Column: Undercurrents: Traveling at the Mayor’s Speed on the Information Highway By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 05, 2005

Some years ago, shortly after I got my first Internet account, I signed up to an online discussion group on African-American affairs. It was the opening up of a whole new world. Every morning, first thing, I’d log on and read through the 25 or so e-mails that had already been posted from back east and the midwest. If one or two of them seemed particularly provocative and ripe for reply, I’d think it over while eating breakfast. By the time I got back to the computer a half hour later or so, the west coast had joined in, and another 25 or so messages had been posted to the discussion list, many of them in response to the one or two that had caught my own attention. 

I’m a quick writer, and I write on deadline for a living, but one of my own personal requirements is that I actually have something to write about before I set down at the keyboard and start the process. 

So I’d set off for work with thoughts running through my head and all day long—in between work assignments—I’d compose thoughtful and careful replies to the morning’s posts. First thing after hitting the door at home in the evening, I’d log back on with a four- or five-paragraph essay ready in my head, the only thing lacking being the actual typing itself. 

But by that time—and all of you familiar with Internet chat groups know where this one is going—the list had been flooded with postings (on the most prolific days as many as a hundred), and my first task was to wade through them to find out which one was relevant to the thread I was concerned with. What the hell do these people do all day, I used to wonder. Sit at the computer and write messages back and forth? 

Most often, to my dismay, I’d find that either someone had already sent a post during the day that included many of the points I had planned to make myself, or else in the intervening hours, the discussion had gone so far beyond what it had been in that morning—either degenerating into infighting, backbiting “flame” wars or on to new subjects—that commenting on old news hardly seemed worth it. Funny how information eight hours old was almost always “old news.” 

In the march into the brave new Internet world, I quickly found that I could hardly keep up. The further I got, the more behind I got. And I don’t think I was by myself in this. 

Several years have passed since my early Internet days, and if anything, the average speed along the information highway has increased. Today, the old Internet signup discussion groups that seemed so revolutionary in the early ‘90s are now old school themselves, relics of an ancient past. They have been replaced, in the main, by what we now call blogs (there is an original meaning to the term but, like the term “spam,” the term “blog” has so quickly entered public usage that the original meaning, whatever it was, hardly seems to matter any more, another case where the information has passed by so fast, it’s become irrelevant in its own time). 

Anyhow, for the uninitiated, blogs are personal Internet webpages where you can read what an individual writer is posting on a daily—and in some instances, hourly—basis. 

Some of the blogs seem to be there just for the fad of it. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown launched his own—to great fanfare in the blog world—at http://jerrybrown.typepad.com earlier this year. This seemed to be in line with Mr. Brown’s carefully-constructed reputation of keeping up with new trends. 

One early poster to Mr. Brown’s blog, someone named Flap, wrote enthusiastically, “Looking forward to many a spirited discussion! Time to start rebuilding California.... wouldn’t you say?” 

But veteran bloggers were more cautious. 

Ann Althouse wrote last February in her Althouse blog (http://althouse.blogspot.com/) that Mr. Brown had gotten “40 comments on the second post at the moment, many of which contain the phrase ‘Welcome to the blogosphere.’ I hate to be unwelcoming, but, jeez Jerry, after you got all that all that attention for putting one reprint up on a blog, why didn’t you show us that you actually meant to be a blogger by tossing us a tidbit every day? I hate to be as catty and exclusionary as a state school sorority girl, but maybe we ought to hold off saluting a new blogger until he’s demonstrated some actually tendency to blog.” 

And a poster to Mr. Brown’s blog named Nora (who indicated that full disclosure required her to reveal that she was a cynical Texas conservative), seemed to know Mr. Brown as well as many of us. “It will be interesting to see how a politician handles this medium where all your critics are just as visible as you are,” she wrote, also last February. “I predict either unprecedented enforced honesty, or you’ll get bored with this before the election and it won’t matter.” Who said Texas conservatives don’t know what they’re talking about? After an initial flurry of posts, Mr. Brown’s enthusiasm has waned, either from boredom or from being busy with other things, or, like the some of the rest of us, simply not being able to keep up (if it’s the last one, I can certainly sympathize). 

In a medium that exists on regular posts, with normally only a couple of days break in between, Mr. Brown’s recent offerings are, to say the least, thin. He posted a blog entry on Oakland Environmentalism on April 30, then, a month later, on whether everybody should go to college, and a month after that, one paragraph on his wedding. His last post, July 4, was about his attendance at Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s inaugural. 

Missing in this period, for just one example, was any posting about his reasons for his controversial foray into suspension of Constitutional rights—his “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance—that generated widespread discussion in local newspapers, on street corners, in the Oakland City Hall chambers—just about everywhere in Oakland, in fact, except in Mr. Brown’s blog. 

But abandoning projects once he’s gotten them started seems fairly typical of Mr. Brown. It doesn’t take a long memory to recall the time he convinced us that it was absolutely, absolutely! necessary for the good of the public schools that we allow him to appoint three members to the Oakland School Board and then, once we voted him the power, he appointed three members and then appeared to lose all interest in the public schools and rode off, Don Quixote-like, on his horse in an opposite direction, deciding that no, charter schools were actually the way to go. 

If you think any criticism of Mr. Brown’s blog habits are implied here, you are wrong. How Mr. Brown runs (or doesn’t run, or runs away from, or runs for another political office while he’s supposed to be running) Oakland is one thing, but his blog is his own, not an official city function, and how he handles it is his own affair. As for me, considering Mr. Brown’s one-blog-post-a-month habit, I’m just tickled to death that I’ve found someone along the information superhighway with whom I can finally keep up.