Recently, the New York Times decided to shutter a few of its “blogs,” with promises to radically decrease many more of its other blogs over the next year, the idea being that blogs as stand-alone journalistic entities at the paper had run their course. This sparked a brief miniature discussion of the definition of blogs that had echoes of 2004.
I’ve been thinking about what blogs are and what they could be used for, while not actually doing any blogging myself, since about that time, so I was keenly interested. I was especially interested in what Dave Winer said of the subject and the fact that I disagreed with him. Now, Dave Winer knows more about blogging than I do (obv), but I thought: what could airing my ill-informed and underbaked disagreement with the “protoblogger” hurt? And why not express this disagreement via my never-updated blog?
Winer defines a blog as “the unedited voice of a person.” This defines blogs from an editorial standpoint; that is, a blog is writing that has not been edited, at least by anyone not the author. In this way a blog becomes the (almost) unmediated voice of the writer. (I say “almost” because all of this still must occur in language.) Winer says that what the Times had on its hands were not actually blogs because they by definition were too beholden to the institutional voice of the New York Times (excepting maybe Paul Krugman). Winer sees blogging as a reporter’s sources speaking directly (something which could and should then be culled and refined into a journalist’s own activity).
I always defined blogging from a technical perspective: blogging is a series of posts that are listed in reverse chronological order. What this really means is that blogging or a blog is a certain type of website or a certain format of publishing online (a format whose time might very well be past its point of usefulness). I can see right away that my own definition is slightly rickety because a permalink for a blog post is itself its own individual web page, just like an article page from the Times or a post on Medium. A blog is really just a method for organizing individual web pages. Medium is the latest revision to this idea, functioning as a collection and, more importantly, promotional device for a bunch of blog posts. Medium is a new form of blog that de-emphasizes the author and her chronology, and re-emphasizes the platform through which an author publishes her writing.* The platform is the consistent thread, wherein an old-form blog (Winer’s conception of the blog), the consistent thread was the single author’s voice.
My main problem with Winer’s definition is that it stretches the definition of blogging out almost to the point of uselessness. If a blog is just my language unedited by any outside entity, then there’s no difference between what I’m writing here and a grocery list, if I put my grocery list online.
On yr way home, get:
— the good ice cream
But what both definitions do is point to how blogging is tied up historically and technologically with the moment when publishing writing on the web by individuals with no special technical skill became a mass phenomenon. When, in essence, writing a blog post became as easy as sending an email. When that intersection occurred, “writing online” became almost synonymous with blogging, and perhaps it’s time to retire the term. I tend to feel that when there is energetic and inflamed debate about an endeavor’s vocabulary, there is something deeper afoot. Journalists are (I assume) loathe to describe themselves merely as bloggers, simply because that invites professional class distinctions. Likewise, if I were to publish a short story on my blog, it would not “count” in the academic-literary-publishing sense, because it didn’t appear in an edited journal, either in print (still preferable!) or online. The joy and the problem of online publishing is that you can publish anything, but the context clues that we are familiar with vanish and the accompanying shorthand indications for quality and/or prestige vanish at the same time. The ranting of a lunatic and your next favorite novel look the same in your feed reader or as a Facebook post, or however you get your “content” these days. That is, you have to read them to determine if the person’s a ranting lunatic. This is one reason academic peer review and scholarly journals exist; theoretically, it means that you don’t have to read a person’s scholarship to determine if they are a good scholar.
Add to this what Winer calls “the pressure on blogging,” the multitude of new and different formats for people to publish their unedited voices/grocery lists: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. Blogging stopped being a meaningful term as that particular format stopped being the primary way people communicated on the internet.
So why stick with the reverse chronological scheme (with dated archive) at this point in time when blogging, such as it is, seems in flux or meaningless or passe? Because it’s a reasonably understood structural convention of web publishing. And, at this point, it’s easy. A couple of years ago the writer Dan Baum issued a barrage of tweets narrating his short and fraught time as a staff writer for the New Yorker. In that fractured chain of tweets (I would use the phrase “tweet storm” but that just seems gooby), he said his editor John Bennet told him, “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like. Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Perhaps that radical simplicity, reversed, is why the blogging format might live on.
p.s. “Bloggy content with a conversational tone” is a phrase that appears in the Poynter article. I maintain that “conversational tone” in a blog or elsewhere is a ruse, a mirage of rhetoric. Anyone who reads for any amount of time (say, a week?) or who writes for an even shorter amount of time (say, a couple of hours?) realizes that “conversational” in written prose is an effect; that is, you create the effect of breeziness through diligent editing. Also, one writer’s calculated sloppiness or attempt at conversational prose is another person’s affected period slang. See The Catcher in the Rye.
One related mistake that Andrew Sullivan makes in his definition of blogging (most fully outlined in a long magazines article for the Atlantic, “Why I Blog”) is that blogging is a form of broadcast prose. (He calls blogging “the spontaneous expression of instant thought” and “writing out loud.”) I think this is fundamentally mistaken. Even though writing online, because of its nearly instantaneous ease (I can tweet from my phone faster than I can do almost anything else in the world, an amazing accomplishment) and because of its almost instantaneous potential response from an audience, makes it feel like talking. And while the technology makes it feel like talking, it is always still writing, with all of the inconveniences of writing. The primary inconvenience of writing (also its fundamental blessing) is that it exists independent of my presence during your reception. You read this writing whenever you want, at whatever pace you want, and without my somatic gestures to indicate how you should interpret various sentences. You read it in the isolation of your own consciousness. So if blogging feels like a form of talking as you produce and publish it, you’re still stuck reading it at the other end of the screen.
*From an editorial perspective, my main criticism of Medium’s content can be derived from the percentage of its articles that begin with the word “How.” All of the contributors’ rhetorical excesses spring from this word — the author assuming the role of expert to talk down to the (presumed) idiot.