Talk is cheap and so is blogging

April 4, 2002 What is it about blogs that so confuses and concerns newspaper columnists? I think most columnists lack the experiences and conceptual categories to understand "the blog." Like a one-year-old baby grappling with the idea of other beings, the average newspaperman scribbling about bloggers can describe "the other" only as an ersatz version of himself.

In essence, the bashers complain that blogs don't measure up to "real" media. The Boston Globe's recent column In the world of Web logs, talk is cheap regurgitates the list of complaints. Individual blogs don't appeal to a broad audience. They aren't serious or objective or edited. They contain meaningless personal details. They can be trite, verbose, incoherent and/or self-aggrandizing.

We all know that none of these traits apply to newspaper columns, ergo, blogs must be bad. In fact, many blogs are so bad, Globe columnist Alex Beam concluded, that the most they can aspire to is being "mocked in a medium that people actually read," ie the newspaper.

The weblog community has pummeled Beam, and blogging dean Glenn Reynolds does the best job of logging the individual punches. Also, don't miss pre-publication e-mail exchanges between Beam and Virginia Postrel and James Lileks.

Here's my own reaction to Beam and anyone else trying to understand blogs: measuring the blog against the newspaper is a waste of time.

For a start, let's try measuring the blog against other media, ancient and modern.

Blogs compare rather well to an older and more widely used communications tool, talking. Anyone who complains about blogging as sloppy or fruitless might want to take a tape recorder along the next evening out with friends. The next morning, listen to the incoherence, grunting and mumbling that passes for scintillating communication. Not a fair test? As any newspaper reporter can tell you, even the most practiced, coherent and committed spokespeople rewind, elipsize and armwave their way through most points.

Most human verbal communication isn't rocket science... it's sloppy, looping, incoherent, and prolix... which is part of its appeal.

Then there's the telephone. In its early days, "lack of seriousness" was a frequent complaint against telecommunication. As tech scholar Andrew Odlyzko writes:

Sociability was frequently dismissed as idle gossip, and especially in the early days of the telephone, was actively discouraged. For example, a 1909 study of telephone service commissioned by the city of Chicago advocated measured rate service as a way to reduce "useless calls." Yet the most successful communication technologies, the mail and the telephone, reached their full potential only when they embraced sociability and those "useless calls" as their goal.

So forget about dissing blogs as chit chat. Forget about blasting blogs for unnewspaperness. The new order isn't just a negation of the old, or a recombination of its components: the new media spawns new features and experiences which are indescribable in the old language. E-mail isn't just "electronic mail," it is bccing, subject lines, limitless dribble, forwarded jokes, FLAMING, writing a quick note when you don't have the energy to engage in a full dialog, sig files. SMS is far more than "short messages sent by mobile telephone," it's a whole culture of instant feedback, global simultaneity, crooked thumbs, endorphined beeps announcing news and stimulation.

In the same way, blogging isn't a diary, a reading log, a common place book, a collection of newspaper articles or opinion columns. But what is it?

Rather than asking how blogs fail, let's enumerate what blogs do right. Let's describe why they inspire so much passion. 500,000 bloggers can't just be vain, right?

In February, I listed timeliness, willingness to credit others, passion, blogrolling, human interest, chronology, and devotion as the characteristics that make blogs so appealing and useful for readers. But a blog's power comes also from its benefits to the blogger.

Blogs are a great tool for brainstorming and sharing knowledge. Blogs encourage us to write and think more clearly. Blogs force us to interact (intellectually and physically) with the texts we are reading. Blogs invite others to reward our creative effort with feedback and, sometimes, appreciation. Blogs weave new social networks, introducing us to people with common passions. Blogs disseminate "micro-opinions" that are important for a small audience but would never make it onto a newspaper's op-ed or letters page. Blogs build a shared history of experience and opinion among friends and acquaintances.

Talk is cheap and so is blogging, which is what makes both such powerful social tools. Blogging confers the bonus benefits of searchability, and temporal and spacial scalability.

But enough comparisons and descriptions. The joy of tennis can't be described, it must be played.

****

To be clear, I don't see the Internet or blogs or e-mail or SMS or Google as "The" revolution... the revolution began in 1948 with the first stored program computer. Every year since, knowledge storage, computation and communication have become cheaper, to the point that we've reached nearly infinite scalability.

Society is still learning to express itself within and through these new tools. For the last half-century, we've been slowly evolving our habits, expectations, businesses, life-styles, needs, social interactions and self-conceptions to catch up with the computer revolution. Our social organism is being completely rewired, as it has been by previous major tech revolutions: fire, agriculture, the wheel, the printing press. This rewiring means more nerves, more synapses, more thinking, more engagement. (Although as Ben Sullivan reminds me, we may lose as many synapses as we gain.)

The "blog" is more than the sum of its conceptual constituents. And the "blogosphere" (minted by Bill Quick) is more than the sum of the individuals who blog.

To advance, it is important to call a blog a blog... not an e-journal or a virtual conversation or new journalism or new media or better-than-a-newspaper-column. Use "blog" when you talk about the new experience. And whenever possible, don't describe blogs, do one.

****

Walking around London last week, I got to do lots of browsing in bookstores. I bought Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, a passionate documentation of the destruction (de-documentation) of newspaper archives and books inside major libraries in the US and Europe. In the latter half of the 20th century, vendors of microfilm vendors (eager to sell their tech) and librarians (eager to clear shelves) propagated the myth that newsprint was fragile and would "turn to dust" by 2000. They filmed and shredded warehouses full or newspapers and books.

In fact, the evidence in their hands proves that a well-stacked newspaper ages little after its first 50 years and may last hundreds, which is more than we can say for microfilm.

There are interesting anecdotes on every page of Baker's book. My favorite: in the 1850s, the paper-makers' demand for rags became so frantic that trainloads of Egyptian mummies were dug up, their shrouds shredded and turned into paper.

The scarcity of newsprint (and resultant mummy disrobing) abated when people figured out how to make paper from shredded wood. Baker notes that the great era of American newspapers (Hearst v. Pulitzer) was fueled by cheap wood-pulp newsprint. As wood-pulp technology proliferated, the price of newsprint fell from 12 cents per pound in 1870 to less than 2 cents in 1900... and the mass market for news exploded.

It wasn't just more of the same. The subject matter became broader, elaborate color illustrations blossomed, and the tone was energized. Something new happened. Buy Baker's book.

Henry Copeland from Paris, France





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