Huffington: Politics on your sleeve, Web 2.0-style

Let it never be said that Web 2.0 doesn’t draw a partisan crowd. Yesterday we had Tim O’Reilly professing his support for Barack Obama to hearty applause from the audience. Today we have Arianna Huffington riffing on Fox News to their reprised delight.

The forum, appropriately enough, was an on-stage interview with O’Reilly, whose eponymous media firm is organizing the first Web 2.0 Expo to hit New York (the first of many, we were assured).

But strip away Huffington’s ideological exuberance and she’s well worth a listen. And if you share her disdain for the degenerate course that the Sarah Palin news cycle has taken (lipstick, pigs, moose stew, will daughter Bristol be happy with her new husband?, and on, and on, and on …) then it’s definitely worth the price of admission, wherever your political sympathies lie.

Say what you will about the woman, her passion for her medium is real.

“I fell in love with the Web when I was writing books and having a syndicated column,” Huffington said, recalling her wonder at “how amazing it was that people without a platform could have a platform.”

Today, the Huffington Post, which began as a simple news aggregator, is the biggest blog site on the Web, providing a platform for more than 2,000 bloggers.

With the presidential campaign in full swing, the site has seen its traffic spike more than 200 percent in recent months.

Partisanship aside, the Huffington Post has become an influencer for its sheer popularity. It may be a fringe, but it’s an important fringe in the same way Rush Limbaugh’s audience is important.

In an age when media outlets (this one included) see a rapidly diminishing portion of their traffic coming from direct navigation to their home page, Huffington Post still derives about one third of its page views in that old-fashioned manner. Another third comes from referring links, and still another from search.

“One of the things that helps in terms influencing the debate is that we are bookmarked by all the major media outlets,” she said.

And, unlike those media outlets, Huffington does not pretend to give equal time to both sides of an issue. She would no more provide a forum for those who argue against global warming than, say, the Flat Earth Society.

And, finally, in response to O’Reilly’s provocation that the Huffington Post is very similar to Fox News in its editorial approach of striving to shape the debate, Arianna was politely indignant.

“There’s a huge difference,” she said. “We want to shape the debate based on facts,” she added, to thunderous applause.

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