They're bloggers, and they're everywhere.
They're a new breed of citizen-reporters, net-savvy activists and digital diarists, and through their Web logs, or blogs, they keep journals of their passions, posting them online for all to read. In recent years, they've also made blogs a new media force to be reckoned with.
Six years ago, it was an early blogger of sorts, Matt Drudge, who broke the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. During the 2004 elections, the "blogosphere" became a political wild card, rallying both liberals and conservatives. Blogs helped raise millions of dollars for Democratic candidates like Howard Dean, and a cadre of bloggers discovered the now-infamous flaws in CBS' investigation of President Bush's National Guard service.
But not all blogs concern political matters. In fact, most are simply about the everyday interests of the folks who write them. For almost every topic, from guns to gardening, there's a blog -- or a thousand of them.
According to research published two weeks ago by the blog-tracking company Technorati.com, there are now more than 14.2 million blogs, up from some 6.5 million a mere six months ago. Blogs are springing up at the rate of roughly one per second -- or some 88,000 every day -- and more than half of those will remain active.
Not surprisingly, some of those millions of bloggers live right here in Asheville. Eventually, some of them would have to cross paths -- at least online. But what you might not expect is that these bloggers have now come together as a new community, based on their shared love of broadcasting their thoughts into the electronic ether. What began a few months ago with e-mail messages and postings on one another's message boards has grown into regular "meet-ups" for brews and blog-talk.
As the new world of blogging from and about Asheville takes shape, some of this area's pioneer bloggers told Xpress -- in recent interviews conducted face-to-face, on the phone and (of course) via e-mail -- just why they decided to get their blog on.
Joining the chorus
Bloggers are sometimes caricatured as home-bound loners who connect through the Web because that's the only kind of contact they can handle. But spend a few minutes with Gordon Smith, a family counselor by trade, and you get the distinct impression that he likes being right in the thick of things.
Seated in a mini-maelstrom of conversation at the Asheville Brewing Co. patio during a recent meet-up, Smith is surrounded by the blogger community he helped create. On one side, Anne Fitten Glenn -- author of the blog Edgy Mama -- is discussing her experiences trying to get her second novel published, while on the other, Chris Parsons of the blog Modern Peasant and DEMbloggers' Brian Hopkins are discussing the likely outcome of Rep. Charles Taylor's next election.
Through all the noise, Smith is grinning and chiming in; after all, these are his people. In fact, one of the blogs Smith co-founded, BlogAsheville, is all about getting local bloggers out from behind their computers to talk to each other. (For the addresses of this and other blogs discussed in this article, see sidebar, "Blog Roll.")
"Many area bloggers have shared interests, so simply creating new webs of connection is exciting," says Smith. Local bloggers are often surprised to discover how much they have in common, he adds, noting that some of them have gone on to plan joint nonblog projects as well. And BlogAsheville's just the start: "The community is just beginning to form," notes Smith.
Smith began blogging as a Democratic activist, co-founding the blog Scrutiny Hooligans in July 2004. It was through his experiences with that blog that Smith first became curious about other local bloggers, sending out e-mails and posting messages on other local blogs. This online networking attracted the core of what would become BlogAsheville.
BlogAsheville now provides a central linking hub for more than 40 Asheville-based blogs. With a variety of local bloggers contributing updates and content to the site, BlogAsheville has become a sort of digital lounge in which all Asheville-based bloggers and readers are welcome to hang out.
Working on the site, Smith says he's come to see himself as a "connoisseur of all the Asheville-area blogs," and although he's still a political activist, he has now become something of a pro-blog activist as well.
Blogs, he argues, offer a real alternative to conventional, mainstream media. "Only those involved in corporate media believe it is in any way representative of the majority of Americans," Smith asserts. "Political blogs can do away with the bureaucratic drama of corporate media and discuss the issues frankly. Without the fear of losing sponsorship or advertising, bloggers are free to tell stories as they wish."
The swift left jab
In the strange and polarizing scrum that was last year's election, many political players turned to blogging to get their message out. One person who saw the potential impact of this new wave of activism was a man known to the public only by his screen name, Uptown Ruler. A self-described "news junkie," Uptown joined forces with Smith in 2004 to create Scrutiny Hooligans, a blog dedicated to reporting on shady political dealings, particularly those of the Bush administration.
A visit to the site reveals a wealth of informative (and sometimes bitingly sardonic) articles, as well as opinion pieces and links to an extensive collection of political, environmental and social-change Web sites.
What really makes the site stand out, however, are the user comments. By clicking a button on the bottom of each article, visitors can read the comments left by others and leave their own. Debate, discussion and outright arguing are commonplace here, and that's exactly how the blog's co-founder likes it.
"Not everyone agrees with our politics or sense of irony," Uptown Ruler acknowledges. "However, we note that it takes both sides of the debate to have democracy. We encourage any and all feedback."
