Blogged to Death 

The stuff people talk about when they talk (and talk and talk) about blogging: dispatches from last week's BlogNashville convention

The stuff people talk about when they talk (and talk and talk) about blogging: dispatches from last week's BlogNashville convention

It's been six years since I started blogging. That was back in 1999, when dinosaurs roamed the Internet. I was 21 years old, naive but with something to say, so I signed up for a blog. A few years later, I graduated from MTSU with a journalism degree, but I knew my best way to be published regularly was just to go ahead and publish myself. It didn't matter if all I had to share were some lame first drafts and silly late-night ideas peppered with a serious amount of gratuitous cursing. No one was reading my blog anyway, so why the hell not?

I didn't have any great ambitions for my blog. I worked as a waitress all through college, and after reading other people's blogs for a while, I decided I needed a place of my own to vent about bitchy, demanding customers. The wealth of material that working as a server provided was endless. Even after eight years of waiting tables, I was regularly shocked by what huge asses people could be.

After I graduated, I picked up what freelancing gigs I could (thanks, Nashville Scene), but the majority of my writing has been for the Web, and I put it there. But my beverage-fetching days are now over, as I've been hired by WKRN News 2 to blog full-time.

Here's how it happened: the station organized a meet-up for Nashville bloggers in February and has continued running stories about the local blogging community ever since. Then, after success with weather, sports and anchor-written blogs, they decided to create a general-interest blog called "Nashville Is Talking." After I met several times with WKRN's general manager, Mike Sechrist, they decided they'd like me write the station's newest blog full-time from a desk in the newsroom. I kept looking around for the hidden camera. I thought he was kidding me. I could barely contain my excitement as I fulfilled my two-week notice at the restaurant. I found that I was nicer to my tables than I had been in years, knowing they might be the last I'd ever serve.

For all I know, my position as a salaried blogger for a television station is the only one of its kind. I know some people are paid to do this, like those employed by the Gawker chain of blogs, but I haven't been able to find any evidence that a mainstream media outlet has put a 9-to-5 blogger on the payroll until now.

Last weekend, I got to cover BlogNashville, a convention at Belmont University that brought together several hundred bloggers from across the country (though most of them were from Nashville). Organizers Bill Hobbs (http://billhobbs.com), Rex Hammock (http://rexblog.com) and Bob Cox (http://www.thenationaldebate.com/blog/) created the event, modeled after the national convention Bloggercon, to look at the increasing impact of blogs on media and society. I'd signed up for BlogNashville as soon as I heard about it weeks ago, long before I'd been offered the job at WKRN. Then, all at once, I was covering the event for both News 2 and the Nashville Scene. My poor, other blog has been left to rot, mostly ignored.

If some of the people who showed up at BlogNashville are to be believed, my new life as a professional blogger might be short-lived. Mark Glaser, a reporter for the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.com), says that covering blog culture has taken up more and more of his time, something that makes him wonder just how long it can keep thriving. "There was a lot of momentum, and I think a lot of that was because of the media writing about it. You couldn't get away. Last year was the explosion to me, it seemed like, with the election and all. There is this danger when things become a big trend. The danger is, there was this big trend, but it happened and now it's over. Maybe blogging is reaching its peak, and it will go away.

"I really hope that's not the case," he adds earnestly. Can't say I disagree with him. I'm kind of liking this not-waiting-tables business.

And people think I've got it lucky. Nashvillian Kevin Barbieux came to fame through his blog The Homeless Guy, which chronicled his agonizing life shuttling from shelter to shelter, meal to meal. "Blogging has changed everything about my life significantly," he tells me at the convention. "It has culminated in me getting off the street: the income that I have now is actually all derived from what I did with my site. I have my own apartment now; I moved into it last month, and I can attribute being there now to my website."

His handwritten nametag for BlogNashville reads, "The Formerly Homeless Guy." He's started a new blog called Nashville Is (www.nashvilleis.com). I'm surprised to find out the man I knew as the Homeless Guy has a kind, soft voice. His speech is careful and contemplative. If anyone understands just how vital blogging can be, it's Barbieux, and yet he's as skeptical as anyone about its future. "We are reaching the saturation point faster than people realize," he says.

Which is why I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, I don't think blogs are going to disappear, I just wonder if in the long run it will be beneficial for organizations to pay someone like me to do it—someone who wrote one for free for so long.

