was "real." Sara Rimensnyder, assistant editor for Reason, suggested why it mattered so much to know that Salam Pax was legit. "If our bullshit detectors can't help us judge the truth of one voice, how can we hope to get an accurate reading about the state of an entire nation, or indeed a region, forecasted twenty years into the future?"
Meanwhile, on March 21, the same day that Kevin Sites quit blogging, Salam Pax wrote on his own blog, "please stop sending emails asking if I were for real, don't belive [sic] it? then don't read it. I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own. 2 more hours untill [sic] the B52's get to Iraq." On March 24, Salam Pax posted a note that his internet access had been temporarily out ... he hasn't posted since, leading to worry about his fate.
Blogs expose their readers to different worlds ... different from the world of our own daily lives, different as well from the world presented to us by the mainstream media. The world of anti-war protests, anti-imperialism, and challenges to cultural hegemonies is at least partly my own world, and likely a part of the world of most Bad Subjects readers as well. For this reason, one of the most useful and illuminating war blogs for anyone reading these words would be "Live from the Sandbox," the blog of L.T. Smash, a reservist called into active duty in the current war. Smash presents a different world to Bad Readers. He is not anti-war, he is certainly not anti-American, he's just a guy in a war, with a blog and something to say. He offers a subjective, personal narrative, and blogs are nothing if they are not subjective and personal (one of the primary reasons blogs are seen as a potentially revolutionary change in journalistic practices is their insistence on subjectivity over objectivity). To read Smash is to experience the life of one of those people who would seem to be on the opposite side from anti-war workers. His blog humanizes him. Sadly, it's not always apparent that anti-war activists are much interested in humanizing American soldiers.
Some folks seem to be hoping that the emerging popularity of war blogs marks the beginning of a new era of journalism. In this scenario, CNN is assumed to be inescapably behind the times because they do not blog; blogging becomes the proper place for non-mainstream reporting and analysis, unencumbered by institutional connections or moneyed influence. Anti-war activists seem especially heartened by this utopian internet potential, forgetting in their excitement that blogging is for everyone, not just left-wingers. To the extent blogging does allow for a multiplicity of voices, it exists as a tool for all people and all schools of thought, perhaps even especially the extreme and/or marginalized.
Having said all of this, it's worth noting some of the more absorbing bloggers out there, because there's nothing wrong with learning from the writing of others ... such an education might even lead to the community involvement that blogging utopians hope already exists. Nathan Newman, an old friend of Bad Subjects, does a terrific job on his blog/website/archive, offering the perspective of a leftist who hasn't given up entirely on the Democratic Party. Dr. Frank, among other things the leader of the venerable punk band the Mr. T Experience, writes an extremely intelligent blog that is nonetheless to the right of the typical Bad Subjectian, and will in all likelihood piss them off. (In an ironic note Dr. Frank surely appreciates, he called his blog "The Blogs of War" from its beginnings in 2001; this made things a bit difficult for the creator of the subsequent blogsofwar.com, a site summarized by the message appearing on an ad featured on the site that encourages you to buy blogsofwar gear: "Give War a Chance".)
But even these fine efforts are more blogstar than community. Ultimately, the best examples of online community revolving around political issues remain places like Doug Henwood's LBO-List archive, which is, of course, an email list, not a blog. Sometimes the old ways are better. And the proof can be found in one of the most notorious of blogs, the aforementioned kevinsites.net: while Sites hasn't posted there for some time, his readers continue to post their own takes on war at kevinsites.net, creating and sustaining a community that the individual blogger whose name adorns the site could never do on his own.
Steven Rubio lectures in mass communications at University of California-Berkeley, is a former member of the Bad Subjects Collective, and is a much-loved friend of the Collective's editors. His 1999 article "Linguica and Me" remains one of the most popular articles BS ever published. The present essay's title honors the just-deceased Edwin Starr.