Pittsburgh has an identity crisis. Believed for years to be a dying if not dead industrial town devastated by steel mill closings and globalized outsourcing that’s a wasteland of boarded-up storefronts and empty apartment buildings, in fact it’s a lively little city that is anything but. It’s an eminently livable, affordable place that has maintained a blue-collar sensibility and a working class that’s still middle-class, one of the last such centers in the country. It’s staunchly Democratic (one of the reasons Pittsburgh’s economy hasn’t been hijacked by corporate raiders), strongly union-oriented (the unions are a prime component of the local political machine), and unafraid of embracing its blue-collar roots and even celebrating them.

Which may be why Michael Tedesco, impresario of the group blog Comments From Left Field, feels particularly at home here. As an actitivist Michael worked on maverick Democrat Chuck Pennachio’s campaign for Senate, helped organize MoveOn.org meet-ups during both ’04 and ’06, volunteered as a limo driver during John Kerry’s campaign visit to Pittsburgh, and was a regular attendee at Democracy for America functions, among others. For a short time, he even considered running for mayor. “It would have been easy. Say the right things, meet the right people. If the guy who’s mayor now can do it, anybody can.”

“Pittsburgh is a small town,” he explained. “Actually a collection of small towns – 136 of them in Allegheny County. Even though Pennsylvania state politics is driven by what happens in Philly and Pittsburgh, the neighborhood orientation of Pittsburgh means everybody in politics here knows everybody else.”Michael started blogging as a way to “rant and rave” about issues and events that frosted his sense of justice, fairness, or generosity. Most of us probably start that way. But then, he says, he realized that for the blog to grow, “you have to get your ego out of the way.” He did that by awakening a latent yen for being an editor and forming CFLF as a group blog by inviting other bloggers like the indefatigable Kyle Moore and Canadian activist matttbastard (and eventually yours truly) to take part. “That’s the future of political blogging. What we need are fewer blogs with a wider variety of voices.”

I asked him how you get those voices heard when the A-List bloggers control access and everybody else gets ignored.

“I think the next step in growing the influence of political blogs doesn’t have as much to do with networking and outreach as it does with marketing. The blogosphere is like Pittsburgh. We’re all in our little neighborhoods, talking to each other. We need to let other people know what we’re doing.”

Advertise? I asked.

“Yes. I have before and I’d do it again. Look, more and more people are coming online to look for information they’re not getting from the major media, and when they start to realize that the coverage they’re getting from the few A-List blogs is necessarily limited, they’re going to go looking at a wider range of blogs to find what they need.” He bought a couple of ads on other people’s blogs – No Quarter.com and Ezra Klein – and they increased his traffic considerably even though LGF is right-wing. It suggested to him that the blogosphere isn’t quite as polarized as people sometimes think.

“Sure, you’ve got a band of dedicated trolls on both sides who just want to call the other side names, but there are a lot more people who just want to get both perspectives. Speaking for myself,” he adds, his eyes glittering as intensely as, say, the Ancient Mariner’s, “I don’t care what people say as long as they’re honest about what they believe. I’ve invited some of CFLF’s conservative commenters the chance to blog for us. So far they’ve all turned me down. I think they don’t want to have to defend their own positions, or maybe they don’t want to face criticism. But I mean it. The offer is legitimate, and I hope one of these days someone will take me up on it.”

He doesn’t know what blogs should do in the future but what he thinks they ought to do – and what they may need to do – is be the medium that keeps democracy alive in an America that is increasingly controlled by corporations and right-wing autocrats.

He may be right about that.

Blogging on Bloggers

December 14, 2007

The progressive blogosphere is a vital and challenging space unlike anything the world has ever seen.

If that seems bold or hyperbolic, think about it for a minute. Political voices that would never have been heard in any other era until and unless they were first filtered through mass media or all but lost in small zines with tiny circulations often not larger than the immediate members of their own families now have a world-wide megaphone. They may get lost in the shuffle but the entire online planet at least has access to them day or night.

Nobody’s quite figured out what to do with this phenomenal new communication mechanism. At YearlyKos meetings they spend countless hours trying to define the role of political blogs and determine where to go next. The NetRoots concept came from the blogosphere and has grown exponentially in just the past 5 years. While it is unarguable that it has had an impact, everyone knows that what has happened so far is a pale shadow of what can happen in the future. How to harness it? Where to point it?

The vast majority of left-wing political blogs get fewer than 1000 hits/day out of the millions of blog-readers who crowd the internet. At the moment, a bare dozen blogs (if that), the so-called “A List”, dominate the readership. Yet as good as most of those blogs are, just below them swarms a mighty ocean of others. Hundreds of them are livelier, better-written, juicier, and more provocative. Hundreds more are funnier, wilder, more comprehensive and more outspoken.

Just follow Steve Benen’s Blog Report in Salon magazine for a week and you’ll discover a wealth of blogs worth reading that you never knew existed. Follow it for a month and you’ll find yourself knee-deep in a rich field of online communities, cyber-cities connected by highways of shared passions, arguments, clashing opinions, and common goals that were invisible to you the week before.

If the blogosphere is to reach its full potential, it won’t be through the continued dominance of the A-List Whales. It will be through the penetration of the hundreds of B, C, and D-Listers who comprise the bulk of political bloggers. So who are they? What are they thinking? How do they see the future?

That’s what this blog intends to try to find out. Through online, phone, and personal interviews, iVoice is going to try to identify some of the most potent of these buried (or at least semi-buried) men and women, and get their thoughts on the future they see, the future they’d like to see, and the sphere we all inhabit.

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