January ’06, Karen Walrond asked her readers if their weblog gave them power. My response was:

I feel like I have the same power as your typical guy atop a soap box in the 1920’s. Not much.
Sometimes I walk into the library or even one of those mega-bookstores and I’m just amazed at how many people have been published. How many words are out there. And how each day it seems like I have less and less time to read their words.
I once heard an interview with a nobel prize winning author. I don’t remember her name. And hadn’t heard of her at the time. She listed off 20 other nobel prize winners in the past century. Hadn’t heard of them either. Point being, the “shelf life” of supposedly famous prize winning writers is very limited.
The irony I guess is that writing online might actually give us an advantage because of search technology. Either way, few are the Shakespeares, few are those with influence, but graphomania is certainly in abundance.

Exactly one year later I got a phone call from Chris Nolan who would be moderating the Soft Power Session at We Media Miami, an annual conference that brings together figures from old and new media and tries to get them to hold hands. I had heard the term “Soft Power” plenty of times in political science classes at UCSD following the post-9/11 shift in foreign policy. At the time Joseph Nye was writing a lot of Op-Eds arguing for the United States to use Hollywood and international study programs rather than bombs and soldiers as means of spreading free market democracy and Western values. But I wanted to hear directly from Chris on how she interpreted “soft power” in relation to blogs and new media.

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As I saw it, the session could have either focused on how blogs empower everyday citizens or what bloggers do with their power once they have it. I was mildly disappointed to discover that she intended to focus on the former. Under the insanely hot and glaring stage lights of Storer Auditorium, I was bored with my own response when Chris asked me about Global Voices.

Global Voices is an editor-based aggregator of the very best self-published content and citizen journalism from around the world. We help shine the light on individual voices that aren’t represented in the mainstream media, but who are able to express themselves to a global audience via the web … blah, blah, blah …

And so we went around the panel and each gave our own little blurb about our projects, explaining how we were each revolutionizing the media. Jay talked about NewAssignment.net and the future of collaborative journaism, Chuck DeFeo (love that last name) talked about TownHall, Val noted how Babalú gave representation to the Cuban exile experience, and Gaby was pigeonholed as the young person who actually spends time on Facebook and MySpace.

Were we really still talking about this? Media professionals and keyboard-tethered bloggers all gathered together, all still pretending to be amazed that, yes, the internet is there and that it helps empower the little person.

Then, two great things happened. Anna Nicole Smith died and Alan Rosenblatt asked exactly what I had been wanting to ask: why are we still talking about this? Let’s talk about what bloggers are actually doing with that power and how that differs from the old model.

I don’t celebrate Anna Nicole Smith’s death out of spite, but because she had an important lesson for us: as much as we’d like to congratulate ourselves for making journalism more egalitarian, more innovative, more global; the truth of the matter is that newspaper front pages and blog index pages would both be covered with Anna Nicole Smith’s boobs for the next few days.

The truth is that most people would much rather read about her personal life than recent protests in Zimbabwe. That’s not a criticism, it’s just candor. And after all, what difference does it make whether we spend our lunch hour reading about celebrity affairs or protests in some foreign land if all we do with that information is repeat it with raised eyebrows at dinner parties?

Which brings us to Rosenblatt’s question. Blogs are there. Podcasts are there. YouTube celebrities are there. Global Voices is there. So what?

To be continued …

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