Interviews December 2007

Thinking in Real Time

Andrew Sullivan speaks candidly about why he supports Barack Obama, how he became a blogger, and why he's not afraid to change his mind.

When you’re a blogger, people seem to expect to know everything about your life because they’re hearing from you every hour or two. Last month when Ross Douthat suddenly announced that he was taking time off for his honeymoon, a lot of his comment writers seemed very surprised that they hadn’t even known he was dating anyone.

There’s an enormous intimacy that blogging fosters between a blogger and his readers. My particular blog, which has been around for eight years, has always had that feeling. There are some people who have been reading it since the early days, and they really feel they know me. And they feel they know me not the way they know other writers but because they have been following the world with me.

For example, a big event happens and they check in to see how I’m doing: “How did Andrew respond?” Now some of them do so out of a visceral sense of loathing and fear, others do so because they actually like me, and others do so because it’s one of many data points. But the fact that they’re doing it in real time creates an astonishing relationship between reader and writer—I think unique in the history of writing—which is why I’m fascinated by this medium and why I’ve stayed with it even though it’s grueling.

I mean, how many writers in their lifetimes stumble across a new medium like this? This is about writing in a whole new way. It’s never been done like this before. So here you are, present at the creation. We only have one life to live. If you’re a writer with an opportunity to be part of this, why would you pass it up?

I feel that way about my life in general. When people asked me in the ’90s, “Why are you still writing about this gay shit all the time? Not only do you have to put it in The New Republic, you have to write a book, two books about it, three books about it.” I said, “Look, nobody asked James Baldwin why he was writing about race in the ’50s.” This is a huge subject, the world is changing—this is an amazingly interesting event, a social transformation. And the AIDS epidemic, too. I am given this front row seat and I’m a writer. This is happening to me!

And like it or not, you’ve become a poster boy for HIV-positive existence. You’ve been one of the first people to make it clear to the world that you can be HIV positive and still live quite a normal life.

I don’t write about my HIV very much at all, but yes, every now and then, I think it is important to let people know that this is still here, it’s a disease, I have it, I’ve lived with it. I went through a huge amount of trauma over it, less so in the last six or seven or eight years than I did in the previous six, seven, or eight years. But I’m now in my 14th year of HIV, and of course if I’m going to write with honesty and passion for my readers, they’re going to have to be in on it. It’s a hard line to draw—you don’t want to be baring your soul about everything.

When you started out eight years ago, blogging was much more of a fringe culture than it is now. If we’d had bloggers on our site back then, it would have been viewed as a quirky little experiment. But now, as you know, bloggers are a serious presence at The Atlantic, bringing in a huge number of visitors every day. What has it been like to watch the medium you’re part of move from the fringes to the center of media culture?

Staggering. The reason it’s staggering is simply because online media never existed before now, so we had to do it to understand it. And the blog as a form emerged organically out of the fray to become the dominant mode of discourse online. Whenever magazines traditionally or newspapers just want to throw their data up there online, they totally misunderstand the medium. It reminds me of when TV first started—in the beginning, they put radio shows on television because they didn’t know what else to do.

Or they had commercials where a man was just looking into the camera, talking about the product the way he would have on a radio commercial. It took them a while to realize they could actually show the product in motion.

Exactly. It took time. But the point is to always just listen to the medium. And lo and behold, what happens is you figure it out. I mean, Josh Marshall is another model, or Instapundit, or Pajamas Media—there are different models that have emerged, but I still like the single voice. I think it’s important to keep the formula pretty simple. You can make what’s within the formula complicated and creative, but the formula itself, which is one webpage, constantly changing—this is what Matt Drudge told me years ago—that’s what works.

And the key thing is to make it better and better and constantly adapting. The minute you think you’ve got this down, the media environment is altered and you’re redundant—if you haven’t grabbed onto video and YouTube, if you haven’t integrated photography. When I started there were, I don’t know, 10 blogs. Now there are thousands of just religion blogs, there are thousands of literary blogs, there are thousands of science blogs—all of which are generating content and facts. So it’s something that you have to constantly revise.

How did you get involved in online media in the first place?