Uptown says that Scrutiny Hooligans gets about 180 visits a day -- more when one of their stories gets linked to one of the bigger blogs. They may not have the largest fan base on the Web, but their readership is growing. And, according to Uptown, the main goal is simply to get alternative news and views out to the public, however many people chose to read it.
Blogs have come to have a significant impact on the political scene, he believes, because they pull into public discourse information and opinions ignored by other, more traditional sources. "Regardless of your political leanings, there is plenty of information on the Web that does not go through the mainstream media."
The hard right cross
For a staunch conservative, Asheville's progressive political scene can be a frustrating place to navigate. Just ask Mark Ruscoe, former Asheville Citizen-Times columnist and author of the blog Notes From the Culture Wasteland, which he launched back in March. "I am both fortunate and cursed to live in one of the true modern laboratories and vortices of left-of-center thought," he wrote in his first post.
While he occasionally veers into cultural discussions (a particularly scathing July post about the moral failings of cyclist Lance Armstrong comes to mind), the majority of Ruscoe's posts are responses to what he perceives as the "overwhelmingly liberal" bias of mainstream media.
"I enjoy poking holes in the liberal culture [that is] prevalent in Asheville," says Ruscoe. Asheville, he says, is a town of "meandering, relativistic ideologies" which, while usually earnest, often fail to meet his standards for serious political discourse. And although he believes that the majority of visitors to his blog are conservatives, Ruscoe claims that many of his favorite online exchanges come from his political polar opposites.
"I must say, it is the feedback I get from the left which interests me the most," he says. "I've learned over the years how illogical a lot of [liberalism] is, and how steeped in mindless self-gratification it can be."
For Ruscoe, the experience of writing a blog is almost a metaphor for the capitalist dream. "[Blogging is] like the unregulated, giant capital marketplace we all participate in every day. Some blogging is very bad; some of it is very good. But in the marketplace of ideas where no one dominates the medium, the best ideas win out -- as they should."
Idealism aside, there's also a hint of devilish play in Ruscoe's pointed jabs at his nonconservative Internet cohorts.
"Mostly, I like holding a mirror up to the liberal mindset," he says, "and having some fun while doing it."
The bane of WLOS
Perhaps the most enigmatic figure to inhabit the local blogosphere is a person known simply as "AshVegas" who runs a blog of the same name. Far from writing about the national news beat, AshVegas likes to keep his/her blog intensely local, focusing on what the writer brands the "sloppy" and "downright laughable" broadcast journalism presented by the WLOS news team.
"When I started the blog, I had no idea what it would be," AshVegas wrote in a recent e-mail. Originally, AshVegas considered focusing the blog on the drama surrounding the Interstate 26 connector, but with that project still years away from completion, the blogger began to focus on more immediate topics -- like the local TV news.
"One of my first posts was poking fun at [reporters] Scott [Wickersham] and Candice [Little] for showing some of their wedding video on a local newscast," AshVegas recalls. "I haven't looked back since."
Openly critical of WLOS' fashionably made-up staff and heavily hyped lead stories, AshVegas has also given nicknames to Asheville's notable news presenters. "Diva Darcel" and "Cabana Boy Cuevas" are commonly mentioned, and John "Punnyman" Le receives no end of mocking (prompting some readers to wonder whether AshVegas is really a WLOS insider with an axe to grind).
So, what's the truth behind all this taunting?
The anonymous AshVegas explains: "Why do I pick on local TV news? Because I get so fed up with the poor quality of the reportage. My only hope is that my commentary will spur them on to greater heights of journalistic integrity and performance."
Given the controversial nature of this material, it's perhaps not surprising that AshVegas is reluctant to even hint at his/her actual identity. In the blogger meet-up photos posted on BlogAsheville, for example, AshVegas insisted on being behind the camera.
"The anonymous thing is just my thing," says AshVegas by way of explanation, also mentioning the maxim that appears on the blog bio: "It's not about me, it's about them."
Of course, there's much more to the blog than just media criticism. AshVegas frequently posts photos of local events and writes about other topics of local interest. (For example, AshVegas' coverage of Bele Chere, which is archived at the site, was an exceptional document of the festival.)
"In the end, I'm just throwing stuff out into cyberspace," AshVegas writes. "Somehow, some of it stuck."
The digital 'zinester
Looking at 1000 Black Lines, the first impression you may to get is that of an old photocopied 'zine gone 21st century. Poems, essays, random journal entries, images and links to curious items of interest artfully litter the site.
Writer and graphic designer Matt Mulder launched the blog -- a fusion of personal journal and professional portfolio -- a year ago. He began by linking to his articles, passing along writing tips, and posting poems and short stories from his published collection, Late Night Writing (Wasteland Press, 2004) -- and curious readers began to take notice.
As he begins his second year on the blog, Mulder's personal accounts of rejection letters and publication joys have earned him a regular readership across the country, something that still surprises him.
