May 12, 2005
People of the Blog
Here's a theory of social change I'd like to float: Initial attempts by the established order to respond to sweeping changes are either murderous or ridiculous.
The first part is obvious: the French Revolution, Kent State, Arab dictatorships.
As for the second, Exhibit No. 1 would be Dick Cavett's sideburns. Around the early '70s, when the '60s revolution was actually happening, I kept noticing how members of the media establishment -- Dick Cavett, John Chancellor -- all tried to fit in by letting their sideburns grow. Anchormen with sideburns, aging actors with sideburns, middle-aged rabbis with sideburns -- everyone I once respected was starting to look like Chester A. Arthur. All because they thought that's where society was going and they didn't want to be left out.
Exhibit No. 2 is Arianna Huffington. This week she unveiled her newest venture, The Huffington Post, an online compendium of articles and musings. Following incarnations as biographer, Republican hostess, gubernatorial candidate and right-wing, then left-leaning iconoclastic pundit (not quite in that order), Arianna 6.0 is now the master of her very own digital domain. She has seen the future and is trying to leap from the choo-choo of a weekly print column to the Maglev of daily Internet interactivity.
Being the shape-shifting multilinguist that she is, Huffington's own posts are close doppelgangers of what the technically hip these days call blogging, that is Web logs or diaries that record the author's thoughts, feelings and experiences in something like real time while also posting links to online articles or musing by other bloggers.
But many of those Huffington has invited on are more like Exhibit No. 3: actors who respond to the written word like us non-actors would to a close-up; real writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who are clearly uncomfortable publishing something short of a 10th draft, and even Walter Cronkite, who wrote something brief and forgettable, maybe about sideburns.
The only memorable entries out of several dozens were by Larry David and Bill Maher -- because no matter what the venue, funny is funny.
One hallmark of the blogosphere is that, like talk radio, it tends to cater to the converted. Instead of people of different political persuasions sharing a common forum, every group gets to fine-tune news and essays to its liking. So Huffington's Post is the circled wagons of successful, well-off liberals -- let the word go forth from Brentwood.
Nothing wrong with that, I just wonder where and how all these online opposing camps will intersect.
Once in a while, a right-wing freerepublic.com blogger might get into a long, predictable e-mail shouting match with a Huffington poster, but that's not the same as sharing a common medium or forging social progress through dialogue.
As goes the big, wide world, so goes the Jewish one.
Earlier this month, Sh'ma magazine organized an e-mail exchange between a blogger and me on the future of Jewish journalism in the internet age. The magazine will publish an edited version of our on-line conversation in its upcoming issue.
The blogger, Dan Sieradski of www.jewschool.com, informed me that my days in the old media were numbered.
"You guys are finished," he wrote. I think I took the heat out of his flaming when I wrote back that I agreed.
There are at least 1 million blogs on the internet now. Anybody with a computer, a modem and a thought in his head can start one. In many instances, it seems, that thought is: I think I'll start a blog.
There are hundreds of Jewish-oriented blogs. One tracks the daily life of an Orthodox woman. New ones detail the struggles of settlers in Gaza, facing the Israeli withdrawal. There are blogs from gay Jews, frum Jews, gay frum Jews, pro-Israel Jews and anti-Zionist Jews. There's an interesting blog called Jewish Whistle Blower, which purports to detail the shady goings on of the Jewish establishment. But someone out there felt that particular blog wasn't forthcoming enough, so this week up popped Jewish Whistle Blower2, because, that site says, "Open debate is simply too difficult for JWB."
Amid all this new media, I'm supposed to be the Jewish Bruce Willis, still reporting for work without realizing I've already died.
Of course, no one, not even JWBs 1 or 2, know what the Internet future holds. As high-capacity streaming becomes more common, and live video replaces the ancient act of typing, blogging itself will likely be replaced by even more immediate forms of communication. Today's bloggers might just be the IBM Selectrics of their time.
Along the way to this future, there's no question digital information is replacing print. Newspaper readership is plummeting, especially among younger adults. And although you would think the change would take place more slowly in traditional communities, that doesn't seem to be the case. As one Orthodox rabbi told me this week, he hardly looks at anything in print anymore. I assume the exception is a certain parchment scroll.
This is as it should be. If Moses had access to OS X and an Apple AirPort, he wouldn't have risked a hernia schlepping stone tablets down a mountain. Here we are, the People of the Blog.
Although new technology replaces old, there's no cause for hysteria. Journalists, after all, aren't in the printing business, we're in the information-distribution business. The Internet doesn't change the essential news-gathering and news-disseminating function of journalism.
But it does change plenty else.
It is simplistic to speak of blogs in general, as some are brilliant, some, like Huffington's, predictable, and some awful. But the good Jewish ones inject Jewish life with more immediacy, more information. They allow any and all Jews to contribute to the larger community, to voice opinions and claim a stake in the Jewish debates. Many of them are more entertaining than most of the old Jewish media.
But the ease and anonymity of an Internet post, the heat of the online battle, can induce bloggers to slip their ethical moorings. The temptation to peddle gossip, to spread reputation-destroying questions before they can be fully investigated, to run with half-baked information or coarse material just for the shock value, is as great or greater in the blogosphere as it is in, well, the atmosphere. But blogging makes it easier and cheaper.
The world has changed, yes. But our traditions -- as journalists and Jews -- are here to remind us that the rules haven't.