University of Wisconsin Law School professor and high-profile blogger Ann Althouse is the subject of a cover story in the April 23, 2010 issue of Isthmus. The following interview by Kristian Knutsen was published September 23, 2005 on thedailypage.com.
Ann Althouse is the subject of the latest in The Daily Page's series of interviews. The Robert W. & Irma M. Arthur-Bascom Professor of Law at the UW Law School, Althouse publishes one of the most-read blogs in the world. Beginning in January, 2004, Althouse quickly reached the top echelon of bloggers, becoming in the process, a ready source for local, state and national media outlets on courts and constitutional issues. Graduating from the NYU School of Law in 1981, she joined the UW Law School faculty in 1984 and "has a scholarly interest in constitutional law, federalism, and the jurisdiction of courts."
On her blog, titled Althouse, she publishes photos and comments on current events, particularly those involving the federal courts. But it's her thoughts on pop culture, such as classic rock, the ups and downs of art endeavors worldwide and TV shows like Six Feet Under, American Idol and The Apprentice, which distinguish her from the bloggers who typically devote their energies exclusively to politics (or pop). Its breadth of subject matter makes her blog a particularly interesting read.
In addition to the blog, Althouse also produces Audible Althouse, a twice-weekly podcast she launched at the beginning of this month. Each show is about a half-hour long, serving to "recap last week's blogging and digresses." She is also an active photographer, compiling an impressive archive of Althouse photographs on Flickr that capture both her life in Madison as well as trips to points afar.
Considered by some in the online left to be a conservative and others in the online right to be anything from a conservative to a RINO ("Republican In Name Only") to a liberal, she describes herself as a moderate. But discussing the ideology of Althouse is a regular online parlor game that is often played in her site's comments and among those engaging with her commentary. The fact that she is a supporter of the war in Iraq, which she argued as necessary to national security following 9/11, is a source of much of this disagreement, particularly since political blogs are self-organized via linking and commenting in large part according to their positions on the war.
Althouse is by far Madison's (and Wisconsin's) most popular blog, though finding precise measurements and rankings is a difficult proposition. According to its Sitemeter, the blog currently receives almost 8,000 unique visits and nearly 14,000 page views each day. Measuring links to her site ranks it 85th out of nearly 40,000 English-language blogs in the Truth Laid Bear ecosystem, where it is categorized as a leader in The Academy. Meanwhile, Althouse is currently ranked 209th in the Feedster Top 500, and 462nd through Technorati, both calculated using links as well.
Althouse runs BlogAds, the most-widely adopted blog advertising format. As an affiliate, the blog is pitched as: "A lively mix of law, politics, and pop culture. Written by law professor Ann Althouse. Average visit length: an extraordinary 2:51. The active and civil comments pages show the high quality of the readership of the Althouse blog." Among BlogAd affiliates, where advertisers can buy space via the Law Blog Ad Network and the Conservative Blog Advertising Network, Althouse is ranked about 110th as measured by Sitemeter traffic.
The following interview, conducted last month in a State Street coffee shop, covers some of the professor's thoughts on blogging, politics, pop culture and living in Madison.
The subhead on your blog once read, "politics and the aversion to politics." Can you elaborate on that?
Althouse: I don't use that subhead anymore, so maybe I'm not as averse to politics as I used to be. But when I started the blog, I was unhappy with the way people were too passionate, too partisan about politics, and I felt that as a political moderate, I had something to offer from the perspective of someone who was tired of hearing people be too passionate about politics.
You write extensively about pop culture, and it seems to drive a lot of the comments on your site. Why do you do that? What motivates you?
I really just blog about whatever jumps out at me and strikes me. I read the New York Times every morning, and there's just something about certain articles that jumps out at me. Pop culture is just another one of those things. If I happen to watch a show on TV, or go to a movie, or hear a song on the satellite radio, I'll blog about that.
I also feel like I have another perspective, because being somewhat older than a lot of people who read the blog, I have a lot of intact memories especially from the 1960s.
