Bloggers and editing

Someone asked me about how much time I spend editing posts for The Story’s Story, and I answered simply: more time than I should but less time than I need. I don’t think this blog is a typo-strewn, incoherent mess, but I’m also not the New Yorker: I don’t have a squadron of typing-catching wombats at my disposal to savor every word. It’s me, sometimes friends who I can press into proofreading service (sometimes through plying with beer, tea, or other favors), and sometimes readers (who send me e-mails or leave comments with typo warnings; thanks!).

This is the part where I say something like, “I do the best I can,” and it’s true: but there’s a point of diminishing returns when dealing with one’s own work. Someone else who’s familiar with the piece needs to read it, which applies to fiction writing too: with the possible exceptions of Nabokov and Joyce, everyone needs an editor. If you look at Melville’s manuscripts, you’ll find someone who really, desperately needs a copy editor. I’m neither Nabokov nor Joyce nor Melville; I’m just a guy who writes and imagines that what he produces is of sufficient interest to others that it belongs on the Internet where it might be of some use to someone, somewhere. At least as measured by traffic, that appears to be true, despite typo problems that I can’t solve using reasonable amounts of time, energy, money, and concentration.

How bloggers are made:

“A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist.”

That’s Louis Menand, in “Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald’s war on Midcult.” Bloggers come from somewhere similar but adjacent—like the relationship between Vancouver and Seattle—though too few have well-developed senses of curiosity and skepticism.

The rest of the article is boring and historical, but one reason to read the New Yorker is that one never knows when a fabulous sentence worth stealing will appear. The article about Timothy Ferris, for example, says of his dwelling: “There was, inevitably, a framed arty photograph of a naked woman.” He sounds capitally tedious. That word, “inevitably:” it’s perfect. We get the author’s skepticism. We know exactly the kind of person Ferris is (and, I wonder: the kind of person I am?). The skepticism of the word “arty” is perfect; so is picking “naked,” which makes one sound merely revealed and pornographic, over “nude,” which glistens with the sheen of art instead of the sheen of Playboy magazine. The sentence is so good I stole a variant on it for a novel (no one notices if you steal in small proportions, except for James Wood, and if I’m at the point where James Wood notices such theft, I’ll consider myself lucky). In fact, speaking of Wood, there’s a section of How Fiction Works where he speaks of “a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’:”

‘He was a gentlemen with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ [Ford Maddox] Ford comments: ‘that gentlemen is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’

Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and – a corollary of this – the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines.

Yes, yes, yes, yes: I worry so much about making sure characters are gotten in now, but it’s never quite right, is it? I can imagine Rebecca Mead, who wrote about Ferris, or Menand above, sweating over those sentences, wondering: are they right? Do you put a comma between “framed” and “arty?” Is “outsized” the right word? The comma question could go either way. “Outsized” could be “severe,” like a storm warning. But those sentences still feel so wonderfully, deliciously right, even embedded in articles that otherwise let one flip to the next, searching, as a surfer will flit from blog to blog.

I've been writing academic

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on my (second) publishable paper, this one on the contrasting temperaments in Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. They share many superficial characteristics: both tell the stories of decadent Americans in Europe shortly after World Wars; both feature protagonists who do not have major or pressing financial responsibilities; both feature a period of time in Paris punctuated by a trip to Spain that ends up back in Paris; both include characters lacking specific, tangible objectives that propel their travels. Thirty years after The Sun Also Rises, The Dud Avocado continues the tradition of having Americans wander through Europe, but the attitude it takes is predominantly comic, in contrast to the tragic temperament its predecessors shows.

I think it’s an interesting paper—but authors are inclined to think as fondly of their papers as parents are of their children—but writing it sucks up most of the time I’d otherwise use to blog. Blogging and academic writing are usually complements, not substitutes, but in this case the increasing price of blogging relative to paper writing makes me do less of it.

For now.

