The Internet is more like real life than the 20th-century media was.
When news of Andrew Breitbart's death first rumbled across Twitter this morning, the initial reaction was one of skepticism: Could this just be a prank? A stunt to gin up traffic and prove a larger point about the glee with which "the media" -- that is, the left-wing cabal that Breitbart envisioned -- would celebrate the conservative pundit's death?
Alas no. Not much later, Breitbart's death was confirmed by the Los Angeles coroner's office. Dead at the age of 43.
Those early moments of uncertainty illuminate what will surely be Breitbart's legacy, or, at least, part of his story. Andrew Breitbart was a man who understood the power of the Internet -- how stories could spread and inspire -- and who had figured out how to use it. He didn't fake his death, but had he done so, it would have been another genius, mischievous, and slightly mad demonstration of his ability to light up the hive mind with a headline, a video, and even a tweet.
Here's what Andrew Breitbart got about the Internet (or "grokked," as Felix Salmon put it in a tweet earlier this morning): A story's power comes from its emotional resonance more than its "minutiae" (his word). The web loves big personalities, and the big battles they fight. And, perhaps the most important lesson of Andrew Breitbart's life: The Internet is a place where you can build your own home, from scratch. Breitbart didn't fit into the older media ecosystem, so he went online and built his own.
Taken together, what Andrew Breitbart intuited is that the Internet is more like real life -- the way people consume and spread information in their personal lives -- than the institutional media of the 20th century: People love a good story, they love a character, and there is room for you to tell your stories in your own voice. And journalists' prized ethics and "objectivity"? Yeah, well, that's nice, but it's not what gives a story its "pop."
In a 2010 New Yorker profile of him, Breitbart explained to Rebecca Mead the moment when he realized this possibility.
In the early nineties, a friend, Seth Jacobson, who was studying astrophysics at Harvard, paid Breitbart a visit. "He came to my house, and he said, 'Andrew, we need to go take a walk,' and we took a walk," Breitbart told me. "He says, 'Your brain works differently from most people's. And there is this thing called the Internet that is your brain.' " Breitbart, who was an early user of Prodigy and CompuServe, recalls, "I said to him, 'Yeah, I'm on the Internet.' And he said, 'No, that's not the Internet. You can create your own path. You can create your own environment.' It was almost like a dare." Soon afterward, Breitbart went out and bought a six-pack of Pilsner and a rotisserie chicken. "I said to myself, 'O.K., you are going on a date tonight, and you are not going to bed until you have gone all the way.' And I remember hooking up to the World Wide Web that night, and it was a revelation. It was just like shooting yourself into outer space, and trying to latch onto anyone else who was out there. ..."
And that's how he began, latching himself onto Matt Drudge, and later Arianna Huffington, and then, finally, striking out on his own. He went on to build his own little empire of "Big" blogs: Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, and the youngest, Big Peace. It was fitting that Breitbart took on the "Big" brand, though he surely meant it as an attack on the powerful reach of these institutions he so hated. Because Breitbart embodied big: Everything he did was suffused with the bigness of his ideology, his conviction, and his willingness to battle it out with anyone who disagreed.
For Breitbart, that combativeness was an asset, and not just because it made his work and his words fly around the Internet, but because he believed that that was how you reached people -- how you persuaded people to see the world as you saw it. When GQ's Lisa DePaulo asked him last spring whether he though the title "one of the most polarizing figures of our time" was a compliment, he answered:
Yes. The media is dominated by people who disagree with American exceptionalism--the academic Marxist crowd's worldview--and somebody needed to start taking it on directly. The Right has focused its energy and money on the political process, and it just kind of shrugged off culture. But culture is everything in this country. Once you get down to the political level, you've already lost the battle.
For many people, the way that Andrew Breitbart could fuel support for his political views with scandal and emotion says something sinister about democracy, news consumption, and political decision making in this Internet age. What does it say about how we consume and evaluate news that Breitbart could achieve such power with his bluster, his dust-ups, and his cynical gimmicks?
But for all that Andrew Breitbart got about the Internet, there is so much more to the story. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote earlier today, "Despite tangling with Breitbart, bitterly at times, over our conflicting temperaments, contrasting approaches to journalism, and almost opposite codes of conduct, I sometimes marveled at his ability to advance a story, even if I'd discourage others from mimicking his approach." Andrew Breitbart wasn't the only style of journalist online. What he understood is that on the Internet, there's room for many.