Talking points memo
At some point during the disputed US election of 2000 – when Al Gore was famously defeated by a few hanging chads – Joshua Micah Marshall lost patience. Despite working as a magazine editor, Marshall chose to vent on the web. Eight years later Talking Points Memo and its three siblings draw in more than 400,000 viewers a day from their base in New York.
Marshall has forged a reputation, and now makes enough money to run a small team of reporters who have made an impact by sniffing out political scandal and conspiracy. ‘I think in many cases the reporting we do is more honest, more straight than a lot of things you see even on the front pages of great papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post,’ he said in an interview last year. ‘But I think both kinds of journalism should exist, should co-exist.’
Although his unabashed partisan approach is admonished by many old-fashioned American reporters, Marshall’s skills at pulling together the threads of a story have paid dividends. Last year he helped set the agenda after George Bush covertly fired a string of US attorneys deemed disloyal to the White House. While respected mainstream media figures accused Marshall of seeing conspiracy, he kept digging: the result was the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and a prestigious George Polk journalism award for Marshall, the first ever for a blogger.
Lego reconstructions of pop videos and cakes baked in the shape of iPods are not generally considered relevant to serious political debate. But even the most earnest bloggers will often take time out of their busy schedule to pass on some titbit of mildly entertaining geek ephemera. No one has done more to promote pointless, yet strangely cool, time-wasting stuff on the net than the editors of Boing Boing (subtitle: A Directory of Wonderful Things). It launched in January 2000 and has had an immeasurable influence on the style and idiom of blogging. But hidden among the pictures of steam-powered CD players and Darth Vader tea towels there is a steely, ultra-liberal political agenda: championing the web as a global medium free of state and corporate control.
Boing Boing chronicles cases where despotic regimes have silenced or imprisoned bloggers. It helped channel blogger scorn on to Yahoo and Google when they kowtowed to China’s censors in order to win investment opportunities. It was instrumental in exposing the creeping erosion of civil liberties in the US under post-9/11 ‘Homeland Security’ legislation. And it routinely ridicules attempts by the music and film industries to persecute small-time file sharers and bedroom pirates instead of getting their own web strategies in order. It does it all with gentle, irreverent charm, polluted only occasionally with gratuitous smut.
Their dominance of the terrain where technology meets politics makes the Boing Boing crew geek aristocracy.
One of the early wave of blogging pioneers, web designer Jason Kottke started keeping track of interesting things on the internet as far back as 1998. The site took off, boosted partly through close links to popular blog-building website Blogger (he later married one of the founders). And as the phenomenon grew quickly, Kottke became a well-known filter for surfers on the lookout for interesting reading.
Kottke remains one of the purest old-skool bloggers on the block – it’s a selection of links to websites and articles rather than a repository for detailed personal opinion – and although it remains fairly esoteric, his favourite topics include film, science, graphic design and sport. He often picks up trends and happenings before friends start forwarding them to your inbox. Kottke’s decision to consciously avoid politics could be part of his appeal (he declares himself ‘not a fan’), particularly since the blog’s voice is literate, sober and inquiring, unlike much of the red-faced ranting found elsewhere online.
A couple of key moments boosted Kottke’s fame: first, being threatened with legal action by Sony for breaking news about a TV show, but most notably quitting his web-design job and going solo three years ago. A host of ‘micropatrons’ and readers donated cash to cover his salary, but these days he gets enough advertising to pay the bills. He continues to plug away at the site as it enters its 10th year.
Techcrunch began in 2005 as a blog about dotcom start-ups in Silicon Valley, but has quickly become one of the most influential news websites across the entire technology industry. Founder Michael Arrington had lived through the internet goldrush as a lawyer and entrepreneur before deciding that writing about new companies was more of an opportunity than starting them himself. His site is now ranked the third-most popular blog in the world by search engine Technorati, spawning a mini-empire of websites and conferences as a result. Business Week named Arrington one of the 25 most influential people on the web, and Techcrunch has even scored interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain.
With a horde of hungry geeks and big money investors online, Techcrunch is the largest of a wave of technology-focused blog publishers to tap into the market – GigaOm, PaidContent and Mashable among them – but often proves more contentious than its rivals, thanks to Arrington’s aggressive relationships with traditional media and his conflicts of interest as an investor himself
Jinglei is a popular actress (and director of Letter From An Unknown Woman) in China, who in 2005 began a blog (‘I got the joy of expressing myself’) which within a few months had garnered 11.5m visits and spurred thousands of other Chinese to blog. In 2006 statisticians at Technorati, having previously not factored China into their calculations, realised Jinglei’s blog was the most popular in the world. In it she reports on her day-to-day moods, reflections, travels, social life and cats (‘Finally the first kitten’s been born!!! Just waiting for the second, in the middle of the third one now!!!!!!!! It’s midnight, she gave birth to another one!!!!!!’). She blogs in an uncontroversial but quite reflective manner, aiming to show a ‘real person’ behind the celebrity. Each posting, usually ending with ‘I have to be up early’ or a promise to report tomorrow on a DVD she is watching, is followed by many hundreds of comments from readers – affirming their love, offering advice, insisting she take care. Last year her blog passed the 1bn clicks mark.
A New York blog of ‘snarky’ gossip and commentary about the media industry, Gawker was founded in 2002 by journalist Nick Denton, who had previously helped set up a networking site called First Tuesday for web and media entrepreneurs. Gawker’s earliest fascination was gossip about Vogue editor Anna Wintour, garnered from underlings at Conde Nast. This set the tone for amassing a readership of movers and shakers on the Upper East Side, as well as ‘the angry creative underclass’ wishing either to be, or not be, like them, or both (‘the charmingly incompetent X… the wildly successful blowhard’). Within a year Gawker’s readers were making 500,000 page views per month. Nowadays the figure is 11m, recovering from a recent dip to 8m thanks to the showing of a Tom Cruise ‘Indoctrination Video’ which Scientologists had legally persuaded YouTube to take down. Gawker remains the flagship of Gawker Media, which now comprises 14 blogs, although gossiping by ex-Gawker insiders, a fixation on clicks (which its bloggers are now paid on the basis of) and fresh anxiety over defining itself have led some to claim Gawker has become more ‘tabloidy’ and celeb- and It-girl-orientated, and less New York-centric. But its core value – ‘media criticism’ – appears to be intact