Martin Luther and Thomas Paine: Bloggers?

Kevin Maney has an interesting piece in USA Today entitled, “Chill, blogophiles; you’re not the first to do what you’re doing.”

Thomas Paine was basically a blogger — in 1776. Martin Luther’s version of blogs totally ticked off the Holy Roman Emperor, who issued the Edict of Worms banning Luther’s writings. George Orwell was a blogger. So was Brian Lamb, the guy who started C-Span. Blogs are really an Internet phenomenon of just the past couple of years. But the essence — the je ne sais quoi— of blogs is that an emerging technology makes it possible for individuals outside the mainstream media to reach an audience. Blogs can be subversive, giving rise to ideas or arguments that would otherwise stay buried.

These days, Internet blogs are all the rage. Blog-related companies such as Technorati and Six Apart have people in technology hyperventilating like it’s 1999. Blogs are ripping down mainstream media and the ruling class! Blogs give power to the people! Everything is blogolicious! Jeez. Take a pill, all you blogomaniacs. Blogs are fun. Blogs add a fascinating new element to public discourse. But blogs are another turn of history’s wheel, not a radical departure. “There has been a long drift away from mass media to more specialized media,” says Phil Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor and author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. “The bloggers are the latest manifestation — more messages to smaller numbers of people.”


Blogs and the reasons they exist have historical antecedents.

Take Luther in the early 1500s. About 60 years before, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before that, only the church and governments could afford to reproduce and manage information, keeping a lock on ideas and power. The printing press gave Luther a way to distribute his thesis — an early version of blogging. Next thing, we had Protestants.

In Paine’s time, the key was the falling cost of printing pamphlets. That allowed Paine to get out his ideas in Common Sense, which greatly influenced the American Revolution. Pamphleteering was quite the bloglike craze in the 1700s, though most amateur writers stuck to politics and religion. The colonists didn’t get anything like one current blog, called, “Adventures of a Domestic Engineer: The day-to-day travails of a sleep-deprived mother of three.”

Orwell wrote pamphlets before writing 1984. Lamb was maybe the first video blogger, or vlogger. In the 1970s, when ABC, NBC and CBS reigned supreme, cable opened TV to low-budget operations. Lamb worked in the Pentagon’s public relations department before launching C-Span in 1979. He was a nobody who took a small bite out of major media’s influence.

It’s certainly true that there have always been those who have seen the potential of emerging technologies and seized upon it to get their message out. I would argue, though, that blogging is different not only in degree but in kind from pamphleteering. The reason is the connectivity of the blogosphere. The reason PowerLine and others were able to expose the RatherGate scandal wasn’t so much that they had massive audiences but that the word spread quickly on the blog “net.” By the end of the first day, PowerLine’s post on the scandal had 200-odd TrackBacks, indicating that other sites were glomming onto the story. (It’s up to 605 as I type!)

Of the examples Maney gives, perhaps C-SPAN’s Lamb is the best. By going around the mainstream press and its editors, he was able to give a narrow audience the ability to see what was going on in their government that they would otherwise been unable to get. While the network’s audience remains comparatively small even today, it’s influence is gigantic because elite opinion makers are aware of what’s happening there and get the message out when something unusual breaks. People like Newt Gingrich seized on the new opportunity to bring attention to the excesses of those in charge and initiate a groundswell for change.

Dave Winer also makes an excellent, if off-the-cuff, point:

I’ve decided to stop referring to reporters by name until they stop generalizing about bloggers without saying who they’re talking about. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

Indeed. When bloggers speak of “the mainstream media,” we generally mean the flagship newspapers and the major television networks. While the “MSM” meme is already getting shopworn, we at least manage to discern the differences between the NYT, CBS, and Penthouse –even though stories in all three may be forged. Until journalists can distinguish the not-so-subtle differences between InstaPundit, Wonkette, and “Adventures of a Domestic Engineer: The day-to-day travails of a sleep-deprived mother of three,” their ability to analyze the blogosphere will be limited, indeed.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Excellent article from UST and also excellent analysis here at OTB. My biggest gripe is how bloggers are mass-named bloggers when, as you indicated, each blogger is different and takes a different apporach on wide-varieties of issues. When Rathergate broke, I was not one of the initial 200 to trackback. In fact, I’m not one of the 605. But I had my own comments and opinions and that just goes to show how we are not a lemmings-like group that can be stereotyped (though my feeling is that the Instapundit type disciples are quickly becoming their own force that is closely similar to the MSM. But that’s another discussion.

  2. Rod Stanton says:

    Orwell a blogger? How can a man who popularized “War is Peace!” be a blogger. Sounds like Teddy or B. Boxer to me; not like LGF.

  3. Bithead says:

    I find the comparison to Luther particularly apt.
    It’s a comparison I and several others have drawn in discussion recently.