Daniel Drezner, in a superb article, counters the view — fashionable of late — that the internet and the blogging phenomenon has led to a decline in the quality of public intellectualism.
The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that “the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ‘gotcha’ commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible.” David Frum complains that “the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are … absorbing.” David Brooks laments, “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”
These comments, Drezner says, miss the point.
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.
Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.
Drezner is right. The free market of ideas created by the internet does contain a great deal of low-quality noise; however, the very best blogs, quite often, provide both more variety and better analysis than the mainstream media and its salaried pundits. Furthermore, as Drezner points out, blogs play an important role in demystifying their subject. They provide thoughtful, quick critiques of mainstream works and are a powerful agent of quality control. In a sense, blogging and more conventional methods of intellectual discourse (such as books or papers) are complementary; each performs better in the presence of the other.
Above all, the low barrier of entry means that intellectualism in the internet age is no longer the sole province of those with a degree, but can be successfuly partaken by anyone with the knowledge, capability and intelligence. That’s a good thing.