Blog on, readers, blog on

Sarah Boxer has a review of books on blogging in the most recent issue of New York Review of Books. Ok, at least it’s interesting to me since I am a relative latecomer to blogs and blogdom. In any case, it’s evident that blogs have become a major seller in the book industry, no matter how much those of us who are book aficionados worry that blogs are contributing to the demise of books and reading of books.

Who after all, has time for reading any more. I certainly don’t; I’ve got to get this blog written.

Anyway, a healthy sampling of the industry covered in Boxer’s review. These include, among many others:

We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture compiled and edited by John Rodzvilla,

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel

Republic.com 2.0by Cass R. Sunstein

Blogwars by David D. Perlmutter

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J. Solove

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age by Scott Gant

Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World by Hugh Hewitt

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen

Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, foreword by Tom Peters

Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Cultureby David Kline and Dan Burstein

I’ve read none of these save for some excerpts on the web, but what I can gather from the titles and from those excerpts, as well as from a few extant interviews with several of these authors, most of them view the blogosphere with some fear and loathing. From what I’ve seen, this is unfair, but I did pick up a couple of good interviews that you can judge for yourselves, a video interview with Lee Siegel and a radio interview with Daniel Solove.

Get the interview with Solove here

Anyway, back to Boxer’s review. I’m most interested in what she has to say about the ways in which blogs change writing and reading. This, after all, is why I got started on this blog in the first place, thinking that it would be an interesting way to keep myself writing and thinking about reading—thinking all the while that I would be pointing toward a conventional book. I still think that, but I’m not quite so sure about how natural or inevitable the connections are. As one of my colleagues pointed out, we don’t even call it writing. We call it “blogging” as if we had to come up with a different verb to get at the phenomenon itself.

In Boxer’s words:

“Are they a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

“Reading blogs, it’s pretty clear, is not like reading a newspaper article or a book. Blog readers jump around. They follow links. They move from blogs to news clips to videos on YouTube, and they do it more easily than you can turn a newspaper page. They are always getting carried away—somewhere. Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don’t even stop to punctuate. And if they can’t put quite the right inflection on a sentence, they’ll often use an OMG (Oh my god!) or an emoticon, e.g., a smiley face 🙂 or a wink 😉 or a frown 😦 instead of words. (Tilt your head to the left to see the emoticons here.)

“Many bloggers really don’t write much at all. They are more like impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment. Some days, the only original writing you see on a blog is the equivalent of “Read this…. Take a look…. But, seriously, this is lame…. Can you believe this?”

I’ve noticed all this, of course, in my own digital peregrinations, and it makes me think that I’m really not writing a blog at all. As I told a friend earlier today, I don’t think I really blog at all. I write too much, there are no pictures—or too few—and I don’t use four letter words with aplomb.

I also use words like “aplomb,” which is a sure sign of geekishness in blogworld.

I am also, in my general estimation, too organized for my own good. Thirty years of English studies have left me incapable of writing in something other than paragraph form. The one sentence paragraph still strikes me as an oxymoron, save for the occasional literary effect.

(Secret confession—I also go back and correct my blog grammar. Cardinal sin, I know, but I can’t help myself. I wish I could throw off subject/verb or number disagreements with the same aplomb—there’s that word again—that I see throughout the blogosphere, but I’m appalled when I find a misplaced modifier and wonder what kind of example I am setting for all those students whose lives are being ruined by poor grammar.)

More seriously though, I do think that the fragmentary and fluid quality of blogging is very different from the things we normally consider when thinking about critical reading and coherent argument. Does this matter? I tend to think it does. My guess is that students increasingly have difficult times making arguments, or having patience with extended arguments elsewhere, because they are more used to the kind of ad hominem and ejaculatory declamations they get on the web. “Dude, check out the moron talking about evolution on YouTube.” Of course, they get this from Bill O’Reilly any more as well, so perhaps we can’t blame blogging.

Secret confession II: I only use the word “ejaculatory” in written prose. Perhaps I am afraid my late adolescent students will start snickering in class. Perhaps I am afraid my inner adolescent will start snickering in class.

I have also noticed the tendency of bloggers to cite and not write. I’m intrigued by this. I see two things happening with the tendency for many blogs to be compilations of text and image pulled in from elsewhere. On the one hand, it’s the part of blogging that’s much more like conversation than it is traditional expository writing. It’s like sitting down with friends and saying, “Dude, check out this cartoon in the newspaper.”

