1. The Huffington Post:
The history of political blogging might usefully be divided into the periods pre- and post-Huffington. Before the millionaire socialite Arianna Huffington decided to get in on the act, bloggers operated in a spirit of underdog solidarity. They hated the mainstream media – and the feeling was mutual.
Bloggers saw themselves as gadflies, pricking the arrogance of established elites from their home computers, in their pyjamas, late into the night. So when, in 2005, Huffington decided to mobilise her fortune and media connections to create, from scratch, a flagship liberal blog she was roundly derided. Who, spluttered the original bloggerati, did she think she was?
But the pyjama purists were confounded. Arianna’s money talked just as loudly online as off, and the Huffington Post quickly became one of the most influential and popular journals on the web. It recruited professional columnists and celebrity bloggers. It hoovered up traffic. Its launch was a landmark moment in the evolution of the web because it showed that many of the old rules still applied to the new medium: a bit of marketing savvy and deep pockets could go just as far as geek credibility, and get there faster.
To borrow the gold-rush simile beloved of web pioneers, Huffington’s success made the first generation of bloggers look like two-bit prospectors panning for nuggets in shallow creeks before the big mining operations moved in. In the era pre-Huffington, big media companies ignored the web, or feared it; post-Huffington they started to treat it as just another marketplace, open to exploitation. Three years on, Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace, while newbie amateur bloggers have to gather traffic crumbs from under the table of the big-time publishers.
Least likely to post ‘I’m so over this story – check out the New York Times’
2. Boing Boing
Lego reconstructions of pop videos and cakes baked in the shape of iPods are not generally considered relevant to serious political debate. But even the most earnest bloggers will often take time out of their busy schedule to pass on some titbit of mildly entertaining geek ephemera. No one has done more to promote pointless, yet strangely cool, time-wasting stuff on the net than the editors of Boing Boing (subtitle: A Directory of Wonderful Things). It launched in January 2000 and has had an immeasurable influence on the style and idiom of blogging. But hidden among the pictures of steam-powered CD players and Darth Vader tea towels there is a steely, ultra-liberal political agenda: championing the web as a global medium free of state and corporate control.
Boing Boing chronicles cases where despotic regimes have silenced or imprisoned bloggers. It helped channel blogger scorn on to Yahoo and Google when they kowtowed to China’s censors in order to win investment opportunities. It was instrumental in exposing the creeping erosion of civil liberties in the US under post-9/11 ‘Homeland Security’ legislation. And it routinely ridicules attempts by the music and film industries to persecute small-time file sharers and bedroom pirates instead of getting their own web strategies in order. It does it all with gentle, irreverent charm, polluted only occasionally with gratuitous smut.
Their dominance of the terrain where technology meets politics makes the Boing Boing crew geek aristocracy.
Least likely to post ‘Has anyone got a stamp?’
Techcrunch began in 2005 as a blog about dotcom start-ups in Silicon Valley, but has quickly become one of the most influential news websites across the entire technology industry. Founder Michael Arrington had lived through the internet goldrush as a lawyer and entrepreneur before deciding that writing about new companies was more of an opportunity than starting them himself. His site is now ranked the third-most popular blog in the world by search engine Technorati, spawning a mini-empire of websites and conferences as a result. Business Week named Arrington one of the 25 most influential people on the web, and Techcrunch has even scored interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain.
With a horde of hungry geeks and big money investors online, Techcrunch is the largest of a wave of technology-focused blog publishers to tap into the market – GigaOm, PaidContent and Mashable among them – but often proves more contentious than its rivals, thanks to Arrington’s aggressive relationships with traditional media and his conflicts of interest as an investor himself.
Least likely to post ‘YouTube? It’ll never catch on’
One of the early wave of blogging pioneers, web designer Jason Kottke started keeping track of interesting things on the internet as far back as 1998. The site took off, boosted partly through close links to popular blog-building website Blogger (he later married one of the founders). And as the phenomenon grew quickly, Kottke became a well-known filter for surfers on the lookout for interesting reading.
Kottke remains one of the purest old-skool bloggers on the block – it’s a selection of links to websites and articles rather than a repository for detailed personal opinion – and although it remains fairly esoteric, his favourite topics include film, science, graphic design and sport. He often picks up trends and happenings before friends start forwarding them to your inbox. Kottke’s decision to consciously avoid politics could be part of his appeal (he declares himself ‘not a fan’), particularly since the blog’s voice is literate, sober and inquiring, unlike much of the red-faced ranting found elsewhere online.
A couple of key moments boosted Kottke’s fame: first, being threatened with legal action by Sony for breaking news about a TV show, but most notably quitting his web-design job and going solo three years ago. A host of ‘micropatrons’ and readers donated cash to cover his salary, but these days he gets enough advertising to pay the bills. He continues to plug away at the site as it enters its 10th year.
Least likely to post ‘Look at this well wicked vid of a dog on a skateboard’
One of the best-known personal bloggers (those who provide more of a diary than a soapbox or reporting service), Heather Armstrong has been writing online since 2001. Though there were personal websites that came before hers, certain elements conspired to make Dooce one of the biggest public diaries since Samuel Pepys’s (whose diary is itself available, transcribed in blog form, atPepysdiary.com). Primarily, Armstrong became one of the first high-profile cases of somebody being fired for writing about her job. After describing events that her employer – a dotcom start-up – thought reflected badly on them, Armstrong was sacked. The incident caused such fierce debate that Dooce found itself turned into a verb that is used in popular parlance (often without users realising its evolution): ‘dooced – to be fired from one’s job as a direct result of one’s personal website’.
