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. [Read more…]

Blogs, Politicians and the “Face in the Crowd”

Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in one of a series of dismissals of bloggers, summed up their contribution to the information society by the following: “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough.”

If, indeed, that it was all bloggers were doing or could do, it would not be enough, but blogging today is much more than media criticism. In fact, there are bloggers who are doing everything that journalists ever did. Indeed that’s the point about the world of “PolicyByBlog”: blogging is a genre, a medium and a technology that can be used by professionals.

I don’t think Keller was making a movie allusion. But to historians of political communication who are also interested in politicians using blogs to reach the people it is worth recalling the implications of the word “chew.” I think of a potent icon of individual populist autocracy gone mad.

crowd.jpgThere were no blogs in 1956 when director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg crafted their famous meditation on the perils of democracy, “Face in the Crowd.” In his best (and first) movie performance, Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas yokel who, by his quick wit and ruthless character, rises to the top of the talk show radio and television game. Of course, he abuses his power, crushing people who stand in his way, and even attempts to hogtie the course of the nation.

In one famous sequence, he adopts the political fortunes of a well-known conservative senator with presidential ambitions. The man is a dignified, thoughtful, old-fashioned politician, modeled perhaps on the late Robert “Mr. Conservative” Taft of Ohio. Griffith tries to turn him into a cracker barrel populist, creating a television show in which the senator mingles with some good old boys at a country general store, chewing “tobacca” and offering political homilies.

In the movie the scene is meant to be both low comedy and high satire. The points were that (a) the pol was demeaning himself with each chaw and (b) the relatively new medium of television–which in 1956 was young as Blogs are now!–offered many opportunities for demagoguery.

Bill Keller was not thinking of Lonesome Rhodes when he portrayed bloggers as news-chewers, but the concerns about populism run amok are the same. I just think that they are misplaced: bloggers are LESS likely to be hypnotized by demagogues than audiences of the television (or the speech era), because blogging is a relatively active, questioning, process and inauthenticity by a politician is both more easy to detect and deflate.

Originally posted November 21, 2005 at PolicyByBlog

Blogs of War: Then and Now

A few years ago I wrote a book on the history of the visualization of war.  Today, writing a book on blogging, I see a striking differences between two “blogs of war,” that is, first person accounts of a battle in the Middle East.

Then: In c. 1300 BCE, the pharaoh Rameses II and his army fought a battle against a Hittite army at Kadesh, in what is now Syria. The battle was a draw; in fact, the Egyptians ended up retreating. But Rameses’ memorial temple–an instance of massive communication–shows on its 100-foot walls pictures and hieroglyphics of the great ruler as victorious. As originally painted, Rameses is bronze skinned, broad shouldered, long armed, resolute of face, wearing the twin crowns of upper and lower Egypt, and many times larger than the Hittites and his own men–a superman in the anthropological as well as comic book sense. (Rameses became the “Ozymandias”  who, in Shelley’s poem, demanded that all “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”) In the written records accompanying the images, Rameses boasts that he personally routed “every warrior of the Hittite enemy, together with the many foreign countries which were with them.”


In contrast, the pharaoh blames his own men for early problems in the battle: “You have done a cowardly deed, altogether. Not one man among you had stood up to assist me when I was fighting. . . not one among you shall talk about his service, after returning to the land of Egypt.” In other words, here was the mighty-thighed Pharaoh announcing that his own men were cowards and he won the battle single-handedly. I have often wondered whether some veteran of Kadesh, walking by the tableaus, did not squint up, shake his head, gnash his teeth, and growl to his wife, “The lying bastard, it was his bad generalship/leadership that lost the day, not our cowardice.” But of course we don’t know; foot soldiers in Pharaoh’s army didn’t carve or write their campaign memoirs; and no scribe or stonemason interviewed them. [Read more…]

Blogs as “Scribbling Mercuries”: Marketplace of Ideas or Duel to the Death of Ideas?

The blog is possible through the convergence of many new technologies: revolutions in human communication that were both tipping points (of ideas) and points of the tip (of new things). In parallel, more than half a millennium ago (1452-1454/55), Johann Gutenberg printed his two-volume, 1,282-page, 42-line Bible in Mainz. He produced 180 copies (150 on paper and, it is believed, 30 on parchment), using about 20 assistants in the process. His innovations included a screw press (a converted wine press) and moveable type with individual elements (periods, letters, upper- and lower-case letters).

Interestingly, the small number of Bibles hardly represented a “mass” communication, but one of Gutenberg’s follow-up projects did. To raise money to pay for a crusade against Muslim Turks, the Roman Catholic Church contracted with Gutenberg to print thousands of Letters of Indulgence–certificates the Catholic faithful could buy for cash, absolving them of their sins. The practice was among the chief complaints of a young German monk named Martin Luther who, in 1517, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, signaling the beginning of the Reformation. It is hard to imagine that such heresy could have spread so widely and so quickly in the pre-print era. In fact, Luther’s theses would have become only sketchily known by world of mouth (and probably easily suppressed before they became too widespread). But in the developed printworks of Germany, the “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” would become a mass document.


