Image via Wikimedia Commons
I had hoped to write this on the third anniversary of this tumblr’s formation. It was going to be a good old fashioned “taking stock” post, looking back at what I’ve posted over the years and trying to figure out if it meant anything. For we’ve reached a weird point in Internet time, a point that seems to be increasing in focus with each passing year as the notion of where people get their news continues to diffuse into a thousand various points. Blogs, for all their hullabaloo (and that’s not a reference to Digby, either) back in the bad old “Web 2.0” days, seem to have less relevance than ever outside of the big players who can afford to charge people to read their work. I’d wager if you asked ten people where they get their news you’d get about eight various answers, and the sources would range from browser sites to mobile sites to apps to any other various new ways of viewing news. Blogs, for all the revolutionary rhetoric they inspired around the middle of the last decade, seem to have even less influence now. I could just be projecting my own meandering revisionism on the last great era of news production, blinded by the reflective gaze of history. The real point of this essay is to look at my re-entry into the “blogosphere” (is that term still in use?) and see if there ever was a point. Up until I started this blog I never had much of a repository for all the national political, environmental, technological, and otherwise amazing stories I came across on the interwebs. I’d dipped a toe into the blogging waters back in my WordPress days, where I first honed my voice. And I had my facebook page, which still suffices, but I wanted a place to call my own. I started seeing some good stuff coming from David Karp’s easy-to-use website, and after lurking there for a while I decided to plunge in and start my own tumblr.
Of course my three year anniversary came and went, tumblr sent me a reminder that I promptly deleted, and the entire concept of this essay was filed away for a day when I had time to finish the thought. That day never came, so I figure better late than never. I thought a good way to frame this conversation would be to look at just what in blazes I thought was so important that I needed to create a new blog to post about: let me take you back to the tumultuous, heady days of 2011. You remember the year, right? The Internet’s uncanny ability to sacrifice any remnants of a coherent, long-term storyline on the altar of the instant 24 hour “news” story hasn’t softened your critical gleaning skills, has it?
2011 really was a monumental year. Just off the top of my head I can recall several earth-shattering news stories with remarkable clarity: the Arab Spring, the Fukushima disaster, Bin Laden’s and Awlaki’s assassinations, the Occupy movement; even Kim Jong-il decided the year wasn’t packed enough and died right at the end. What was I, aggregation skills enhanced greatly in my own mind, posting?
I began with an introduction to myself and the blog (where I expressed my hope that this space would include “a great mixture of politics, technology, the environment, entertainment, art/design, and any of the other great things in this world”), a political introduction, a picture of our cats, a picture of my wife Mary, and a brief essay on the death of Bin Laden, full of the type of conspiratorial wonderings my wife had since instilled in my brain. This actually sums up what I had hoped to include throughout the years on this blog: a few pictures summarizing my life book-ended by a deep read of the week’s news stories. As readers of this site know, things quickly devolved from there into mostly posts of other people’s work. However, I am rather astounded at where my gaze headed that first year. Actually the second full page contains a lot of the same, including a longer-form essay on Bin Laden’s death (this was a huge event in the states, for many reasons), a picture of the house I grew up in (since demolished), and re-posts of some street art and other stuff I found around the web. It wasn’t until the third full page that I had reached the point you know and love today: aggregation of the best stuff I read that day. There are a lot of posts on Bin Laden, an article about anger at Wall Street banks, a piece from TIME magazine by Barton Gellman (now famous for breaking some of the biggest Snowden documents for the Washington Post) about the FBI, and some other links. I was still new to this game, still testing the waters on my ability to post news items people might care about, and felt like I could post anything. One thing I do notice as I reflect on these first posts: I used a lot more pictures back in those days. I hadn’t always cited where these pictures came from (generally used by the authors of the pieces I was posting) and therefore did a bit of a purge of those that weren’t before giving up and just going full-text for the past few years. Looking back, I kind of like that I included pictures. It gives the lengthy paragraph-or-two blurb I tended to post something interesting to draw the eye.
