Influence

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It’s a story that truly deserves the term “meteoric” – a brief ball of heat streaking across the sky for just one moment, then crashing to the earth with a terrific thud.  The rise and fall of Michael Brodkorb is the biggest story in Minnesota politics this month, yet it begs caution on so many levels.  It is full of unsubstantiated rumors and personal tragedy that do not deserve much public scrutiny.  We cannot be sure exactly how it ends, given that some pieces are still playing out.

But there is one thing that we know about this story that is worth telling now – influence is fleeting when done for the sake of influence itself.   That cautionary tale has a deep meaning well beyond “politics”.

Brodborb rose to fame in the Minnesota Republican Party by starting a blog called MinnesotaDemocratsExposed (MDE) in February 2005.  Published anonymously at first, Brodkorb was “outed” as the author in 2006 by a defamation lawsuit.  The blog has featured some good opposition research on Democrats big and small, but generally is full of innuendo and simply taking everything about as badly as possible on the Democrat’s side.  Opinions are published as facts in breathless ALL CAPS red headlines.  Twitter feeds are often used totally out of context.  The main feature is that MDE and Brodkorb were angry B4 angry wuz kewl.

As a political career, however, Bordkorb’s rise and fall was amazingly quick, lasting not even seven years (and resulting in well paying positions for only two).

This blog became a staple of political reporting as early as 2006 because of its incendiary content.  There is always a story full of made-up controversy inflated to the point where it seemed important, the hyped stories easy fodder for other bloggers left and right – sometimes bubbling into the mainstream press.  It is a star vehicle with one very interesting feature:

Readership has always been low, even by blogging standards.

This is an “insider’s” blog, dedicated to the great concept of “influence” in social media primarily by preaching to the choir.  Brodkorb’s fame was tremendous in a small circle, but largely unread and unknown outside of that.  The mainstream public didn’t read the screeds and would never have known about them if they were not picked up by the mainstream, supposedly “liberal”, media.

Why was this blog so successful as a star vehicle?  In many ways the story of Michael Brodkorb could only have happened when they did, much as Matt Drudge briefly had a career at the same time.  The blogging world was full of early adopters who mystified those who were not “savvy”.  Many people and organizations with traditional amplifiers picked up on blogs and other social media trends without any critical analysis at all.  The flashing shiny object of the new medium made it possible to be an “influencer”, or someone with an outsized swaggering cool as they sauntered through the High School of a very new media concept.

This does not happen today and it will almost certainly not happen again.  Media outlets routinely integrate the chatter of Twitter into their reporting without critical analysis, still, but in these flurries thousands of voices are treated on the same level.  There is no one central “influencer” who rises to the top any longer.  The views of social media have matured substantially, even if they still lack usually lack the analysis necessary to make sense of the flood of information.  Very popular YouTube channels and bloggers still make it into mainstream media, but today they always have a large following that they cultivated themselves – they are popular, not influential, first.

It’s also worth contrasting the hyperventilating spin mechanics still practiced on many “political” blogs in the USofA with the raw feed at protest marches around the world.  Violent clashes may still lack context and still require analysis, but they are at least visually compelling and newsworthy.

Ultimately, Brodkorb had to be judged by other skills that he might have brought to his own party.  Either as a policy wonk or as a campaign manager, something had to be delivered.  What brought him down was that he was not successful in his chosen path, one of campaign manager – running upwards million bucks in debt and maybe more (we will learn this week just how much) as vice-chair of the Republican Party.  The influence that made his career – nasty and angry as it was – could never carry him more than a few years on its own.

The lesson is a simple one for those who parlay influence for influence’s sake in politics and in social media – there has to be something more behind it or your career will be very short. There is reason to believe that the daze of the influencer star vehicle are finished no matter what.  But even if you can do it and the concept suits you, grab a Kardashian-load of money while you can.  There is still no substitute for substance over the long haul.