Blogging America

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Book: Aaron Barlow. Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. Praeger, 2008.


"Blogging America, Aaron Barlow’s second book about the 21st century phenomenon of blogging, revisits the territory of his first, the seminal The Rise of the Blogosphere. As Barlow establishes in that first book, pamphlets and broadsides, written under pseudonyms and sponsored by interested parties, were the agents of conversation long before the latter half of the 20th century’s insistence on the so-called objective presentation of news.

This second book zeroes in on blogs themselves and how, at a very detailed and specific level, they are transforming our cultural landscape, creating, as his title suggests, a new public sphere. For those concerned about the future of democracy, the existence of such a civic space may be our last bulwark against neo-liberalism “disappearing” open discussion.

Indeed, a vibrant civic space is critical as a defense against the new millennium’s robber barons as it was to our Common Sense reading forbearers as they held off the British Redcoats.

Barlow begins his analysis of the messy world of blogging through the lens of three 20th century scholars: Jurgen Habermas, B.F. Skinner, and Walter Ong. He relies on Habermas for perspective on the public sphere; on Skinner for dissection of the verbal behavior of the blogger (as Barlow postulates, Skinner might say: “We learn to blog to be understood.”), and on Ong for analysis of the development of language, from pre-Gutenberg times to the eve of the current communications revolution, focusing in interactions of technology, culture and language.

For those unused to reading philosophy or critical theory, this first chapter may be the slowest in a book which otherwise reads like a lively blog post with chattering interjections from the real world of bloggers.

In the rest of the book, we are shoulder to shoulder with bloggers in their worlds, their motivations, their communities, their power, and the “taboos and rules of net-decorum of their sites.” Barlow begins each chapter with a list of blogs, complete with urls, of those under discussion. He closes the book with a blogroll.

Along the way, Barlow attacks head on the common criticisms of blogs and citizen journalism efforts. In Chapter 2, "Blogs in Society," he debunks Andrew Keen’s lament that blogs are literally a cult of the amateur and thus debase the quality of news and information available online.

Barlow argues the very opposite: As a society we are becoming more “neterate,” able to “sift noise from information” and indeed, several blogs and citizen news sites have established standards for fact-checking, editing, and verifying… as well as codes of conduct.

Barlow quickly illustrates that Keen advocates for a Gatekeeper who can keep out the Hordes. The superior One to the lesser Many, of course, is the model of a dictator’s censorship of news and thought.

Barlow also addresses the common criticism that blogs rarely provide original or new information and instead merely rehash the work done by the so-called professionals. Barlow rightly points out that such criticism misses the essence of blogs: conversation. Such criticism sees blogs merely as product, not process. Yet, it is blog conversation that helps create the inherent value for the participants.

Our American heritage, of course, teaches us to value the open exchange of ideas, for we know that repressive governments shut down meetings, criminalize participants, and eliminate open discussion, because, of course, communication informs and empowers the oppressed.

After dispensing with the critics, Barlow takes us into the middle of these bloggers‘ passionate dedication to freedom and community. Through the blog posts at Digg, we learn of the power of the blogstorm to maintain freedom of information in the face of a corporation’s threatening litigation. Through blog diaries and private emails with blogger RenaRF, we see up close the power of a blogging community harnessed to activism.

As Barlow notes: “the area of community is where the blogs do finally prove to have their greatest impact and originality” [61]. He enlarges our understanding of community and conversation by using Karl Popper and the sociology of knowledge as well as Dewey and the power of association -- the building of community and moving from the I-Mine to the We-Ours. Or, as a commenter on the blog DailyKos wrote: “We are essential, just no more essential than the next person."

Throughout, Barlow extends these themes by his examination of blogs in the political arena and in pop culture, culminating in his final chapter at how religious blogs, specifically Christian blogs, are more than “church newsletters.” They are often vibrant communities of open discussion." (