Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters — Scott Rosenberg

In “Why and How to Write a Blog,” I said that “blogging is the genre that can subsume any other genre if you want it to.” It is to fact what the novel is to fiction or stories. But the development of the blog is underreported and Say Everything attempts to rectify that situation by tracing some of the early blogs and positing that while “blogging looked inconsequential and sounded ridiculous, […] it turned out to matter.” That blogging matters seems hard to argue against, given how many people do it and how blogging has democratized information by making the process of learning about a field easier. But how blogging comes to matter and where it might go is a much harder task and one that Say Everything probably hasn’t accomplished.

Of the three parts in Say Everything’s subtitle, the book only does one really well: how blogging began and where it’s been, on a factual level, since then. “What it’s becoming” is really too broad for anyone to guess: answers tend to range from “the media” to “everything” to “nothing” to the one that seems most probable to me: “who knows?” People barely had any idea of where computers would go in the 1970s, or where networking would go in the 1980s, or where the Internet would go in the 1990s. To presume that we know where something as amorphous as blogging will go in the 2000s seems unlikely. The final subtitle, “Why it matters,” ought to be obvious to anyone with any sense of history: communications revolutions tend to beget other kinds of social and cultural revolutions (see, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change for an earlier example). When you can’t (easily) control what people are saying or how they’re saying it or who they’re distributing it too, interesting and unusual things start to happen. We’re barely at the infancy of that process in terms of blogging: that it matters shouldn’t even be arguable anymore. The question should be “how will it matter?”, but that merely leads us back to the problems associated with subtitle number two.

In Coders at Work, JavaScript and badass programmer Douglas Crockford says that “I think we’re tragically unaware of our history, and I’m often really disappointed to see that people who are now practicing this craft having no intellectual curiosity about where this stuff came from…” He’s referring to programming languages, but he could just as well refer to bloggers, who often suffer from the same kind of implicit and incorrect ahistoricism. Although it might be short on analysis, maybe blogging isn’t ready for the kind of deep interpretation that good professional historians bring to their subjects. Hell, maybe blogging itself isn’t mature enough to bring those tools to bear, or those bloggers who might (like professional historians) are too busy in other mediums that reward depth to bother with the intense research and thought such an effort would require.

Still, Rosenberg might be setting the stage for those deep analyses by giving us some facts before those facts disappear into the online morass: he’s giving us memories that might be hard to find today, let alone ten or twenty years from now. Say Everything threw surprises even at me, someone who has been using the Internet and reading one of the early blogs (Slashdot) since the mid 1990s. Before I could drive, I could post to Usenet. Yet I didn’t know how important Dave Winer was and is for the blogging tools that exist now, like RSS, which I use daily. If blogging is going to grow as a discipline, we need someone to bring together its broad early contours in a single place. Bloggers seem unlikely to do it on our own, or, if we do, the pieces of the conversation will be too scattered. One thing books are really good at doing by virtue of their length is bringing those pieces together in one place. Even posts like this much-cited one, on how the blogosphere has changed in the last six years, doesn’t really give much background.

One of the most fascinating passages in Say Everything is actually a quote from Justin Hall:

What if a deeply connective personal activity you do, that’s like religion, that you practice with yourself, that’s a dialogue with the divine, turns out to drive people away from you? … I published my life on the fucking internet. And it doesn’t make people wanna be with me. It makes people not trust me. And I don’t know what the fuck to do about it . . .

Hall is overly grandiose (“that’s like religion”), but it nonetheless rings true and reminds me of a New York Times story I can’t find right now about someone who decided to throw a party and only invite Facebook “friends,” and then discovered that no one showed up. This raises the question: are they really your friends? Maybe one needs to find the medium place where one can write usefully* online, but where one doesn’t necessarily write everything. In other words, just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should.

Later in the same section, Rosenberg says that “Hall had always dedicated a big chunk of his time and pages to teaching and proselytizing for his faith in self-expression on the web,” and that his “calling to public autobiography was driven in part by the trauma of a parental suicide.” Maybe: but I’m not sure how parental suicide would lead one to public autobiography, and I find it fascinating that Hall’s public autobiography ultimately prevented him from forging closer relationships with others, which in turn broke at least some of the faith described in the first sentence. If the public autobiography isn’t good for close relationships, maybe people strongly inclined toward barring all in the blogs will realize the hard way what journalists and writers have long known: that to do one’s best work, or to do it over the long term, one needs to keep some private reserve in reserve, or at least in reserve for someone else who might value that reserve for its scarcity.

Others have trouble with relearning as well; Rosenberg echoes Paul Graham’s How to Disagree when he says “Any public career online is going to attract a certain volume of drive-by flak; potentially useful criticism is likely to be hopelessly tangled personal invective.” Dave Winer of Scripting News apparently didn’t know that, and Rosenberg slips into cliche when he says that Winer “took nearly every putdown to heart.” But that’s not just the nature of “any public career online,” but any public career: politicians, for example, deal with drive-by idiocy all the time. One could even take those attacks as a sign of success; as David Segal observes in Call It Ludacris: The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap:

You’re nobody in hip-hop until you claim to have hordes of detractors. The paradox, of course, is that the artists who regularly denounce their haters have a huge and adoring audience. How does Lil Wayne complain in song about the legions who seek his ruin even as he dominates the charts? Ask Michael Savage, who is forever describing himself as an underdog, marginalized by the media — on the more than 300 stations that carry his show.

You have to let it roll, or use it to boost your ego. Furthermore, if you respond too seriously to it, or begin to believe in your own messianic power, you’ll face a different problem. As Rosenberg says of Winer, “[T]elling-it-like-it-is can easily tempt you over the edge into meanness.” In other words, if you lack tact, you can come across as a jerk even if you’re right, and if you lack sufficient intellectual playfulness,

These main points are the stronger parts of Say Everything, the sections that make you want to keep reading past the sometimes tedious recitations of everyday blogging (does anyone really care about the specifics of Winer vs. the haters fights?). Me neither. Consequently, I suspect the audience for Say Everything is relatively limited to bloggers themselves, scholars with an interest in the media, and journalists looking for a way forward. A fourth category might be useful too: the clueless but powerful whose work brings them into contact with bloggers but who have no idea what’s happening in the medium. Now, instead of spending 20 hours trying to find blog posts about the history of blogging, one can point at a book and say, “at least for the time being, this will tell you about the history of blogging.” And that reminds us at least in part about some of blogging’s present limitations, especially relative to books.

* Whatever this means. Defining a term like “usefully” could take an entire essay in an of itself. But this post is a very small part of a very broad effort at defining the generic boundaries and conventions of blogging, so maybe someone else will take me up on the point of what “useful” blogging could entail.

One response

  1. Pingback: Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power « The Story's Story

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