Seeing the bigger picture
Gulf War II was supposed to be the "Internet war," one that brought the Net acclaim and popularity now and in the future. While the media hype was thick in the first days of war, and page views soared for some of the more popular Weblogs, the burning question is: What's next?
For many mainstream media sites, the special Iraq sections expired soon after the main hostilities ended in late April. We expected the TV graphics to change, the soundtracks to lighten up, the round-the-clock coverage to end -- and the new new conflict or juicy story to take hold. But for independent Weblog operations, the stakes are different. Most are hobbies to start with, and most can continue to cover whatever they want until their desire dies out. That means a quick change of focus, or a much longer look at the rebuilding situation in Iraq, long after the klieg lights have dimmed.
The online antiwar faction, especially, has a tough road ahead. It organized, berated opponents, held virtual protests -- and barely made a dent in war plans. The group effort at No War Blog has highlighted antiwar posts from the right and left modes of political thought. But the motto on the main page now reads: "Stand Down: The Left-Right Blog Opposing an Invasion of Syria." The word "Iraq" is scratched out, with "Syria" in its place.
As with most of the people running blogs I contacted for this story, No War Blog's proprietor, Max Sawicky, said the Weblog looked at more than Iraq, encompassing "misconceived empire building, preemptive military action, and the like. Unfortunately, these issues will be with us for some time." The idea is that there will be more wars to protest against, and the issue of American involvement in Iraq and other countries will live on.
Less interest, but so what?
Blogger Sean-Paul Kelley, who writes The Agonist Weblog and contributes to Warblogs:cc, admits that his focus has certainly changed. Kelley was mired in a scandal for using information from Stratfor without attributing the source. That notwithstanding, he says the traffic for his site, and other war blogs, such as the Command Post, are down considerably since the war ended. "Hey, we're in America," he told me. "People lose interest and are ready to start talking about Laci [Peterson]!"
John Little, who runs the more patriotic Blogs of War weblog, concurs with Kelley. "I was getting mentions all over the media, and during the height of the war, had about 100,000 page views a day," he said. "But it's now around 4,500, a little more than before the war." Little launched Blogs of War in October 2002, but says he focused on the general war on terror and not just Iraq. Many other war blogs got their start in response to 9/11 and simply have shifted focus from Afghanistan to Iraq to North Korea, Syria, and Israel.
Little is a Houston-based web application developer, and was posting war reports at a frantic pace, getting about two hours of sleep per night over the three-week peak of the war. His bandwidth costs soared to $1,000 per month and he had to depend on donations from readers -- and a kind hosting company -- to help pay for it. So Little doesn't mind a change in pace to something less frenetic, without the perpetual chase for updates. "I had to wean people from getting 24-hour updates after the statue [of Saddam Hussein] fell," he said. "There are less frequent posts, but I'm more comfortable. No $1,000 bills due, and no divorce."
The recurring theme is that the independent war blogs might have less traffic than during the height of combat, but they've always been driven by personal interest and not raw traffic numbers, as the media sites are. That means the blogs can run as long as their personal interest is fresh.
In the end, the war blogs that have the most staying power may be those with a more long-term view. Andrew Leyden, who runs IraqWar.info, sees his news roundup as becoming more of a historical site, with plans to make it a series of static pages in the future. His earlier site on the first Gulf War has become a debriefing book available at Amazon.com.
And the folks who compiled "The Iraq War Reader" anthology book launched a complementary Weblog a few weeks ago.
"We're not worried about popularity for the blog," said Micah Sifry, a co-editor of the book. "We just wanted to continue the intellectual process started with the book. The blog is obviously a looser format than the book, and lets us continue the high-level conversation for those still interested in following it."
Sifry notes that the interest in Gulf War II is more pronounced in its aftermath, as opposed to the focus on victory parades and celebrations after the first Gulf War. That means the ground is fertile for Weblogs -- often a thorn in the side of politicians and brain-dead 24-hour news cycles -- to keep the story alive. And so they continue to prod, poke, and wonder if anyone's still paying attention to Iraq.