It seems that a lot of the pop culture stuff you write about is from the Sixties era. What were your experiences in that era and how did it inform you politically?
Well, I just was a teenager in the 1960s, so I feel that I was lucky enough to hear the greatest music when it was coming out. I really closely bonded with it, so it's just kind of a part of my mind. Whether that affected my politics, I don't know. I certainly remembered everyone being against the Vietnam War and living through that and having that connected with the songs. Reliving it now in the modern national security environment where I'm not really on the side of the anti-war people is kind of interesting.
Can you tell me about the group of faculty and other UW staff bloggers with whom you have dinners and go out photoblogging? How did that come about?
It's interesting to think that 'in the future when everybody blogs, people won't have real life friendships. In fact, a lot of friendships have been formed over the local blogging that we've done. A bunch of us who were not really doing things together before now have a regular social group.
The original group was me, Tonya Brito and Nina Camic; all law professors. I can't remember exactly how we got started, but Nina wanted us to met Jeremy Freese (who has a cool weblog, though he's moving away for a year or so). We met him though Nina, and started having dinners together. There's also my colleague across the hall, Gordon Smith, who has a blog called The Conglomerate. I guess I would be talking with him and interacting with him just because he's right there in the building, but we also talk a lot about blogging. It's something that we bond over. There's another law professor who blogs pseudonymously; his pseudonym is Oscar Madison, but he is a law professor, and he's also in the group.
There's a whole real world dimension to this. It's not just that we're all absorbed into our computers and we don't live real life. It actually enhances real life for a lot of us locally.
On the subject of pseudonymous blogs, do you think that people who use their own names are more credible than those who don't, or do you think it doesn't matter?
I think that law professors who blog under a pseudonym figure that they are traceable and that it all counts against them if it's bad in some way. So I don't think that.
I think there's a feeling that if I blog under a pseudonym, even though people can figure out who I am if they want to, the idea is that my other persona will be more distinct. Whereas if you blog under your real name, it's sort of like you're blogging as a law professor. I'm not blogging as a law professor. I don't purport be doing it as part of my job. But since I'm using the same name, there's much more of a sense that I'm the same person.
You said you don't blog as a law professor, but what do you think it does for you professionally? How has it affected your academic standing and reputation? What do you think the implications of your increased public visibility as a result of your writing?
You're right. Especially some of the posts about the Supreme Court cases that have come out. Some of those posts I really do consider part of my professional work. Clearly they are sort of quick takes, not fully-formed articles. They are notes on some article that one might write, so I actually do consider it part of my job in that sense.
The whole project of the blog includes many things that are obviously not part of being a law professor. But having a popular blog that gets noticed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, places like that, causes me to get quoted in ways that I probably wouldn't have been otherwise. Just getting your opinions read by many more people has worked to create connections and visibility that I wouldn't have otherwise had.
Can you explain briefly why you blog? What its value is to you?
Well, blogging has just become a part of life for me. I wake up in the morning, I turn the computer on, and one of the first things I do is think about blogging. It's just like you might think it would be fun to get your first cup of coffee in the morning. It's fun to put up your first post, so it's an energizing, expressive part of life that I enjoy.
Can you elaborate on your identification as a political moderate and your thoughts regarding assertions and/or discussions about your political ideology?
I consider myself a moderate. I voted for Bush in '04, I voted for Gore in '00, and Bush was the first Republican presidential candidate since I voted for Gerry Ford many years ago for somewhat eccentric reasons. I voted for Feingold for the Senate. I don't think it's too conservative to vote for Feingold. I support abortion rights, I support gay rights very openly on my blog.
Somehow, nevertheless, it's conservative bloggers who link to me and include me. The left wing bloggers are alienating and hostile. I think that says something about a problem that liberals have generally in getting support. They notice the posts in which you don't agree with them, and try to discipline you into agreeing with them about everything. I find that very off-putting. That's some of the aversion to politics that I was referring to before.
But I notice that on the conservative side, they link to you and they're supportive when you say things that they agree with, like supporting the war for example. But when you say things they don't agree with, they don't pick on you, they don't get mad at you, and they don't condemn you. I actually think that's a more effective political strategy.
