Bloggers as Opinion Leaders

When I first started the blog, a little over five years ago, most of us wrote constant posts about blogging. Mostly, I suspect, this was just a function of the novelty of the medium, as evidenced by the plethora of mainstream media stories on blogging during the same period. Both trends have settled down to a trickle in recent years, though, as blogging has become more established.

There has been a recent surge of metablogging, though, on the sites that I read regularly. Megan McArdle, noting the spate of hirings of bloggers by media outlets and think tanks, believes that the supply will soon run out because “the biggest bloggers are either professionals, or they have an even more lucrative job.” Several of her readers resent the idea that bloggers want to sell out, anyway.

Professional blogger Kevin Drum, commenting on a recent proposal for the Netroots to organize a boycott of Fox News, points out that bloggers aren’t nearly as influential as we think we are, noting that the nomination process in both parties has proceeded in a manner not to the liking of their respective blogospheres.

Law professor Stephen Bainbridge ties these together noting that, with the handful of exceptions, “blogging tends to be the hobby of people with full-time jobs who do it because it’s more fun than stamp collecting.”

That’s right and certainly describes my venture into the blogosphere. At the same time, though, the political and public policy blogosphere is no doubt heavily dominated, as Megan suggests, by academics, journalists, and others who have the resources to devote to their hobby. As I wrote a couple years back,

People who are passionate enough about politics to obsess about it 365 days a year, even in non-election years, are likely candidates for graduate and professional school. Grad school also helps hone writing and research skills, which are useful to bloggers. Further, the jobs one gets with that kind of education are more conducive to providing time to read, write, and think about things.

Still, I’m not sure that looking at the top 10—or even top 100—bloggers tells us all that much about “blogging.” Technorati is “currently tracking 53.2 million blogs.” Presumably, some substantial number of them are defunct or are updated once every six months. Then again, there are likely a large number of blogs not tracked by Technorati for one reason or another. My guess is that something like 52.9 million of them are written by people who are non-professionals.

Furthermore, I’m not sure why amateurism in the sense of not having a clue about the things one opines about is all that desirable. The lure of political blogs, to me at least, is that one often gets better insights from them than from the professional punditocracy. Many if not most of those who are regulars on the television and radio talking head circuit simply don’t have much to offer as commentators. They might be attractive and have soothing voices but most of them are just recycling the conventional wisdom. Many of us watched those shows and thought “I could do better than that!” but had no way to prove it.

The beauty of the blogosphere is that an obscure law professor from Knoxville can build an audience of millions simply by putting his words out there for free and having people gravitate to what he has to say. Or a former MLRS crewman fresh out of law school can build a media empire that has changed the way a major political party raises money and runs campaigns.

Neither InstaPundit nor DailyKos are likely to change the outcome of a democratic nominating process, let alone decide an election. But, considering the avenues available to similarly situated people just a few years ago, their ability to influence the debate is nothing short of remarkable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    I would quibble with your conclusion.

    In 2004, CBS presented their story on Bush and the Texas Air National Guard. Absent bloggers, that would have been the story line for the media. Bloggers started asking questions. The story became the CBS fraud on its viewers (not the result they were looking for). You could make an argument that absent that check on the MSM, 2004 could have turned out differently.

    Likewise, without bloggers would the swiftboat veterans have been able to get the story out and force the acknowledgement that parts of Kerry’s story that were “seared into his memory” never happened?

    Without these two corrections to the media (both cases where the press published a lie and were caught), could 2004 have turned out differently? Possibly, but you can never tell.

    I see the impact of bloggers as more of a check on the MSM. When the pendulum swings to far to one side (allowing falsehoods to be accepted as truth because of partisan bias), the bloggers can act as a countervailing force.

    On the left, would Obama have gotten where he is without the nutroots support? Possibly, but again you can’t prove or disprove it.

    But I think it is at least a possibility that both nomination and general elections have already been heavily influenced, if not changed by bloggers.

  2. Michael says:

    To add to yetanotherjohn’s list, there was also Hillary’s “sniper” episode, which was circulated around the blogs before hitting the MSM.

    Blogger’s don’t change the outcomes, but they sure can change the public narrative, which then has the possibility of changing the outcomes.

    After CBS’s screw up, nobody was going to touch that story with a ten foot pole, and anybody who brought it up was instantly compared (unfavorably) to Rather.

    After Clinton’s sniper “misstatement”, she can’t talk about foreign policy experience she gained as the first lady without that experience being brought into question.

  3. Triumph says:

    “blogging tends to be the hobby of people with full-time jobs who do it because it’s more fun than stamp collecting.”

    That’s right and certainly describes my venture into the blogosphere.

    Dude! Stamp collecting rocks!

  4. Bithead says:

    So, if I read the statements of Michael and YAJ correctly… and I think I do.. what we have here is a situation where just being a blogger, of itself isn’t all that influential, unless that status is used in distributing some truth or another that isn’t available elsewhere.

    Which would seem to suggest that those who read blogs are more discerning than most.

  5. Michael says:

    Which would seem to suggest that those who read blogs are more discerning than most.

    And also the fact that blogs allow readers to discern more than just what it written on the blog. Between hyperlinks in the articles, comment threads, and Google, a blog is just the starting point for your discussions of the subject.

    This as opposed to the MSM structure where the article is presented as the end of the discussion on the subject.

  6. Big Media, predominantly television and newspapers, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the consumer goods called news and opinion. Until the Internet came along. They still have a dominant position, but they have been, and are continuing to lose market share. Like almost all monopolists their first recourse has been to run to the government for protection, e.g., the Fairness Doctine.

    To the extent that bloggers have penetrated this market it has been by providing a better product for a better price — and this is where it really gets scary for Big Media — frequently for nothing. The ride is only going to get bumpier.

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    Which would seem to suggest that those who read blogs are more discerning than most.

    And don’t forget the people who just need to read the headline, figure it all out, give you the answer so you will know what to do from this day forth.

    what would you call that? More discerning for most?


  8. Bithead says:

    What would you call that?

    It depends on my mood.

    The Democratic Underground leaps to mind, though.
    Andrew Sullivan.
    Glenn Greenwald.
    There’s a few others.