Two images, courtesy of Philadelphia blogger Chris Bowers, have stayed with me over the last two years as I wrote and researched my new, rise-of-the-netroots book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. To me, the impressions perfectly capture the phenomena of the liberal blogosphere, which has come to define this decade in terms of politics and the press. The images capture how an unlikely band of (underpaid) liberals changed both landscapes and helped elect a new Democratic Congress and a new Democratic president.
Bowers is the young, former Temple University English professor who, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, found himself both hunched over his laptop between classes reading the nascent liberal blogs, and in search of a new calling. He found his new path online, quickly abandoned the classroom, and threw himself into politics, but at a cost -- he was mostly broke.
On the eve of the 2004's Election Day, just after Bowers hit the send button for a long, detailed breakdown of the final polling data set to be posted on MyDD, he lost his cable and internet connection in his apartment thanks to a late bill of $145. It was $145 he didn't have. His apartment lost power with disturbing regularity, which forced Bowers to blog from his friend's place. In fact, back then, Bowers often slept on the floor at his office in order to capitalize on the free, uninterrupted Internet connection it provided.
The second defining Bowers image came in November 2006, when the exhausted blogger starred in a brief YouTube clip that showed him slumped on a couch and staring into a video camera, explaining the harsh realities of being a political blogger: "If you have no children, no one to support, and no career ambitions, then you too can become a full time progressive blogger, as long as you're wiling to do nothing else in your entire life."
But the endless hours, the obsessing over swings in web traffic stats, and the nearly 750,000 words he posted each year (enough to fill ten hardcover books), was worth it because, as Bowers told me, blogging gave him a voice to push for change.
And that's really how the progressive blogosphere -- the netroots -- was born. Creative people like Bowers were drawn to it because it represented a much-needed release valve for the pent-up political frustration so many Democrats and liberals had felt through the late 1990s and into the beginning of this decade. For them, blogs represented small-scale places where people could stand up to the conservative onslaught that had fueled Clinton's impeachment, the Florida recount, and the rush to war with Iraq. It was where citizens could at least try to launch a revolutionary, participatory democracy online.
The liberal blogosphere, at least at its inception, represented perhaps the most un-planned, un-thought-through media and political movement in modern America. It really was an accidental empire. Of course, bloggers would use 'empire' sarcastically, since they're quick to downplay their own influence. Plus, they had accumulated enough political disappointments to prove it. But there's no question they've changed politics and the press in a way that no other left-leaning movement had done in decades.
Yet early on, the netroots movement was built with very little coordination and no money. There were no memos', no outlines, no projections and no budgets. No nothing. It literally just happened. (Only later did some coordination begin to surface.)
The list of early blog pioneeers is a long one and I'd be a fool to try to name them for fear of leaving anybody out. But what an unlikely cast of eclectic characters! (Students, housewives, attorneys, professors, musicians, etc.) Most brought with them no experience in politics or journalism. Their career paths were never going to take them to the U.S. Capitol or inside big city newsrooms. And none of them ever dreamt their online essays -- posted in an effort just to keep themselves sane -- would ever represent career options, or that White House candidates would come courting.
Basically, bloggers served as a conduit to the grassroots. Bloggers talked to people who talked to people, and collectively they amassed political power by raising hell together. And in truth, the liberal blogosphere -- the crucial communication arm of the progressive movement that grew into the type of influential outreach platform that the Democratic Party hadn't been able to build despite decades of trying -- was formed on a largely ad-hoc basis and for years was sustained by adrenaline and caffeine.
It really was an accidental empire.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the rise of the netroots, and how bloggers changed the 2008 campaign, see Bloggers on the Bus.