Bryan Caplan  

Imagining the Proto-Blogosphere

Krugman on Amazon... Minecraft, Survival Craft, and...
How is blogging different from traditional media?  My knee-jerk answer is, "It caters to a higher-IQ audience," but that's not really true.  The real story is that blogging lets a million voices bloom - including but hardly limited to voices aimed at high-IQ audiences.  The good news is that if you're so inclined, you can now find intelligent, candid defenses of almost any idea.

Now consider the following counterfactual.  Something like blogging (but no full-blown internet) came along decades or centuries earlier.  How would the cream of the proto-blogosphere have reacted to...

1. Apartheid in the 1980s

2. The civil rights movement in the 1960s

3. The Great Depression

4. World War I

5. The anti-slavery movement in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s

Please be civil and show your work.  I'll repost the best answers in a followup piece.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
david condon writes:

All of these strike me as issues where modern society is mostly in agreement, or at least those most familiar with those events. The closest parallel, I think, is the Iraq War, which is today widely regarded as a mistake. Initially, the blogosphere was ahead of the curve on Iraq, but still divided. Crooked Timber, TPM, and MR all took positions against it. Other prominent bloggers like Ezra Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and Michelle Malkin all favored it. These were some of the most prominent blogs at the time; "cream" is more subjective. Still, the blogosphere turned strongly negative much more quickly than the general public. I would expect a similar curve in historical scenarios. Blogs are slightly ahead and quicker to react, but not lopsidedly on history's side.

Tracy W writes:

Wouldn't these questions be answered by reading what people like Orwell, Chesterton and Macaulay were writing at the time?

Daublin writes:

@david, opinion is not unanimous on these things at all, certainly not in the blogosphere.

Have you ever read Iraq the Model? It's by an Iraqi who took the intuitive position that democracy was better than Sadaam Hussein. The blog tailed off in 2011, but the last few posts were still broadly supportive of the overall change.

On the Great Depression, there is sharp disagreement about both the causes and the solutions to it. The fight goes on about the culpability of both Harding and FDR, as well as whether World War II helped or hurt the economy.

Anti-slavery I will sort of give you, except that the solutions to it are widely disputed. The Civil War in particular is still hotly debated, especially by people who are unlikely to think the Iraqi war was a good idea. As Bryan often says, sending in troops has immediate large harms to everyone involved.

On net, I am not sure what blogs are doing, except making the arguments of higher quality. I am also tempted to say that more people are sucked into political fights than used to be, but it's hard to say whether I just notice it more nowadays. When I was in college, it seemed like maybe one in twenty were political junkies. Nowadays, it seems like everyone is ready to leap at each other's throat.

Bob Knaus writes:

Political pamphlets appeared shortly after the printing press and were hugely influential. Think Milton on the English Civil War, Payne on the American Revolution, Garrison on slavery.

On a less successful project, here is a collection of pamphlets on anarchism from a century or so back:

Jeff writes:

One thing I suppose blogging does is help you refine your arguments and rhetoric. More immediate, more direct feedback, and from anonymous commenters, too, who won't spare your feelings for better or worse. Contrast that with the pamphlets mentioned above. Thomas Paine probably had a much tougher time finding out just how well "Common Sense" was going over with the people who read it since he didn't have Disqus to display comment threads on his wordpress blog or what have you.

As for historical impact, I read somewhere that more educated, more intelligent people are more polarized, politically, and this is mostly due to the fact that a)we all engage in confirmation bias and b)the more educated you are, the better you are at finding sources of information that support your priors, leading to a hardening of beliefs. With that in mind, if you'd had blogs to make a compelling case for each side, accessible by anyone at any time, I suspect a lot of those conflicts you mention would simply have been more bitter and protracted as the resolve of each side would have been stiffer.

The exception might be WWI. That one might have de-escalated if the Central and Entente Powers had had a better picture of what the other side was thinking, I think. According to Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, the Germans were paranoid about Russian aggression and the British were paranoid about German aggression, both somewhat baselessly, and this paranoia was a big part of what sucked both countries into the war. Perhaps the British could have read some German war blogging early on during the invasion of Belgium and France, realized that crossing the Channel and invading southern England was not on the German Army's agenda, and reacted accordingly. But who knows.

Anne writes:

I agree w/ you, Professor's about "voice"...along the lines of the "voice, visitors and exit" paradigm.

How would the blogosphere respond to the Fairfax County Public Schools' (FCPS) response to student suicides?

I am a volunteer crisis counselor on the local suicide hotline and a parent to two teen boys, who, until recently, attended this high school:

I attended an FCPS sponsored event last night about "fostering resiliency and suicide prevention" that was a typical, top-down presentation in which the parents' voices were on "mute." It was decidedly "pro-school", one of the presenters went so far as to say he thinks the students should be in school for longer days and the school year extended; and that the parents "should support the schools."

Three FCPS students have died by suicide so far this school year.

As for visitors, schools are fairly opaque, especially by the time you get to high school. Any attempt to scratch through the opacity is met w/ a decidedly adversarial response: command and control, zero tolerance, etc. The official policy is that a student may be detained before their parents are called.

Exit options equal private school or homeschooling....dismal next best alternatives for most families. We've done homeschooling for large chunks of our sons elementary school years, but high school is the big fork in the road in Fairfax County. Suicide is the ultimate exit option.

For what it's worth, I asked w/ the student leadership at Woodson to reconsider holding that candlelight event which is pictured on the front page of the Post article as it is not recommended according to guidelines. My "voice" was not loud enough.

These are the guidelines:

David R. Henderson writes:

I think you mean Hoover, not Harding.

gwern writes:

WWI is an interesting case. There's not terribly much discussion of it these days (eclipsed by WWII), but I get the impression that few people think it was a great idea for anyone involved and especially for the USA, especially given the bungled aftermath & backfires (most notably, WWII and nationalism).

Except it also seems that WWI was almost universally popular, to the point where Wilson was able to impose astonishing levels of censorship, in part through control of the postal service, and people were thrown in jail for writing against WWI. How many bloggers are that courageous? Particularly careerists like 'Ezra Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and Michelle Malkin'? Well, judging from how they handled Iraq, when there was zero chance of going to jail for criticizing it, we can safely say that there would have been no meaningful criticism, and they would probably have been first in line to tweet various Kraut outrages and urge people to remember the Lusitania.

Jeff H writes:

I think Bob Knaus has it right.

If you go back as far as the Reformation you'll see that a lot of what Martin Luther and his contemporaries were writing were pamphlets for the educated and uneducated classes.

The London School of Economics has a rather large collection of pamphlets here.

And a simple Google search will turn up a variety of other links showing thousands of pamphlets. Here's a link Wikipedia's article on tracts.

ThomasH writes:

On the Depression, I think there would have been a lot (more) angst expressed about the conditions including lots more about (yawn) it being a natural result of capitalism.

But, there might have been more nuanced discussion of FDR policies focusing one their practical effects instead of ideological support defense. Going off gold, good; AAA, bad. Or is that just wishful thinking?

Required reading: High Weirdness by Mail by Rev. Ivan Stang

It was an examination of proto-blogging as of 1988.

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