A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through my pastor's library and remarking on the number of people who lay claim to “the next Reformation.” Over twenty years ago, Robert Schuller told us it would be a Reformation of self-esteem and more recently his protg Rick Warren that it will be one of purpose. Other books tell us the next Reformation will involve breaking the church body into small groups, essentially giving the church back to the people in the same way that the first Reformation gave the theology back to the people. And now Hugh Hewitt has entered the fray with his latest book Blog, predicting that the next Reformation will be blogging. The book is subtitled “Understanding the information Reformation that's changing your world” and the front cover adds, “Why you must know how the blogosphere is smashing the old media monopoly and giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas.” This is a book about the power and importance of blogging. If you are looking for a “how-to” guide to get you started or a book that will explain the pros and cons of commenting or tell you what a trackback ping is, you will have to look elsewhere.
Blog is divided into four sections and I will briefly outline each of them. In the first, Hewitt shows the power of “blog swarms” and provides a historical parallel for this new Reformation. To illustrate the power of blogs, Hewitt traces four of the blogosphere's greatest success stories: the toppling of Trent Lott; Catching the New York Times and reporter Jayson Blair in a lie; John Kerry lying about Christmas in Cambodia; and the Rathergate scandal that toppled Dan Rather. He outlines how these stories broke and how the MSM was usually far behind the blogosphere. In fact, had it not been for bloggers, it is likely that none of these stories would ever have broken in the way they did. And there is no doubt that these are only the first of many similar stories.
Following this, Hewitt risks what some Protestants would consider near-blasphemy by drawing direct comparisons between the first and (supposedly) impending Reformations. It is a twelve page “Coles Notes” summary of the Reformation and critical role played by the newly invented printing press. To summarize, without the movable type printing press, there would have been no Reformation simply because it was a popular movement that was championed by the common man who was provided information via this new medium.
In the second part of the book, Hewitt sets out to prove that Mainstream Media (MSM) is facing impending doom and that the blogosphere will be the benefactor in MSM's long-overdue demise. He believes that the overbearing issue in the dissemination of information is trust, and our society is rapidly losing trust in MSM. “The key to keep in mind is that trust drives everything. To build and maintain trust is a tremendously difficult thing, requiring patient attention to detail and discipline over long periods of time … In a world changing as rapidly as ours is, only those who have earned and continue to earn trust will be in a position to influence the choices of third parties. Blogs can earn that most valuable commodity. Which is why you have to get started. Your competitors already have” (page 155). The blogosphere offers readers a wide variety of authors to choose from and provides ample opportunity to regain the trust that is so lacking in MSM. This section (and, in fact, the whole book) is firmly slanted to the right (as one might expect if they read Hewitt's blog or listen to his radio program) and Hewitt takes every opportunity to criticize the Democratic Party and every media outlet other than FOX. I suspect this will hinder the potential impact of this book, as it alienates much of its potential audience. If you can see through this slant, you'll find that it is worth your while to keep reading.
I understand that the MSM is declining in so far as people no longer watch the nightly news and buy newspapers as they once did. However, what Hewitt does not do, is trace the number of readers at sites such as cnn.com or cbsnews.com. Is it possible that MSM is merely evolving in the media it uses to present its information? I would suggest that as fewer people tune in to CNN on their television, growing numbers are visiting cnn.com. Thus it seems that Hewitt may be missing the point. Could it be that blogging is merely a symptom of the change that we are seeing as people gravitate towards Internet-based media? Blogging is clearly one of the most exciting and most important aspects of this, but I would suggest that it is merely one aspect of a wider change.
I also wonder how plausible it is that MSM will die off. After all, bloggers do not usually create the news. Instead, they interpret the news that the MSM has already reported. Without the MSM, what will bloggers use for source material? What upper level organization will gather the news to disseminate it to the blogosphere so that it can be examined by the growing numbers of pundits? These are questions Hewitt does not adequately address.
The third section of the book suggests ways that blogging can be beneficial to individuals and organizations. The author suggests that every CEO should begin a blog to champion his company and his employees and that every hobbyist should be blogging about his hobby. Every major organization needs to secure blog-related domain names, so, for example, General Motors needs to acquire gmblog.com and use it to market their products. And on the whole I agree. Blogging has tremendous potential in a wide variety of applications.
The book concludes with two lengthy appendices that comprise almost 30 percent of the book. Appendix A is a disjointed collection of some of Hewitt's early writings on blogging and Appendix B is an assortment of emails sent to him from his readers which describe their blog-reading habits. Some of this is interesting, but most adds no significant value to the book.
As I read Blog, I was continually struck by how self-serving the book seemed. It struck me as being almost like the biography of a proud, self-made billionaire, except with site traffic and recognition in place of dollars and European models. If you do not know how many visits Hugh has to his blog in an average day, a busy day or an election day, you will before you have finished the book. You will know how many blogs have been started because of his influence and just how useful a link from his blog to yours can be. I came to realize, though, that in a sense the blogosphere is built on just this sort of self-importance. Bloggers succeed by driving visitors to their sites by whatever means possible. The most important person in the blogosphere is the one with the greatest readership, just like the most important person in my hometown is the one with the most money. And lest I sound hypocritical, I will admit that I have a blog of my own and that I have no right to cast the first stone.
Another reviewer commented that, “The book reads like it was cranked out over a few long weekends.” I suspect that may be the case. Reviews of this book were posted on Amazon as early as December 28 of 2004 and some high-traffic bloggers reported receiving copies as early as December 24, yet the book discusses Hewitt's site traffic during the Presidential elections of that same year, which took place on November 2 (only seven weeks earlier). Some have suggested that the frantic pace of the book owes to the frantic pace of technology in general and the blogosphere in particular. I would suggest that the frantic pace comes from a frantic writing and publishing schedule. Several of the chapters, especially near the end of the book, are so short (several are less than two pages) that it almost seems like the author just never got around to finishing them.
I have long since grown tired and skeptical of people claiming to have discovered the next Reformation. I don't believe blogging represents the next Reformation any more than did self-esteem. At the same time, there are some interesting and undeniable parallels between the availability of information at the time of the rise of the Reformers and our time where we are witnessing the rise of the bloggers. Blogging is already going mainstream and, especially in a fast-paced society like our own, it is never good to be left behind.
This book has much to say that is valuable, especially in regards to the importance of trust and the application of blogging to corporations and organizations. Unfortunately, I found it frantically-written and poorly-organized. I wanted to love it, but in the end just could not. Yet I still do give recommend it, especially to those in positions of leadership. Its alarmist tone may convince some of the value of blogging, but I suspect just as many others will be put-off. I agree with Hewitt that the blogosphere is giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas and agree that this is generally a good thing. I think there is great future for the blogosphere.
In the end, Blog is a 155-page book, padded with appendices to 220 pages, but one that to treat the topic properly needs to be about 300 pages (with no appendices!). It is, no doubt, a valuable contribution to our understanding of the power and importance of blogging, but it is incomplete. I know Hugh Hewitt has the knowledge to do justice to the subject matter - it just seems that perhaps he was not given the time.