Thoughts on the Doc Wort Experiment

Gadfly (n) - 1) Any of various flies (as a horsefly, botfly, or warble fly) that bite or annoy livestock. 2) A person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism.
Over the weekend, Doc Wort's blog ceased to be. Portland, Oregon is so blessed with things beery that we not only have the most breweries--and probably beer festivals, pubs, and new-beer releases--but the most beer bloggers of any city in the world. You'd think that the 29th-largest city in the US wouldn't field interest in even one blog devoted to local beer. Yet we have a half-dozen or more healthy examples, established enough that we are regarded as regular media by the beer industry. Each of us has a certain orientation, a half-step different than the others, and together we cover a vast scope of topics that individually we could never do. The 29th largest city, sure, but in terms of beer geekery, we're Tokyo.

Doc Wort was the creation of a guy named Mike. His niche in the ecosystem was to be the broker of truth, the devil's advocate, the last honest man in Portland. Doc Wort was to be Portland's gadfly. Mike thought that there was too much groupspeak, too much self-aggrandizement, too much uncritical local boosterism. The pseudonymous Doc Wort, freed from the constraints of social pressures, could combat this tendency.

I think Mike had identified a real problem. In our small city, we do tend toward uncritical boosterism. In terms of our beer industry, this is heightened; the belief that we are one of the world's great beer cities (true) runs up against the reality that the rest of the world often takes little notice of our backwoods village, Beervana or no. We tend toward hyperbole to attract attention. A bit of bubble-bursting from time to time isn't a bad thing.

But somewhere along the line, the Doc Wort experiment ran off the rails. The currency of the gadfly is truth--uncomfortable or not. To the extent that gadflies are useful, it's when they have the credibility to stand apart from the fray and point out where the truth gets bent. Journalistic gadflies love to take on the powerful and show what secret agendas they hide. Mike wanted to show how spin and marketing covered up the sins of bad beer. He wanted to dull the winds of uncritical cheerleading for bad beers. Unfortunately, he decided to create Doc Wort as the instrument of his criticism.

Anonymous blogging has undeniable virtues. When I started political blogging in early 2003, I did so anonymously. It felt safer to criticize the powerful when I could do so from behind a veil. Unfortunately, as it evolved, the Doc Wort character started to become more extreme and more personal. The Portland beer scene is totally transparent. All the bloggers are known, the brewers make regular public appearances, and the breweries are forthcoming about their products. For the Doc Wort character to do his honest truth-telling, he needed to be even more above-board than the known bloggers. If he wanted to expose personal agendas, he needed to harbor none of his own--that's the virtue of the gadfly. Truth-telling, yes--name-calling, no. Toward the end, the Doc Wort experiment seemed one long, personal attack against enemies real and perceived.

I am glad the Doc Wort experiment is done. Portland could use a real gadfly, but Doc Wort long ago ceased to be one. Still, I know I will soon miss the niche Doc Wort occupied and I hope that Mike, refreshed from a break, will come back to blogging--adversarial, opinionated, cranky, and out in the open. We need no more Doc Worts, but a Mike or two would do Beervana good.

[Note: text edited slightly for clarity after initial posting.]