Happy Blogiversary to Me
After banging on my keyboard for 10 years, have I learned anything? Have you?
Related: Dan’s 10 favorite posts from a decade of Drezner
Ten years ago this September, I started my eponymous blog. In Internet time, this is the equivalent of being born in the Paleolithic Era. I have had my ups and downs with the medium. My writing opportunities are better and more variegated than they otherwise would be. On the other hand, the blog affected my day job a bit more than I would have liked at times. Oh, and the comment spam nearly forced me into an early retirement. Nevertheless, after 10 years of doing this, I feel as energized as ever about the medium.
While my enthusiasm remains, the blogging landscape has changed dramatically. What better moment, then to do what bloggers do best — ruminate about What It All Means. The medium is now firmly entrenched as an important part of the media ecosystem. Many of the people who started blogging at the same time I did are also still around. Two important things have changed, however. First, blogging has become surprisingly respectable. Second, the ongoing conversation among the first generation of bloggers has almost completely evaporated. I will miss those conversations, but I do think more has been gained than lost — for both the public sphere and foreign-policy analysis.
BEHIND THE BLOGS: THE EARLY YEARS
Here’s a confession I’ve made often: I started blogging because I couldn’t publish an op-ed to save my life. Sure, I could get articles accepted into International Organization and the American Journal of Political Science. Alas, these journals don’t have much of a policy impact. Every once in a while, I would submit an idea to the Chicago Tribune or Washington Post, and never hear back. As frustration mounted, Web 2.0 technologies were making it easier for technological troglodytes like me to publish on the web. Setting up a blog seemed like a cheap and easy outlet to muse about policy issues every once in a while. So, a year and a day after the Sept. 11 attacks, I started posting at my very own blog (To this day I regret failing to come up with a clever name for it like Atrios or Instapundit. Oh, the T-shirt residuals alone would have been sweet).
The explosion of blogging coincided with the start of a loud and roiling debate over American foreign policy — above all Iraq. September 2002 was when the Bush administration rolled out its post-9/11 National Security Strategy. Arguments about the wisdom of going to war with Iraq started in earnest. Most of the big bloggers, like most members of the foreign-policy establishment, supported the war. But that support masked a host of heated debates about whether this was the right war at the right time, being prosecuted in the right way — debates that didn’t really seem to be taking place in the mainstream media.
As Operation Iraqi Freedom soured, bloggers, like the rest of the foreign policy community, fractured between those who stood by their endorsement and those who regretted it.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one to have this idea of talking American foreign policy on the blogosphere. Many of the policy bloggers who are now quite prominent started roughly around the same time I did. This led to my first great surprise of blogging — the joy was in the conversation. I could engage Brad DeLong or Tyler Cowen on economics, Megan McArdle on regulation, Eugene Volokh on the law, Henry Farrell on international political economy, Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias on politics. I delighted in the back-and-forth. Every once in a while, a blogging god — Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds ("Instapundit"), Josh Marshall, Mickey Kaus — would link to us, our traffic would spike, and all would be right in the world.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explained that a particular group of New York lawyers struck it rich in litigation because they arrived on the legal scene with a confluence of luck, skill, and will. He could just as well have been talking about policy blogging at the beginning of the 21st century. As a collective, the first generation of bloggers who entered the scene possessed a few key advantages. Contrary to the media’s conventional wisdom about bloggers being just a bunch of losers "in pajamas," my cohort was well educated and well trained. Most of us had both advanced degrees and specific areas of policy expertise. All of us were nevertheless willing to engage — for better or for worse — on issues beyond our remit. That allowed a rolling conversation on wide-ranging topics, from the merits of Paul Krugman as a columnist to whether the United States was stingy with its aid.
All this was new and exhilarating. New York Times columnists are still not allowed to engage with each other’s ideas in anything but an oblique manner. Bloggers, in contrast, operated on the assumption that their reputation would suffer if they didn’t engage with valid criticism. As a political science professor, I was used to intelligent debate with other political scientists. Debates with such a heterogeneous group of intellects proved to be equally enriching. I am quite sure I learned more from the collective wisdom of the Crooked Timber blog than they learned from me. Engaging Glenn Greenwald was infuriating at times but nevertheless a fruitful exchange. I probably learned more sociology from Kieran Healy’s blog posts than from my graduate school training.
What surprised me even more is that other people read these online exchanges. Why? I think it was due to a combination of style and substance. The best blogs were looser, more free-flowing, and definitely more pop culture-friendly than what appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs or the Washington Post. I could crack a joke about what happens when wonks write bad sex scenes or how different foreign policy pundits would cover sports. And the readers responded.
