Who was the world’s first blogger?

Blogs were officially born in December 1997, when Jorn Barger created the term “weblog” on his site, Robot Wisdom. Then in the spring of 1999, Peter Merholz, host of peterme and an internet analyst announced: “For What It’s Worth I’ve decided to pronounce the word “weblog” as wee’- blog. Or “blog” for short.”

But in the book I’m working on for Oxford University Press, I’ll argue that blog-like political communication ventures have a long history.

Here is my favorite candidate for (Proto)political Blogger Zero.

Isocrates (no relation to Socrates) was a Greek philosopher who lived to 99 years of age in an era just before Alexander the Great’s march across Asia. His “ABOUT ME” page reads much like that of modern blogger: he was fascinated by politics, but didn’t actually want to be a politician; he wanted to pontificate about his opinions on everything, but did want to go through the grubby steps of showing up to public debates; he wanted to win popular support but eschewed meeting the public. As a modern translator of his works put it well:

“He endeavored to direct the affairs of Athens and Greece without ever holding an office and to mould public opinion without ever addressing a public assembly, by issuing from his study, political pamphlets or essays in oratorical form, in which then set forth the proper conduct of the Greeks in the light of broad ideas.”

For example, in one long letter he wrote (c. 374BC) to the new young King of Cyprus outlining advice on how to rule a country:

“one must be a lover of men and a lover of his country; for neither horses nor dogs nor men nor any other thing can be properly controlled except by one who takes pleasure in the objects for which it is his duty to care. You must care for the people and make it our first consideration to rule acceptably to them, knowing that all governments-oligarchies as well. As the others-have the longest life when they best serve the masses. You will be a wise leader of the people if you do not allow the multitude either to do or to suffer outrage, but see to it that the best among them shall have the honors while the rest shall suffer no impairment of their rights; for they are the first and most important element of good government.”

His other project was even more grandiose: he wanted to convince the Greeks to band together, stop squabbling and defeat the great enemy from the East, the Persians. (Sound familar?) So he would write letters to Philip of Macedonia (Alexander’s father) calling on him to lead the Greeks into Asia. A later Greek literary critic, Demetrius of Phalerum, wrote that such letters were less intimacies than a public document intended to gain public currency. (Thus the mixing of diary and policy paper as in blogs!)

Isocrates modus operandi calls to mind Wonkette blogger Eva Marie Cox’s humorous observation in reaction to people who spoke about a “Blog revolution” that “Starting a revolution involves leaving your house.” As I shall talk more about in my book, it is a big question whether blogs spur political participation (going to campaigns events, working for the candidate, voting) or channel political interest into blog posts and comments “issuing from his study. Many bloggers give advice to or rant about the powerful on public affairs issues, campaign strategy, all sorts of political topics. I form, the headline often reads literally: “What Kerry Must do” or “What Bush must do” and so on.

For example, readers of the RedState.org, a Republican politics blog, were offered insight by one “Jay Cost, creator of The Horserace Blog” on “Nine Tips for Bush on [filling] the Supreme Court Vacancy” of Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the Supreme Court. Among his counsel:

“He should find somebody with a short paper trail: This will also put Bush’s political opponents off-balance. Again, they will oppose Bush regardless of whom he appoints. But, if he appoints somebody who has not published very much, they will have a more difficult time constructing arguments reasonable to the mind of moderate Senate Democrats, who are Bush’s real audience here.”

Cost’s credentials for being a presidential advisor? He “is a graduate student at the University of Chicago…currently working toward his Ph.D in political science.” That’s blogging: people who previously would have no political capital (though in Cost’s case he would have developed more years later as a political scientist after many publications) can write memos to the powerful which instantly become public documents. And of course, many redstate readers replied to Cost with advice of their own for the President.

But was anybody in the White House listening?

Update on Thursday, September 14, 2006 at 09:11AM by Registered Commenterdavid.d.perlmutter

Update:

See “Copyblogger” on “Why Plato Would Have Blown it as a Blogger.”

He writes:

Plato understood the power of conversation, but his methods made people doubt his authenticity.

In my opinion, you’ve got to provide strong, persuasive content like Aristotle to be an effective business blogger. But you’ve also got to have a healthy dose of Socrates in you, because the conversation is where the true power of blogging is.

He is correct. No man or woman should blog alone. Linking, feedback, response, revision, extension are traits of the best bloggers. “Monologing,” as was expressed in the movie “The Incredibles” as a description of the self-destructive solo-rants of super villains, is for the egomaniac.

Originally posted November 4, 2005 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (18)

    People love to give advice – whether it’s deciding what route will be the fastest home or deciding which Supreme Court nominee will be best fit for the job.

    Blogs allow people of all backgrounds, ages, and experiences to give advice on almost every level. Clearly, blogs are not the only medium of offering advice so the idea of “blogging” certainly didn’t begin in 1997. The Isocrates example clearly shows that advice-giving is not a modern concept.

