Thursday, January 08, 2015

Twelve Years Before the Blog

It was exactly twelve years ago today that -- encouraged by my friend Duncan Black -- I decided to give this blogging thing a try. I built the original version of Orcinus at what was then called Blogspot, wrote a couple of posts (one of them about the Tombstone Militia, which eventually morphed into the Minutemen) and figured that, if nothing else, it felt good to just be writing and publishing again, even if only a tiny handful of people read it.

Now -- all those years, more than 3,500 posts, and something like 1.2 million pageviews later -- it is all obviously quite a bit more than that.

I don't think of any of us who got into blogging early really expected it to become the phenomenon it did. I know that Duncan had spotted its potential early as a way to get around the informational bottleneck that had been created by the corporatization of the media, and that certainly was what attracted me to it.

After all, I had been finding it increasingly difficult to find editors interested in my work covering the extremist right and domestic terrorism -- editors then, as now, were terrified of being accused of a "liberal media bias" if they ran the material, though inevitably they proved eager to run it when someone blew up a building full of children -- and I had built up a large backlog of material related to it.And I was determined that, even if I received no money for the work, that the information be available to the general public. Then, as now, I believed it to be vital.

So that was what I set about doing. And the shocking thing was that suddenly, my site meter was showing that I was getting not just hundreds but thousands of readers. A lot of that had to do with Duncan, whose Eschaton remains a daily read for me, as well as another online friend from our days roaming the halls of Salon's Table Talk forum, Digby. Their blogs were drawing even larger numbers of readers, and they were kind enough to shuffle some of that traffic in my direction.

The one thing that distinguished Orcinus was that it specialized in long-form posts. I wrote plenty of quickie posts, but I also was publishing long disquisitions making use of the massive amounts of data I had collected over the years. The trend in blogging before then had been to keep things short and succinct (indeed, Duncan remains the master of this). I ran completely against the grain and ran long think pieces with lots of information.

Oddly enough, it worked reasonably well, at least for awhile. Orcinus never drew the levels of readers that the Big Dogs did, but on certain days it neared 50,000 readers, which was a mind-blowing thing for me at the time. And my most popular posts, by far, were my long ones, particularly the extended series such as "Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism" and "The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism".

But, driven largely by the arrival of all those readers, the blogging landscape quickly began to change, and with it the nature of blogging. Soon, large multi-contributor blogs such as Firedoglake were dominating the traffic flow of the blogosphere. Video-driven blogs like John Amato's Crooks and Liars were also drawing huge levels of traffic and distributing it to smaller blogs like mine.

Eventually, fatigue and reality set in: It became tougher and tougher to devote the energy to long-form writing, especially as I was working to write books at the same time. So, after five years of getting by with the relative pittance of funding that came in through fundraisers -- and still intent on remaining ad-free here -- I went for paying positions editing large blogs. I signed in the spring of 2008 as the editor of Firedoglake. I remained there for eight months and then switched to the team at Crooks and Liars, where I then remained as editor for the next four-plus years, and where I am still a senior editor. I now am able to collect a reasonable paycheck by blogging for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch, and the bulk of the posts you see here today are crossposts from there.

My style of blogging shifted accordingly, because at both FDL and C&L the emphasis was on hourly production of posts and a steady flow throughout the today. This meant writing a lot more posts that were much shorter. And as you can see from my archives here, some of my heaviest production came as the editor of C&L, when I was also creating videos to accompany most of my writing. It also meant that I wrote a lot more on daily politics, though what I tried to really specialize in during those years was a sustained media critique, along with my usual focus on the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism.

Unfortunately, I  also made the mistake during those years of letting Orcinus more or less wither and die. I started out trying to crosspost all my work from those blogs, but soon ran out of gas and began letting Orcinus go un-updated for weeks and months at a time. After all, it was by this time drawing only a few thousand readers daily, and I was editing blogs that were north of 150,000 daily readers. Pretty soon, all the readers went away.

In some ways, that actually makes Orcinus today much more comfortable for me, because there is no longer any pressure to produce material or to weigh in on given subjects. I'm able to post at a more considered pace, and the material I'm producing is a bit more substantive.

I revived the blog in the fall of 2013, and had a reasonably nice reception from some of the older quarters of my friends in the blogosphere. I did recently go back and crosspost, ipso facto, all the material I wrote for C&L and FDL over the years, making the archives here now a complete record of my blogging work since January 2003. I think if you spend some time going back and scrolling through some of it, you'll find it a pretty substantial body of work, some of it prophetic, and much of it still relevant even today. There's also a lot of pretty funny stuff thrown in for good measure -- that is, if exposing the mindless idiocy of right-wing talkers makes you laugh.

However, the readership of the blog has remained at only a trickle, largely because I haven't had the ability to come in and create original material for Orcinus itself.

That's going to change in the coming weeks and months. I will continue, of course, to crosspost my work from Hatewatch, as well as the occasional orca-related post I sometimes write for C&L and The Dodo. But I also have a specific long-form project in mind -- one that will rely on the participation of my readers.

The project I have in mind is to tackle the big challenge that progressives face: How do we create a sustained and viable movement, a real and substantive Left Wing that has real power in American and global politics?

I believe we need to reconceive not just the meaning of "the Left," but of movement politics themselves. We need to reconfigure not just the purpose and meaning of progressivism, but the underlying dynamic that feeds the increasingly intractable left-right divide currently in play.

The core idea is to create a "Human Movement" -- a mass movement predicated on enshrining the value of every individual human being, of ensuring the dignity and value of every life and every person. It will be fundamentally anti-corporate, anti-plutocratic, and anti-authoritarian, but moreover will positively embrace the advancement of the welfare of ordinary people, relying on the power of communities and networks to secure it. The essential value that it will embody will be empathy and its immanations.

I've had these ideas working around in my head for some time, and believe it or not, a lot of my thinking was refined while spending time in wild places, hanging out and observing killer whales, all for my next book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, due out June 30 from The Overlook Press.

These essays will fundamentally bring together a lot of my thinking on the many subjects that have interested me over the years and about which I have written here: Toxic right-wing extremism, domestic terrorism, immigration, the media, and environmental issues. It's going to be fun and interesting. And I hope you join me.

Most of all, I hope you will join in the conversations here. As with some of my previous projects, the final shape of the work is often affected by the kind of input I get from readers. As many of you know, I frequently incorporate other people's ideas into my work, and also quite openly acknowledge that participation, since it's vital to this kind of work. It seems especially appropriate when exploring a movement devoted to encouraging a community built around empathy.

I'm also setting out my tin cup this month. If you feel like helping out by chipping in to this effort monetarily, you will know that the money will not be wasted. Twelve years later, I'm still here.

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