On blogging altruistically or narcissistically and why Facebook is simply easier

The New York Times has an article light on data and big on conjecture claiming “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.” A sample: “Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers.” This Hacker News comment describes the blogging situation well:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Most of the great blogs that I visit are all done altruistically. They are well maintained, post useful information, and very rarely waste my time. They also require a huge amount of effort on the part of the blogger because they really have to do work to gather and present interesting and useful information for their readers.

What a lot of the press has referred to as blogging is “narcissistic.” Instead of coming up with interesting information and vetting it for their readers they mostly just spew whatever thoughts they had that day onto the page. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, but the signal to noise ratio is also very low.

It’s really hard to write stuff that will be interesting to people who don’t know you and have no real connection to you. I know because I’ve been writing The Story’s Story for three years and change. Over that time, it became obvious that producing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult. If writing in such a way that other people actually want to read your work weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t have nearly as many professional writers as we do.

If your goal is mostly to bask in the relative adulation of others, you can probably do it more efficiently (and narcissistically) via Facebook. Look at the large number of girls who post bikini or MySpace shots and wait for the comments to roll in (note: they are doing this rationally). If your goal is mostly to communicate something substantive, you’re going to find that it’s not five or ten times harder than posting a 140-character message on FB or Twitter—it’s 50 or 100 times harder. Twitter is easier than “A list of N things” and “A list of N things” is easier than a blog post and a blog post is easier than an essay.

People who want to be real writers (or filmmakers or whatever) in the sense that people with no current relationship of any kind will find their work useful will probably still blog or use other equivalents. But most of those who think they want to be real writers will probably find out precisely how hard it is to come up with useful and interesting stuff regularly. Then they’ll quit, and the people who remain will be the ones who have the energy and skill to keep it up and write things people want to read.

I’m not against Twitter, but a while ago I posted this: “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.” The first part of that sentence can fit on Twitter, but the second part clarifies and reinforces the first.

Furthermore, real life can get in the way of substantive posts. At the moment, I’m recovering from the reading for my M.A. oral exam, which was Friday (I passed). As a result, I haven’t written a lot of deep, detailed posts about books over the last month. I haven’t written that many in general this year because the thing that used to primarily be my hobby—writing about books—has now been professionalized in the form of graduate school. So the energy that used to go into those posts is now more often going into my papers. Writing academic articles “counts” towards my career and toward eventually getting people to pay me money. Writing blog posts doesn’t. I don’t think the two are pure complements or pure substitutes, and I doubt I will ever stop writing a blog altogether because blogs are an excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.

Plus, did I mention that good posts are hard to write? I think so, but I’ll mention it again here because I don’t think most people really appreciate that. Perhaps it’s best they don’t: if they did, they’d probably be less inclined to start a blog in the first place. The people who keep it up and keep doing it well have a mysterious habit of finding ways to get paid for it, either by writing books of their own or by finding an organizational umbrella (think of Megan McArdle or Matt Yglesias).

The number of people out there who have the inner drive to keep writing in the absence of external gratification is probably relatively small. I’ve made tens of dollars from “The Story’s Story.” The number of groupies who’ve flocked to me as a result of writing this blog is not notably large. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people will gravitate towards something easier, and I don’t think I’m writing this solely to raise my own status or show people how hard core or nice I am. I think I’m mostly writing it because it’s true.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies' stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

How to request review copies or products if you're a blogger

A number of people have written to ask how/why Kinesis, Metadot Corporation (which makes the Das Keyboard), and others send review keyboards or books. The short answer is that I asked, had a reasonable purpose in trying to review keyboards or books, and have a significant enough forum to make it worthwhile. To do the same, bloggers need a number of key features: credibility, good writing, some connection to the topic, and manners.

