B-List Blogs

Why bother to call something a blog, when the term is essentially meaningless? Almost anything can qualify – from a personal diary chronicling my ongoing obsession with putting fruit on my cat's head to serious dope about what's happening inside the Washington beltway. So what's the point of lumping them together under one name? The point is that blogs are, in fact, an identifiable media form, just as poems and movies are, despite their diversity of formats and styles.

A blog is a regularly updated online periodical, often created using special blog-building tools or software. Nearly all share the same basic structure: the title hovers at the top of the page; a central column of text makes up the blog's main content, with each entry getting its own headline and date; the page is flanked by two narrow margins full of ads, links, or other incidental information.

There are even blog genres at this point: there are gushing, personal, LiveJournal-style blogs; snarky political blogs; news blogs that report insider information about government or industry; fan blogs that focus on a particular performer or aspect of pop culture; wonk blogs that report the minutiae of a particular type of legislative or policy issue; and the unclassified other types that are sort of the funky metal bands or science-fiction westerns of the blog world.

Blogs are also a media form that could only have come into being in this historical period, and therefore they will always be marked by a particular political and cultural bent. This is a form born at a time when global communication systems are fast becoming the norm in many places, including the developing world. International bodies like the European Union and the United Nations are reconsidering the legitimacy of excluding certain countries from massive geopolitical negotiations. And blogs are, in some sense, part of this. In Iraq and Malaysia, for example, bloggers are broadcasting their concerns to the world, under threat of imprisonment. Nobody can argue with the idea that the web provides a new vehicle for free speech.

But blogs challenge what makes for valuable or credible speech, which is not at all the same thing as free speech. Unlike Usenet posts and e-mail, blogs are sometimes indistinguishable from professionally created news and information sites – on the Internet, it's hard to tell the upstarts from the establishment.

This creates a tremendous amount of anxiety, and not just on the part of media professionals who feel like their turf has been invaded. Everyone is affected. The people C. Wright Mills once charmingly dubbed "power elites" get sweaty because their control of pop culture doesn't yet include the ability to steer bloggers the way they do The New York Times or Newsweek. But it also freaks out the everyday media consumer, who isn't sure whether to trust his or her local blogger or the unreachable bigwig at the news desk uptown. Blogs have created a brief, interesting moment of cultural chaos in which regular folks don't know what to believe and elite types don't know whose ass to lick to get their stories pumped out of the live news nozzle.

What's surprising is that the bloggers themselves are striving just as hard to bring this chaos to an end as everybody else is. And they're doing it by setting up their own hierarchy of what's valuable in the blogosphere and what isn't. It's common nowadays to hear about A-list blogs and B-list blogs, or funded and unfunded blogs. And of course it's no accident that blogs are achieving some degree of legitimacy at the same time that bloggers are creating their own versions of the authoritarianism and money hunger that already plague the traditional media.

You can watch this authority-building exercise in action just by reading the latest headlines. While big corporations and newspapers are setting up their own jingoistic blogs, such as Microsoft's Scobleizer, a handful of journalists have been fired for blogging, as have corporate serfs at Google, Microsoft, and Delta Airlines. Guess who's legit and who isn't in this equation? I think the guys with the money win. Similarly, the blog Gawker has gotten far more attention than any number of its equally irritating, celebrity-stalking counterparts because Gawker has funding from entrepreneur Nick Denton, who also owns Gizmodo and Wonkette.

Even more disturbing are the implicit rankings between blogs like Gothamist and SFist. Both are lively, well-written publications that cover urban culture, politics, and art. But one is A-list and the other is B-list. Why? Gothamist is based in New York, ground zero of the "legit" publishing industry. SFist is out on the media frontier in San Francisco.

The old voices of authority are not exactly dying out. Say good-bye to the chaos and hello to the A-list.

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