I'll also say that of the bloggers who are considered to be on the right, a lot of them are libertarians, and are very strong on individual rights that I would be strong on as well. So there's a lot of variety on the right side of the blogosphere. I think that the left side of the blogosphere is more problematic for a lot of reasons.
Obviously, I think there are a lot of hardcore partisan bloggers on both the right and the left, and I think there are sensible people on both the right and the left. I don't think it's all or nothing. But my personal experience is that I've said things that should be appealing to people on both sides, but have noticed an inclusion on the right that doesn't occur on the left. I think the thing is that if you're not against the war, the left just thinks that you're evil. Or stupid.
There's this concept that blogs as a phenomenon are an improvement on traditional media through a process of aggregate self-correction. What are your thoughts on this?
There are self-organizing principles at work, and I assume that somebody will study them and figure a lot of things out about that I'm not quite able to see myself. Obviously, there are certain patterns of linking. Sometimes you link to criticize. There's a lot of linking that just goes on to say that I agree with that. That can be boring; I mean I try to do different things. I think there's more potential for speech to reach more people, especially since everything's searchable on Google, so that if you write about something, people may find it.
What are your thoughts on the Roberts nomination?
I think that Roberts is about as good as good liberals can hope for coming from Bush. I think it would be crazy to try and actually get him defeated. I think the Democrats in Congress have to make a show for themselves and make their points, but to actually want him to go down to defeat is just nuts. Who would the alternative be? I think he may well turn out to be a centrist. Not your perfect liberal choice, but better than alternative choices you might get out of Bush. I think there's a lot of basis for hope he's better than any other choice Bush might have made.
You don't focus on Madison that much in your blog, rather focusing on national issues and culture. Is that a reflection of your interests and readership?
I publish pictures of Madison, and get a lot of email from people who used to live in Madison saying they love the pictures and like to see that kind of thing. So the main Madison thing that I do is to describe my personal life or to show pictures. I would write local stories if I thought they would translate and be interesting to people nationally. I think that I have a lot of readers in Madison, but generally my readers are spread around. I'm not horribly interested in local politics.
Is it fair to characterize a lot of your Madison photos as caricaturing the liberal reputation of the city? Student protests, graffiti, and so on?
Did you see my photographs of the gay pride parade? Look up those, because they're very sympathetic to the marchers, and they showed the people who were protesting the parade. I see things and photograph them, and I often present them kind of objectively. Things that are hateful, I think, look hateful if you photograph them.
I'm actually interested in graffiti, I actually like it. I take photographs of a lot of things because I find them aesthetically pleasing. Some of the graffiti is vandalism; it's not right. One of my most viewed photographs on Flickr is of a spray-painted walrus over on a huge wall near the Capitol. That's just outrageous that someone did that.
It's a matter of interpretation what a photograph means. Is the person criticizing it or not? You may think, oh this is a right wing blog, so this photograph is condemning these people, but I don't think that's it. I would urge you specifically to look up the gay pride parade photographs [Note: available here] and also the photographs I took of the Kerry rally in the last week before the election [Note: available here and here]. I think those were pretty sympathetic and fair to the people who were involved. So I don't accept your characterization.
What is the future of the medium of blogging?
I don't know what's going to happen. I think there will be some efforts to absorb blogging into mainstream media. Lots of different kinds of things could take hold, but right now, what are there, ten million, twenty million blogs? Who knows what direction that will take? I'd like to see a lot of diversity and different things be done, for different styles of blogging to take place, not just political ranting.
What about yourself?
I think I have a pretty well established pattern of blogging. I've blogged every day since mid January of 2004, so I expect to just keep going that way. I want to be independent. I would take advantage of opportunities to make money blogging, because I put a lot of time into it, and I could imagine writing a book related to my blogging. But, for the most part, I'm a law professor. I've been here for twenty years, so that's my job, that's what I do. The blogging is a hugely important sideline for me that I expect to keep doing the way I've been doing.