As I'm talking to Barbieux, he's taking photographs of me, presumably to post to his blog. It's a scene that gets repeated countless times throughout the convention; the sounds of cameras clicking become background noise after two days of being surrounded by bloggers feverishly documenting the gathering with an impressive arsenal of gadgetry, including, but not limited to, camera phones, webcams, laptops, video cameras, hiptops, digital recorders, tape recorders and cameras, both of the digital and film variety. Photos of people taking photos of people are common in this painfully self-reflexive metagroup.

Throughout the three-day event, various speakers addressed the crowd, most of whom were typing uninterestedly at their computer. Several of the speakers were interrupted by ringing cell phones and the little song that plays when Windows is loading. The group—mostly men, mostly white—sat updating their websites or text-messaging a buddy across the room when a round face with a salt-and-pepper beard commanded everyone's attention. I didn't recognize the man at first. It wasn't until he began leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of "America, the Beautiful" that I realized that the singer up front was Dave Winer.

After graduating from The University of Wisconsin in 1979, Winer became a software pioneer known for, among other things, creating some of the first outliners, content management systems and blog tools. To many, he is considered the grandfather of blogging, having run Scripting News (http://www.scripting.com) since 1997. Winer was hired to moderate a discussion at BlogNashville titled "A Respectful Disagreement." Known for his bold opinions, prickly demeanor and penchant to ramble, he was a curious choice to moderate this discourse. "His opinions are passionately held, well-informed, intelligent, argumentative and quite often wrong," Douglas Adams, the late author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote.

However many fans Winer might have—and there are many—there are just as many likely to agree with Adams. I found a photograph on Flickr, a photo-hosting site, that had been taken in the bathroom of PM, the Belmont-area bar where some bloggers met for drinks post-conference. The picture shows fresh graffiti: the words "Dave Winer Sucks" written on the tile. It's likely the message was written by someone who participated in the Not So Respectful Disagreement session. Winer began the discussion by instigating the audience, introducing hot-button issues like abortion and Southern stereotypes in an effort to generate heated debate. But rather than commanding respect, he simply demanded respect without reciprocating.

One of the most uncomfortable moments came when Winer was talking about the economy and the failing American dollar. He was telling us that we all need to listen to one another because we are in a global economy, when all of the sudden he just stopped, mid-sentence.

"Why are you doing that?" he said, speaking directly to a gentleman in a red short-sleeved shirt. "Do you know how disrespectful that is, what you are doing right now?" Apparently, the audience member was chuckling to himself when Winer made his blanket assertions about the economy. Winer's voice grew even louder. "I'm going to finish my thought, but first I would like you to stop laughing. That is about as ugly as it gets. I don't know your name—I would use your name right now."

The man being lectured spoke up, "My name is Stan Brown."

"Stan, that is about as ugly as it gets. You sit there while a man is talking to you, and you laugh at him? How dare you?"

"Dave, why don't you pick some topics that are less disagreeable?" Brown was attempting to defend himself when Winer shot back, much like a 10-year-old, "Why don't you learn how to listen?"

One of the reasons people have such problems with Winer is that the way he behaves can be at such odds with the very spirit and culture of blogging. The Internet is democratic to a fault, everyone gets his or her chance to speak up, and yet that's not always the way it goes. Most times, in real life, it is the loudest voice in the room that wins. And Winer has a very loud voice.

"The rules about who speaks are not important," he insists after the session. "What's really important is that you have a lively discussion so that people are intellectually stimulated. I think the discussion this afternoon was a little bit more than intellectually stimulating—it was more like emotionally frightening, which isn't what it was supposed to be. You are supposed to feel like giving everybody a hug after it's over. I certainly needed a hug."

I suppose it was Winer's intention to keep the conversation on topic, but his overbearing presence and propensity to prattle on just agitated conference-goers. He was challenging everyone to treat each other with consideration, all the while interrupting and berating those who disagreed with him. It wasn't until he extracted himself from the discussion that it became remotely civilized and productive.

Despite the tension in the room, filmmaker Andrew Marcus found the discussion compelling. Marcus is the director and producer of Documentary:Blog, which he calls a primer on blogging. "What went on in Dave Winer's discussion was very important, because we are so polarized," he says. "I think that has been a marketing tool of many different interests to have us polarized. Look at cable news and Crossfire. That is the point: to polarize.

