Freewheeling blogosphere collides with caution of political mainstream

February 23, 2007

BOSTON -- I suppose you could describe these two women as cyber-trailblazers. But their cybertrails, alas, followed them from a checkered past, not to the glorious future. And the blaze they created was a bit more like a flameout.

Bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan came in from the heady environment of the blogosphere to the more staid climate of presidential politics, to work for John Edwards.

The political cyberspace where they were known as Pandagon and Shakespeare's Sister is usually described with euphemisms such as "raucous" and "freewheeling." On that terrain, no weasel wordsmiths need apply. You win attention with controversy and get hits with an over-the-top persona and a vivid vocabulary. A campaign, on the other hand, no matter how much it wants "netroots," is, well, controversy-averse.

Ms. Marcotte's blog style was described by Time magazine as "issues-based but not above snark and a healthy dose of profanity." Ms. McEwan describes herself as a "firebrand" opponent of theocracy: "I am, however, vulgar. And I am trash-talking."

It didn't take long for a conservative watchdog to glean through the 24/7 postings of the two bloggers and come up with the sort of sound bites that leave teeth marks on a campaign. There was Ms. McEwan's description of President Bush's "wingnut Christofascist base." There was Ms. Marcotte's slam on the Catholic prohibition on birth control as a way to force women to "bear more tithing Catholics." Within days, the two women resigned from the campaign and returned to the brier patch of their blogs.

This may be the first certifiable staff flameout of the 2008 campaign. But it's also about a clash between two cultures and two languages.

We are living now in both the blogo- sphere and the mainstream. One is ironic and edgy, challenging and partisan. The other is cautious and modulated. Ms. Marcotte's and Ms. McEwan's fate raises the question whether it's possible to move from the world of ankle-biting pundits to presidential politics without every word sticking to your shoe.

We already know that in the digital world, the past is never past. As Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a progressive advocacy group bridging these two worlds, says, "All of us are going to be living every moment of our past lives. People are living with things they did and said in their youths in a way they never did before."

President Bush once said, "When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things." Bill Clinton said he smoked marijuana but didn't inhale. Sen. Barack Obama admitted doing "a little blow." But we didn't have postings of the partying George, the smoking Bill or the snorting Barack. These days, politicians are one "macaca" away from videotaped disaster.

Meanwhile, the cybertrail doesn't just track bloggers. Five million college students use Facebook. When Bob Corker was running for the U.S. Senate, voters in Tennessee were treated to a picture of his daughter kissing a girl on Facebook. California Rep. Brian P. Bilbray's underage daughter posted a picture of herself on MySpace with a cooler of beer.

Postings come down but never really disappear. They sit, like land mines, in the digital archives.

"The culture is going to be confronting this," says Mr. Rosenberg. "Can you have youthful indiscretions? Can you evolve, grow up? In recent years, the culture has been more forgiving of youthful indiscretions. Will it continue?"

Which culture will decide?

I have no fear for Shakespeare's Sister or Pandagon, who are both up and writing with great energy. But as Ms. Marcotte has written, "Even the more even-keeled bloggers are likely to have something in their archives that could be taken out of context and bandied about on the cable news networks." It will be a loss if only the most buttoned-up bloggers can make the transition from uncompromising critic to campaign staff or even candidate.

As for young people who are increasingly on the Internet side of this cultural divide? Parents, it's 11 p.m. Do you know where on the Internet your children are - and what they are doing to mess up their r?sum?s? Follow the cybertrail.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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