Monday, May 23


In a trifling column by Tom Zeller Jr., published in today's "New York Times" (registration required), blogging is termed "the buzz" of the 21st century and CBS News' reckless, unfounded story based on forged documents about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard merely "an incident." Those two powerful insights come just one and a half paragraphs into the article and before that second paragraph is concluded we bloggers find ourselves being described as agenda setters-citizen scribe-warriors bent on "wresting power from a mainstream media grown fat and lazy."

One is tempted not to read on any futher after that overbearing concatenation of hyphens other than it's always a matter of curiosity with me to find out what the "NYT" thinks and to plumb the convoluted way it arrives at its conclusions. Even at this point in the article, however, I found myself nearly hyphenated to death by scribe Zeller and that was before I learned from him that polibloggers traffic in "buzz," more than "influence." To wit:

But according to a preliminary study - the first rigorous look at the influence wielded by political blogs during the 2004 presidential campaign - bloggers are not always the kingmakers that pundits sometimes credit them with being. They can, it seems, exert a tremendous amount of influence - generate buzz, that is - but only under certain circumstances.

Buzz is potent stuff.

"Buzz can alter social behavior and perceptions," wrote the authors of "Buzz, Blogs and Beyond," published last week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the market research firm BuzzMetrics. "It can embolden or embarrass subjects. It can affect sales, donations and campaign coffers. It can move issues up, down and across institutional agendas."

Tom Zeller gleans his observations from "Buzz, Blogs and Beyond," recently published by the Pew Internet and American Life project, and the market research firm BuzzMetrics. In citing the broadly-covered Rathergate scandal, Zeller draws these conclusions from that publication:

The CBS News scandal, in which the network based a critical report on President Bush on what turned out to be forged Vietnam-era documents relating to his National Guard days, was another story. In that case, the researchers suggest, the conditions for a broad-based scandal - and potent blog buzz - were ripe.

Although left and right diverged on theories of who might have been behind the fake memos, there was broad agreement that political dirty tricks were involved, and the blogosphere lighted up with detective work and theorizing.

The high name recognition of CBS News and Dan Rather helped, as did the fact that the network and the anchor initially defended the memos, creating grand targets for the longbowmen of the blogosphere. And both the timing and the high stakes made for fertile buzz territory.

"This was not a cold or distant case," the study suggests. "The election was weeks away, and the candidates' service records during the Vietnam War had been a major topic of discussion for months."

For all that, though, the most crucial factor contributing to blog influence in that issue may have been the smoking gun: digital copies of the 1970's-era documents and their impossibly modern fonts.

These became powerful totems because they could be relentlessly examined, tinkered with, traded and discussed online by blogs of all political stripes, each with its own agenda and each contributing to a buzz that ultimately could not be ignored.

In the absence of such a totem, the ability to generate buzz in the blogosphere, at least for now, appears diminished. (That may change as the number of blogs - now at 10 million, according to the blog search firm Technorati - continues to grow.)

So we "longbowmen of the blogosphere" need "powerful totems" in order to be effective generators of "potent buzz." (Can't we just take a "blue pill" and type onward and upward, in a manner of speaking, to assure our potency?).

So, do you have all that drilled into your head now? Good stuff, hey, if you can fathom what in hell it all means!

Zeller does concede:

Comparing buzz in the cheap and limitless space of the Web against buzz generated in the finite and expensive news space on television and in newspapers is, after all, fraught with pitfalls.

But, goodness, who wants to produce buzz with pitts? Or should that read pitiful buzz?

Well, I concede, too -- as in a pinned-to-the-mat concession (or at least a concession to the need for vigorous hyphenation). Frankly, I don't know what Zeller or Michael Cornfield, the principal author of the study that Zeller is reviewing for us, are trying to say. Indeed, Cornfield is quoted as saying: The blogosphere is half forensic lab and half tavern.

Thank God. Must be "Miller time" in the blogosphere!