At "Bloggernacle Night" last week, Nate proposed the idea that LDS blogs represent a "public space" where LDS issues can be presented and discussed, giving due credit for the general concept of a public space (where free discourse can flourish) to Habermas. I'll give a few links where one can read about that general concept, then note how I think LDS blogs fit the schema in some ways but not others. I'll sometimes use the term "open forum," which does a little better job of capturing whatever it is that LDS blogs as a group represent vis-à-vis the larger LDS community.
The Public Sphere
You can get a working knowledge of the concept by reading the Wikipedia entries on Jürgen Habermas and Public Sphere. By public sphere or public space, Habermas is referring to a forum for the discussion of politics and economics — public policy stuff — that was relatively independent of Church and State. Habermas traces the emergence of such a public space to the coffee houses of London in the 18th century, its contribution to the development of liberal democracy, and then its eclipse during the 19th century as capitalism and the rise of a mass media squeezed out authentic and open discussion.
So, following this line of thinking, the modern media reflects political control, advertising, and general PR messages designed to make vested power groups look good and generally manipulate the masses: The Media as an endless parade of 30-second sound bites trying to control your mind and generally succeeding. Average citizens don't get much of a chance to be heard in the debate, but the real point is there simply is no public debate anymore. Do presidential debates actually debate anything? Are "town hall meetings" actually meetings of townfolk or just staged media events? Are most news stories carefully researched and objectively written, or are they just recycled press releases from government agencies and corporations? Enter the Blog, which has made a non-trivial impact on mass media and national politics. Blogs have shaken up the political and media status quo and empowered a previously unheard strata of society ... you and me, average citizens. Blogs seem to provide not just the possibility of different content but also a forum where free discussion (some productive, some not) occurs.
LDS Blogs as an Open Forum
The public space concept is enlightening, but how much of it applies to the narrower question of LDS blogs? Let's restate the narrower question in the context of the public space discussion above: If we consider LDS blogs collectively as an open forum where various LDS religious issues (history, doctrine, and practice) can be discussed independently of Church and State, what is likely to develop? Is it a good thing or a bad thing, and for whom?
Yes, I think you can shoehorn LDS blogs into the concept of a public space and get some mileage from it. LDS blogs are a truly open forum. Topics do get raised and discussed in LDS blogs that aren't raised and discussed in any public Church setting. And blogs are blessedly free from institutional supervision — a correlated blog does not seem like a workable concept. Some might argue that this "open forum" function has been provided by the general Mormon Studies community for the past fifty years, but I would argue that the academic "conference and journal" model followed by that community limits its impact to a fairly small audience. The blogging audience dwarfs the Mormon Studies audience by several orders of magnitude. LDS blog content is literally available in less than 60 seconds to any person on the planet who can Google desired search terms.
But there are differences. The public space Habermas outlined was a forum for discussions that supported revolutionary change in government and society, part of the Enlightenment project. Some might argue that modern political blogs aspire to that role, but not LDS blogs, which are more like an adult alternative to golf, crochet, or television. A superior alternative, IMHO, but not part of a program for overhauling the Church the way discourse in a Habermasian public space treats public policy issues of significant import for society. And while an open forum fosters more wide-ranging discussion of some topics, the spectrum of opinion on religious issues one sees in the B'nacle isn't much different from what exists in the Church as a whole.
Just to put in a parting good word for blogs, Nate also made passing reference to what I call the Google shelf-space argument: LDS blogs put relatively positive treatments of LDS issues into many Goodle search result pages, including the messy ones that don't get discussed or text-catalogued for official LDS sites because they don't get discussed there. In a perfectly correlated world, if LDS.org were the only LDS website, online search results on LDS topics would be flooded with sites unfriendly to the Church simply because there would be no competition for that valuable resource. But as it is now, there's a good chance some LDS blogs show up on the first page or two for many searches. Hopefully, First Contact (when a GA first mentions LDS blogs in General Conference) will take note of this valuable service that LDS blogs render to the larger LDS community. Open forums aren't such a bad thing.