    One of the appeals of blogs is that we are given an opportunity to voice our advice and hope that it’s not falling on deaf ears. We click submit, read through our post a few times, and anxiously await an email notifying us of a comment. Most bloggers realize that the majority of the people reading our blogs are co-workers, family members and a few Google-stragglers, perhaps.

    But maybe at some point a senior White house advisor might stumble upon the blog, and when that moment happens, hopefully our advice about the credentials of a Supreme Court nominee will be taken seriously, and until then, blog on.
    January 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3

    The examples of Isocrates were interesting stories of early political communication. Isocrates’ stories in the post provide an example of how individuals in early history had interest in passively participating in politics. He wanted to have influence on public affairs, but he did not want to actually cross the line and become entirely involved. I think this is a characteristic of blogs that people interested in politics enjoy. It gives people like Jay Cost the ability to influence political affairs.

    You stated, “But was anybody in the White House listening?” I think if someone makes a credible and legit statement and provides a well-thought out argument, then enough online readers and political activist will voice their opinions about the initial argument or statement that someone will take notice. I believe blog opinions have the capability to be very contagious, and the opinions can become very strong.
    January 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA7

    Do blogs spur political participation?
    In order to be a capable and effective participant in politics, one has to be first and foremost informed on the issues of the day. Blogs could potentially serve as informative tools for the public, created by the public.
    A popular movement could encourage bloggers to share and access factual information, (i.e. hyperlinking to public documents,) and not merely use them as opinion forums. This, of course, would require substantial research, mental effort and time. That’s what becoming informed requires though; it’s also what effective political participation requires.
    While many bloggers do spout their own suggestions, opinions, or musings on various topics, it should be easy to discern which statements are factual, which are inferring a point, and when the author is stating a judgment. Bloggers need to produce effective and factual rhetoric, and readers need to be able to recognize it.
    If, idealistically, this could happen, then blogs could spur political participation at an unparalleled level.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34

    I don’t know how successful were the efforts of Isocrates, but I am not convinced that blogs have the ability to affect change. Blogs serve to strengthen opinions already in existence. Internet surfing is a deliberate activity. People seek out the blogs that support their political ideals and, if they even choose to read them, mock the blogs that contradict their opinions. How can bloggers affect change if the people reading their posts are already in agreement with their views?

    Isocrates was clearly an educated man, but one who felt that everyone was entitled to his opinion. Even his translator believed that he wanted to, “direct the affairs of Athens and Greece without ever holding office”. He bore similarity to bloggers in that he wished to express political opinion without being asked to do so. Isocrates, however, was clearly looking to influence people; bloggers do not always expect an audience or a response. Although some bloggers have political aspirations, many merely publish personal opinion on the Internet for the gratification of seeing their words in print. Blogs are a free and easy way to become a published political writer while sitting at home in your underwear. Perhaps the same prospect appealed to Isocrates since it sounds like he did not like to interact with people.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl

    If blog-like communication has little to do with an electronic medium and more to do with message intent and content, then blog-like communication began long before John Barger’s Robot Wisdom.

    Isocrates thinly veiled political grievances, directives and admonitions in the form of private letters or pamphlets for friends. Another Greek, far more well-known (but no relation), used the same technique. Socrates was a master of using seemingly private conversations between friends to educate (and influence) large gathered groups about political issues of the day and ethical issues he thought extended beyond Ancient Greece. If Socrates and Isocrates are in the model of blog-like communication, other pre-electronic age figures have followed in their footsteps. Martin Luther’s grievances, though nailed singularly to a church door, were meant for the world.

    If these examples bare similarity to modern blog communication, what’s the difference today? When Isocrates wrote, when Socrates spoke, when Luther nailed, people (both in power and in the streets) listened. Isocrates advised kings, Socrates caused so much trouble in public that he was condemned to death, and Luther was part of a revolution that changed the entire Western world.

    Today, there are too many Luther’s and too many available church doors. Though there are more voices in our pluralistic society, there also is more noise. And it’s often difficult to sort them out, for the greater public and for politicians. The job is too taxing for the average citizen, and it would take an entire White House staff to sort through blogs for valuable advice.

    The hope in our society is not that every man can speak directly to the president, but that every man can speak to every other man, eventually building up a body large enough to catch the attention of those in power. This may be different from the direct influence Isocrates enjoyed. But perhaps, in our own polity, it is the best we can hope for.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3

    The Blog says that “People who previously would have no political capital…can write memos to the powerful which instantly become public documents.”

    I pose the question: Is this access is good?

    Well of course it is! We live in a democratic, pluralist society. Therefore all people should have equal access and have their voices heard in the political system, right? And, if Blogs allow this to happen they must be the best thing since sliced bread and the secret ballot, right?