"I think one of the strengths the blogosphere offers is an opportunity to step away from that polarization. And that is not happening really yet. That is why conferences like BlogNashville are really important. People on the left and people on the right get together face to face, and sooner or later they are going to realize they have more in common than they think. And that might help heal some of the polarization of political discourse in this country."

There was a lot of talk at BlogNashville about how blogging is changing the social and political landscape, and it's here that many people think its future lies. Convention co-organizer Bill Hobbs writes the conservative, politically oriented blog HobbsOnline (www.billhobbs.com), and he's particularly attuned to the ways that news and political coverage is changing as a result of blogging. "I fully expect we'll see the emergence of blog-only media operations that do original reporting and compete favorably with newspapers and broadcast," he says. "The economics of blogging are just too good, it's almost zero-cost compared to printing and distributing a newspaper or broadcasting TV news. And blog publishing software combined with digital video cameras and wireless Internet enables almost instantaneous publishing that broadcasters and newspapers simply cannot match."

Hobbs says one of his many goals in arranging this meet-up was to "erase some of the antagonistic wall between mainstream media and bloggers." While I hadn't had much reason to concern myself with the issue before, the topic is obviously pretty relevant to me now. In fact, it wasn't until I signed on at News 2 that I knew of any such rift between the two groups. Bloggers are quick to tell the world that they are filling the void left by much-maligned mainstream media, all the while calling them on their mistakes. And they are, but the self-congratulatory tone of many media bloggers is off-putting, especially to those traditional journalists they directly challenge. I felt the need to let those I work with in the newsroom know that I don't have an agenda and that, for me, blogging is more about swear words and storytelling.

"Mainstream media has bloggers, and they use them for their sound bites and then they cut to a commercial. I don't think they care." I'm interviewing Andrew Marcus from the WKRN newsroom while his producers and crew are setting up lights and boom mics in preparation to interview me for their film. Like I said, it's a very self-reflexive world I move in. "Blogs are a revolution, not a fad!" he exclaims. "Blogs as we know them, the blogosphere as we know it—those terms may be fads. Those may go away. But the monopoly the mainstream media has held on national discourse and dissemination of information in this country, that is gone. It is gone forever."

The irony is that Marcus himself is offering up sound bites suitable for the 6 o'clock news, or for his own film project, but his passion and his point are both genuine. I mention to him the oft-asserted criticism that blogging is simply masturbatory navel-gazing. He laughs and nods his head. "There is a tremendous amount of navel-gazing going on, and it's a revolution. The navel-gazing is a little bit warranted, and it's actually really constructive. [People] aren't just looking at themselves and others and saying, 'Boy, aren't we great.' They are really critical about themselves and each other."

Bloggers who post commentary about their daily lives, tell stories about their children or write with no greater purpose than to have fun may be put off by all the talk of a revolution. Tim Morgan, whose Tim Morgan's Musings (www.timmorgan.com) is precisely one of those blogs, is quick to point out that blogging doesn't have to be Culturally Significant. "People are driven by politics," he says. "I mean, there are also food blogs and blogs about knitting, which is big. I don't know what the deal is between knitting and blogs, but they go hand in hand, evidently. It's like going to eBay. If you can find it on eBay, you can find a blog about it. And you can join in the discussion."

Morgan might disagree with Marcus on one point, but tellingly, he agrees with him on another: "It's all an evolutionary process of communication. It's a format, and I think it will continue to evolve. I mean, look at podcasting and audiocasting and videocasting. In 10 years, we'll have something else. We may not be calling it a blog anymore. It's just a tool. It's a method of communicating, just like the telephone or the Internet."

By now, we can all accept that blogs are changing the face of journalism as we know it. And that's exciting. I'm all for hearing voices we haven't heard in the mainstream media before, especially if I get to be one of them. But the fact remains that most people who write blogs do so because it's cheap (or free), easy to set up, and an inventive new way of being heard. While the 400 BlogNashville attendees may have a whole new perspective on their self-proclaimed revolutionary activity, many of the world's millions of bloggers are more likely to agree with Morgan when he says, "What I try to do is just do stuff that's funny and not serious. I don't mean for anyone to take it seriously. It is just something that is."

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