I came at the Internet having left The New Republic as a freelance writer tooling around on the Web, having fun. I did day trading in the late ’90s, I was interested in that. God knows how many sex sites I’ve looked at. There are all sorts of chat sites. I was involved in things like Craigslist and AOL, all that stuff. And then blogging came along. It was a natural development from what I was already doing online. I was on a Listserv of non-lefty homos. It was a pretty small group of people, and I found myself spending an hour in the afternoon passionately writing something that 30 other people read. And after a while, I thought, Well, I’m doing journalism here. Why don’t more people read this?

You also learn from having online interactions with strangers, even when you’re basically trying to hook up. You develop skills for understanding that when you write a blog, you are trying to communicate with people you don’t know and you have to let them come back at you. You have to read their emails and post some of them, have that interaction. Now if you’ve come entirely from a magazine or newspaper, you’re just not used to doing that. So in a way, my little period out in the wilderness as a freelancer led me back here.

Were there bloggers you admired who were out there at the time you started?

Yes, Micky Kaus was one of the first ever. Glenn Reynolds was an interesting voice who came out of nowhere. But I tell you, just as soon as I got my first blogger platform and I started writing—I mean, I had already run a weekly magazine. I had the skills to know how to present information in a compelling fashion. I think what I do now is really run a daily magazine.

And the great thing about running a daily magazine is that I don’t have to bloody well deal with all these people. I don’t have to manage them or deal with their egos. I don’t have to cut anything to size. It is all the fun of editing a magazine and none of the crap, and I found very quickly that I was reaching as many people. This week, I think basically every day we had about 140,000 page views. Well, I only had about 110,000 subscribers at The New Republic. It’s pretty amazing.

I have friends who are both bloggers and magazine writers, and sometimes they’re almost put off by how popular their blog entries are. They spend three months deeply researching a piece, agonizing and writing and going through edits, but when it all comes down to it, the blog entries they dash off in 20 minutes attract far more readers.

I know. My last boyfriend was a cognitive neuroscientist, and while I was blogging, he was finishing a paper for a journal—which, he pointed out, he would deliver and finish and then it wouldn’t get published for another eight months and wouldn’t get read for another 12 months. Here I was, writing the same amount of words in a day and having it read instantly by exponentially more people. My concern was that the hard work needed in those long, in-depth articles would be replaced by a bunch of chatterers like me.

But one of the things you come to understand about a good blog is that if you use it right as a reader, it will lead you to read something much more than the blog. It’s an entry point to longer pieces, to debates, that you can really go deeply into in a way that, for example, talk radio or the op-ed culture are unable to do. I mean, from books to long articles to reports to studies—you may not have had time to read the whole thing, but I will give you the materials to do so. Sometimes I am not able to read the entire thing, but I’ve read enough of it to know it’s worth passing along.

As long as one does one’s best not to misrepresent it, I act as a sort of maître d’. The maître d’ doesn’t have to have eaten every dish he recommends. He can just have a little bite. Because you simply physically can’t do it all. The Dish has to be one step ahead—until I collapse. And of course, like every blogger I have this thing in the back of my head that one day I’m going to quit it all and sit down and read books for a year.

Do you think you’d feel restless if you were sitting on the sidelines, watching the medium continue to evolve?

Who knows? But the nice thing about the Web is that it is so obviously its own organic being. You contribute to it, but you don’t control it. And you don’t want to control it. I like that about it. I think it’s actually changed my politics a little bit. I think I’ve become more libertarian as I’ve understood this medium.

That’s interesting. Your politics have changed because of the nature of the medium itself?

Yes, I’ve become more skeptical of doctrines and more skeptical of ideology and more skeptical of dogmatism. Including my own, occasionally. I think that my faith life, for example, has become more deconstructed than it was and has allowed me to entertain doubt more thoroughly.

But of course, it also helps to have been fantastically wrong about the Iraq War, the most important decision made in national life in a long time, and to have spent the last five years accounting for that and trying to explain that and understand it better. I think my readers—I hope, anyway—forgive me for some of that, as long as I’m candid and honest about it.

The task of talking out loud about one’s own mistakes is a very helpful thing to do. I think it’s more helpful than pretending you know everything and proclaiming every now and again from some high horse what the truth is. Blogging is a whole new way of writing, and a new way of experiencing the world. It’s very real and very human.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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