thinking about blogging 1: process versus product 02.28.2006, 7:53 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Thinking about blogging: where's it's been and where it's going. Recently I found food for thought in a smart but ultimately misguided essay by Trevor Butterworth in the Financial Times. In it, he decries blogging as a parasitic binge:
...blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift's fleas sucking upon other fleas "ad infinitum": somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism.
While his critique is not without merit, Butterworth ultimately misses the forest for the fleas, fixating on the extremes of the phenomenon -- the tiny tier of popular "establishment" bloggers and the millions of obscure hacks endlessly recycling news and gossip -- while overlooking the thousands of mid-level blogs devoted to specialized or esoteric subjects not adequately covered -- or not covered at all -- by the press. Technorati founder David Sifry recently dubbed this the "magic middle" of the blogosphere -- that group of roughly 150,000 sites falling somewhere between the short head and the long tail of the popularity graph. Notable as the establishment bloggers are, I would argue that it's the middle stratum that has done the most in advancing serious discourse online. Here we are not talking about antagonism between big and small media, but rather a filling out of the media ecosystem -- where a proliferation of niches, like pixels on a screen, improves the resolution of our image of the world.
At their worst, bloggers -- like Swift's reiterative fleas -- bounce ineffectually off the press's opacities. But sometimes the collective feeding frenzy can expose flaws in the system. Moreover, there are some out there that have the knowledge and insight to decode what the press reports yet fails to adequately analyze. And there others still who are not tied so inexorably to the news cycle but follow their own daemon.
To me, Swift's satire, while humorously portraying the endless cycle of literary derivation, also suggests a healthier notion of process -- less parasitic and more cumulative. At best transformative. The natural accretion over time of ideas and tradition. It's only natural that poets build -- or feed -- on the past. They feel the nip at their behinds. They channel and reinvent. As do scholars and philosophers.
But having some expertise and knowing how to craft a sentence does not necessarily mean one is meant to blog. In an amusing passage, Butterfield speculates on how things might how gone horribly awry had George Orwell (oft hailed as a proto-blogger) been given the opportunity to maintain a daily journal online (think tedious rambling on the virtues of English cuisine). Good blogging requires not only a voice, but a special commitment -- a compulsion even -- to air one's thinking in real time. A relish for working through ideas in the open, often before they're fully baked.
But evidently Butterfield hasn't considered the merits of blogging as a process. He remains terminally hung up on the product, concluding that blogging "renders the word even more evanescent than journalism" and is "the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence." Fine. Blogging is in many ways a vaporous pursuit, but then so is conversation -- so is theatre. Blogging, in its essence, is about discussion and about working through ideas. And, I would argue, it is as much about reading as it is about writing.
Back in August, I wrote about this notion of the blog as a record of reading -- an idea to which I still hold fast. The blog is a tool (for writers and readers alike) for dealing with information overload -- for processing an unmanageable abundance of reading material. Most bloggers, the good ones anyway, not only point to links (though the good pointer sites like Arts & Letters Daily are invaluable), they comment upon them (as I am doing here), glossing them for their readers, often quoting at length. The blog captures that wave of energy emitted by the reader's mind upon contact with an idea or story.
I do think blogging goes a significant ways toward the Enlightenment ideal of a reading public, even if only one percent of that public is worth reading. Hemingway famously said that he wrote 99 pages of crap for every one page of masterpiece. We should apply a similar math to blogs, and hope the tools for filtering out that 99 percent improve over time. After all, one percent of 28 million is no small number (about the population of Buffalo, NY). I'm confident that, in aggregate, this small democratic layer illumines more than it obscures, blazing trails of readings and fostering conversation. And this, I would venture -- when combined and balanced with more traditional media sources -- offers a more balanced reading diet.
Steve Clackson on February 28, 2006 4:05 AM:
This is an excellent post! I feel you have really covered what is the perception vs the reality of where good blogs are headed.
Bud Parr on February 28, 2006 10:16 AM:
Well done, Ben. I typically get so mad at the reporting on blogs I don't end up saying anything thoughtful myself.
You bring out interesting points, not the least of which is the conversational/working-out nature of ideas. Living in NYC, I know that I can sustain a long conversation just by having read the Times ("did you see such-and-such article, what did you think?"). Blogs extend that and give me a place to have that conversation regarding, say, Bookforum, which I would be hard pressed to find someone to talk with about, even if that only amounts to the camaraderie of several people mentioning it on their sites. Oftentimes though, I'll see a link to an article with even the briefest of comments that could change my reading of it.
I also don't necessarily buy the idea of people like Orwell or other diarists having been a blogger (forgive me if there's something about Orwell I don't know in this regard), although Pessoa might have been a good candidate too - he would have been something like the proto-anonymous blogger with all his heteronyms! But as you know, the medium changes the process and I wonder what the meditative "The Book of Disquiet" would look like if it had an audience while it was being written or would have had comments along the way.
