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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2006, 11:05 am

Whining about diversity?

By Lakshmi Chaudhry
When I worked on the cover story on blogs for In These Times, the idea was to take a comprehensive look at the development arc of the progressive blogosphere, and assess its strengths and limitations. It started out as a 7000-word Frankenstein, which was rewritten, edited, and honed down to its present form.

I've been following the discussion of the article online and found a lot of it interesting and edifying. One of the bits that got edited out of the piece was a line about how blogs have transformed the way public knowledge is created: "Knowledge in the blog world is cumulative, collaborative, and collective. And its supporters would argue that it offers a richer understanding of the issue at hand than contained in any article written by an individual reporter." And so I'd hoped that people would find the article important enough to add to its strengths and address its weaknesses. And many have done exactly that.

But in the spirit of this public debate, let me rebut the idea that this article represents "tedious whining" about diversity -- a charge made by Markos over at Daily Kos, and partly validated by the very smart and insightful Josh Holland in the comments section of the story on AlterNet.

One, the story addresses diversity within a very specific context: Can blogs create a truly effective grassroots movement? Within this context, the fact that the blogosphere remains predominantly the realm of white, well-educated males represents a challenge to be overcome. So the "tedious whining" charge makes the article sound like some rant from some unhappy Indian chick, when it's an extensively reported, researched piece that does its best to offer a fair assessment of an important political phenomenon. And it says nothing about the broader question of effectiveness. So it doesn't really add to public knowledge of the issue or carry the discussion forward. But rather suggests that any attempt to even raise the issue of representation is to be dismissed outright, irrespective of its context. The Republicans do that well enough without our help.

Two, listing a bunch of women bloggers or talking about people you personally read doesn't begin to address the the homogeneity problem. Every report on the blogosphere -- penned by blog advocates like Stoller and Bowers or Mike Cornfield -- say the blogosphere remains very homogenous, and extremely skewed in terms of traffic. In terms of visibility and attention outside the blogosphere, none of the women bloggers except former Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox, even compare to the men. And this will be a problem as long as blogs continue to depend on traditional media to reach a larger audience, affect national debate etc.

To suggest that A-listers could make it a priority to highlight and point traffic to the new folks joining the blogosphere in order to boost their traffic is hardly presumptuous or asking for some kind of "affirmative action". Diversity enriches debate and dialogue -- if much of the dialogue occurs in the top blogs, wouldn't it be helpful to ensure that these blogs reflect the broadest spectrum of views, both in terms of authors and readers?

In any case, the article mentions the growing number of women and people of color in the blogosphere, and even suggests that the make-up of the blogosphere in terms of race and gender may in fact be very different in five years. The biggest hurdle is class -- an issue that can hardly be overlooked when talking about a Democratic Party that is now a party of urban professionals. Not sure why the issue of class got brushed aside, but that's really where the article ends up. The conclusion of the article is as follows: any one trying to build or participate in a digital grassroots movement needs to prioritize including as many people as possible, especially those who are most marginalized by the existing political establishment. What's so tedious or whiny about that?

Lakshmi Chaudhry, a former In These Times senior editor and Nation contributing editor, is a senior editor at Firstpost.com, India's first web-only news site. Since 1999 she has been a reporter and an editor for various independent publications, including Alternet, Mother Jones, Ms., Bitch and Salon.

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