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June 07, 2003

The Reign of Terror. Now with Beads!

Aintnobaddude rather querulously wonders "What the fuck are Mickey Kaus and the journo-bloggers going to write about now that their favorite pinata, Howell Raines, is history? And more importantly, will anyone give a shit?"

The journo-bloggers will turn their attentions to Joseph Lelyveld, of course, and whomever succeeds him. Journo-blogging is what they do, after all. Romenesko is not likely to be suffering from a lack of news just because Howell isn't there to shove around anymore. Some vague memory of a post somewhere suggests to me that Bill Keller might get something of a honeymoon if he's next in the NYT's hot seat, but he probably won't. It's the nature of the NYT editorship now. Whomever has that post is a target, just like whomever is occupying the seats of the President, Attorney General and to a lesser extent the Director's offices at the CIA and FBI is a target.

Some on the blogging left have already started to make noise about Lelyveld and the NYT during Whitewater, so I suspect he'll be attacked from all sides the moment he shows a vulnerable flank. Howell Raines and Trent Lott were just the first people to be knocked off their pedestals thanks in some part to the electronic scribblings of Blogistan. They certainly won't be the last. The mob knows its power now, and is as likely to cease hounding those in the public eye as the Parisian mob of revolutionary France was to cease guillotining them.

I'll be there too, of course, firing off my little popgun and shouting Tallyho! with the rest of the mob, as unquestioning of my role in that milieu as a turn of the century English squire was in his. It's bloody fun, you see, taking potshots at the high and mighty. And if I manage to convince a few others to fire a few shots in the same direction? Well, that's even more fun.

The bigger the mob, the more tempting it is to turn against it, to shout at it, denigrate it, and ultimately try to deflect it to a new path. Opposing the mob is also a bloody fun thing, so I and many others will do that occasionally as well, as unquestioning of our correctness as John Dos Passos at a union rally. It's a dangerous role, in that opposition to the mob makes one feel noble and brave, and those feelings are extremely seductive. Especially when one survives the experience, and the more virtual mobs get, the easier it is to oppose them. Eventually that noble feeling becomes more important than anything else, so one opposes the mob no matter what, even when the mob is right. If you can't think of at least a few people on both sides of the political spectrum who have fallen into this trap, you aren't trying hard enough.

Historically the problem with mobs is that they're stupid. Communications percolate inefficiently through the mass, so critical information like "We are trampling people to death in our effort to get the best seats at this Who concert" takes too long to register if it ever registers at all.

That's no longer necessarily so. Just like everything else, the mob is becoming wired. Individuals within the mob find it easier to make themselves heard by the whole, which gives them some leverage over some portion of the whole for a limited time. Voices still rise and fall, calling out for the ouster of one leader, or shouting out in support of him. Others just scream "Look at my tits" trading leverage for notoriety. Which is fine. The mob is still human, with all of the contradictory and self defeating impulses humans has always possessed. The mob is always going to want to look at a nice pair of tits.

But the mob is not longer as slow of thought as it once was. It can multitask now, something unprecedented in history. "Yes," the mob says, "those are some almighty fine honkers. We can look at them, consider a position on stringer policy at a major metropolitan daily, and debate the sexuality of an animated sponge all at the same time. "

The more people that discover that their voice can be heard, the more targets they will point out, targets as varied as the stars in the sky. Someone will shout the Internet equivalent of "Look at that bastard", and a portion of the crowd will turn its attention that way. Some will take up the cry. Others might oppose it. If enough of the mob agrees, then down whomever it is will come, and the fragment that coalesced in pursuit of that end will dissolve, never to reform again.

The same wave never strikes the shore twice, but the shoreline changes regardless.

Howell Raines and Trent Lott are victims of natural selection. In the eternal power struggle between leader and led, the led have evolved a new strategy. The advantage won't last. The blogosphere may bring down the next NYT editor or the one after that, but it almost certainly won't be able to do what it it did to Howell to the man or woman who holds the same position ten years from now. The NYT will evolve practices that lessen that likelihood in sheer self defense, or there won't be an NYT. Politicians will develop similar mechanisms and the temporary advantages of the maddening crowd will be gone.

Note that the mechanisms won't necessarily be bad. Yes, bread and circuses calm the mob, but openness and accountability prevent it from getting riled up in the first place. Informing the mob, especially as it grows ever smarter, will prove more effective than appeasing it, and cost less to boot.

Openness and accountability are simple solutions, but not preferable ones. Many more of those in a position of power will need a taste of the Internet's lash before those strategies are adopted.

We just need to keep cracking the whip.

Posted by Bigwig at June 7, 2003 11:57 PM | TrackBack
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