Are Weblogs Changing Our Culture?

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Sept. 3 2002 9:43 AM

Are Weblogs Changing Our Culture?

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Hi, Kurt:

I'm sorry to say I didn't get a huge amount out of We've Got Blog or The Weblog Handbook,the books in question. It's almost silly to write a dead-tree book about blogs anyway, don't you think? The critical language of blogging—the hypertext links to other Web pages, for example—cannot even be translated into book form, and you end up with lame appendixes and footnotes crammed with Web addresses. There were a few amusing essays in We've Got Blog—Julian Dibbell's "Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man," and Tim Cavanaugh's "Let Slip the Blogs of War," for example—but both these tomes struck me as products of old media thinking: "Hey, there are all these blogs out there. Let's Do a Book." How about "Let's Not Do a Book?"

Then there's the supercilious tone of some of the early bloggers (early means 1999). Like year-rounders in a seaside resort, they both need and mock the tourists. Rebecca Blood, who wrote one book and introduces the other, oozes alternative-weekly, grass-roots-loving piety. Her ground-breaking definition of a blog is: "a coffeehouse conversation in text, with references as required." Why does the word "coffeehouse" send me running for the exits? Worse, she can write earnestly about a Weblog "community." Aaagghh. The one wonderful thing about blogging from your laptop is that you don't have to deal with other people. You can broadcast alienated, disembodied, disassociated murmurings into a people-free void. You don't have to run something past an editor, or frame your argument to an established group of subscribers. You just say what the hell you want. No wonder ornery libertarian types enjoy it so much and there are so few communitarian-style bloggers. It's a format designed for Unabombers or people, like the estimable Mickey Kaus, who don't quite fit into pre-existing ideologies or political blocs.

Another reason for the pointlessness of these books is that, to anyone with an Internet connection, Weblogs are pretty self-explanatory. They are based on one simple thing: Technology now enables anyone to publish herself. One-size-fits-all blogging sites, like blogger.com, make it technically easy. The format is also largely determined by the techno-chrono-logy: It's a real-time diary/log/journal, a genre poised between the written word and the live broadcast.

Everything else is up to the individual who runs the blog—from lone person with a rare disease trying to communicate news and research, all the way up to patron saint Matt Drudge. That's why they're so interesting. Moby has one, and so does Michael Barone. To compare their two personalities, check out their Web pages. You don't even have to make small talk to meet them. And you really do meet them. In an age of PR and marketing and media conglomerates, the blog stands apart, unvarnished, raw, unmediated. Even when you try not to reveal things about yourself, you do. In the 1980s, Mike Kinsley pioneered the "Diarist" page at the New Republic to provide a space for the kind of writing that was opinionated, yet personal, the kind of intimate writing that can easily embarrass the writer—to the great amusement of everyone else. Blogging has unleashed hundreds of thousands of such diarists on the world, and the variety, embarrassment, and tedium that ensue make for more compelling reading than much that is produced by people we call professional journalists. What some people view as the drawback of blogs—their personal, narcissistic potential—is, in my view, one of their greatest attractions. People are interesting in and of themselves—even someone like Eric Alterman. Reading his blog, for example, is a wonderful form of hathos (what Alex Heard called "a mixture of hatred, disgust, embarrassment, and pathos"). I like to think I perform the same kind of service for even more souls than Eric does.

The great journalistic virtue of blogs is related to this, I think. Yes, they're fantastic fact-checkers and media monitors. You can't simply make stuff up if you're executive editor of the New York Times and hope no one will notice. I love the fact that the self-important pooh-bahs at 43rd Street now have to worry that they'll be corrected on a daily basis by a bunch of former nobodies. Go, Instapundit. It helps defuse the self-serving pomposity of much of the journalistic clerisy.

But the speed with which an idea in your head reaches thousands of other people's eyes has another deflating effect, this time in reverse: It ensures that you will occasionally blurt out things that are offensive, dumb, brilliant, or in tune with the way people actually think and speak in private. That means bloggers put themselves out there in far more ballsy fashion than many officially sanctioned pundits do, and they make fools of themselves more often, too. The only way to correct your mistakes or foolishness is in public, on the blog, in front of your readers. You are far more naked than when clothed in the protective garments of a media entity. But, somehow, you're liberated as well as nude: blogging as a media form of streaking. I notice this when I write my blog, as opposed to when I write for the old media. I take less time, worry less about polish, and care less about the consequences on my blog. That makes for more honest writing. It may not be "serious" in the way, say, a 12-page review of 14th-century Bulgarian poetry in the New Republic is serious. But it's serious inasmuch as it conveys real ideas and feelings in as unvarnished and honest a form as possible. I think journalism could do with more of that kind of seriousness. It's democratic in the best sense of the word. It helps expose the wizard behind the media curtain.

It's also cheap. Your last major Internet venture, Inside.com, lost gazillions, didn't it? And then it went under. But my little blog, entirely supported by readers, is actually in the black and reaches up to 230,000 individual people a month. No, it's not producing much new reporting and doesn't have even close to the range and ambition of your venture. But people still read it, and I don't have to go to an office every day or suck up to venture capitalists. Aren't you jealous?

Cheers,
Andrew

Andrew Sullivan blogs at the Daily Dish.

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