Jennifer Howard thinks, “It’s a Little Too Cozy in the Blogosphere.”

It was a cool idea, a fresh kind of media democracy for a new-media world. Thanks to the miracle of blogging technology, any smart kid in Boise or Brooklyn could set up his own Web site and weigh in on everything from regime change in Iraq to snarky book reviews. He didn’t need a publisher, a journalism degree or an old-boy network, just a computer, an Internet connection and an opinion (and bloggers have plenty of those). Part reporter, part gadfly, part cheeky upstart, bloggers seemed to scorn the insider mentality of brand-name pundits, and they were often a lot more fun to read — and more insightful.

Note the past tense. A year ago, I barely knew what blogs were. Within a few months, they’d become a staple of my daily media diet. Now I can’t live without them, but already I’m feeling betrayed — and a little bored.

What began as the ultimate outsider activity — a way to break the newspaper and TV stranglehold on the gathering and dissemination of information — is turning into the same insider’s game played by the old establishment media the bloggerati love to critique. The more blogs you read and the more often you read them, the more obvious it is: They’ve fallen in love with themselves, each other and the beauty of what they’re creating. The cult of media celebrity hasn’t been broken by the Internet’s democratic tendencies; it’s just found new enabling technology.

The problem’s built into the medium itself. Blogs are set up to be personal forums for someone’s opinions. That’s the point, the liberating thing about them. Bloggers don’t have to get their copy past an editor, and they can sound off at any length — no word limits in cyberspace. They’re products of a seismic cultural shift that makes someone’s hangover as newsworthy as the arrival of a Harry Potter novel. The sassier the voice, the more successful the blog is likely to be. In a Google universe, success is defined by hits: the number of visits a Web page gets. The more blogs link to each other, the more hits they all get; enough hits and a cyberstar is born. (Okay, color me envious: I don’t even know if Google can find my Web site, not that anyone’s looking.)

She, then, rather ironically lists several blogs of which I’ve never heard and notes that they link and refer to one another in very cutesy ways that would be meaningless to casual readers, assuming that everyone “gets” the jokes.

There is clearly something to what she’s saying, although it’s not a particularly original observation. Presumably, bloggers are writing and publishing with hopes of being read. Otherwise, they could just keep private diaries or send notes to their friends. With a handful of exceptions, the most popular blogs do tend to link to one another–or at least those with similar ideological persuasions. In many important ways, the blogosphere is a community rather than simply journalism in a different medium.

The down side of the incestuousness, though, is fairly obvious. Just as we have doubts about the credibility of big media conglomerates when they are reporting on sister companies–or, indeed, public figures on whose continued access their livelihood depends–the objectivity of analysis of bloggers can certainly be compromised by the closeness of the community. For example, not many center-right bloggers criticize Glenn Reynolds. This occured to me recently during the recent Kim Du Toit “real man” flap. Matthew Yglesias, and especially his commenters, cited the rather muted reaction of the conservative blogosphere, noting that even those critical of du Toit felt the need to say that he was really a nice guy and such. The reason seems fairly obvious: many of those bloggers read and comment on du Toit’s postings on a regular basis and have become cyber-acquaintances with him. Most people will naturally be more inclined to pull their punches in that situation.

Still, it’s perfectly reasonable that bloggers will link to other bloggers, and especially more prominent bloggers. After all, there’s a reason that some blogs get 10,000 visitors a day while others who have been around just as long get 50 visitors: Their content is more widely appealing. Perhaps they’re better writers, have keener insights than most, write on subjects that are more interesting, or they simply post with sufficient frequency as to make visiting regularly worthwhile. After all, we’re more likely to cite the NYT, WaPo, and the WSJ than, say, the Troy Messenger or the Waynesville Daily Guide.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Democracy, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I disagree with Jennifer.

    The Blogosphere is the ultimate meritocracy. Sure, Glenn Reynolds got there “the firstest with the mostest.” Just like Jeff Bezos. That’s the way the world works. Glenn/Jeff are bright guys; they had the big idea, the promotional savvy, the luck?, and they established their market leadership early.

    In the Blogosphere, look below the Instapundit level. Blogs that entertain, inform or provoke attract attention (and, yes, there’s a prommotional aspect there, too) gain readership. Look at “Allah,” new this summer, now one of the “must reads.” Kim du Toit’s essay got wide circulation. Look at the Iraqi bloggers.

    Any coziness or incestuousness can be broken into, modified, or replaced. It’s the ultimately fluid, perfect market, with a currency of traffic, rewarding that intangible “quality.”

  2. Would linking to this piece merely reinforce the incestuous nature of the ‘sphere?