"Originally, the readership was more of an afterthought," Mulder reveals. But since then, he says, he has occasionally tailored some of the blog's content to reflect his readers' interests. "I've been writing more about the writing life because several aspiring writers and bloggers have either linked [to] 1000 Black Lines or comment [on it] on a regular basis."
And while he's still an active member of the local blogging community, Mulder admits that he's no longer as driven to post as he was several months ago, when he updated 1000 Black Lines daily.
"There's more to life than my blog," he notes.
The grassroots movement of the soul
Yet another local variation on blogging is Bird On The Moon, a collection of consciousness-exploring essays, poems and links.
"I'm still trying to figure out exactly what [Bird On The Moon] is," says creator Jay Joslin. "It's sort of a daily work in progress."
A reader of other blogs for years, Joslin created Bird On The Moon in 2002 as a way to get his feet wet in the medium. He says that his personal experiences with writing (he's the author of two poetry and essay collections) made him want to explore the new possibilities with reader interaction that blogs have opened up.
"I like to look at blogging as the grassroots movement of the soul," he observes. "I like to wonder how we can use this tool to evolve our knowledge of consciousness and the soul just a wee, little bit more."
While the majority of Joslin's posts involve Zen-koanlike musings on a range of topics -- from silence to quantum physics -- there are also personal revelations. For instance, Joslin says that his recent post about nearly drowning in an accident on a waterfall provoked a flood of responses.
"Every day, there are people that are in crisis and experiencing such tremendous life-changing forces," he says. "But their stories aren't necessarily being told. That's the whole idea behind Bird On The Moon. I really try to bring out issues and topics that represent the mystery of being alive."
The literary ghetto
"I call it a quasi-literary blog, because I do wander off-topic," confesses Carrie A.A. Frye, creator of Tingle Alley (and a frequent contributor to Xpress). Frye's blog is a hodgepodge of book reviews, reviews of book reviews, discussions of literary culture, and installments of her running essay on the challenges of writing a novel. She jokingly refers to her site as being part of the "literary ghetto," but her talent with words is drawing roughly 1,000 visitors per day to Tingle Alley.
"Before I started my blog, I was a regular reader of them," says Frye. "There were a few that I just loved, and I would read them as I drank my coffee in the morning. I started to feel like they were personalities that I knew and that could be relied on."
That feeling eventually inspired her to create her own. "There's a freedom to [blogging]," she says. "You don't have the constrictions of print. You can talk at the length you want to, and on a subject that isn't necessarily timely. I blogged last week about Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. That's not new -- but it is what I'm reading and thinking about."
Although Frye launched Tingle Alley just last year, she has already become a notable name in the "litblog" community, and her blog was even casually mentioned in a recent Atlantic Monthly essay. Such exposure, she cautions, can have a downside -- there's the effect on the blogger's ego, for instance.
"Here's the nasty thing about keeping a blog: You can become obsessed with your site meter," she says, referencing the counter that tells Web-site operators how many visitors they've received. "I went through a period in the fall and winter where the site was getting more of an audience, and I got obsessed about checking. You start thinking about how many people are there visiting your site, and how many more will come if I blog about this topic; [it] seems like a never-ending loop."
Although Frye's dalliance with her blog's statistics was short-lived, it did give her some perspective on just what kind of blog she wants Tingle Alley to be.
"I sort of see it like I'm throwing a party, and people can come to hang out," she says now. "It's kind of like a salon."
Media hope -- or hype?
"I see a time where most people with a computer will have a blog," predicts Uptown Ruler of Scrutiny Hooligan. Given the breadth and depth of the blogging community, both locally and across the country (and indeed, around the world), there are those who argue that blogs will change the way we look at both personal writing and journalism. In fact, many of the bloggers Xpress interviewed are optimistic that blogging will one day be as influential as any other form of media -- and some went so far as to maintain that it already is.
That assessment has its detractors, however, including some notable voices from more-established forms of media. According to a recent column by David D. Perlmutter in the newspaper trade publication Editor & Publisher, many of the statistics for the seemingly unbelievable growth in the number of blogs are just that -- unbelievable -- and he says that many blogs are abandoned due to apathy shortly after being born.
Even blogs that remain active are sometimes dissed by print media. "Blogs are often just a way of making oneself appear on the Internet," The New York Times editorialized on Aug. 5. "It's like a closed-circuit video camera that catches a glimpse of you walking by an electronics store window filled with televisions. There you are in all your glory, suddenly, if not forever, mediated."
So is there really a blog revolution?
"The entire blogosphere is a writhing, living, evolving medium [with] everyone trying to get their voices heard," Gordon Smith observes. For him, the medium isn't just about the novelty of a new way to communicate -- or just a function of vanity. Blogs, he argues, are also "a great way to write every day, to vent frustrations, to shout, to scream, to organize, to disseminate information, to add a voice to the chorus, and to feel [like] a part of something bigger."
And as the wealth of Asheville-based blogs proves, blogging is also a digital window into the beating heart of a flesh-and-blood community.