Ok, so most people who use the word “dude” don’t read newspapers anymore, but you get my general drift. This part of blogging is like sharing things with friends. Correlatively, reading blogs is a little bit like sitting down to talk with friends.

The other thing that I think is going on is that the compilations are a kind of sampling. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, there’s a sense in which texts and images in the current world are more like raw materials that have to be compiled in new and interesting ways. Just as collage is interesting partly for the individual elements, but even more for the way those bits come together in a new whole. Whereas writing has usually been conceived of as commentary on or representation of an external world, there’s a way in which blogs are reorganizations of or recreations of the visual, verbal, and audible text of the internet. The internet is the external world and the blog is its recreation. A kind of perfect self-referentiality to the degree that bloggers eventually start sampling one another, as even I have done in this blog. Bloggers sample other bloggers, and one sign of your importance is the number of times others will say check this out, and then copy your whole blog in to theirs.

Boxer goes on to note the pervasive emphasis in the blogosphere on scatology, pornography, and profane invective. As she puts it.

“Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty. Whether bloggers tell the truth or really are who they claim to be is another matter, but WTF. They are what they write. And you can’t fake that. ;-)”

Well, she’s not wrong here, to the degree that I’ve bothered to plough around the blogosphere. On the other hand, I have noticed a generally different tone in blogs devoted to books and reading. They generally don’t get their work done with profanity or inane references to enlarged or swollen body parts. It may be that I don’t get out enough, but I see no books-and-reading bloggers out there making their way by telling people they disagree with to go do an anatomically impossible act to themselves or by telling the authors whose books they dislike to put their texts where the sun don’t shine.

(You see, I am far to polite, discreet, and refined to even spell out the bad words)

Seriously though, it seems to me that Boxer is wrong to make as grand and encompassing a characterization as she does. Blogs strike me as being as various as …well…books or conversation. Different regions of the blogosphere develop different tendencies and propensities, different likes and dislikes. One thing I like about blogs on books is that they don’t pretend that using profanity is somehow inherently useful, don’t assume that dirty jokes necessarily communicate anything worth thinking about, don’t assume that being shocking is the same thing as being insightful.

My guess is that book readers have reconciled themselves to their anonymity and have less need to be noticed on their blogs. By contrast, some bloggers are the internet equivalent of Brittany Spears. Anything to get attention.

I have no proof of any of this, but it seems to me that blogging is something like a third sphere, something different from either orality or literacy. Combining some aspects of both, but going beyond either with its nearly infinite ability to play the bricoleur.

AT least this is what I see as the possibility. I am a hopeless essayist. I need to let out my inner id. Let the blog flow. Death to the paragraph. Vive la Fragment. Spoken with a good French accent.

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2 thoughts on “Blog on, readers, blog on

  1. Most bloggers want to be read by as many people as is reasonable, and so many bloggers wonder how to get more readers, or more “traffic”. But bloggers seem only to want to get their blogs read, rather than to read the blogs of others. So most blogs have very few readers.

    Also, most blogging sites have too many distractions on them, in the form of pictures and photos. This takes away attention from the writing.

    Bloggers forget they are competing for readership with professional journalists on the web, who know how to put together an English sentence grammatically, as well as writing compellingly. And there are blogs by professional writers, which invariably are far more interesting than blogs by amateurs.

    So my advice to bloggers is, put out an informative, thoughtful, and well written product, and the readers will come.

    Your own blog, for instance, being literate, compels the reader to return to it, as I hope to do.

  2. Thanks for the comments the last couple of days, Christopher, and the compliments. I think you’re right that some/many blogs are so crammed with stuff that they cease to communicate and are distractions rather than acts of communication. To some degree they are like an essay wherein the writer crams in everything s/he can think of that may be tangentially related to a theme, caring less about reader response than how to get something on the page. This is a form of self-indulgence.

    I have come to think of images and soundbytes as a form of rhetoric, however, that can be useful even if they are often used poorly. Much as I tell students writing a traditional essay that they need to think about establishing a rhythm with their prose by varying sentence structure and paragraph length. The rhythm of prose itself can establish interest. To some degree I think images and soundclips can function in a similar fashion in writing on the web as long as they are well-chosen and well placed.

    Hope you come back.

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