Joe Lieberman left the Senate this past week, and despite his disappointing and controversial final term, he could at least retire knowing that he had largely outlived the explosion of blogs and bloggers that drove him from the Democratic Party in 2006. But the forces of online political engagement and activism Lieberman unwittingly helped to focus and unleash are stronger than ever, and are making our politics both better and far worse.
Late in the election season of 2006 I got an email from somebody at the State Department down in Washington. They were bringing foreign journalists to New London for the U.S. Senate debate, and were wondering if I would be interested in being on a panel to talk with them about the election. Nonplussed, I agreed, and I and a few fellow writers from my site went to talk with them. I apparently made it onto Spanish TV. My qualifications? I was 29 years old, and I ran a blog.
Blogs had hit the big time, especially here in Connecticut. The campaign against Lieberman, which had many online roots and found a warm welcome in the new network of national liberal blogs, was a massive ongoing coming-out party for citizen media. Everyone rushed to assure us that blogs were the future, and at the time it seemed like it could be true. The new “netroots” was emerging as a vital political force, especially on the left. The 2006 Senate race felt like a watershed moment for online organizing.
But now, six years later, the political blogosphere at both the state and national level is a virtual ghost town, dominated by legacy sites and a few big companies. Don’t believe me? Name a political blog started after 2008 that you read. So what happened? Why did Connecticut’s vibrant political blogosphere wither away?
There are plenty of reasons. Blogs could be exhausting and costly to maintain. I spent hours every day writing posts and moderating comments. I had many amazing and talented people writing stories and moderating content for the site, but it was still a ton of work for an all-volunteer staff. There was very little money in advertising even for those who decided to chase it; bloggers were definitely not getting rich from their sites. Many blogs were solely the product of their owners’ passionate commitment to the issues they cared about.
Also, liberal activism began to ebb as Democrats started winning elections again. In Connecticut, Democrats began sweeping Republicans out of their congressional seats and won huge majorities in the legislature. Nationally, Democrats won control of Congress and then the presidency. Suddenly, there was a lot less to organize against. Online activism, and the political culture it spawned, is far better suited to being in opposition than being in power. As liberal energy dimmed, a lot of blogs vanished. Conservative blogs and activism began to briefly flourish as Republicans fell out of power, but Connecticut saw comparatively little of that. Even nationally, conservative blogs could never quite match the clout of their liberal counterparts.
The most obvious reason is that technology has moved on. The netroots never went away, they just migrated to other platforms. In 2006 and 2008 campaigns had blogs, now they have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Four years from now they’ll have something else. The blog revolution wasn’t the format itself, but the way it functioned. Blog posts could go up very quickly, and anyone could interact with the blogger or other commenters in the comment section. News stories broke in the comments, candidates could speak directly to potential voters there, and a community could and often did form. Facebook, Twitter and other social networks gradually replaced these functions, though, and blogs started to become less relevant. A few blogs like Daily Kos survived and even thrived because of their strong communities, but many did not.
As technology evolved and activists moved to faster and more wide-reaching platforms, blogs started to seem like dinosaurs. And yet, there is no campaign now without an online media presence. The tools of citizen journalism, such as camera phones, recorders, and easily sharable YouTube videos are ubiquitous. This has led to a politics that is more accountable and interactive, but also more polarized, distractible and sensationalist. Joe Lieberman may have outlasted some of the blogs, but the media revolution that he didn’t see coming in 2006 is here to stay.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.