The Unknown Blogger Who Changed WikiLeaks Coverage

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When historians look back at WikiLeaks and how the world's pundits tried to make sense of what was happening, they'll see a familiar list of sources: Foreign Policy's Evgeny Morozov, The Guardian's John Noughton, The New York Times' David Carr, several people from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, and various long-time digital leaders like Geert Lovink and Larry Sanger.

But among that list you'd also find Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu.wordpress.com. His probing analysis of Julian Assange's personal philosophy and possible motivations became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean. Before Bady's November 29 post, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; "To destroy this invisible government", only a few hundred people a day found their way Bady's blog. In the days afterward, tens of thousands of people swarmed to the site -- and Bady ended up linked by some of the most influential media outlets on the planet.

This article explores how that happened because it shows that in today's media landscape, an act of journalism can spread quickly to the very highest levels of the culture and news industry, no matter where it comes from. Bady follows in the footsteps of Josh Marshall, who began Talking Points Memo to cover the Florida recount and Michael Barnett, who heroically covered the Katrina catastrophe. But Bady might be most like Doris Dungey, the blogger known as Tanta, who called and explained the bursting of the housing bubble anonymously from her home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A long-time mortgage industry insider, Dungey's blog posts were cited by The New York Times' Paul Krugman and carried a weight that stemmed from her knowledge and writing skill, not her (then-unknown) credentials.

So, who is this latest unknown to come out of nowhere to shape the national debate around a major issue? Bady is a seventh-year PhD student in African literature at the University of California, Berkeley who studies "the literature of empire and colonialism in the last two centuries." He's finishing up his dissertation on white Americans in Africa between the civil war and the civil rights movement.

Bady's kept the Zunguzungu blog since March of 2007 when he traveled to Tanzania. He's averaged 15 or 20 posts a month since, mostly just links and blockquoted excerpts. In May of 2010, he had a big day when he posted about "The Soul of Mark Zuckerberg," deconstructing one Zuckerberg quote with the help of W.E.B. DuBois. That post ended up linked by Jillian York, who works at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. Bady thinks it's that post that brought his blog to the attention of several in that sphere, including Cambridge resident and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, who just so happens to be giving a talk at Berkman tomorrow. Marshall, in turn, appears to have been the key link between Bady and the world at large. He retweeted Bady's announcement of his post on November 29. (UPDATE, 8:04 pm: Marshall pointed out to me on Twitter he's known about Bady since December of 2008, and he's got a blog post to prove it.)

The next day, the Berkman Center's Ethan Zuckerman tweeted the post, calling it a useful close reading of Assange's 2006 essay (which it is). Zuckerman is one of the most respected thinkers and writers on the geopolitical implications of technology and his tweet went far. It was retweeted by 30 people -- and more importantly brought the post to the attention of BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin, which sent traffic pouring to the post. The same day, WikiLeaks Twitter feed also linked to the post, saying "Good essay on one of the key ideas behind WikiLeaks." 90 more people retweeted the post. According to BackType, almost 2,500 people have tweeted the story.

By 12:45 p.m. on the 30th, the post had made Nieman Journalism Lab's Popular on Twitter list for the day. By 6:39 p.m., the New York Times' Lede breaking-news blog had linked to Bady's post. According to traffic logs Bady shared with me, almost 50,000 people visited the post that day, including -- no doubt -- many of the most influential journalists and opinion leaders. Tens of thousands have visited in the days since. Bady regularly engages in Twitter conversations now with the academics and journalists covering the story. Volunteers translated his story into Spanish, Dutch, and German.

It was clear from the intelligence and effort that rang out from Bady's post that he belonged in the debate, regardless of where his words were appearing. And we should all be thankful that good writing can be recognized and quickly disseminated.

At at time when stunned traditional media outlets and bloggers were struggling to understand Assange's motives, Bady's essay delivered a clear and cogent view that was also fascinating. Assange, based on the essay, wanted to create a "counter-overreaction," in Bady's words, "to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat." This more nuanced view of Assange's intent fell on receptive ears that weren't content with the broad strokes offered by the likes of the Washington Post's Marc Thiessen.

Who knows if Bady will end up in the professional media following this event. My guess is that he won't, given his education and probable academic career path. But the best news is this: no matter what he does for a living, he'll still be waiting there at zunguzungu.wordpress.com, able to commit a righteous act of journalism when we need him.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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