An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, by Glenn Reynolds, Washington, D.C.: Nelson Current, 256 pages, $24.99
It was the middle of last February, and the bloggers had arrived with cameramen in tow. Pajamas Media, a weblog collective launched with $3.5 million of venture capital, had sent two of its stars to Arlington, Virginia, to explore some new evidence about Iraq's antebellum weapons of mass destruction. While novelist, screenwriter, and Pajamas Media cofounder Roger L. Simon chatted up former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle and former CIA Director James Woolsey for video-enhanced blog posts, filmmaker Andrew Marcus visited Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).
Hoekstra, the chairman of the Select House Intelligence Committee and a vocal supporter of the Iraq war, wanted to attach jumper cables to the debate over weapons of mass destruction. Three years had passed since weapons inspectors, following Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's directions, had failed to find deadly ordnance "in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." Hoekstra's committee had a stash of declassified documents from before the war, and no one was translating them; since the WMD debate was basically over, there wasn't much interest in what Saddam's inner circle used to bluster about. But if these documents could be publicized, there would be a chance for war supporters to argue anew that the invasion was justified. Now, Hoekstra told Marcus, was the time to "unleash the power of the Net on these 55,000 boxes of documents to see exactly what went on." Bloggers could translate the documents themselves, or at least pass around information and rumors about what the papers contained. If the intelligence community wasn't interested, Hoekstra could put the papers online and "let the blogosphere go!"
It was an odd proposal. With cable and network news excitedly reporting on unearthed Saddam audio tapes and with the considerable power Hoekstra had in Congress, did he really need help to launch a P.R. campaign about pre-war Iraqi intelligence? Wouldn't bloggers laugh this off? Not at all: As the documents came out, Hoekstra's brainstorm was greeted with candy and flowers. Powerline blogger John Hinderaker called Hoekstra a "hero" who was making "these documents and tapes public so that the truth about Saddam's regime can be more fully known." The document dump turned out to be seriously flawed, with irrelevant conversations and translations of American news stories mixed in with papers from Saddam's regime. But when wrapping up his interview with Hoekstra, Pajamas Media's Marcus sounded downright gleeful: "So, the last chapter in the story on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has not been written, has it?" A patriotic viewer could practically hear the A*Team theme kicking in.
The very idea of bloggers signing up for a pro-war P.R. project would have strained credulity when the medium first attracted wide public attention. In the late 1990s, easy-to-use Web publishing software gave rise to thousands of online diaries. Already on the rise, such sites really started to take off after the 9/11 attacks, as ordinary people started blogs to vent, to organize, and to reach out to people they hadn't met. It was a grassroots, low-rent, proudly amateur subculture, and its members frequently proclaimed themselves a media revolution. How did we reach the point where blogs were enlisting in propaganda campaigns run by politicians?
For answers, you might turn to An Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, and Crashing the Gate, by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong of DailyKos.com and MyDD.com. They all were present at the creation of the modern blogosphere, and their books are thick with praise and hype for the potential of blogging. Both books also unintentionally illustrate the way that blogs are joining the very establishment they talk about upending.
Crashing the Gate is the more pugnacious of the two books, packaged and sold like a political manifesto. Both of its authors started their journeys far, far outside the system in 2001. Armstrong, then a 37-year-old day trader (and occasional union organizer) in Portland, Oregon, was a mainstay at the relatively ancient Web community The Well; he launched MyDD (short for "My Due Diligence") to follow a special 2001 congressional election in Virginia. The site became a liberal hub, and Moulitsas, a then-29-year-old Army veteran and tech consultant in Berkeley, California, started his blogging career as a commenter on MyDD. In 2003 the duo formed a consulting partnership, and by the summer Armstrong had quit blogging to work on the Howard Dean campaign.
In MyDD's absence, the popularity of Moulitsas' Daily Kos—his own blog, launched in 2002—skyrocketed. While conservatives had spent the Clinton era fulminating at sites like FreeRepublic.com and Lucianne.com, liberals had entered the Bush era with no online port. Kos became that port. Before too long it had been upgraded to allow users to post "diaries" of their own. At the end of 2004 it was the most popular weblog, political or otherwise. Today it gets around 500,000 unique visits a day. When the Dean campaign folded and MyDD was relaunched, it was just one point in a network of growing, highly active left-wing blogs.