Credibility

Don’t write to manufacturers two weeks after starting your blog when they can still see the “hello world” post. Anyone can register joeblow.wordpress.com and write a couple of posts, then start clamoring for “free stuff.” If you’re going to request review items, make sure your blog has enough history to make it plausible that you’re a) committed to writing and b) have enough readers. “Enough” is a bit slippery because a blog with the right 50 readers a day who come for a specialized subject might be more useful than a blog with 500 or even 5,000 readers—it’s probably easier to get 500 hits by posting pictures of scantily or unclad teenage girls than it is to get 50 writing about the art of the novel, but if you want to review fiction, the latter group is probably of greater interest to publishers.

Still, all things being equal, more popular blogs are often more popular because they’re better, which causes people to link to them, which causes more readers to find that blog, which causes more people to link, and so forth. You don’t need to be on the Technorati top 100 blogs, but make sure you’ve written enough for people to evaluate your writing skill and for some kind of audience to have found you. As a loose rule, I’d say that you should write at least one substantive post a week for about a year before you request review items.

Write a good review, not a positive review

In How to Get Free Books to Review on Your Blog, “Nick” says:

Note that I didn’t say [that you should write a] positive review. I said a good review. You should not feel inclined to write positive things about the book just because you received a free copy. If you write a fair, honest, and professional review, most publishers will respect your opinion.

He’s correct: you’ll lose credibility with readers if you’re nothing more than a shill, especially in an age when sophisticated readers have their bullshit detectors justifiably set on “maximum.” Bloggers are best when they’re honest, or as honest as they can be; that’s one reason why I include the disclaimer at the bottom of keyboard reviews if the keyboards come from the manufacturer, rather than bought by me: at least readers know the provenance of the items I’m looking at.

I don’t usually do this with books because it’s less important: the cost of a book, usually between $10 – $20, is lower, and publishers don’t expect or want review copies back. But when I write reviews, I make sure they’re meaty enough to justify my effort in producing them and the reader’s effort in reading them by citing as many specific characteristics as possible that justify whatever opinion I’m expressing or conclusion that I’m coming to.

Be (or become) a good writer

There’s nowhere to hide on the Internet and it’s easy to judge the quality of a blogger’s writing simply by reading their work. If the writer can’t explain what they like or dislike and why, they’re probably not a very good writer; many, many bloggers (and mainstream reviewers too) just write “this is awesome!” or “this sucks!” without much elaboration. That tendency towards shallowness is one reason I started writing in-depth keyboard reviews: because they didn’t exist or, if they did, they weren’t readily available. Some novelists have said they write novels that they would like to read but that no one else has written, which is how I often feel about my reviews (and much of my other work).

If you don’t know what good writing looks like, or dispute the very idea that there can be good writing (as some of my students do), you’re probably not a good writer. If you want to become one, there are many, many resources out there to help you, mostly in book form. A few that I like and that have helped me include William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, and the New York Times’ collections, Writers on Writing. In addition, one thing that separates good from bad writers is that good writers read a lot and write a lot.

One note: being a good writer doesn’t mean that your grammar has to be perfect or your blog typo-free, but your posts shouldn’t be riddled with typos and elementary grammar errors either. I’m sure many of my posts, especially the long ones, have typos, but they tend to be minor and easily overlooked; if readers send me notes or leave comments pointing out typos, I silently correct them.

Connection

If you’re writing a blog about, say, cats, and you request a hard drive review unit, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you write hard drive reviews and request a new kind of kitty litter, you’re also probably doing something wrong. Seek things that relate to your niche.

In my case, I started a blog about books and literature because I like to read and like to write; to me, most of the posts on this site are leisure, not work. The first time I got a free book (or “review copy” in industry jargon), a publicist contacted me regarding Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary because I’d written a post about the New York Times article that led to the book. I was surprised: since when do publishers chase bloggers, rather than vice-versa?

I don’t know when the shift happened, but it did, which is why I now include my mailing address in the “About” section of The Story’s Story, and I take a look at everything that passes my desk even if I don’t always write about them. Sometimes I request books that pique my interest.

All this is to show that I have a) a narrowly focused blog and b) the things I request—books—fall into that narrow focus.

