The Evolution of Blogging: An Interview with John Cole
John Cole began blogging at Balloon Juice way back in 2002, when he was still a die-hard Republican. According to the FAQ on his blog, you can “check the archive to see how crazy” he was back then. Since then his political views have shifted and the blog has grown. The blog has also evolved from one lone blogger to four, the new co-contributors rising from the ranks of the site’s busy comment threads.
I had a chance to talk with John Cole last week about blogging and politics, and you can read the whole thing right after the leap….
When did you start blogging and why?
I started in 2002, a couple months after 9/11. I had always been interested in politics, and I suppose like many folks who take to blogging, like the sound of my own voice. I just thought it was an interesting venture, and I liked all the different opinions bouncing around out there, and thought I wanted to be a part of it. I never really had any idea it would go on for this long.
So what keeps you blogging this long, other than liking the sound of your own voice?
The short answer is that it blogging remains a lot of fun.
The longer, more in-depth answer involves one big thing and a lot of little things that make the experience worthwhile. The biggest reason is that our website has morphed into a community of sorts. Granted, a dyspeptic, curmudgeonly, and off color community, but a community nonetheless. Think of an “R-rated” Cheers, if you will. The commenters and the other front page posters are what make the act of blogging still so much fun.
I really had no idea the website would turn into what it has, but I am so glad it has turned out this way. One thing is for sure, had I known it would turn out this way, I would have chosen a different name. Balloon Juice just means hot air, but it always sounds obscene when you say it to someone new. Additionally, a lot of people shorten the name to BJ, which has its own unfortunate colloquial meaning.
The main reason I enjoy the site, though, goes back to the commenters. We have so many smart, funny, snarky commenters, and it has gotten to the point that any thread is going to have at least four or five comments from people that will make you laugh out loud. Additionally, the commenters are really quite smart, coming from a wide range of backgrounds with a wider range of interests. We talk about our pets and we post pictures of reader pets, we talk about cooking, we talk about music and movies and pop culture, politics and the world. We do fund-raising for worthwhile charities, and we serve as a support group for each other. I can’t tell you how many people have had a bad day or a personal crisis or a family emergency, said something in the comments, and everyone is offering to chip in and help, offering support, or sometimes just talking to someone who is depressed. It really is unique, I think, and for the most part, self-policing. I think we have banned under 20 people (probably even less than that) in the last eight years, and several of them we have “unbanned” and are commenting again.
In addition, no one is afraid to speak their mind, and the commenters have been invaluable as far as telling me I am full of it or wrong about something. I have a tendency to get hot-headed and over-react, and I’m lucky that there are a bunch of people who will tell me I am wrong or don’t know what I am talking about. I really appreciate that.
Speaking of the commenters, all of the front page posters were frequent commenters who joined up at one point or another. The site was originally just me, but then Tim F. joined sometime in 2005, DougJ and Anne Laurie joined in the last two years. We’ve also had other folks who have come and gone, notably Michael D., who ran his own site called Gay Orbit for a number of years. All of them, I think, are great and have lots of interesting things to offer from differing perspectives. Tim F. has a background in science and is interested in photography and brewing, Anne Laurie is a fire-breathing feminist (and I say that in a good way, Anne!) who knows a helluva lot about animals, and DougJ who is completely irreverent and keeps an eagle eye on our beltway media overlords.
Finally, the dirty little secret is that the longer you have blogged, the easier it is. I get emails tipping me to interesting stories, we have the commenters linking to things and providing new angles, you establish relationships with other bloggers, and you have your own archives you can point to. It is an odd thing- the blogging gets easier yet pays higher dividends.
I’m glad you mentioned commenters because I find the experience of building a relationship with commenters similarly rewarding. Do you think that “old media” could learn something from this approach? It strikes me that few, if any, old media outlets put much time or effort into their comments sections.
I’m really not sure what they could do. Part of what builds the sense of community is that you have similar interests with your readers. It is no surprise that a lot of the regulars like science fiction television shows, or that we have a lot of people who like to garden, or a lot of gamers, etc. As such, we have a lot of posts about those things, and it is completely appropriate for a personal blog.
But what would management think if Joe Klein and Karen Tumulty were to post pictures of their garden or to talk about the upcoming episode of Flash Forward? How weird would it be to have Jake Tapper talk about cooking and what he is having for dinner? I’m just not sure that would be appropriate for institutional “old media blogs.” On the other hand, the Atlantic crew manages to do just that. I feel like I somewhat know Ta-Nahesi and Sullivan and McCardle.
The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the comments sections at the institutional blogs like Politico, the WaPo, and others are just toxic swamps. On any given day you can go to them and find birther conspiracies, anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic rants, people railing for the gold standard, and general crackpottery. Maybe you are right, they just don’t put the effort into it, and I do sense that many of them have comments just to have a comments section, but at the same time, I’m really not sure what they can do. I’m not sure the folks in traditional media have the time or resources to spend hours fostering a comments section at every one of their blogs.
Good points. This reminds me also that the blogging universe has become much more institutionalized than it was when you started back in 2002, with every old media site out there hosting its own stable of bloggers. Overall, what do you see as the big changes from those early days to the current blogosphere? Has the evolution been a good one?
You know, I’m hesitant to say whether the evolution in blogging is a good thing or a bad thing, because it just is what it is. I like that there are more voices out there, and some of the institutional blogs are just great- I’m thinking of Ezra Klein at the Washington Post, who has been a great read for years but has been superb covering the health care debate, and the NY Times has some great issue specific blogs, and so forth. I read Jake Tapper daily, and sometimes I think he is great and other times he makes me so mad I think I am having chest pains. I think Swampland at Time is a pretty solid read for an institutional blog, and Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones are great, as well as the Atlantic stable. I’m not sure how I would characterize Media Matters, but their work is excellent. Greg Sargent at the Plum Line is worth a read every day, and Dave Weigel and company at the Washington Independent are invaluable. I could go on and on.
