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The Being John Malkovich Effect

Why blog? First problem: the word, second only to org in its mortifying dorkiness. (Speaking of which, isn’t an “org” one of those seafaring enclaves formerly headed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who hightailed it to the high seas “to continue his research into the upper levels of spiritual awareness and ability,” far from the distracting attentions of the IRS)? “Blog” sounds like a portmanteau for some clammy new fetish, best left undescribed—an unhappy hybrid of blob and flog. Yeah, I know it’s short for “weblog,” but who calls journals “logs,” anyway, except the glassy-eyed minions in sea orgs or people who begin their diary entries with stardates?


Second, there’s the gnawing fear that anyone who blogs is fated to become one of those tub-thumping Alpha Wonks who’ve given the medium a bad name—you know, those self-declared Masters of Their Own Domain whose poured-concrete prose, cosmic sense of self-importance, and weird refusal to use contractions makes them sound like the genetically engineered offspring of Roger Rosenblatt and Galactus (“My journey is ended! This planet shall sustain me until it has been drained of all elemental life! So speaks Galactus!”) So what if Instapundit gets more hits than God? Would you want to be trapped in steerage, on Jet Blue, next to one of these self-styled Masters of the Universe with an Opinion About Everything?
Worse yet, you might wake up to find yourself blogging about…blogging! Going to Bloggercon (a name whose similarity to “Starcon” is way too close for comfort) and listening to other blogwonks maunder on about wuffie-hoarding and social networking and then..blogging about it! Live! From the convention floor!
Look, I know I’m not fit to polish Clay Shirky‘s power laws, nor to touch the hem of Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s garment. I abject myself before the terrible grandeur of Josh Marshall, Jason Kottke, Wonkette, and Bruce Sterling(on his good days). And yeah, yeah, blogging is our Last, Best Hope for citizen journalism, Seizing the Mode of Production and Speaking Truth to Power without changing our underwear for days at a span. But Sweet Jesus, why do most of the revolution’s standard bearers have to be so skin-crawlingly geeky? Why do most of the Power Bloviators who’ve become the angry white poster boys for blogging look as if, just a few short years ago, they were off to Klingon Language Camp with a song in their hearts? (Is it mere coincidence that one of the seminal screeds on blogging is John Hiler’s “Borg Journalism: We are the Blogs. Journalism will be Assimilated“?)
So why blog? Certainly not because blogging is fated to swallow journalism whole and burp up A.M. Rosenthal’s bowtie. The best thing about blogging is that it’s not journalism. Or, if it is, it’s a viral strain of journalism, cultured in the agar of the Net, that resembles no journalism we know. Sure, blogging can serve as a corrective to the ideological blind spots and commercial orientation of the corporate media monopoly, Fact Checking Their Asses and Working the Ref and restoring some semblance of balance in the absence of the Fairness Doctrine.
But bloggers who want to remedy what ails the corporate McMedia monopoly should grab a clue from Chris Allbritton and haul their larval, jack-studded flesh up out of their Matrix-like pods and do some goddamn reporting instead of just getting all meta about Instapundit‘s post about The Daily Kos‘s post about Little Green Footballs‘s post about the vast left-wing media conspiracy’s latest act of high treason. It’s the Yertle the Turtle syndrome: Pundits stacked on top of pundits on top of pundits, all the way down, and, at the very bottom of the heap, the lowly hack who kicked off the whole frenzy of intertextuality: the reporter who dared venture out of the media airlock to collect some samples of Actual, Reported Fact.
Who can argue with Dan Gillmor’s call for a grassroots journalism, a peer-to-peer alternative to the radically deregulated, massively consolidated Murdochian horror that currently passes for the newsmedia? But it sure as hell isn’t going to come from political-pundit and media-wonk bloggers, who with some notable exceptions represent More of The Same: the same gel-headed, glittery eyed weasels who make a career out of torching straw men on Scarborough Country and Sean Hannity; the same attacking heads who reduce each other to chum in what passes for debate on Firing Line; the same corporate flacks, thinktank drones, and bowtie-and-braces neocons who represent the full spectrum of political opinion (from zero-forehead centrism to the far, frothing right) on the PBS Newshour; and worst of all, the same Barcalounger-bound Masters of the Universe who feel well qualified to hold forth on any subject, no matter how arcane. Too much blogging—at least, the blogwonkery embraced by the mainstream media—looks too much like the jowly, sclerotic old white guys in tortoiseshell glasses or the lunging, in-your-face young white guys who already rule the mediaverse. Is this the bottom-up, many-to-many revolution we were promised? Another dictatorship of the commentariat? Another grotesque hypertrophy of the chattering class? None for me, thanks. You can stack your Instapundits like cordword and they still won’t have the empirical authority or moral gravitas, not to mention the hard-swinging old-school literary chops, of one blogger reporter like Chris Allbritton. (Okay, he’s white and he’s a guy, but at least he’s a young white guy, and he’s risking his goddamn neck to bring back some truth about our imperial adventure in Iraq. Besides, he’s got one of those cool neo-beat Van Dyke things.)