Early in Crashing the Gate, Armstrong and Moulitsas daydream about using their influence to topple America's rusty political system. "If only we could say, 'To hell with the Democratic Party!'?" they write. "But part of the present American reality is that we live in a two-party system, and the Democratic Party is our only alternative." As long as progressive bloggers are stuck with the Democrats, Armstrong and Moulitsas say, they should reclaim it as "the party of the people. Our message is simple: You can get out of the way or work with us. Trying to stop us is a losing proposition." Despite these gripes, Armstrong and Moulitsas don't venture far from the Democratic mainstream. They criticize pro-choice activists for not rallying behind pro-life Democrats. The most lionized politician in their book is Brian Schweitzer, the moderate governor of Montana who picked a Republican running mate in his successful 2004 run.
The rest of the book investigates ways Democrats can let the blogs into their power structure and start winning some elections. When felled presidential candidate Howard Dean started running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee—an office elected by around 400 party insiders—liberal blogs threw themselves into the race, promoting Dean and attacking the other candidates. According to Armstrong and Moulitsas, Dean's election to the ultimate insider's job "was made far easier when the field was cleared of most of his rivals, with a little help from bloggers and the netroots."
Most of Crashing the Gate's narrative runs along these lines, with liberal blogs (or the occasional smart Democratic organizer) outsmarting hated party hacks to install their own party hacks. The most surprising section of the book is a sort of paean to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Surveying the news channels and think tanks that have demolished liberals' causes, the authors marvel that "what conservatives have built over the past thirty years is nothing short of brilliant. We can admire it the way we would admire the precision, engineering, and craftsmanship of a stealth fighter." They don't want to build an anti-aircraft weapon to take this out. They want their own stealth fighters.
In the progressive future of Crashing the Gate, blogs aren't going to demolish the old party system or remake Washington. They'll be one cog in a powerful "left-wing conspiracy" that will win the country back from the GOP. (The "conspiracy" phrasing is tongue-in-cheek.) Sites like Daily Kos, they promise, will do for Democrats what Rush Limbaugh did for the Republican Revolution. This is already manifesting itself on Kos, as the offices of Democratic politicians such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, and Michigan Rep. John Conyers post "diaries"— press releases plus earnestness and hyperlinks—for the consumption of the blog community. There's already an answer to this on the right at RedState.com, which often features diaries by Republican congressmen and conservative radio hosts. Traffic to both sites is growing healthily, at the cost of dividing much of the political blogosphere into left-wing and right-wing echo chambers.
The prospect of a left-right bloggish Cold War can't be what anyone was thinking when they visited Glenn Reynold's Instapundit.com in the months after 9/11. The University of Tennessee law professor behind that site was a prolific commenter on Slate's discussion boards, "The Fray," until he started fiddling with blogging software in 2001. Before the 9/11 attacks, traffic to Instapundit.com had been humming along at more than 1,000 readers a day. On that day, it nearly tripled. "You hear often the same reasons given," Reynolds writes, "basically variations on 'I got tired of watching the video of the towers collapsing,' and 'I got tired of yelling at the TV.' Like me, people were unhappy with the mass-market journalistic product and wanted to try making something of their own." Reynolds' superhuman pace—he had six posts up on September 11, 2001, before he started blogging about the attacks—quickly pushed him to the forefront of the medium. He was a human news aggregator, posting pithy commentary and links to media as large as CNN.com or as small as a new blogspot site. His readership grew exponentially; smaller blogs would creak under the "instalanches" of thousands of hits after Reynolds linked to them.
For Reynolds, whose site now gets 250,000 to 500,000 unique visits per day, today's blogs are only a whisper of the truly independent medium that's on its way. Blogs' impact on the mainstream media (MSM, in blog lingo) "is akin to what happened to the Church during the reformation," he writes. Consumers were already growing less trustful of the press. There was plenty of room for alert, fun-loving bloggers to challenge the media. Professional journalists such as Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Edward Jay Epstein, and former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel had preceded Reynolds into the blogosphere, but the unknown law professor quickly won a vastly larger readership. "News and reporting used to be something 'they' did," Reynolds writes. "Now it's something that we all do."
