Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Only when I'm blogging can I feel this free

The word blog is a conflation of two words: Web and log. It contains in its four letters a concise and accurate self-description: it is a log of thoughts and writing posted publicly on the World Wide Web. In the monosyllabic vernacular of the Internet, Web log soon became the word blog.

This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.
ZOMG: Andrew Sullivan has written a Why I Blog post and, in the tradition of the genre, it is deadly dull. You can read it if you like, but I wouldn't recommend it.

The question, of course, on the lips of sensitive readers like yourself, is "why is Andrew Sullivan (in case you didn't know, Andrew Sullivan is gay, Republican and loved by liberals: he is like our Gay Friend and our Right-wing Friend rolled into one) writing a Why I Blog post?" Surely he is too old for this sort of thing. The Why I Blog post is for self-obsessed would-be professional writers, not grown men. The combination in Sullivan's piece of soppy-stern gravity ("the monosyllabic vernacular of the Internet;" LOL) and juvenile enthusiasm is quite unsettling. It is like watching a bearded man on a skateboard.

For the benefit of the hard of reading, I will pick out some choice cuts:
We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge... [and while our Team Leaders are out of the office]

But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.
Yes, that would be it: the risk of error,the thrill of prescience; it's a roller-coaster, helter-skelter dice with death, this blogging life; yet how sweet the rewards, when you say something that nobody had ever thought before, like totally never.
It was the spring of 2000 and, like many a freelance writer at the time, I had some vague notion that I needed to have a presence "online." I had no clear idea of what to do, but a friend who ran a Web-design company offered to create a site for me, and, since I was technologically clueless, he also agreed to post various essays and columns as I wrote them. Before too long, this became a chore for him, and he called me one day to say he'd found an online platform that was so simple I could henceforth post all my writing myself. The platform was called Blogger.
Quaint, isn't it? It is like an eminent music critic describing his first impressions of the Compact Disc Player. And Mr Sullivan appears to assume that readers of the Atlantic Monthly would never have come across a blog before, that probably they are unaware people write on Internet at all.
Eight years ago, the blogosphere felt like a handful of individual cranks fighting with one another. Today, it feels like a universe of cranks, with vast, pulsating readerships, fighting with one another. To the neophyte reader, or blogger, it can seem overwhelming. But there is a connection between the intimacy of the early years and the industry it has become today. And the connection is human individuality.
If any of you are pulsating, please stop, now.
The reason this open-source market of thinking and writing has such potential is that the always adjusting and evolving collective mind can rapidly filter out bad arguments and bad ideas. The flip side, of course, is that bloggers are also human beings. Reason is not the only fuel in the tank. In a world where no distinction is made between good traffic and bad traffic, and where emotion often rules, some will always raise their voice to dominate the conversation; others will pander shamelessly to their readers' prejudices; others will start online brawls for the fun of it. Sensationalism, dirt, and the ease of formulaic talking points always beckon. You can disappear into the partisan blogosphere and never stumble onto a site you disagree with.
Or, to put it another way, (and to employ "the English style of crisp, short commentary" which Sullivan extols but avoids) blogging is a load of cock. Because it is clear that by blogging, Sullivan means political blogging, the sort of opinion-rich blogs written by prematurely middle-aged young men, who are convinced of their own rectitude and the infamy of their rivals. This am serious blog.

It's a guy thing. The serious blog is the work of the provocateur, the contrarian, the would-be political journalist, and most of these bloggers are men. They do guy stuff: they form gangs, they start fights, they leer at girls. Politics is important; it is the arena where they get to fight with the other guys from across the street.

As part of its election night coverage for the previous round of Congressional elections, CNN got a whole load of serious bloggers into a room, to give the audience some of those instant reactions to events as they unfold. The conservatives were on one side of the room and the liberals on the other. They looked like the blogging equivalents of the Jets and the Sharks: the conservatives wore Ralph Lauren, the liberals wore Abercrombie and Fitch. And none of them were women.

I don't know about you, but I find this sort of blogger to be rather dull. There are a few blogs about political matters which are worth reading, but the majority are just waffle. The author's pronouncements on the issues of the day and the ensuing daily fight with his critics is a circus act. I would rather read someone who can say something about a topic which most writers have overlooked, and do so with some style. And that someone is often a woman.