At the same time, you see a lot of institutional blogs out there that are little more than a means for further promotion of the existing product. Does anyone actually go to Larry King’s blog to learn anything? And while Ezra Klein is great at the Washington Post, I challenge anyone to find something more worthless than PostPartisan. Just what everyone needs- Bill Kristol’s deep thoughts in short form.
Kill me now.
What about outside of the institutional blogs? Is there much room for non-institutional voices – new voices – in the very saturated blog market anymore?
Of course, although it is harder and harder to get people’s attention. I think that is where older blogs sort of have an obligation to keep their eye out for new voices. Read your emails from people sending you links and check them out and give them a link if they have interesting things to say. Check your comments section and click on the links people provide. I don’t agree much with Glenn Reynolds these days, but you can’t deny that he has always done a superb job promoting new voices. I think Sullivan also does a fantastic job at this, as do the front pagers at the Daily Kos.
I think blogging is like anything else- if you are good at what you do, if you offer something people are interested in, you will get noticed. This is the internet- it is a big place, and there is always room for another voice.
With Twitter and all these other technologies and alternatives or supplements to the traditional blog, it can be hard to know where things are headed for the online blogging community. Where do you see things headed in the future – both for Balloon Juice and the larger bloggy world?
To be honest, I just started texting last year, and it takes me about ten minutes to type a simple response, and I think I have posted a grand total of five tweets, so I really don’t see much of a future for twitter or the rest of the mobile technologies when it comes to Balloon Juice. Who knows, though- ten years ago I swore I would never have a cell phone, and now I feel naked without it.
Just to shift course a bit – you used to be a conservative back when you started blogging. What was the tipping point? And do you think there’s any hope for an American conservative movement in the future?
For me, the final straw was the Schiavo affair, on top of Abu Gharib, torture, the Prescription Drug plan, the bankruptcy bill, the treatment of homosexuals and calling anyone who disagreed a traitor, etc. In 2005, I started to look around at the GOP and the conservatives and all I saw was a freak show that has just gotten worse the last few years. But Schiavo was really the final straw. I couldn’t believe they inserted themselves into that marriage that way. I couldn’t believe they passed legislation. I couldn’t believe Congress locked arms with Randall Terry and the rest of that insane crew, hounding a man who had been going through hell for two decades. They trashed that Judge Greer in Florida, a man who had been a Republican his entire life, calling him an activist judge because he had the nerve to actually follow the law and piss off the godbotherers. He even had to leave his church. It was just sheer insanity.
And putting aside personal political beliefs, I simply don’t understand how anyone can look back at the two Bush administrations and say, with a straight face, that Gore or Kerry would have been worse. I just don’t. Every single aspect of the last eight years was a complete and total disaster. How could Gore possibly have been worse? Anyone who is still a Republican after eight years of Bush and Cheney is simply a Republican for the rest of their life. Nothing is going to change them.
Having said that, I think there is hope for a Republican party in the future- I fully expect the Democrats to lose seats in the House and the Senate. The extent of the losses will be determined by whether or not employment and the economy gets better, whether or not the Democrats offer a good health care bill, and how Obama decides on Afghanistan. The Republicans are the only alternative, so if people are still broke and unemployed next November, the Democrats will lose seats. I fully expect they will lose some seats regardless, simply because Democrats won those seats in 2008 only because Bush and Cheney were so unpopular. One of the truly amazing things the past year has been the inability of the GOP to just shut up. They were going to most likely gain seats in 2010 no matter what, and probably more if they would stop reminding everyone how crazy they are. But they simply can’t, and instead we are treated to FEMA concentration camp conspiracies, and insane babble about “In God We Trust” onthe coinage, and chants of socialism. If they win seats in 2010, it is in spite of themselves.
But you actually asked me about conservatism, not the GOP, and I have to say- what exactly is conservatism these days? Are we talking about the ignorant populism and excessive religiosity represented by Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, in which knowing things is looked down upon, and what matters is how hard you believe in your platitudes? The corporate conservatism of Mitt Romney and the Cato boys and the self-styled “fiscal conservatives” who never found a budget they could balance or a tax cut they could turn down? Or the xenophobic nativism from the Tancredo/Michael Savage wing? Or the neocon warmongering conservatism with Kristol/Krauthammer, in which torture is a God given right and there is no global problem that bombs and an invasion can’t solve? Or the mishmash of authoritarianism and Catholicism represented by the National Review crowd?
I could see a future for a sane conservatism, a conservatism of moderation and contemplation and thoughtfulness, that of folks like Larison and Jon Huntsman. But I can’t see a future for a conservatism in which David Frum and Newt Gingrich are cast out for being too leftist.
So do you believe that all those abuses of power and failures of the last administration were also failures of conservatism or at least conservatism as it is now practiced in America? Did you consider joining the dissident conservative crowd at any point, or were you simply fed up with the philosophy altogether? Do you now consider yourself a liberal, an independent…?
I’m honestly not sure what I am. Disillusioned?
That’s probably a pretty common answer…. That or jaded. In any case, thanks a bunch for doing this interview. Any parting shots you’d like to take at anybody? Words of wisdom? Dire warnings?
Nope – other than to ask you to clean up any obvious mistakes in spelling or grammar. Thanks, it has been fun.