Ok, so for that first week or so it was straight news: stuff from the major networks, magazines, online news sites, and a random smattering of some of the other stuff I came across on the web. The entire month of May 2011 is such a distinctly different version of what I have today that it makes me wonder how much my interests really did change. A quick look at what I posted in May 2012 confirms it: no pictures, all long-form pieces. Here’s one from Jason Leopold, here’s one from Matt Taibbi, and here is one from Chris Hedges. Indeed, it seems that my tastes stayed roughly the same as in 2011, but angrier. I had seen the Occupy movement come and go, dismantled and disbanded in New York City’s Zuccotti Park but never forgotten, and the bitter aftertaste of the Obama years was slowly settling in my mouth. I saw a lot of injustice in the world becoming even worse. I saw our President become inactive on the climate change front, waving away the heady Keystone XL pipeline decision until after the presidential election for political reasons. I’m not sure what I was hoping to accomplish with the blog at this point, but it still seemed a conduit for some important work I was readingl. May 2012 was also the point that I switched to the “Linear” theme (by Peter Vidani at tumblr), and never looked back.
Jumping ahead to May 2013 I see my posting here dwindling down to the paucity of content that I saw for May 2014. I’m not sure why everything slowed down. It could be that 2013 saw some of the biggest articles of my “for real” journalism endeavour over at Examiner.com. That year I covered (among other things) my first big political campaign, that of the City Council race in my ward. I interviewed all the major candidates and wrote a long-form article about municipal utilities, diverting my attention from what was going on in the world. Still, I found time to post some excellent pieces from Counterpunch, truthout, TomDispatch, The New Republic, The New Yorker and others. But there can be no doubt my rate slowed down to the crawl you see today. I’d like to blame this on my other local journalism taking off, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.
This led me to consider the topic of this essay: mainly, what was this tumblr for? I know it’s rather silly to pose an existential question concerning a platform that millions of other people use to post Ryan Gosling GIFs, cat pictures, and extremely nerdy video game references, but it was still bugging me in the lead-up to my three year anniversary. I have posted hundreds of articles, written a fair amount of essays about life and politics, and tried alerting my fellow readers to the topics of the day. Even now I am astonished at how little I strayed from what I considered the important issues: climate change, the national security state, Obama’s increasing mendacity, the law in the War on Terror, among others. In 2013 I tended to focus a lot of my time and effort on the Snowden revelations, for good reason, but possibly at the expense of these other matters. And yet even here I ran into the same blockade I feel mentally pushing against me now: Are people getting the information? Do they care? With climate change, I am starting to feel the needle move a little bit, but I’m still not sure. I mean, after all, if humanity really understood the gravity of the situation and what needed to be done, we would have undertaken it years ago. This dovetails with another common problem among thinkers on the web: in the age of overabundant information, what gets through?
So here I led myself to my current question: what am I doing here on tumblr, and is it making a difference? I honestly still don’t know if I can answer that. After several years and several hundred posts, can I say I have informed a lot of people and possibly even changed some minds? Or was this all an exercise in link-baiting, attempting to make myself appear erudite and “with-it” in foreign and domestic affairs, without affecting many other persons. The whole point of starting this blog was to create a “roundabout” of thought on the major subjects of the day and to increase the conversation. Have I done that?
I don’t know. I wonder if Bill McKibben, the great environmentalist who has written about climate change for decades, feels the same way. He seems to have gotten a second wind through the monumental work of his organization, but I still wonder if he thinks he’s doing enough. I can hardly compare my pathetic body of work to his, but the issue on a raw level remains the same: are the tools and technology for accessing and getting out the news enough to change the paradigm for where we as a species are headed?
On the one hand, this new type of journalism makes perfect sense. Speaking of Snowden, there is a very real reason he chose Glenn Greenwald as the person to give his documents. That is because he’s spent over a decade honing his craft, writing not for the major news outlets but first at his own blog, and then for Salon, where I started following his work. True, he was finally working for one of the largest establishment papers in the world when he started breaking the Snowden story. But he also decamped within the year to create a new endeavour, free from the few restraints even The Guardian posed. So perhaps there is a lesson here in that the new forms are beginning to supplant the old. But is there still a space for me to aggregate the important news that I come across in the hopes that it will trigger an initial discovery by some other party? I hope so, but I’m not entirely sure.
