Briefly Noted: On Joseph Rago and the Blog Mob

“We adapted to the dynamo [the engine] and will to the Internet as well. We can’t just yet know how” (p. 9). This is the final statement of Joseph Rago’s recent essay in The New Criterion, and a retraction of an article he wrote in 2006 for the Wall Street Journal.[1] That article was the “Blog Mob” and was a full-frontal assault on the new (in 2006) practice of “blogging.” Rago recounts how he argued then: “The larger problem with blogs is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling” (p. 4). Blogging represented a symptom of a problem: the digital revolution.

Because he believed technological change was “the underwriter of the problem” (p. 5), Rago argued for the superiority of print journalism and print journalists. Yet, as Rago admits, “‘The Blog Mob’ participated in the trends it decried” (p. 6), namely, ad hominem argumentation and “overwritten and pompous” prose (p. 6). Thus Rago writes, “The Blog Mob” lacked “gradation” (p. 6) and was, in the end, “a mistake” (p. 4).

To counter this mistake, Rago acknowledges that there is “far more richness and intelligence online” than he gave it (or blogs) credit for (p. 7). His apology, however, is not a full retraction of all the observations of his original article. He argues that he was “more right than wrong, or less wrong, about instantaneity” (p. 7). The Internet and its endless links provides and creates the desire for instant information, entertainment, satisfaction, or, sadly, perversion. As Rago says, “The Internet’s eternal ‘now’ constitutes a media demand shock unlike anything in history” (p. 7). Moreover, this eternal now allows nearly anyone to offer opinions as unsubstantiated facts. (Wikipedia is an [kind of] exception that proves the rule: peer review is not germane to “the Internet”.) Hence Rago’s original article provided this critique he stands by.

In the final stage of this revisiting his earlier article Rago engages the “most trenchant criticism of ‘The Blog Mob,’” that the Internet is producing more democracy via a free-flowing, open-source, marketplace of ideas. Rago does not object to the idea of a marketplace of ideas. But he does object to the notion that it is a market. When dealing with people, history, news, etc., “market” is too thin. “It’s a commons, and truth is a public good,” says Rago (p. 9). Like the classic “tragedy of the commons”–where the common land was used by the community but destroyed because any and everyone could use it whenever–the Internet may be breaking down the structures of written exchange. Rago states, “The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the Internet is eroding the intermediaries that once shaped moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments. I am still not sure that we should cheer this breakdown” (p. 9). Like the invention of the steam engine and the printing press before it, the Internet is changing our culture. In this article Rago honestly evaluates his own thoughts about that change and cautions us to adapt appropriately.

I agree with Rago in his mixed review of the phenomenon of blogging. On the positive side, blogging does allow many people to have a voice who once would not have a voice, it offers an attractive venue for many non-readers and non-writers to begin reading and writing, and it offers a quick and inexpensive way to do so. On the negative side, not all voices deserve equal attention, and blogging breaks down the intermediaries that once made judgments about an article’s worth for publication. In other words, both good and bad writing flows forth freely, publicly, and instantaneously. As for Christians considering the blogosphere, our constructive path forward is to write in such a way as to contribute to the shalom that God intends for life on this planet. We write in service of God and his church, and in a manner characterized by truth, goodness, and beauty.



[1] Joseph Rago, “The ‘Blog Mob’ Revisited,” in The New Criterion (Dec 2012), 4-9.