At a recent Harvard conference on bloggers and the media, the most pungent statement came from cyberspace. Rebecca MacKinnon, writing about the conference as it happened, got a response on the "comments" space of her blog from someone concerned that if the voices of bloggers overwhelm those of traditional media, "we will throw out some of the best... journalism of the 21st century." The comment was from Keith Jenkins, an African-American blogger who is also an editor at The Washington Post Magazine [a sister publication of NEWSWEEK]. "It has taken 'mainstream media' a very long time to get to [the] point of inclusion," Jenkins wrote. "My fear is that the overwhelmingly white and male American blogosphere... will return us to a day where the dialogue about issues was a predominantly white-only one."
After the comment was posted, a couple of the women at the conference--bloggers MacKinnon and Halley Suitt--looked around and saw that there weren't many other women in attendance. Nor were the faces yapping about the failings of Big Media representative of the human quiltwork one would see in the streets of Cambridge or New York City, let alone overseas. They were, however, representative of the top 100 blogs according to the Web site Technorati--a list dominated by bigmouths of the white-male variety.
Does the blogosphere have a diversity problem?
Viewed one way, the issue seems a bit absurd. These self-generated personal Web sites are supposed to be the ultimate grass-roots phenomenon. The perks of alpha bloggers--voluminous traffic, links from other bigfeet, conference invitations, White House press passes--are, in theory, bequeathed by a market-driven merit system. The idea is that the smartest, the wittiest and the most industrious in finding good stuff will simply rise to the top, by virtue of a self-organizing selection process.
So why, when millions of blogs are written by all sorts of people, does the top rung look so homogeneous? It appears that some clubbiness is involved. Suitt puts it more bluntly: "It's white people linking to other white people!" (A link from a popular blog is this medium's equivalent to a Super Bowl ad.) Suitt attributes her own high status in the blogging world to her conscious decision to "promote myself among those on the A list."
Coincidentally, this issue arises just as a related controversy is raising eyebrows in mainstream media. Law professor Susan Estrich has been hammering Michael Kinsley, the editorial-page editor of the Los Angeles Times, for not running a sufficient number of op-ed pieces by women and minorities. Though the e-mail exchange between the two deteriorated into a spitting match, both agreed that extra care is required to make sure public discussion reflects the actual population.
The top-down mainstream media have to some degree found the will and the means to administer such care. But is there a way to promote diversity online, given the built-in decentralization of the blog world? Jenkins, whose comment started the discussion, says that any approach is fine--except inaction. "You can't wait for it to just happen," he says. Appropriately enough, the best ideas rely on individual choices. MacKinnon is involved in a project called Global Voices, to highlight bloggers from around the world. And at the Harvard conference, Suitt challenged people to each find 10 bloggers who weren't male, white or English-speaking--and link to them. "Don't you think," she says, "that out of 8 million blogs, there could be 50 new voices worth hearing?" Definitely. Now let's see if the blogosphere can self-organize itself to find them.