    However, I kind of like my bread in a loaf! And while I have no problem with the secret ballot, secret journalism may not be the greatest idea. Sure everyone should have the right to express their opinion and give advice to our president, but should everyone have the right to hide from what they say (as we are in this Blog)? Blogs give us the license to hide behind an electronic screen and not be accountable for the revolutions we start without leaving our houses.

    Granted, the freedom that Blogs give us to share ideas and information is unprecedented and amazing. I just hope that they can continue to give good advice like that of Isocrates and the wise grad student, and do not turn into the spectacle that cable news channels have become.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444

    Isocrates does share some common points with modern bloggers if we overlook communication technologies, but there is an important difference between Isocrates and most bloggers that I would like to talk about. That is, Isocrates was a big name in his time while most modern bloggers are just ordinary people in mass society. Isocrates’s fame had made him capable of influencing public opinions through his writings. People, including those in power, would read, think and then believe what he said. By contrast, most posts in blogs will not be taken seriously enough — to some extent, they are even more fragile than news — let alone having as much influence as the writings of Isocrates did. To most bloggers, the influence of their blogs is limited in the small circle around them.

    I would rather view blogs as private media ( by contrast with mass media). They are effective in letting people around you to know you better, including your political standpoints. In that way, blogs are able to spur political participation as an extension of interpersonnal influece.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee

    Blogs are the newest form of mediated political communication. The style of blogging certainly has many of the characteristics of older forms of mediated political communication. However, the distinctiveness of blogs is their moving beyond the local into the global.

    The question of the influence of blogs is a legitimate one. Are the addressees of the communication listening? I think the power of blogs does not lie in any individual person’s blogging; instead, it resides in the network of bloggers – the political blogoshere. In other words, linking is the lifeblood of blogging as a political tool. Thus, I think it is becoming difficult and at times harmful to ignore the collective of blogs that promote a certain point of view. That certainly may be one reason why political figures are turning to blogging.

    People may be inclined to only participate in the blogs of their liking, much like they are inclined to consume traditional mediated messages that confirm their beliefs. As some have argued, thus, blogs may not directly affect the views of the people participating in them. However, I think the strength of blogs lies in organizing like-minded people who may otherwise not be heard. This in itself is a tool for change.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersocial scientist to be

    Blogs are empowering. They give a voice to those who otherwise may not be heard, and even lend some credibility to those who may not have the credentials to pontificate on their subject of choice, with no risk to the blogger. The blogosphere takes radio talk shows to a new level, because anyone can weigh in on just about anything, with just the right amount of anonymity that allows for false credibility. Unfortunately, blogs do not provide a method for determining which bloggers actually do have the credentials to provide knowledgeable information. So the voice of reason, that blogger who really does know his stuff, is sometimes the lone voice in the woods, overwhelmed by bloggers with no depth and little substance, but with opinions shared by others of the same shallow expertise.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79

    Is the White House listening to bloggers? Was the King of Cyprus listening to Isocrates? One the one hand, the answer is “no.” The White House is most definitely not listening to every Jay Cost that comes along; however, the White House (and the King of Cyprus) would note with great interest any ideas that rise to the top: those ideas that are substantive, fact-based, and affect public opinion or wartime efforts. In an age when information is excessive and ideas (both plausible and ridiculous) are many, the concepts that create a buzz, a rumbling of sorts, will garner the attention from media and the policy-makers. In this respect, the answer to the question is “yes.” The White House surely listened when Rathergate exploded in the blogosphere, and you can bet they are “listening” right now to notable posts on skeletons in their own closets.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138

    A pluralist society allows blogs to be a forum for unabated discussion, whether positive or negative, it reflects the love of people and country (who care enough to comment on the current state of affairs that affect their peers and their nation). These are the same traits Isocrates wished Greek leaders to embrace. Questioning the government and advising leaders is a key component of democracy, and has clearly existed before the creation of the blogosphere. The blogosphere is simply a new and widely accessible medium to further public debate, a practice that has existed, in one form or another, since the formation of democracy.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15

    Isocrates seems like a hypocrite to a certain extent; he advises the King of Cyprus that only those who are dedicated to and take pleasure in something can have control over that thing. Although he enjoyed offering his advice and opinions, he lacked the dedication to actively address the public. He seemed to prefer being a faceless voice. But this may be what is a major attraction to bloggers. Blogs provide a place to voice an opinion, offer advice, or debate an issue with a certain degree of protection from criticism. Yes, respondents may receive disapproval of posted comments, but it’s generally easier to digest in written form as opposed to personal confrontation. On a constant basis we hear of public figures of every level being ridiculed for a comment they’ve made (Nagin’s still eating his ‘chocolate’ words days later). So maybe Isocrates kept himself out of public view even though he remained vocal to avoid public scrutiny. The appeal of being able to anonymously make any comment can be quite effective, but I think many bloggers are attracted to the idea of not having to remain silent when they feel they have good ideas or advice that could make a difference if the right person reads them. After all, isn’t that what Isocrates wanted?
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWBGirl

    Blogs make it easy to publish one’s opinions and allow others comment on what the person thinks. Similarly to Isocrates that wanted to pontificate about his opinions without ever addressing a public assembly, bloggers voice their views to the entire world without having to leave their computer desks. In fact, bloggers provide an additional source of information to the general public by dissecting and extending stories created by mainstream media.

