March 2, 2006 -- Heh.
If that little word is familiar to you, then you probably are a fan of Glenn Reynolds, aka "Instapundit," one of the most popular and influential bloggers on the Web.
You probably also know that Reynolds lives with his wife and daughter in Knoxville, Tenn., where he is a law professor at the University of Tennessee.
Regular readers of Reynolds' blog may also know that on several occasions he has quoted from, and linked to, this column. Being linked to by Instapundit can cause one of the most remarkable of all Internet phenomena: the so-called "Instalanche," in which thousands of new visitors suddenly overwhelm your site in a matter of minutes. Small-time bloggers dream of being noticed by Reynolds -- and then quickly regret it when their servers collapse under the strain.
Even at a Web site as big and powerful as ABCNEWS.com, I find myself calling to warn that the Silicon Insider is about to be hit by an Instalanche -- just in case the system momentarily buckles under the traffic.
How Does He Do It?
Just why Instapundit is so popular, and so influential, is a complex matter. A few sites, such as the leftist DailyKos, claim to have more traffic. Other sites, like the conservative Power Line or the military Belmont Club, can claim to have had greater impact. And certainly there are hundreds of other blogs whose authors generate more copy.
But nobody in the blogosphere has the power of Reynolds to validate a story as important, set the debate, or determine who are the best advocates for each side.
Why? One obvious answer is sheer energy. Reynolds has a reputation for being the Superman of the blogosphere, knocking out a dozen or more postings each day, week after week, year after year. How he manages to teach law, write columns for other Web sites and places like The Wall Street Journal, and read dozens of other blogs and post numerous times each day, has been the object of speculation in the blogosphere for years.
But even more important to Reynolds' success, I believe, is his personality. Ensconced in Tennessee, he seems to embody the virtues of Middle America: fairness, a kind of sympathetic conservatism that sometimes looks a lot like old-fashioned liberalism and other times like outright libertarianism, a willingness to share credit with others, and for all of his postings, a Midwesterner's reticence about stating his views too strongly.
The result is that over the last few years, Reynolds has made himself into the William Allen White of the blogosphere -- that is, the small-town journalist whose judgments echo in the hallways of Washington and the canyons of Manhattan. Actually, he's half of White: The great prose style of the Sage of Emporia has been inherited by that other Midwesterner, James Lileks.
Using the Blog to Hawk a Book
If you've read Instapundit recently, you no doubt know that Reynolds has written a book, "An Army of Davids," that will be officially published next week. You know that because Reynolds has managed in some way to mention the book in his blog almost every day for the last month.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. On the contrary -- as I've noted in this column many times -- the biggest challenge facing the blogosphere in the next couple years will be figuring out how to monetize its product. Nobody wants to pay for subscriptions, big advertisers are still wary, and speaker bureaus are only beginning to call, so the best way to turn your words into gold right now is old-fashioned dead-tree technology -- driven by the uniquely loyal communities of the Internet. It's no coincidence that Lileks has had two best-sellers, Michelle Malkin has one, and, like Reynolds, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Kos) has a book being published in a matter of days.
But of all of the blogger books (blooks?), none has been more anticipated than Reynolds', particularly because it has promised to be a book about the blogosphere and other grassroots Web phenomena, penned by one of its high priests. As the vivid title suggests, "An Army of Davids" is supposed to make some sense for the rest of us out of the apparent chaos of blogs, podcasts, swarms, smart mobs and online communities that are defining the new online zeitgeist.
Does it succeed? Yes. And no.
Supporting the Little Man, Free Speech
I'll get to the "no" part in a minute. There are a number of terrific things about "An Army of Davids." One is Reynolds' optimism: He loves the sheer excitement of this emerging world, in which traditional power structures are turned upside down, and armies of amateurs replace the smug Pharisees of traditional institutions such as Big Media and Big Government.
Reynolds is a true Jeffersonian, or maybe (like White) a latter-day Progressive. He supports the little man, will fight to the death for free speech, loves technology and hates government pork. And he does it all with an infectious cheerfulness that can be sometimes endearingly goofy. Who would ever start a major book with a line from the old "Bullwinkle" cartoon: "Sherman, set the Wayback Machine"?
Reynolds also knows his stuff. Like any good law professor, he has marshaled a wide array of facts in support of his case. As with his blog, he is not afraid to name offenders or single out idiots. And by the time he finishes building his argument, point by point, you can't help but agree with him that a fundamental shift is taking place in our society, driven by the irresistible force of Moore's Law, that is shaking every large cultural edifice in the modern world right down to the foundations.
This transformation, Reynolds says, takes many forms. One is disintermediation, which is a popular business buzz word for the removal of the layers of filters or bureaucracy between creators and users, the populace and their leaders, and between people and storehouses of information. Another is the shift from vertical pathways of power to horizontal webs of knowledge distribution and organization. And a third is virtualization (I write this proudly, having helped coin the modern use of the term), in which new communications networks (wireless, podcasting, cellular) and organizational structures allow for much more fluid definitions of work and play, home and office, employment and entrepreneurship, and company and team.
So compelling is Reynolds' argument that, when he quibbles or equivocates -- as when he suggests that there will still be a place for newspapers in this new world -- you conclude that he doesn't really believe it himself, but is just showing good manners.
I cannot think of a better book for the average reader to understand just how the Web and other digital technologies are reversing the polarities of modern society -- restoring many features of daily life lost with the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time inventing powerful new cultural institutions. And for those of us who make careers out of watching this transformation, no book to date so well summarizes all of the diverse trends in a single narrative.
Some Distinct Failures
If "Army of Davids" succeeds brilliantly, it also fails frustratingly. For 150 pages, Reynolds tells his tale cleverly, cogently and convincingly.
And then he inexplicably goes sideways into extended musings on nanotechnology, life extension, and the so-called technological "singularity" championed by Ray Kurzweil. As anyone who reads Instapundit knows, these are pet interests of Reynolds, and he is quite knowledgeable about each of them. But, with the exception perhaps of nanotech, none belongs in a book called "An Army of Davids."
The effect is jarring for two reasons. First, because Reynolds betrays the reader's expectations by jumping from the here and now of our daily lives to speculations about things that will likely not happen in our lifetimes, if ever. And second, because these tangential musings keep Reynolds from drawing out the full implications of the trends he brilliantly describes in the first half of the book.
We readers want to know what all of the craziness around us means -- and Reynolds takes us right to the brink of an answer … then starts talking about nanotubes. Only in a frustratingly brief, 10-page conclusion, does he toss out some scenarios for our future -- none of them much more than a tease to the reader. It's like setting up a great joke, then muttering the punch line.
Why the sudden left turn halfway through the book? As the author or co-author of a dozen books (and working on another right now), I think I have a good idea. Believe me, I know what it's like to have a deadline approaching and a narrative that is 80 percent told but only 50 percent of the contractual word count. Reynolds is too professional to simply pad a book, too committed to his loyal readers to give them anything but his best. So, I think he simply filled 100 pages with what should have been the guts of his next two or three books. All good stuff, but none of it much on the topic of this book.
But hey, no big deal. Just read the first 150 pages of "An Army of Davids," then skip to the conclusion. It's a helluva book. Later on, at your leisure, go back and read the other 100 pages, one chapter per sitting. Think of it as a gift, a bonus. After all, as he proves every day in Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds is a generous man.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.