Though he's a self-described libertarian who backs the Iraq war and supported Bush over Kerry, Reynolds shares a major theme with Moulitsas and Armstrong. It's there in his title, An Army of Davids, with its evocation of citizens bringing down tyrannies with their slingshots and stones. It's implicit in his fondness for words like revolution and his tales of big organizations (such as CBS News) running scared from the blogs. His subtitle, "How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths," easily ranks among the most optimistic statements on blogging (or markets and technology, for that matter) ever.
Reynolds isn't deeply concerned about partisan politics, which spares readers Crashing the Gate–style boosterism. He spotlights some bloggers, such as J.D. Johannes and Michael Yon, who run Iraq-based sites that provide news and perspective on military operations and local culture that wouldn't have had an outlet in the broadcast and print media goliaths. Reynolds doesn't, however, cover the phenomenon of bloggers consolidating or forming Pajamas Media–style outlets to sidle up alongside the mainstream media. Reynolds himself is a paid "supervising executive editor" at Pajamas Media, a blogger at MSNBC.com, and a regular columnist for TCS Daily. If he had wanted to explore this stage of blogs' evolution, a good test case would have been Powerline.
Powerlineblog.com started in 2002 as a low-key opinion site run by three conservative lawyers based in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. In September 2004, when CBS News relied on a forgery in a report on young George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard, Powerline was the most prominent of several sites that demolished the network's evidence. At the end of the year, the very Old Media magazine Time named it "Blog of the Year," and before long the Powerline pontificators were regular panelists on Reliable Sources, a CNN series hosted by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Powerline's takedown of CBS News was a textbook example of blogs' fact-checking and humiliating mainstream media outlets. But when the blog earned fame, its writers starting seeking out chairs at the pundits' table. You could look from MSM to blog, and from blog to MSM again, and it was impossible to say which was which.
The story of blogs only takes up about a fifth of An Army of Davids. In Reynolds' narrative, they're one permutation of "the triumph of personal technology over mass technology." As technology makes it possible for more people to work from home or launch businesses, Reynolds sees the sparks of a "new revolution" that could reduce crime and traffic while strengthening the economy and the traditional family. As more people can get broadband access and work from home, fewer absentee dads will be clogging the interstates getting to the office. As recording equipment becomes cheaper, and as it becomes easier for musicians and filmmakers to upload their wares to the Internet, real talent will be recognized and popularized without the approval of a hidebound entertainment industry. This is all a wind-up for "the approaching singularity," where change will happen faster than anyone can predict and "capabilities now available only to nation-states will soon be available to individuals."
This last revelation comes on fast and isn't completely convincing. Blogging hit the big time, yes. But the last 10 years, especially the late 1990s, were littered with promising, sky's-the-limit technological leaps that were supposed to bring about the singularity. Reynolds' final chapters on nanotechnology, longevity, and private space travel are brisk and optimistic, but they don't quite sell the book's bold thesis. Summing up the possibilities of human enhancement, for example, Reynolds suggests that abilities "like super strength, x-ray vision, underwater breathing, and the like are not so remote."
Yet whether or not you agree with Reynolds' predictions, they contain a core truth. For every innovation that makes it easier for a presidential candidate to take advantage of the blogosphere, there will be a tool that allows less tech-savvy people to publish one-man journals, upload photos, and post videos to share with complete strangers. The amateur, grassroots quality that excited so many people at the beginning of blogging will always be around in some form. There are many more contemplative diaries by awkward teens than spotlight-craving political blogs; in between there are sites devoted to everything from cooking to cars to Christianity.
But the Bible tells us what will happen to a lot of those would-be Davids. It didn't take long for the original Goliath slayer to start building an empire and shacking up with Bathsheba. It doesn't take long for a rebellious blogger to enjoy the taste of influence either. When that happens, ax-grinding politicians from Pete Hoekstra to Howard Dean should take note: These guys would love to help, as long as they can feel like they're overthrowing something.