August 03, 2005

it's quicker, easier, and involves less licking

The following is a post that, whilst I hope you enjoy reading, is kind of a conversation with myself whilst I try to work some ideas out for my thesis. I hope you enjoy/find insightful. If you don't, well, normal service should resume shortly.

Blogs: The good, the bad, and the downright stomach churning.

There is a weird synchronisity happening in the cyber domain at the moment. A bizarre kind of mind-meld between disparate individuals from each of the main continents who, though they have never met, consider themselves to be partaking in a new form of relationship. With differing incidents of regularity, people from all walks of life come online and share their public and private hopes, trials, tribulations, dreams, nightmares, the minutiae of their existence, all in the hope that complete strangers will stumble across their musings and find them interesting and new.

I talk, of course, of blogging. There cannot be many more annoyingly and lazily named phenomenon's than those we have been inflicted with lately. It is a sad day from the English language when the options open to the naming of new technologies are limited to the concatenation of mundane words (LiveJournal, WebLog), or prefixing with a lowercase vowel (iPod, eBook). What happened to the days when new things were given names that made your mind soar with the possibilities? Then again, this is not the post where I am going to talk in depth about the hideous terminology gifted to recent cyber-phenomena. Rather I want to take a moment and think on the trend itself.

I am not the first person to ask, nor, I am certain about this, will I be the last: why do we blog in the first place? *1*

I think it serves us to remember what a blog essentially is - a diary. The urge to keep a diary, or a log, of events happening to the author is one which has a long and respectable history. Among the more notable that spring to mind include The Diary of Anne Frank, the collected works of Samuel Pepys, and back to the Venerable Bede in the Middle Ages, Pliny (both elder and younger), Julius Caesar, and Herrodotus. As long as we have had the written word, people of all backgrounds have recorded the world as they saw it, and preserved their thoughts in a form that would be accessible to other readers. Part of this urge to keep a journal is no doubt partly for ego - the desire for someone else to come along in the future and agree with what we said, even the possibility they might think we were mighty intelligent for thinking such things - but I think also partly it serves as a release valve for our sanity. In any civilization there are external pressures on people to preserve the status quo. In many contexts it is just not appropriate to turn round to your boss and tell them that you think they are a complete arse. In a diary, at least one ostensibly private, you are safe to say what you want, so reducing the desire to take an Uzi to work with you one Monday morning. *2*

Western civilization is currently in the grips of a Cult of Celebrity. Witness the insane amount of interest in the love lives of actors and other people who contribute very little outside of the realm of entertainment. We are also addicted to celebrating the Mundane. The more ordinary something is, the better. Note the current rash of autobiographies and biographies written by and about people with as much claim to fame as the mug sitting on my desk half full of tea. Or the spate of reality television.*3* With the advent of modern hypermedia, the opinions of Mr Woodhouse of 10 Wisteria Drive are suddenly as important and noteworthy as those of Professor Nottingham, Nobel laureate.*4* Perhaps even more so. The common man on the street has to have his two cents worth, regardless of whether he can string two coherent words together. Everyone knows the episode of The Simpsons where Homer designs the car of his dreams that everyone is middle America is supposed to want, totally ignoring the advice of the trained professionals. He bankrupts the company, ruins his brother in the process, but still comes out the hero because he is Joe Public. They can do no wrong.

Marry these different phenomena together, add to the mix the prevalence of faster-than-ever internet connections with an increasingly web-enabled world, and you come to what, for me, is the main reason behind the average blog: they are the space where an average person can find momentary celebrity and be hailed by his/her peers for the one thing they are good at - being normal. To have a web-presence at all indicates a certain personality that, (maybe not consciously) is seeking affirmation, and that has a certain exhibitionist streak. Certainly, from a personal point of view, when I first joined a web-community way back in the mists of time, I found myself saying things that I would have been too shy to say without the mediation of a computer. Even now the (frequently illusory) anonymity of the web means I can say things I would hesitate to do in the real world. But it is not just enough to have a diary any more. We are no longer willing to wait for the day when (note I say when, not if, back to *3* again) we are famous, and someone wants to publish our memoirs. Push-button publishing and free hosting means that our most random thoughts can be posted on the web without the intervention of time to think, editorial process, or even checks for typos. I am guilty of it myself sometimes - think of something to say, quickly type it up, and hit 'publish', without a thought to what it might actually say about us. Instant gratification and pseudo-awe at our 'spontaneity' and bravery at saying whatever comes off the top of our head becomes more valued than reasoned arguments with time taken to check the facts (and grammar or sentence structure).