Behind Dooce stands an army of personal bloggers perhaps not directly influenced by, or even aware of, her work – she represents the hundreds of thousands who decide to share part of their life with strangers.
Armstrong’s honesty has added to her popularity, and she has written about work, family life, postnatal depression, motherhood, puppies and her Mormon upbringing with the same candid and engaging voice. Readers feel that they have been brought into her life, and reward her with their loyalty. Since 2005 the advertising revenue on her blog alone has been enough to support her family.
Least likely to post ‘I like babies but I couldn’t eat a whole one’
Once dubbed ‘Hollywood’s most hated website’, Perezhilton (authored by Mario Lavandeira since 2005) is the gossip site celebrities fear most. Mario, 29, is famous for scrawling rude things (typically doodles about drug use) over pap photos and outing closeted stars. On the day of Lindsay Lohan’s arrest for drink-driving, he posted 60 updates, and 8m readers logged on.
He’s a shameless publicity whore, too. His reality show premiered on VH1 last year, and his blogsite is peppered with snaps of him cuddling Paris Hilton at premieres. Fergie from Black Eyed Peas alluded to him in a song, and Avril Lavigne phoned, asking him to stop writing about her after he repeatedly blogged about her lack of talent and her ‘freakishly long arm’.
Least likely to post ‘Log on tomorrow for Kofi Annan’s live webchat’
7. Talking points memo
At some point during the disputed US election of 2000 – when Al Gore was famously defeated by a few hanging chads – Joshua Micah Marshall lost patience. Despite working as a magazine editor, Marshall chose to vent on the web. Eight years later Talking Points Memo and its three siblings draw in more than 400,000 viewers a day from their base in New York.
Marshall has forged a reputation, and now makes enough money to run a small team of reporters who have made an impact by sniffing out political scandal and conspiracy. ‘I think in many cases the reporting we do is more honest, more straight than a lot of things you see even on the front pages of great papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post,’ he said in an interview last year. ‘But I think both kinds of journalism should exist, should co-exist.’
Although his unabashed partisan approach is admonished by many old-fashioned American reporters, Marshall’s skills at pulling together the threads of a story have paid dividends. Last year he helped set the agenda after George Bush covertly fired a string of US attorneys deemed disloyal to the White House. While respected mainstream media figures accused Marshall of seeing conspiracy, he kept digging: the result was the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and a prestigious George Polk journalism award for Marshall, the first ever for a blogger.
Least likely to post ‘Barack is so, like, gnarly to the max’
Amused by a photo of a smiling cat, idiosyncratically captioned with the query ‘I Can Has A Cheezburger?’, which he found on the internet while between jobs in early 2007, Eric Nakagawa of Hawaii emailed a copy of it to a friend (known now only as Tofuburger). Then, on a whim, they began a website, first comprising only that one captioned photo but which has since grown into one of the most popular blogs in the world.
Millions of visitors visit Icanhascheezburger.com to see, create, submit and vote on Lolcats (captioned photos of characterful cats in different settings). The ‘language’ used in the captions, which this blog has helped to spread globally, is known as Lolspeak, aka Kitty Pidgin. In Lolspeak, human becomes ‘hooman’, Sunday ‘bunday’, exactly ‘xackly’ and asthma ‘azma’. There is now an effort to develop a LOLCode computer-programming language and another to translate the Bible into Lolspeak.
Least likely to post ‘Actually, dogs are much more interesting…”
9. Beppe Grillo
Among the most visited blogs in the world is that of Beppe Grillo, a popular Italian comedian and political commentator, long persona non grata on state TV, who is infuriated daily – especially by corruption and financial scandal in his country.
A typical blog by Grillo calls, satirically or otherwise, for the people of Naples and Campania to declare independence, requests that Germany declare war on Italy to help its people (‘We will throw violets and mimosa to your Franz and Gunther as they march through’) or reports on Grillo’s ongoing campaign to introduce a Bill of Popular Initiative to remove from office all members of the Italian parliament who’ve ever had a criminal conviction. Grillo’s name for Mario Mastella, leader of the Popular-UDEUR centre-right party, is Psychodwarf. ‘In another country, he would have been the dishwasher in a pizzeria,’ says Grillo. Through his blog, he rallied many marchers in 280 Italian towns and cities for his ‘Fuck You’ Day last September.
Least likely to post ‘Sign up to our campaign to grant Silvo Berlusconi immunity’
A New York blog of ‘snarky’ gossip and commentary about the media industry, Gawker was founded in 2002 by journalist Nick Denton, who had previously helped set up a networking site called First Tuesday for web and media entrepreneurs. Gawker’s earliest fascination was gossip about Vogue editor Anna Wintour, garnered from underlings at Conde Nast. This set the tone for amassing a readership of movers and shakers on the Upper East Side, as well as ‘the angry creative underclass’ wishing either to be, or not be, like them, or both (‘the charmingly incompetent X… the wildly successful blowhard’). Within a year Gawker’s readers were making 500,000 page views per month. Nowadays the figure is 11m, recovering from a recent dip to 8m thanks to the showing of a Tom Cruise ‘Indoctrination Video’ which Scientologists had legally persuaded YouTube to take down. Gawker remains the flagship of Gawker Media, which now comprises 14 blogs, although gossiping by ex-Gawker insiders, a fixation on clicks (which its bloggers are now paid on the basis of) and fresh anxiety over defining itself have led some to claim Gawker has become more ‘tabloidy’ and celeb- and It-girl-orientated, and less New York-centric. But its core value – ‘media criticism’ – appears to be intact.
Least likely to post ‘We can only wish Rupert Murdoch well with his new venture’