The keyboards are tangential to books but still related, and I stumbled into reviewing them by accident: I read about the famous IBM Model M keyboard on Slashdot, the geek tech site, and started doing some research into it and other quality keyboards, like the Apple Extended II. Most of the reviews and comments were not very helpful, especially for Mac users, but they pointed to Unicomp, which manufactures the Customizer Keyboard, and to Matias, which produces the Tactile Pro. I tried both and wrote extensively about my experience with them.

I’m interested in keyboards because I spend a lot of time writing professionally, both as a grad student in English literature and as a grant writer with Seliger + Associates. Writers and programmers are probably more likely to be interested in keyboards than most people because keyboards are a fundamental part of their toolset, and when you use a tool a lot, you want it to be right.

To understand literature, I think it helps at least somewhat to have an understanding of literary production: the publishing environment, the historical circumstances in which a work was/is produced, and so forth. Such factors can’t supersede the work itself, but they nonetheless matter. They also matter for practicing writers, and if a good keyboard means that a writer can or wants to go for an extra half hour or hour a day, that’s a tremendous difference over the course of a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Writing about the tools writers use, therefore, seems sufficiently related to writing and books that I think keyboard reviews are worth posting.

Use your real name

Penelope Trunk’s Guide to Blogging is useful, and one of her posts is on the subject of why you should blog under your real name, and ignore the harassment.

I agree. Your real name lends credibility and makes you seem like (slightly) more than another random Internet squawker; public relation or press people are more likely to want to send something to site run by Jake Seliger than they are to HoneyBunny or l33t48 or whatever. In looking through my RSS feed, I can see that most of the bloggers I read use their real names. Anonymity has its place in blogging, as it does in journalism, but if you’re going to review things you should have your name attached to that review. Some blogs demand anonymity, as Belle de Jour did until recently, but they should be the exception.

Manners

In the Internet age, we’re all supposedly turning into barbarians with the attention span of fruit flies. That’s the stereotype, anyway, and although it has some truth to it I think it largely wrong, at least among the better bloggers. Still, one way to catch people’s attention is to do the opposite of what bloggers represent in the popular imagination. I’ve already covered the importance of attention spans in the section about “good” versus “positive” reviews, but I’ll deal with the “barbarians” idea here.

When you make contact with a publisher or company, figure out how they want to be contacted. There’s usually a public relations, media, or press contact. You should write to that person with a short note that says, briefly, what you want, why, and who you are. Covering those shouldn’t take more than two or three paragraphs. Don’t include your life’s story and don’t be vague: the contact person will decide if they want to send a review model more based on your writing than based on your e-mail, and they’ll be used to dealing with people who are professionals or at least act like them.

In my case, that means sending keyboard makers a note saying that I’d like review their keyboard because I’ve reviewed a number of other keyboards, which causes people to write asking for comparisons, which causes me to seek review models. This bleeds into the “who am I” issue, where I state that I write The Story’s Story and contribute to Grant Writing Confidential, with links to both. From there, they can figure out as much or as little as they like.

If they send the keyboard, I say thanks, review it, and send it back, with another brief note that says “thanks, I appreciate you sending it.” I do that because it’s how I’d ideally like to be treated were our situations reversed, and also so that in the future, if I want to review a new model or whatever, they’ll be positively disposed towards me.

Don’t start a blog for free stuff

If I counted the number of hours I’d spent working on The Story’s Story versus the “pay” I’ve gotten in books or Amazon referral cash, I’m sure I’d be making well under a buck an hour. It’s probably closer to a cent an hour. If your purpose for starting a blog is to get free stuff, you’re doing something terribly wrong because you’re very unlikely to make real money as a blogger. Write because you want to, not because you expect direct monetary rewards. They definitely won’t come in the form of books or hardware; indeed, my bigger problem now is wading through and dealing with the books I don’t want, rather than cackling at the booty from the stuff I do want.

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 an underreported phenomenon, at least on a broader scale, 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.

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.

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