Clarification in appendix
He buys his pasta from Talluto. He loves pho at CafÃ© Diem. He tweeted about the soda tax. He makes cheesesteak jokes on local sports teams. He even dropped a comment on a Philly.com article once or twice.
Basically Duncan Black is a guy from Philly.
He is also one of America’s most influential political bloggers.
In 2002, his writings triggered Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader. In 2006, an episode of NBC’s hit drama “The West Wing” featured a character based on him. (When the character was introduced to the presidential candidate, he was described as “having almost as many readers as the Philadelphia Investigator. â)
And yet, if you’ve never heard of Black before, it’s no surprise.
For one thing, he does all of his work online, rarely letting him come across his personal life outside of his Bella Vista townhouse. Second, even junkies who follow national policy discussions as closely as Beliebers pay attention to Justin’s fashion choices might not recognize Black’s name. At least not right away.
Because on the Internet – to the blogosphere, to his 27.8k followers on Twitter and the multitudes who visit his personal site enough to steadily increase his daily pageviews to over 100,000 – Black is known only as âAtriosâ.
Atrios came into being in 2002, when Black, Brown’s Ph.D. economics professor, decided to use him as a pseudonym and start a blog called Eschaton. (Eschaton is generally a reference to end-time theology, but Black specifically derived it from the title of a complex ‘War Games’ type tennis drill in David Foster Wallace’s dystopian novel. Infinite joke.)
The blog, which still looks pretty much the same as it did 14 years ago, running on a classic âBloggerâ platform, is now Black’s main source of income. As in, blogging is the full time job of this 44 year old man.
This was not always the case. The blog started out as a side project, a hobby, a way to riff on politics.
âI saw this new thing called ‘blogging’,â he says. “It was almost – I don’t mean ‘revolutionary’, but it was actually seen as a big deal that people could just self-publish on the internet and get an audience.”
âI remember I was at a conference once,â he continues, âwhere a man raised his hand and said, ‘You mean on the internet, anyone can say whatever they want? As if it bothered.
Social media as we know it did not exist; blogs were the way to express oneself online. But the idea that the things people wrote about them – without editors, outside traditional journalistic channels – could actually change? This had not yet been established.
Until Atrios and a few of his peers prove it by shoot down Trent Lott.
The kerfluffle began when Black wrote an article highlighting a comment Lott made about his pride that the state he represented, Mississippi, had voted for his centennial colleague Strom Thurmond in the 1948 presidential election.
The main platform of candidate Thurmond in this race? Maintain and strengthen racial segregation. Although this information was glossed over by the mainstream media, Black hammered it hard, with Josh Marshall of Discussion Notes. The New York Times got wind of detailed blogger posts and posted a story about the gaff. Lott resigned.
All of a sudden, Black – or Atrios, rather, since he was anonymous at the time – became part of the national conversation.
âWhen I heard John Podhoretz talk about me on NPR, it was very strange,â says Black.
Eschaton’s readership skyrocketed. In 2004, Black decided to drop anonymity.
âI never felt that someone was seriously threatening my anonymity, except maybe once,â he says, âbut the blog was popular enough. I knew it wasn’t sustainable. (I knew) that it would eventually come out, so I figured I would on my terms.
The revelation of the identity was also linked to the fact that he had decided to quit his job as an economics teacher at Bryn Mawr. Somehow he lost interest; teaching economics to young people in their twenties can hardly compete with the pleasure of being a provocateur on the world political stage.
To support him as he made the transition, he asked his audience for voluntary donations – “just enough to get me through the 2004 election” – and they answered a shovel. Plus, that’s when online advertising started to take off, and the AdWords and affiliate links on his blog began to channel real income.
Other than a few freelance consulting and occasional writing assignments (he’s a member of the progressive think tank Media Matters), he hasn’t taken another job since. For the foreseeable future, blogging is the plan.
“What else was I going to do with my life?” He said with a shrug.
Plus, Black feels indebted to his audience.