The best blogging, then, isn’t yet another hairy-eyed jeremiad from some Angry White Guy or another somber thumbsucker about the Deeper Meaning of Whatever. Hungry for more hallelujah choruses to the obvious, delivered with all the oracular solemnity of Charlton Heston reading the Ten Commandments? Tune in NPR, where “news analysts” like Daniel Shore and Cokie Roberts can be heard, handing out received truths as if they were pearls of great price.
By my lights, the best blogging offers a Bizarro World alternative to the mainstream media. Their content isn’t determined by agenda-setters and opinion leaders who tell you what you need to know—then tell it to you again, every hour, on the hour, all day long, like CNN. They aren’t run by editors who want to sell your attention to advertisers who want a piece of your niche demographic. Example: civil libertarian and Net activist John Perry Barlow’s harrowing account of his brush with rough justice in the new, Ashcroft-ian America. (Barlow was stripped, cavity-searched, and held incommunicado for the high crime of flying with “misdemeanor possession of controlled substances that had allegedly been discovered during a search of my checked baggage.”) Another example: the NBC cameraman Kevin Sites’s riveting, straight-from-the-gut letter to the marine battalion with whom he was (is?) an embedded freelancer, one of whose soldiers he captured on video, executing a severely wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi with a shot to the head.
Not that blogging has to bring back horror stories from battlezones or breaking news from the culture wars. Some of my favorite blogs reclaim the radical promise inherent in the notion of an online journal, letting casual passersby eavesdrop on a stranger’s innermost thoughts, see the world through another mind’s eye. Call it the Being John Malkovich effect. The cultural critic Julian Dibbell had it just about right when he theorized the weblog as postmodern wunderkammer?an idiosyncratic jumble of found objects (in this case, ideas and images, facts and fictions scavenged from the global mediastream) that “reflects our own attempts to assimilate the glut of immaterial data loosed upon us by the ‘discovery’ of the networked world.” Some of the most consistently enlightening and entertaining blogs are the inscrutable products of borderline obsessive-compulsives. Like the baroque “wonder closets” invoked by Dibbell, blogs such as bOING bOING, The Obscure Store, Kottke.org, and Die, Puny Humans are omnium gatherums, overstuffed with anything that catches the fancy of their eccentric curators. Wish you lived in a world where Entertainment Tonight peeled away the vacuform latex face of mainstream celebrity to bare the scabrous, Hollywood Bablyon reality beneath? Wish no more: Rebecky.com’s got the dirt, in a story no obsequious, tukus-licking mainstream outlet would dare run: “HOW I APPEARED ON JEOPARDY, or, ALEX TREBEK IS A SCUMBAG,” by Ethan de Seife. Wonder what the morning headlines would be like if Groucho Marx were alive and well and living and partnered up with Charles Fort in a joint media venture? Wonder no longer: bOING bOING offers a brain-shriveling compendium of weird science items, Barnumesque stretchers, and stranger-than-fiction news stories, delivered in the inimitable bOING bOING deadpan.
Reading blogs like these is like subscribing to someone’s stream of consciousness; it’s the closest thing we have to telepathy. What do a pair of mathematicians using 25,511 crochet stitches to represent the Lorenz manifold; a list of “words that aren’t in the dictionary but should be” (Example: “Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it)”; a step-by-step Taiwanese tutorial on how to make incredibly realistic “teeny tiny” oranges out of clay; photos of “Chinese salad architecture”; and the discovery of Homo floresiensis have to do with each other? Nothing, other than the fact that they caught the attention of Jason Kottke, however briefly.
Do the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, the barometric fluctuations of the Dow-Jones, and the Caligulan grotesqueries of the Bush administration still matter? No question. That’s why God created The New York Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. But I want to live in a world where the broadcast media that struggle for mass appeal are counterweighted by microchannels whose programming reflects one mind’s caprices, the tastes and interests of a single intelligence that cares not a whit for market share or popular acclaim (or critical applause, for that matter).
After all, isn’t that what an online diary should be—an internal monologue that the rest of the world can listen in on; a Cornell box of fleeting impressions and true confessions assembled by an obsessive collector of images and ideas? At worst, such blogs can be like KLAS-TV, the Las Vegas TV station that Howard Hughes bought in the late ’60s so he could alter the late-night movie schedule at whim, TV Guide listings be damned. This is the downside of one-to-many personalized media: An insomniac billionaire wearing Kleenex boxes for bedroom slippers, inflicting his monomaniacal fascination with Ice Station Zebra on disgruntled viewers for the trillionth time. The upside is a blog like Kottke’s, which might feature a single daily post. Or 10. Or none. It can be about anything. Or the proverbial, Seinfeld-ian nothing. People read it not because they’re interested in the subjects Kottke covers, but because they want a front-row seat to the movies projected on the inside of his head. Reading blogs like his is the intellectual equivalent of Beaumont’s experiments in gastric physiology, observing digestion through a hole in the stomach of a wounded soldier.
It’s a beautiful thing.

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