But it's the great middle that is truly important here - the great wealth of specialty expertise - or at the least passionately informed - can now be tapped, and the way cable tv gives food lovers, news junkies or even fishing or bicycle racing enthusiasts "channels" for their interests, so too can blogs, in a far more interactive venue to boot.
dan visel on February 28, 2006 4:47 PM:
Not to derail the thread, but can you explain the Pessoa comment? He seems like the most private of all writers, maybe the least likely to blog.
Bud Parr on February 28, 2006 7:01 PM:
I think the blogosphere certainly has a heteronymous (in the Pessoan sense) element to it, don't you think? Not only is "Miss Snark," for example, a new name, it's quite probably a totally different personality than whoever she is in real life. She may be quite a private person, but with her pseudonym - which more accurate than heteronym, but still not a stretch, in my opinion - she can write as though she were someone else.
I'm a fairly private person. I don't write about my private life, and certainly not my personal feelings about those around me. But If I were writing under another name, my blog would have a completely different personality.
Also, as you know, Pessoa's "Book of Disquiet" is full of short pieces with little discernible order, but very much log like.
Now, to be clear, I was saying that the idea of "what if so-and-so had a blog" stuff is not an idea I embrace. What I said was that I wonder what The Book of Disquiet would have been like had it been published as it was written (I think much of it was found in his trunks) and people had commented on it in real time. Personally, I think the outcome would have been quite different.
dan visel on March 1, 2006 11:07 PM:
Bud, I think your argument's misguided, but interestingly so, which counts for a lot. I completely agree about how heteronymy prefigure avatars or people's alternate personas. I'm less convinced by the argument from his aphoristic style: Wittgenstein wrote in a similarly aphoristic style too, but both were just using it as one of the tools in their reportoire. But before my major disagreement, some background material first, so that everyone else isn't completely confused:
Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer who lived in Lisbon in the early 20th century. Lisbon at that time was about the most literarily isolated of places; Pessoa was the only real poet in all of Portugal at the time (while there was a great deal of interesting writing going on in Brazil, there wasn't much communication between the Lusophone countries). Having no one to talk to, he set about a project of creating different writers (his "heteronyms"), each who published under their own names, with a specific biography and a distinct style of their own (some even wrote in different languages). There's a surprisingly decent bio at Wikipedia.
Pessoa's life & work seems to me to be very much a product of his specific time--- and, by extension, the technological world in which in which he lived in. (McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy makes an interesting case for this argument w/r/t Shakespeare & Joyce; Hugh Kenner, in The Mechanical Muse, makes an argument for the arrival of high modernism being connected to the coming of the typewriter.) At that point in time, it was entirely possible to be linguistically isolated: there were a lot of things going on elsewhere, but they weren't really making it to Lisbon, and Pessoa, for whatever reason, didn't leave (which would have made a great deal of sense).
I don't think you could have a Pessoa today, because of the all-pervasiveness of media, not least the Internet. He's as inconceivable now as something like Flarf (Google-aided dada poetry, currently the subject of much debate in the poetry world) would have been a century ago. The two time periods are ultimately incommensurable.
Bud Parr on March 2, 2006 11:11 PM:
So, what I think you're saying, in part, is that Pessoa's aphoristic style was a product of his own design and not a demand of the technology, whereas the similarly - just short at least, pithy at best - blog entry is a demand of the (saturation of) technology, no?
But the main thrust of your argument is that Pessoa would not face the same isolation today, so would not respond in the same way.
I'm not sure. Isolation of a sort is precisely why I and many others I know started a blog. Crowds can produce isolation too. And, some would say that Pessoa had a far more reaching psychological basis for his personalities than the literary scene in Portugal. It's conceivable that his heteronymous writing was an outlet, not a response. And if this speculation were true, then a blog, at least in the sense of a diary-like, Web log (not the point-to-an-article style), might be a good medium.
But then, you've got me defending a position that I wasn't really taking in the first place.
dan visel on March 3, 2006 1:08 AM:
Sorry if I'm misconstruing you. Maybe it's best to think about this in terms of process. Here's a simplification of the writing process, almost as a computer program:
- Both Pessoa and a blogger start writing from the same position of isolation.
- Pessoa sticks his writing in his trunk. The blogger sticks it on her blog.
- The process is repeated: go back to (1).
This is how things are for Pessoa, if Pessoa never bothered to publish anything and just put everything in his trunk without letting anybody read it. But for the blogger, there's a crucial step between 2 and 3: someone might come upon the writing and comment upon it. This makes all the difference in the world: for Pessoa, the writing process is a closed system: he starts from isolation and continues deeper into isolation. For the blogger, it's an open system: there's the chance that someone can break through that isolation.
This is, I think, what makes blog-writing different from what Pessoa was doing: it's (potentially, at least) a collaborative process. I don't think either's necessarily better: they're just different, and that difference, and what it does to writing, is worth appreciating.
Bud Parr on March 6, 2006 8:59 AM:
Yeah, I think you are. My very first comment said...
I also don't necessarily buy the idea of people like Orwell or other diarists having been a blogger...the medium changes the process and I wonder what the meditative "The Book of Disquiet" would look like if it had an audience while it was being written or would have had comments along the way.