    Do blogs spur political participation? It is important to point out that blogs should not be considered in isolation, but rather as a part of the network of ideas- the blogosphere. It is clear that a single blog, no matter how factual and accurate it may be, is a mere reflection of ideas of one particular individual. In other words, no one should expect a complete story from any single blog, but should rather analyze a large number of blogs before forming a political view or taking any political steps. So the answer to the above question is yes, blogs can spur political participation, but only as a whole, not individually.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterfocus1

    Isocrates seems like a hypocrite to a certain extent; he advises the King of Cyprus that only those who are dedicated to and take pleasure in something can have control over that thing. Although he enjoyed offering his advice and opinions, he lacked the dedication to actively address the public. He seemed to prefer being a faceless voice. But this may be what is a major attraction to bloggers. Blogs provide a place to voice an opinion, offer advice, or debate an issue with a certain degree of protection from criticism. Yes, respondents may receive disapproval of posted comments, but it’s generally easier to digest in written form as opposed to personal confrontation. On a constant basis we hear of public figures of every level being ridiculed for a comment they’ve made (Nagin’s still eating his ‘chocolate’ words days later). So maybe Isocrates kept himself out of public view even though he remained vocal to avoid public scrutiny. The appeal of being able to anonymously make any comment can be quite effective, but I think many bloggers are attracted to the idea of not having to remain silent when they feel they have good ideas or advice that could make a difference if the right person reads them. After all, isn’t that what Isocrates wanted…to be heard?
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWBGirl

    Blogs facilitate debate. So yes, blogs do and will continue into the future to encourage political participation. This new instrument allows everyone access to provide informational or argumentative material toward any political issue up for discussion. Yes, I did say everyone; even those without their own personal computer at home can gain access to the Internet at the local library. As Americans become more knowledgeable and comfortable with blogs, this means of political communication will accelerate in popularity and purpose.

    As current polls and surveys show, we are getting more of our daily dose of news and political information from the Internet rather than “the old” newspaper or network news. Even though I still love my daily rag, I too use the web to maintain my edge on current events. Due to this, sometime in the near future blogs may become the primary means for the public to have an opportunity to provide feedback to the White House as well as other policymakers.
    January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993

    What stood out to me about this post is that blogging is not bound by a medium. It is not a special tool for those with Web predispositions. The historical finding of the log or journal entry illustrates just that.

    Given that the ability to blog can be anyone’s tool, the task is separating sense from nonsense. Blogging gave one PhD student an opportunity to offer a suggestion to the president that in an ordinary circumstance would have been dismissed or overlooked. Maybe some of the president’s political advisors were paying attention. But where has this student’s suggestion landed the process to confirm judicial nominees? The process has become a nightmare and another political battle zone.

    While this student’s suggestion seemed right on target as a useful Republican strategy, people are still weary about the credibility of blogs, or anything on the Web for that matter. Since there are still no rules or guidelines and blinding anonymity to users, the public cannot trust the motives and reputation of bloggers to consider their ideas as practical. It is perhaps this caution that will dissuade officials from taking anything said in a blog too seriously. What blogs need is to continue to refine itself like the press, so the reader can tell what is a bonafide news report finding from tabloid hearsay.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertrinireporter

    I think the most important part of this entry is whether or not blogs affect any change. I immediately think no. I say this because people seek out the blogs that are of their common interests. They go into ones they disagree with already with a biased mindset. It is very true that humans need to give advice. Its human nature to tell everyone else what they need to do. Because humans don’t like to look at what may be wrong with them.
    Finally, it is not possible for the government to monitor all the blogs out there, but you can be sure they are following some of the most popular ones. All politicians understand that they are playing a game of interests (their interests), and they will deal with any piece that may help or hurt them.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterharrison72

    It is absolutely amazing the power that blogs have over the world. They are exceptional means of submitting personal opinions to other individuals without having to hold certain positions.
    Isocrates is an excellent example of the nature of blogs. He gave intelligent, powerful opinions on Greek affairs without holding any political position. It concurs with the notion that every person’s voice or vote can make a difference. By voicing out his views, Isocrates was able to get other individuals to expand their minds by considering options that they had never thought of before. He truly set the path for all future bloggers by proving that a person’s words can be respected as much as his credentials.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021

Leave a Reply