Unlike in China or Korea, which had invented printing earlier but were unified countries with established ruling classes, the print world of Gutenberg was the free-for-all arena of ideologies and political partisanship of 14th century Europe. Printing, therefore, became an instrument of both orthodoxy and revolution. During the religious wars of the 16th century in Central Europe, for instance, each side would prepare innumerable books that propagandized their cause and demonized the enemy. Crucially, however, it was not quite a marketplace of ideas. In areas under stable Church or government control, censorship in what people could print and what they could read was the norm. In Henry XIII’s England, for example, printing a book without the king’s license was punishable by death. [Read more…]

BLOGWARS on the DAILY SHOW with Jon Stewart (May 8)

I am scheduled to be on the DAILY SHOW with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central this Thursday (May 8) to talk about political blogging and my book, BLOGWARS. Everyone’s first piece of advice for me about being a good guest: Don’t try to be funny. I think I can manage that…

The Daily Show has become an institution of American politics very much linked to a culture where people–especially younger voters–seek out political information from non-traditional sources. [A KU student (Nathan Rodriguez) in our school’s master’s program is writing his thesis on the show, to some extent based on his time as an intern.] The show is part of the political culture it satirizes and, in some cases, influences it. The show is considered a source of information, an explainer of politics, and of course a “speaker” of (funny) truth to power.

TDS’s effects are hard to quantify: Think in terms of Saturday Night Live‘s “effect” on the Clinton-Obama race! However, there is a small but growing area of research that looks at its role in politics and political socialization. A 2004 Annenberg Election Survey found that TDS viewers have “higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers—even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”

Jon Stewart was rated the fourth “most admired journalist in America” in a 2007 survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Another Pew study found that regular viewers of The Daily Show and its sister Colbert Report had among highest levels of knowledge about news and public affairs among any group of new consumers. [Read more…]

The Origins of BLOGWARS, part 1

I got a chance on my DAILY SHOW appearance to mention when I first started working on my book, BLOGWARS. Here are more details–partly drawn from BLOGWARS itself. In my mind there were three points of origin of the book.

1. In 1996, a colleague and I conducted one of the first studies of presidential campaign Web sites. Our main finding was that they were mostly online “tackboards,” posting information rather than developing content that exploited the hyperlinking and interactive qualities of the Internet. We stated, however, in the conclusions that: “It is currently possible, though no candidate has done this, to host an online talk show where the candidate fields questions from users throughout the nation.” Then, as an afterthought, I began looking at “personal political Web sites” created not by the campaign apparatus—political consultants, managers, advisers, or parties—but by individuals who supported the candidate or some cause. Many were raucous and crude, but it did seem that personalized mass political communication was finally possible. Here were ordinary folks—dry cleaners, cops, high school juniors—grabbing a bullhorn and insisting, “Listen to me, I have something to say!” about presidential politics, terrorism, the Supreme Court, and so on. If you had Web access, you could read and interact with them for your own enrichment or bemusement. [Read more…]

Paleolithic Blogs

Dave (askdavetaylor) Taylor gave the Keynote address of the Executive & Entrepreneur track at the Blogworld & New Media Expo 2008 in Las Vegas. (I am here as track director for the Citizen Journalism Workshop). Mr. Taylor made the comment that from the very beginning media–such as early cave paintings–has been biased in that it reflected what the creators wanted to show and not what they did not want to show.

Interestingly I discussed this point in my book Visions of War (St. Martin’s, 1999) which looked at the history of pictures of war. I noted that cave paintings, like those at Lascaux, France were the first physical “medium” of communications outside of the human body. They date back to the appearance of us–anatomically modern humans–and flourished during the Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era about 35,000 to 12,000 years. Interestingly, when researchers have counted the scenes, flora, and fauna represented in the images on caves you see a huge “bias.” There are very few images of “gathering” or small animals or fish.

On the other hand, overrepresented are big-game animals that weigh more than 100 pounds: bison, Mammoths, deer. They are attractive animals–from carnivore’s perceptive. Many are hugely bloated. These animals do not match the surveys researchers have done of the actual faunal life in the area of the caves. “La Grotte de Cent Mammouths” is one example: there are some 158 or more pictures of Mammoths but only a few Mammoth teeth testify the big animals were very scarce in the neighborhood. [Read more…]

Perlmutter at Jeremy Taylor Show

I was a guest on the Jeremy Taylor Show on 1320 am radio in Lawrence. Our planned topic was “What will happen next in politics and media and our personal lives after the very prominent rise of online social-interactive media in campaign 2008?”

Among my points:

  • It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration uses OSIM in governing and gaining support for policies, programs, and projects in a different or similar way than they did for winning votes and raising money for the presidential election. I suggested that it would be a mistake to overdo OSIM–that is, if all those who had given their text message address to the Obama campaign received a note from him daily, there would be a significant turn-off of interest and enthusiasm. Like all weapons in politics or war, OSIM outreach must be used prudently.
  • Second, referring to my previous post on a “slow blogging movement,” I wonder whether we will reach a saturation effect, with instantaneousness, interactivity, and the confusion of information and misinformation that is sweeping over us. Just as for the “slow food” or “localivore” movement, will people want to reduce the amount of stuff being thrown at them and seek out higher quality and even slower venues of news and political information?

Since Mr. Taylor and I are both World War II buffs, we also spared a few moments to discuss the movie “Valkyrie.” I noted that it is intriguing to speculate how much history would have been changed if some of the new communications technologies existed in previous eras. In the Valkyrie case, imagine the impact of instant messaging on the plot to kill Hitler!

Actually, you could make a case that there was text-messaging in the Third Reich….


Originally posted January 31, 2009 at PolicyByBlog