The bloggers who survived and thrived all had another thing in common — speed. Blog exchanges led to multiple posts over the course of a few hours — you had to constantly check back in to find out what John Hinderaker or Brad DeLong was saying. Traditional media outlets were less nimble. With the rise of the wonkosphere, no more did you have to wait until Sunday to get Thomas Friedman’s musings on the last rumble in the Middle East, or David Broder’s take on the presidential election; you could just read Andrew Sullivan instead.
Blogging also created new pathways to stardom, beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers like op-ed page editors and TV bookers. As a general rule, the usurpation of traditional authority is bound to upset those who benefit the most from the status quo. And so it was with the blogging backlash: It was no doubt frustrating to columnists and chaired professors that others were acquiring the power to move the conversation — particularly since the average blog post was shorter than the average op-ed and much shorter than the average scholarly paper. Soon enough, academics began warning junior scholars not to start blogging lest it affect their chances for tenure.
Policy wonks also pooh-poohed the phenomenon. David Frum concluded that bloggers are "pretty much the opposite" of the foreign-policy community, which "insists upon formal credentials, either academic or bureaucratic." From about 2005 onwards, three months could not pass without some media scribe proclaiming that the blogging phenomenon had jumped the shark. And yet, as a medium, blogs have neither burned out nor faded away. Instead, the blogosphere did something altogether stranger.
IT USED TO BE ABOUT THE BLOGGING
If one followed the VH1 script, this would be the moment when I discuss the ways in which bloggers met their ruin. In some cases that has happened, but flameouts are the exception rather than the rule. The truth is that blogging has become respectable. A recent survey of international relations scholars found that 90 percent of respondents agreed that blogs had a beneficial impact on the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. More than half of the respondents agreed that blogs had a beneficial impact on the international relations discipline itself.
I can speak from personal experience about the change in attitudes. Prior to joining Foreign Policy in 2009, my colleagues would only talk about my blog in hushed tones at academic conferences. After joining FP — and with Stephen Walt and Marc Lynch joining as well — it became acceptable to talk about it in polite discourse. The imprimatur of a mainstream foreign-policy publication clearly mattered to my colleagues. We are now at the point where newly minted Ph.D.s argue — perhaps a bit overenthusiastically — that blogging is a pathway to professional success. (True, not everyone in my profession feels this way — but there is enough of a critical mass to institutionalize the advice given to graduate students about their online profile.)
My move to Foreign Policy was at the late end of a larger trend in which the dreaded MSM hired many of the previously mentioned bloggers. Matthew Yglesias now blogs at Slate, Megan McArdle is at Newsweek, Kevin Drum is at Mother Jones, Ezra Klein is at the Washington Post, and so forth. Other writers who started off in blogging, like Ross Douthat, have now become genuine op-ed columnists. Some bloggers, such as Josh Marshall and Glenn Reynolds, created their own media empires that came to rival the mainstream media. Writers with considerably more gravitas — James Fallows, Paul Krugman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tom Ricks — also embraced the medium. The foreign-policy community still doesn’t completely get the argot — too many people tell me "great blog!" when they mean "great post!" Still, the overt hostility has waned.
Media outlets clearly conferred respectability onto the medium, but a few other factors contributed to the perceptual shifts. First, newer forms of online content, like Twitter and YouTube, suddenly made blogging look staid and respectable. Twitter in particular crowded out one particular strain of blogging — the "linkers" who would mostly excerpt other people’s content. This left behind the "thinkers" at places like Gunpowder and Lead, Slouching Towards Columbia, and IPEatUNC with more original content. Bloggers began to specialize into particular policy niches. Again, speaking for myself, I write much more about international relations than I used to. Despite the occasional flare-up of retrograde criticism, the distinction between being an essayist and being a blogger has blurred considerably.
Blog conversations continue, but within a narrower band of specialists. Now, I’m much more likely to engage the sharp political scientists at The Monkey Cage or Duck of Minerva than Yglesias or Drum. Those bloggers are still going strong, but my own focus has narrowed a bit to American foreign policy and world politics. This metamorphosis has mostly been to the good. Increasingly, I find that blogging has been the inspiration for my more serious research projects, like American attitudes towards foreign policy or the exaggerated fears of U.S. indebtedness to China. Blogging has made me a more interesting international relations scholar and a better writer. I owe the medium a significant debt.
I do confess to an occasional twinge of nostalgia for the early days, however. Much like bull sessions in a college dorm, those early blog conversations were intellectually intriguing and immensely fun. They cannot be replicated in the present — we are too busy, too specialized, and perhaps too politically polarized. Ten years ago, because we were disconnected from established media platforms, bloggers embraced their amateurism with gusto. Now we are the establishment — which means, in all likelihood, that a rising generation of amateurs is poised to critique the living hell out of us. I hope they enjoy it as much as we did.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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