By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—I suppose you could describe these two women as cybertrailblazers. 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.
Marcotte’s blog style was described by Time magazine as “issues-based but not above snark and a healthy dose of profanity.” McEwan describes herself as a “firebrand” opponent of theocracy: “I am, however, vulgar. And I am trash-talking.”
I doubt these descriptions were in their job interviews with the Edwards campaign, but 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 McEwan’s description of Bush’s “wingnut Christofascist base.” There was 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 briar 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 blogosphere and the mainstream. One is ironic and edgy, challenging and partisan. The other is cautious and modulated. Marcotte’s and McEwan’s fate raises the question about whether it’s possible to move from the world of AnkleBitingPundits 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 famously said, “When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things.” Bill Clinton said he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. 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. If you don’t believe it, see Rudy Giuliani as a drag queen flirting with Donald Trump on YouTube.
Meanwhile, the cybertrail doesn’t just track bloggers. Five million college students use Facebook. When Bob Corker was running for the Senate, voters in Tennessee were treated to his daughter kissing a girl on Facebook. California Rep. Brian Bilbray’s underage daughter Briana posted a picture of herself on MySpace with a cooler of Miller High Life.
Postings come down but never really disappear. They sit, like land mines, in the digital archives.
Last year, a college administrator in Boston sent out a campuswide warning: “Digital Dirt May Hurt.” But how many students working on their grade point average think that an employer may also be checking their booty calls and keg parties? Will recruiters get the joke when they see Bill Frist’s son Jonathan in Facebook claiming membership in a group where there were “No Jews Allowed. Just Kidding. No seriously’‘?
“The culture is going to be confronting this,” says 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 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 résumé? Follow the cybertrail.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group