Random Access Online: Bloggers' Delight

When I tracked down Sean-Paul Kelley, he was taking on CNN, NBC, Fox and The New York Times with a Compaq laptop wirelessly connected to a cable modem in the single bedroom of the San Antonio, Texas, apartment he shares with his wife and a calico cat named Barsik.

"I've got 32 windows open on my browser, the TV is on, and I've got the BBC on my RealPlayer," says the 32-year-old freelance financial consultant. "I woke up to 332 e-mails this morning."

From this command post, Kelley single-handedly creates a Weblog called The Agonist, which tracks and comments on developments in the war with Iraq. (Weblogs, or blogs, in case you're missing this grass-roots movement, are journal-like personal Web sites consisting of short items and links to other information on the Internet.) "I felt the media wasn't doing a good enough job of covering the nuances of international relations," he says. Apparently thousands of readers agree with him: The Agonist is among the most popular of a group of "warblogs" that have dug themselves deeply into the life-during-wartime media food chain.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this war would become the breakthrough for blogs. The bigmouths of the so-called Blogosphere have long contended that the form deserves to be seen as a significant component of 21st-century media. And in the months preceding the invasion, blogging about the impending conflict had been feisty and furious. But it wasn't until the bombs hit Baghdad that Weblogs finally found their moment. The arrival of war, and the frustratingly variegated nature of this particular conflict, called for two things: an easy-to-parse overview for news junkies who wanted information from all sides, and a personal insight that bypassed the sanitizing Cuisinart of big-media news editing.

Blogs deliver on both counts. Kelley's Agonist is only one of many warblogs that suck in reports from around the world and give a constantly updated log of the conflict's arc. (Many are delivered with withering remarks on the stories, most often from a hawkish perspective, though sometimes from a lefty perspective. Kelley leans left, but since the war has started has vowed to stick to the center.)

An even more comprehensive view can be obtained by going to "warblog collectives" that gather the information and links from multiple sites. If you go to a site like The Command Post, you can find updates every five or six minutes, each one a different story. Within a few minutes on Friday, there were reports from AP, Reuters, Iraqi News, the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, The Washington Post and the Samizdata and Outside the Beltway blogs. To some, it's a lot easier than slogging through the dense newsprint of The New York Times' special war section, and you get the news from a variety of viewpoints, along with some of the canny insight and reckless speculation that gives blogging its pungency--and its hit-and-run reliability.

The collectives "show the self-organizing, distributed nature of the Blogosphere," says popular blogger Glenn Reynolds, whose own Instapundit uber-linking site has been pulling in 200,000 page views a day during the war.

Blogs, of course, are perfectly suited to deliver a direct first-person message, as if you were getting an e-mail from a friend. A blog called Where is Raed?, carrying the impressions of a gay Baghdad native who calls himself Salam Pax, is a perfect example. As the war loomed, news of his blog spread virally over the Net--if SARS spread as quickly as Internet word of mouth we'd all be dead by now--and in no time thousands of people were reading his chilling, matter-of-fact account. Today the Ba'ath party people started taking their places in the trenches and main squares and intersections, fully armed and freshly shaven. They looked too clean and well-groomed to defend anything. (At press time, Salam hadn't posted for days, and no one was sure whether the silence was due to death or loss of Internet access.)

Even some of the soldiers have been blogging. An American officer calling himself L.T. Smash presents sharp observations from his bivouac and some misty-eyed patriotism.

The role of professional reporters is another matter. One blogger, freelancer Chris Allbritton, used his site to solicit $10,000 from readers to fund a trip to blog from the northern front. (He's just arrived in Turkey and will be in-country soon.) The BBC has a blog, and a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter has been using a blog to describe her stay on the USS Abraham Lincoln. But when CNN reporter Kevin Sites's bosses found out he'd been blogging his experiences on an unaffiliated site, they told him to stop.

CNN's response was seen in the Blogosphere as one more sign that the media dinosaurs are determined to stamp out this subversive new form of reporting. But judging from the television and print reports from journalists embedded in military units, there's another way to look at things. Consider the reports from embedded journalists working for media institutions. They're ad hoc, using quick-and-dirty high-tech tools to pinpoint the reality of a single moment. They are shaped by the personal experience of the creator rather than gathering news from after-the-fact interviewing and document collection. They are delivered in the first person, creating a connection with the viewer that sometimes bulldozes over the deeper realties of the events.

In other words, they're a hell of a lot like blogs. Not the heavily linked Weblogs like The Agonist or Instapundit but the personal accounts of Salam--or the thousands of bloggers who use the technology to keep a running diary of their activities for a small circle of friends--or anyone who cares to listen in.

Instead of documenting a trip to the video store and a random encounter with an old girlfriend, these "Embloggers" describe firefights at Umm Qasr and MRE cuisine.

So while the war in Iraq might only be beginning, the pundits of the Blogosphere can already register a victory. It's a bloggers' world. We only link to it.