Conservative radio talk show host and author turned blogger Hugh Hewitt is what you might call a blog enthusiast. And that might be an understatement. His most recent book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World, compares blogging to the Protestant Reformation among other things. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, after all I have a number of blogs myself and am usually contemplating a new one on any given day. But the question remains do blogs deserve the hyperbole and attention Hugh gives them? Are they really part of a revolution?
In order to get a handle on the value of Blog the book it might be useful to run down what I consider its plus and minuses.
Let start with the positives.
– As noted, one thing that Hewitt brings to the book is enthusiasm. The book has a breezy conversational style that makes it a quick and easy read; it almost reads like a blog. Busy people trying to get a handle on this thing called blogging shouldn’t be intimidated by Blog.
– Hewitt gives credit to bloggers. One nice thing for those unfamiliar with blogs and blogging is that Hewitt lists some of the more influential bloggers at the start and references a variety of bloggers throughout the text. Obviously these references are not as handy as a hyperlink, but they still provide context for the reader; they allow the reader to check out first hand what is being talked about.
– Blog outlines some of the seminal moments in the blogosphere’s history (or at least the political section). The undoing of Trent Lott, Howell Raines, and Dan Rather are old hat to most bloggers – no matter where you come down on the events in question – but those unfamiliar with these stories will come away with a good sense of how blogs have gained prominence in recent years.
– Hewitt thinks aloud about blogging and its potential in a variety of venues and organizations. One of the later sections of Blog explores how various businesses, organizations, and groups might use blogging to their benefit (or how they might use it to avoid or respond to crisis). Most of this isn’t rocket science, but it could be very helpful to neophytes who are just beginning to consider blogging as a communication tool. At the very least it can help people jump-start their own thought process and evaluation.
What about the negatives?
– Some of the enthusiasm is a bit over the top. Does Hugh really think blogs are the equivalent of Martin Luther or the Guttenberg printing press? Are blogs really changing the world in such a unique way? (more about this later). Enthusiasm can quickly slip into unwarranted triumphalism.
– The book, while conversational, has an almost rushed feel to it; it seems like it was slapped together to take advantage of the moment. There are large sections where Hewitt quotes entire articles or large sections of research. Hewitt includes in the appendices some of his early writing on the internet and blogs from places like World Net Daily and the Weekly Standard. At times this give the work the feel of a collection of references and undeveloped ideas rather than insightful synthesis.
– Depending on your political leanings Hewittâ€™s conservatism might be distracting. The author of If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It doesn’t pull any punches; he is solidly in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy camp. He references lefty blogs but it is clear where he is coming from. If you are right of center, as the blogs that move in Hewitt’s circles are, this will seem natural. But if you don’t share his perspective on politics or the media it can be distracting.
– Not surprisingly given the rapid development of this type of medium, the book already seems out of date. Of particular note to this blog’s readers will be Hewitt’s interest in developing a blog/blogs devoted to books and publishing. A little research would have revealed that there is already a strong and growing lit blog community. Instead, Blog reads as if this is a development waiting to happen.
– Lastly, those already familiar with blogs and their development will find very little new or of interest. Blog seems trapped between preaching to the choir and reaching out to converts. It seems clear I was not his intended audience so I found it hard to judge if his message was useful.
So what are we to make of all of this? I will admit that I was slightly disappointed in Blog. A lot of it related to the problem of intended audience mentioned above, but in general I just felt like this book didn’t need to be written. Was there anything particularly insightful or unique that needed to be captured and communicated by a book like Blog? I confess I lean toward no. There are dozens of books out there on blogs and other forms of online communications (see Rebecca Blood’s work for example). What does Blog bring to the table that others don’t? I have the feeling that this book was published because Hewitt has the platform and tools to market and sell it. A talk show host, journalist, and major blogger (with a dedicated following) brings a lot of pluses to a work like this and the large number of reviews and references to it across the conservative blogosphere prove this out.
The strongest section of the book is where Hewitt talks about why blogs have succeeded and why they are important. There are two central issues here: voice and trust. Much of mainstream media has become aloof, out of touch, and bland. Internet culture developed as an alternative to this product. What blogs have made clear is that people enjoy reading other’s thoughts on the issues they care about. These voices are unique and full of personality. They don’t deny their perspectives or biases but celebrate them. You seem to know what you are getting when you read a blog. And given the amazing variety of skills and talents online, what you get is often quite a lot.
This leads to the other issue: trust. Readers make a connection with bloggers and this leads to trust. By having a conversation and by getting to know someone through their writing the reader develops a sense of trust with that source; like having your own personal expert to turn to. This kind of micro-journalism is in many ways a challenge to traditional journalism. Hewitt “gets” this (again not a surprise given his background in another alternative medium talk radio).
But what Hewitt has a harder time explaining is where we are headed. Will blogs replace “mainstream media?” or will it simple grab a larger share of the space? Are blogs really revolutionary in themselves or are they just another part of the larger communication world we now live in? Blog doesn’t really have answers to these questions and it leaves a void.
Hewitt takes few stabs at how blogs are furthering the communication revolution but his discussion of the Protestant Reformation and the Guttenberg printing press, while interesting, seem like an over-reach. Part of this is that Hewitt’s perspective is hard to get a handle on. Sometimes he is discussing the nitty-gritty workings of “blog swarms and opinion storms” and the next he is ruminating on global phenomenon like net-centric warfare or the decentralization of media. One minute you are studying the bark on a tree and the next you are viewing the forest from a satellite.
It seems to me that Blog is really best seen as a collection of potential articles or essays. Hewitt does a good job of capturing the give and take of blogging and tracing their motivation and history. He is successful in outlining some of their potential for good and ill. In other words, like any good blogger, he is good at thinking out loud. But, in my opinion, the work needed a little more refinement of the arguments and a little polishing of the structure. I could see Blog as a collection of essays on blogs and blogging with a useful appendix that collects helpful references. As it is, it lacks coherence; lacks a clear conclusion.
If you have a friend or family member who is trying to understand what this whole blogging thing is about, Blog might be a way into the world for them. But it casts its net wide rather than deep. There are a number of interesting ideas and vignettes captured within, but they are never really pulled together a given a larger meaning. If you are looking for bigger answers, Blog is probably not the book.