On the other hand, the news business has gone through so much tumult in the past twenty years that perhaps the question has become essentially meaningless. When everyone gets their news from a thousand different sources, is there any kind of collective source that works for all? It doesn’t seem so, and this problem will only get worse. In viewing this through the lens of what is humanity’s biggest problem it begs to be answered. I’m referring to climate change here, and the seemingly obvlious nature by which we humans seems content to hurtle toward it. I can’t count the amount of posts I did on climate change, especially in the last two years. And yet I get the feeling that it barely made a dent in my friends/family’s consciousness. Same with the larger American audience. Yes, we’ve seen some moves from Obama lately to reduce carbon pollution, and the 350.org movement has done invaluable good work against the Keystone XL pipeline. And broad polling of the American people does indicate that we do, at this late stage of the game, get it. But is it going to be enough? Was I doing enough? Was simply posting a lot of very in-depth, informative articles helping at all? Would I have been better off attending all the many marches on Washington or in my own state of Minnesota? Once again, I don’t know.
In some ways, I feel like I’m more confused than when I began this essay. Admittedly I wasn’t sure where it was heading in the first place, but I hoped I’d find it by going through the motions. And yet I still feel no closer to the truth. What’s a blog for? I used to argue that it was for informing people, for giving the average citizen a platform to spout his or her opinions, rants, and the work of others. But when it comes to such a momentous event like the literal changing of our environment, I’m not sure if that even matters. We’ve entered an era where the powerful interests most vested in the status quo (i.e. fossil fuel corporations) are doubling down on the harmful energy products that are most causing the problem. Yes, there have been some victories, especially over the coal industry. But the biggest challenges and fights are yet to come. The environmental issue will become the central question of our time, the one our children and their children will pose: why didn’t we do enough to stave off the worst effects? When it comes right down to it, will I be able to say that I posted a lot of articles and tried to inform people, or will I be able to say I played a large role in the direct actions needed to go up against these interests? I am already comfortable in trumpeting the former, but I’m not sure about the latter. I think this feeling tells me I am stumbling across the answer: blogs are not enough.
I think I am going to keep this tumblr around, but I may not be using it all that much going forward. I think the “roundabout” is still a valuable place to exchange ideas and the huge amount of excellent writing and art that can be found in the vast reaches of the Internet. I hope to always have a place to post those works that I think deserve a wider audience. But when it comes to affecting change, I think it’s time to step up and do more. This isn’t only advice to myself, it’s advice for humanity. Quite simply, the information revolution isn’t enough. It may have been enough back in the previous decade when “Web 2.0” was still a buzzy watchword of the times, and it felt like everyone had a voice on the Internet. We’ve long since breached that moment. With the recent death of net neutrality at the FCC, it looks like it may never come back. It’s going to be awfully hard to get a message out if the company that owns the means of conveyance has deemed it not worthy of being broadcast online. I’m not saying that will happen, but it surely could. Just look at how disastrous most televised news is now. If the large corporations behind that can transfer it to the ‘net, we’re doomed.
So, what to do? I can’t really say I have much of a solution, other than to get more involved. I’ve already spent nearly three-thousand words diagnosing the problem without arriving at much more of a solution than that. I’m not sure there is that much more I can do outside of what I have been doing, but I can always do more. I can always write more about the issue, I can always post more good local journalism about it, and I can always attend more events. Just as the nation’s scientists are finally discovering that they are going to have to hone their often technical know-how into a palatable package for the masses, so too must I learn to speak differently about this matter to everyone who will be affected (generally the lowest on the socio-economic totem pole, although climate change is an odd duck in that it will affect every human being on the planet). I also can do my part to use less energy, less resources, less everything. But I think on the whole it’s going to take something much larger: a worldwide raising of the consciousness of the planet. Until we as a species decide we are going to take the necessary steps to ensure our stay on this planet, we will not survive ourselves. It’s up to all of us who care about this problem to continue to step up and inform others. But we also need to realize that keeping the information out there is one part of the battle. The rest will be fought in the streets, in Congress, and against the fossil fuel corporations. I’ll take the rest of the year to think this through, and maybe by the time “Circling the Roundabout” reaches four years I’ll have come up with some kind of a solution.
I’d better have. 2015, according to everything I’ve read about climate change, is the year of no return. It won’t matter where we get our information if there isn’t a hospitable planet to use.