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Top-Down Organizations And Their Blogs

In addition to "can men be feminists," there's been a second big conversation going around the feminist blogosphere. This one is about reactions to a post by Matt Stoller revisiting the question of "where are all the women bloggers?"* After observing the last few go-arounds on this question, I know better than to get involved. But my interest was piqued by the fact that he drew a parallel to environmentalist blogs:

That said, there's a top-down style to the feminist movement that leaves little room for flat hierarchies that blogging needs to flourish. This is a cultural issue, and can be reflected in a lot of the strategic missteps of these groups. It's very similar to the lack of blogs in the environmental movement, which is also somewhat identity-oriented, top-down, and reactionary. This is not a slight to these organizations - there are very good reasons why message control was critical and direct mail was a lifeblood, but the era of the atomized organization is coming to and end. And these groups know it, and are changing already. Still, the residual culture is still antithetical to blogging.

Based on my admittedly unsystematic knowledge of the blogosphere, Stoller is simply wrong about the health of the feminist blogosphere. Yet he's right to point out that the environmentalist blogosphere is relatively anemic. There are environmentalist blogs out there, but they don't form the same kind of community with the same kind of cross-blog discussion that you see in the feminist blogosphere or the "partisan talking points about the latest CNN headlines" blogosphere**,***. Stoller is also right that the major environmental organizations are hierarchical and top-down.

But I don't think the latter explains the former. Consider the case of the CNN-headlines blogosphere, which is the standard for comparison in Stoller's post. Where the feminist blogosphere has NOW and Planned Parenthood and the environmentalist blogosphere has the NRDC and the Sierra Club, the CNN-headlines blogosphere has the Republican and Democratic Parties. Now, short of the Roman Catholic Church, I have trouble thinking of an organization more top-down than the major parties. If having top-down offline organizations is a barrier to a vibrant blogosphere, Kos would have been DOA.

But in the case of the major parties and their supporters in the CNN-headlines blogs, having top-down offline organizations was a factor encouraging the growth of the blogosphere. Top-down organizations tend to stifle the formation of social capital -- the social networks of trust that help society function. It doesn't really connect me to anyone else to write a check to the Kerry of Hoeffel campaign. I don't have the feeling that anyone that matters really hears what I think, or even knows who I am. That deficit of social capital has become a festering sore in American democracy. What we saw very acutely with the Dean campaign was the way that blogging can help to fill that gap. A bottom-up network of people built itself, energized by the idea of having an alternative forum to the old party hierarchy. I have no idea whether the feeling of being just a number on NOW's mailing list has done anything to inspire the feminist blogosphere -- indeed, I know next to nothing about the institutional affiliations of the feminist blogs I read -- but the example of the CNN-headlines blogosphere should be enough to falsify Stoller's contention.

So the management style of the Sierra Club is not the problem. Unfortunately, I don't know what is -- I'm hoping for "you just weren't looking hard enough."

*Answer: Not in the "Advisory Committee" section of my blogroll -- I was actually a bit surprised when I counted it up, since for whatever reason my much-larger "Favorites" list on my computer is much better gender-balanced.

**I'd be thrilled if someone can prove me wrong on this.

***I forget where I heard the "CNN headlines" characterization -- I think one of the feminsts discussing Stoller's post -- but it's an apt one, and helps get away from treating people like Kevin Drum and Glenn Reynolds as if they're the archetype of "political" blogging.


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