âIn a way, it’s hard to let go,â he admits, âbecause I have a loyal community and I feel responsible to each of them. Then just one day say, ‘Okay, whatever, I’m going to get a job. I no longer have the time to do that â, that would be to abandon that. I would feel bad.
What loyalty? Eschaton receives approximately 1,500 comments per day. Everyday. And Black’s posts are often no longer than a sentence offering a perspective on a premium article citation and a link to its source. Or sometimes, no more than a few words. The community he built fills in the rest.
Take Monday night, the night of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
At around 5:45 p.m., Black kicked off the night with a joke. “Official Eschaton Drinking GameHad two lines of content:
â1) Open a bottle of alcohol.
2) Drink it.
It collected 122 comments.
Then the debate itself began. Under the headline âDebate Thread The First,â Black wrote, âI’m too old to blog this shit. You do it! âAnd 287 comments followed. There was also a Discussion Thread II (361 comments) and a third, set up at 10pm, with one word:â Ouch. âComments? 771.
Although he sometimes writes longer comments (“I do occasional journalistic acts”), most of the time, Black intentionally keeps his posts short.
âI write for the people who read my blog every day,â he says. âI don’t need to rephrase my argument for the 50th time. They know where I’m from.
Who makes up this audience?
Black himself does not know the exact demographics. âI guess I could find out if I could figure out how to get it from Google Analytics,â he says. However, he has conducted reader surveys and is confident that the commentators come from “all over the country.”
Eschaton’s sequel includes plenty of heavy hitters as well, although they don’t call attention to themselves in the (mostly pseudonymous) comments section.
In 2012, the New York Times‘Paul Krugman issued a cry to Atrios as he celebrated the blog’s 10th anniversary, and later that year a Chronicle of San Francisco columnist began her article on “Mitt Romney’s mysterious tax returnsâCiting something Black had blogged. Cos of the day, a liberal-leaning site that Alexa ranks 426th most popular in the United States, has pages and pages from posts tagged “Atrios”.
Then there’s Twitter, which suits Black’s terse writing style perfectly. He tweets regularly with influential voices, such as Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who revealed Edward Snowden’s story, 740,000 followers) and MSNBC host Chris Hayes (688,000 followers).
He also uses Twitter to keep up to date with what’s going on locally, from restaurant openings (that’s Philly in 2016, after all) to politics.
When his participation in broad national policy discussions is very public, such as the trio of columns he wrote in 2012 for United States today why it is imperative to extend social security, who have been credited by making the idea acceptable – above all, he remains silent on the local problems of the house he has chosen. This does not mean that there is a lack of opinions on them.
âPhiladelphia grapples with this idea of ââhow much it wants to embrace being a city and how much it doesn’t, especially residential neighborhoods,â Black said.
The recent renaissance, he believes, is the positive result of a concerted effort to attract tourists and visitors after decades of population decline – but that’s not what we should be focusing on anymore.
âI think the city has kind of lost sight of the fact that a lot of people still live here and their lives matter too,â he says. âWith the population starting to slowly grow, the city really needs to think, ‘Everything we do shouldn’t be visitor-oriented. Â»We must indeed think about the quality of life of the inhabitants. This is something they should have done from the start.
Specificities he mentions: No more garbage cans. Parking policies that favor residents over tourists. A more relevant transport system for getting around the city than for entering and leaving it.
Paying more attention to âneighborhoodsâ is the campaign platform that Mayor Jim Kenney has taken on. Is Black a fan?
âI don’t think (Kenney) was in office long enough to really pass judgment, but he at least said, ‘Yeah, these issues should matter more. “”
On the soda tax, the doctorate in economics is split, but ends up being favorable – as long as “the money is spent for what it is supposed to be spent on.”
âSin taxes fall disproportionately on the poor,â says Black, but âthe city is very limited in the range of taxes it can implement, due to state law. If the city wants to raise more money, what can it do? Better to tax soda than fresh fruit, for example.
âIf city managers implement a quality pre-K program for our residents, I think it’s worth it. “