The blogs I enjoy most are written by people who can write about a whole lot of other stuff besides politics. Their audiences are not necessarily vast and pulsating and are not spoiling for a fight. They are people who have things in common and who enjoy each others' online company. Semi-professional trolls like Redbaiter and Dad4Justice avoid such blogs, because there is no sport to be had. Rather, the blogger and her readers have a conversation, conducted in civil terms.

I haven't done the sums, but it seems that a fair proportion of the blogoshere is of this kind. Writers have interests; they share them; others comment. Meanwhile, the serious bloggers have issues, which they share with their fans and their foes, who then squabble. The serious blogs get all the attention, because they make a lot of noise. But a lot of the thinking happens on the other blogs. You get more from a conversation than a fight.

My point, such as it is, is that there is a lot more to blogging than fussing and fighting. There are a lot of good writers out there who might otherwise not be published. For the most part, they are not professional writers nor professional politicians. They are not trying to win an argument or to advance themselves professionally. They just write about their interests, for the joy of writing and reading. And they do it rather well.



Anonymous said...

If any of you are pulsating, please stop, now.

ROTFL I wasn't before, but I was after reading that. I am however not vast, I run and watch what I eat.

I was brought up by your noticing what the bloggers on CNN's election coverage were wearing. I watched CNN too during the election and just noting something like that would never enter my head, let alone know the brand of clothing. It takes all sorts to make a world though. When I have told people what I do they are often incredulous that I could spend, how many years? researching mouse legs. My wife among them.

So tell me Paul where does a well dressed liberal buy his Abercrombie and Fitch in Auckland?

Samuel said...

An excellent, excellent post. Please sir, may we have some moar?

Grace Dalley said...

"Politics is important; it is the arena where they get to fight with the other guys from across the street."
"You get more from a conversation than a fight."

Very good :-D
I think though that many people would rather get angry than do any thinking.

A former reporter from the Daily Mail, the biggest-selling newspaper in the UK, famously said 'The ideal Daily Mail story leaves the reader hating somebody or something.' (the blogosphere has provided this wonderful Daily-Mail-headline generator: http://www.qwghlm.co.uk/toys/dailymail/ )

The NZ media have not quite reached that level of brainlessness yet...

Stephen Fry points out in his blog how anger, even for an intellectual like himself, is so much easier to write:

"I wrote newspaper columns through much of the eighties and nineties, and enjoyed it greatly. But for all kinds of reasons I was more than happy to retire. Feeling stale, tiring of the deadlines, hating myself for manufacturing cheap, easy rants – the line of least resistance when you rack your brains for weekly copy is to think of something you hate. That way lies the death of the soul IM(not so)HO. All those feature columns with titles like J’Accuse, Bile, Spleen and so on. Nasty. Won’t Do. It all came to a head when an editor called me up and asked if I could do a “1200 word hate piece on Christmas”. Not a blush, not a murmur of apology. Time to reach for my hat and streak for the horizon, I felt."

Giovanni Tiso said...

I can think of a number of good political blogs - close to these shores, No Right Turn is consistently excellent, although the no-comments feature helps to keep the trolls at bay for sure - but I have a thing for personal or topic blogs on the whole, and yes, you've forced me to do some reckoning and it turns out a little more than half of my faves are women. Then again, you don't see a lot of female trolls either, so it could be an extension of a more general bias towards a certain style of communications - more cooperative, more open, more inclusive - that might not help your traffic stats up but makes for way better reading and much better online communities.

And I like slow blogging. I find it interesting that Tumeke ranks NZ blogs based not only on traffic but also on number of posts (and of comments). It would seem to encourage the churning out instant commentary on the matter of the day, preferably inciting a diatribe, and there's way more to blogging than that, as you note.

Giovanni Tiso said...

A dear friend died a year ago today. Don't worry, he lived a full and happy life, but I want to acknowledge him because of something you wrote here... In his middle-age (and I should tell you he was the most happily married person I shall ever meet) he was made a pass at by a colleague he was giving a ride to from the school where they both worked. "You make me pulsate," she said. He stopped the car at the next traffic light and reached across to open her door. "Pulsate outside".

Paul said...

He must have been a magnificent man.