I was just at a panel on blogging and feminism at Barnard, featuring Jessica, Gwen Beetham occasionally of Feministing and more frequently of the Real Hot 100, Alice Marwick, Liza Sabater, Lauren Spees of Hollaback NYC, and Michelle Riblett of Hollaback Boston. The panel itself was tremendously educational, telling me many things I didn’t know before and getting me thinking about several issues concerning feminism and blogging.
To me, the most interesting issues were aired by Alice and Liza, who talked about the blog revolution from two very different perspectives.
Alice devoted considerable time to why blogs were so interesting to academics: they embody citizen participation, they are interactive, etc. But instead of praising them uncritically, she correctly went on to talk about the digital divide, the fact that bloggers have no trouble discriminating against women and minorities, and classism (I’d also add the fascination of blogs like Daily Kos and Redstate with horserace politics).
I probably should’ve live-blogged the conference. The only comment I remember wanting to make about Alice’s talk is that people on the connected side of the digital divide are invested in broadening access and reducing the number of disconnected people.
In contrast, Liza’s talk was more memorable. She started by noting that people talk of a blog revolution without ever being able to define what it is. She tried defining it in terms of what on other blogs would be called safe spaces: niche communities that focus on issues relevant to a particular, often marginalized group, in a setting where they’re relatively safe from the encroaching influence of the mainstream. Women had the kitchen and the monastery, and now they have their blogs.
But I think a better way of explaining the influence of blogs is by trying to come up with something that’s relevant not only to Feministing and Culture Kitchen but also to Atrios and Powerline. Early adopters functioned as alternative media sources that had abnormal levels of immediacy: Josh Marshall took down Trent Lott, Powerline took down Dan Rather, Kos provided liberals and Democrats a general community. The success of liberal blogs like Majikthise and even radical ones like Alas, A Blog is a byproduct of Howard Dean’s integration of Democratic blogs into his campaign.
Jessica likes to give the same example over and over again when talking about blogs – I’ve seen her in person twice and heard it twice – by comparing Feministing to NOW. When the Census Bureau wanted to stop collecting gender gap statistics, she says, Feministing screamed about it within the week; NOW sent an action alert three months later telling people to urgently take action.
So that’s one aspect of the blog revolution that explains its ubiquity even outside marginalized circles. Another aspect is the advent of the echo chamber. One of the people asked how blogs were different from message boards. The answers were mostly about blogs versus LiveJournals, unfortunately.
Instead, a better way of explaining why Free Republic and Democratic Underground have never gotten anywhere is that they’re built specifically to promote intra-movement discussion, which leads to flamewars on some issues and echo-chambering on others, and promotes an insane level of in-group boundedness. The members of the in-group may like it, but it detracts from political effectiveness. In contrast, blogs are built to talk not only to the regular commenters, but also to a wider audience, so on the one hand they have stable echo chambers that have a high level of boundedness, but on the other also have communication with the outside world.
A more progressive-specific explanation ties in to what I said about progressive pathologies: progressivism is built on single-issue movements. But even single-issue movements have their own issue splits – for example, feminism focuses on pay equity, women in politics, legal equality, reproductive rights, and violence against women. The blogosphere allows people to choose a submovement, which increases the level of political commitment much in the same way allowing them to identify with a single-issue movement instead of a big-tent progressive movement increases the level of commitment.
In the US, someone who’s interested in the intersection of feminism and politics can read Pandagon or Majikthise; someone who’s interested in social scientific analyses, especially of the media and of pay equity, can read Echidne; someone who’s interested in feminism and culture can read Feministing or Feministe; someone who’s interested in family law and sexual assault can read The Countess. This makes people more involved, since they can more easily focus on the feminist issues they care about the most.