ARLINGTON, Va. >> A long, long time ago — in the year 2003, to be exact — when Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye and twittering was still for birds, blogging was the now thing. For troops heading to war, it was a revelation.
Through personal blogs, they could send letters home to friends and relatives in a single dispatch. They could mock commanding officers in ribald, and anonymous, prose. They could describe combat with the immediacy of Ernie Pyle, without the filter of actual editors. Many discovered, to their shock and glee, that thousands of strangers were reading their posts.
A new genre was born, milblogging. By 2007, there were thousands of military blogs, written by not just troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but also parents, spouses and veterans. They even had their own aggregator, Milblogging.com, created by an early practitioner, a soldier named Jean-Paul Borda.
But in the years since, the military blogging world has changed considerably. There are fewer blogs about combat today and many more about life back home. And the Pentagon, which once tried to control or even shut down bloggers, has joined the social media craze. Generals blog, the armed services all have Twitter accounts and scores of company and battalion commanders maintain Facebook pages.
What once had the hint of sassy independence or even underground rebellion has gone mainstream. Nowhere was that clearer than on Saturday, when Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as secretary of defense was widely thought to look upon the early military blogs with skepticism, and perhaps horror, addressed the Sixth Annual Milblog Conference here.
“I can say I appreciate what you do,” Rumsfeld, 78, told bloggers gathered in a hotel conference room. “But I’m not sure I understand it.”
The conference — run by Milblogging.com, which is now owned by Military.com, which is in turn owned by Monster Worldwide — gave a good taste of how military blogging has come of age.
The Army reserves, Marine Corps and Navy sent representatives to extol the virtues of social media. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, an early advocate of blogging, fielded questions from Afghanistan. And in the audience, there were as many women as men, a far cry from the earlier, male-dominated days.
Though military families have long used blogs and social media to share experiences, blogs by military spouses may be the main growth area in the military blog world. There are now hundreds of them, with new ones popping up each week, underscoring both the emotional and utilitarian power of the Internet.
The author of one blog, Ridingtherollercoaster.com, said the digital world could be a surprisingly comforting place for spouses distant from, or intimidated by, official family groups on military bases.
“The response is instant,” said the blogger, a 34-year-old mother of two who writes anonymously at her active duty husband’s request. “And your rank, service and age are meaningless on the Internet. Everyone is kind of equal.”
“We’re all lonely,” she said. “We’re all dealing with the toilets overflowing and the kids screaming.”
Ward Carroll, the editor of Military.com, said military blogging probably reached its zenith in about 2007, the year President George W. Bush invited a handful of military bloggers to the White House, to the dismay of some mainstream reporters.
Carroll said military bloggers not only provided some of the most riveting reports of combat at the time, but also were ahead of the game in describing problems in the Iraq strategy — and gains from the surge.
But many military bloggers have turned to policy analysis, politics or advice columns about military and veterans services. And many have stopped blogging altogether. As for troops at the front? More often than not, they use Facebook, Carroll said.
Lindy Kyzer, who until last year advised the Army on social media, said military blogging had become more corporate and less irreverent. “When you know your mom, or your commanding general, are on Facebook, can you really have as much fun?” she asked.
But Kyzer said military bloggers still played a vital role. As traditional media outlets have laid off reporters or stopped covering Iraq and Afghanistan, bloggers have remained engaged in the tribulations of deployed troops and their families, she said.
“Milbloggers are among the few that actually seem to realize that we’re still at war,” Kyzer said.