Open-Source Me

Chuck Olsen takes the first-person doc into the blogosphere

CP: And the film itself might change through time as you keep collecting interviews?

Olsen: Films are supposed to end, but with a documentary, you're trying to take a snapshot of a changing world. Even right now, with the Get Real screening days away, I have to stop myself from trying to get new interviews with bloggers. At some point, for my own sanity, I'll have to declare the documentary done and frozen. Then it'll be like an encyclopedia set: You'll get a new documentary update every year for your library.

CP: When did you start this idea?

Medium kewl: Chuck Olsen in 'Blogumentary'
Chuck Olsen
Medium kewl: Chuck Olsen in 'Blogumentary'

Olsen: I started Blogumentary--the blog--in September of 2002, and by December I became totally obsessed with blogs. I started to ask myself, "Why do people put their lives out there like this? What are they like in real life? How is that different than their blog life?" So I had a personal curiosity in the phenomenon, but there was also a blog explosion going on around that time. When I set out, I didn't even know what the documentary was going to be about.

CP: The structure of this documentary is unique. The organizing principles are similar to a blog in that...

Olsen: In that it's unorganized [laughs]?

CP: is a serious look at blogging, but it's also personal.

Olsen: I wanted a documentary about blogs to be true to the medium, so it must come from my perspective. I wanted to create something that was informative and hopefully entertaining, but my personality is a key part of it.

CP: One of the first things you say in the film is, "When you start a blog, you are the media." Should bloggers aspire to be journalists?

Olsen: Blogs are obviously different things to different people. With all the skepticism of the mainstream media today, people have become motivated to deviate from traditional journalistic forms. Some people in the online community who started out as journalists are trying to produce a training curriculum for bloggers to learn about the craft of journalism. I think that's a good idea, but I also like that bloggers don't have to deal with those restrictions--I like that everyone goes about it in their own quirky way.

CP: Since Drudge, it's almost trite to ask this question anymore--but are you worried about a downside to this form of instantaneous journalism?

Olsen: Some of the competitive elements of journalism spilled over into blogging. It's like, "We were wrong first!" is acceptable. The best response to this worry is that over time the power of many comes up with the right answers. Because of comments and the viral nature of blogs, mistakes usually end up correcting themselves. Micro-journalism is like a self-correcting organism. Right now, bloggers--like the general public--are so critical of the media. And that's good, but we've reached a point where we have to start asking when we will offer a vision of the future. We need to give solutions rather than tearing everything down.

CP: In the film, you outline the way that Trent Lott's downfall emerged from bloggers. Do you think we'll see more cases where bloggers create news events?

Olsen: The relationship between news and blogs is chaotic right now. On the one hand, you have mainstream news trying to co-opt blogs and starting their own. On the other hand, there's a very combative relationship between blogs and news. Only when bloggers work themselves into a frenzy--screaming to the media, "You fucked up!"--does it become a news event. My hope is that the news media will collaborate with bloggers rather than trying to fight them off, make fun of them, or compete with them. Bloggers can help the news get it right the first time. News should be a conversation.

CP: The two stories that bloggers are given the most credit for are good examples: the public outcry that led to Lott's resignation and the analysis of the 60 Minutes documents that got Dan Rather in trouble.

Olsen: While both were important investigations that happened almost entirely online, they were also both destructive. They tore down Trent Lott, and they tore down Dan Rather. So while those stories are great examples of online citizens collectively finding truth, I just hope that in the future we also contribute with positive forces.

CP: You visited the Power Line collective, whose members are very skeptical of what they think is the "liberal media." They ended up being a key factor in the investigation of the 60 Minutes memos. What was that experience like?

Olsen: They live out in Apple Valley, and I was a little scared going out there. I was going into the heart of the right-wing blogosphere, and I'm a total lefty. One of them asked me if I was doing an objective film. "You're not going to Michael-Moore us, are you?" Later on, when I was posting some video of them talking about 9/11, I realized that I can't "Michael-Moore them" because of the way I'm producing this as an open-source film. Anyone can see the raw footage for themselves if they think I've edited them [to look] funny. During the interview, they started to get really comfortable talking to me and forgot where my political beliefs land. They started saying things that to me sound like they came from another planet. They think that Al Gore almost stole the 2000 election. But of course, they're very popular; the whole right-wing blogosphere is huge. It's a good indicator of what you can do with blogs regardless of your political inclinations. What happened with the 60 Minutes memos was a good thing, but it came from people who happen to be rabid.

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