Gone also, in this bid for self-promotion is the desire to share and contribute to an idea or to engage in a discourse. Commenting and communication has remained fixed in the one-to-many model. Two way communication is normally limited to a comments field, where visitors are expected, even encouraged, to say a few lines and then link back to their own site, instead of saying anything useful. Part of the problem, or maybe just a symptom, is the prevalence on the web of systems that rate different blogs due to the number of other blogs that link to them (this is how Technorati works). If you want to get a higher ranking (seem more popular) then you have to get people to link to your site. One way of at least getting them there in the first place is to comment on their site and quite prominently display a link back to your own site. Once you've got them to your site, well, keeping them there is another matter all together. Bad design (of which examples are legion and I won't dignify with links, but include auto-play music, pop-up greetings, overly flash/image laden sites, und so weiter) is one sure fire way of turning people off and can be remedied. Bad writing on the other hand is always going to be bad, unless you take the time to exert some editorial control over your words. And, if you're following the traditional quick-publishing model, there is no hope. This desire to be read, appreciated, and worshipped is exemplified in Fishball's blog, which is rapidly reaching cult status in certain ghettos on the web. This short lived blog documents Fishball's downward spiral as he tried ever more bizarre ways of increasing his readership. Now all that is left is a comments page filled with readers asking Fishball to come back. Like a great artist, it seems he just wasn't appreciated in his own time.

So why do I blog? I have always found the written word easier than the spoken, and have been writing journals and stories in an attempt to understand my life for as long as I care to remember. I find that by putting something down on the page, I gain objective distance, and frequently understand my motives and where to go next better than I would if I had just thought it through in my head.
That's one part of it: blog = diary = place to work through ideas and what has been bugging me lately. The steam valve.
Also, I am bad at communicating with people. I just assume that if someone wants to know what is going on in my life, they will ask, but frequently people don't ask.
Hence blog = mass email to people who care about me.
I always have, and I expect always will, found it hard to make friends with me people or to converse face to face. When I discovered the internet and message-board communities, it helped me to overcome some of my fears of talking to new people. I rapidly learnt that most people were just as scared of me as I was of them. I was at college with someone for two years, and it was only when we had both left and started to talk via email and MSN that we realised how similar we really were. Four years later she is still my best friend.
Blog = interface with people = a way people can get to know the 'real' me by bypassing the cripplingly-shy me most people meet when they see me face to face.
I also suffer from that oh-so-common malady of wanting to believe that my opinions matter and that I have some special talent that the world just hasn't recognized yet. When a complete stranger stumbled across my blog, liked what he saw, and decided to stick around and write himself into my digital-life, it was a great feeling. Affirmation and confirmation of all I was doing.
Blog = self promotion = ego boost.

Pulling apart and analyzing the individual facets does not do justice to what a blog means to me. Most importantly, in my mind, a blog should serve to foster a sense of community between people. It should be a platform from which discussions can take place, ideas be generated, and friends made. Sadly, few blogs conform to this ideal. The majority are self serving and a waste of space. But consider the silver lining to the cloud of blogs - you will stumble across a blog you like (and I assure you there are some out there well worth the time and effort it took to find them), and, after a period of lurking, you might make a comment (please make it something worthwhile!). The other person might strike up a conversation, and then who knows? I have a soft spot for random internet acquaintances. It can go oh so horribly wrong, but once in a while it goes oh so wonderfully right.

So, how do I end this (even for me) long post? Simply by asking that you do a few simple things:
1) Think about what you blog. Take the time (if possible) to re-read your ideas. If you think you might be embarrassed by what you said when you read it back in the morning/next week/month/year, then it is a good indication that you shouldn't be saying it in the first place. An exception to this is of course the posts you make whilst you are drunk. These are funny to us readers of your blog, and you are doing us a service by occasionally letting us have one.
2) Think about the design of your blog. If I have to turn something off or on, download something, highlight text, adjust my browser in anyway, or find you've altered my cursor, then the chances are I am not going to stay long on your blog. It's a fast paced world out there. You have about 30 seconds maximum to make me want to stay. I am fickle. Pretty pictures make me happy, but overpowering backgrounds and logos just annoy me.
3) Let me know who you are. I take it I am on your blog to learn something about you. In that case, a few pointers like sex, rough age, what interests you, are always helpful. I'm going to be very annoyed if I take the time to read your blog only to find out three posts in that you are a neo-Nazi who finds burning kittens amusing. For example.
4) Give me some way to tell you that I like what you are doing and to engage you in conversation. Email is good. So are comments fields. MSN not so much, but if you insist.
5) Let me know who you've found out there that you like reading/communicating with. Chances are, if you like them, I'll like them, and we'll all have a happy time. It's lonely sitting at my computer staring at the screen and there are only so many hours in the day in which I can find new people to play with.

Think that's it. Any one got anything they'd like to say back to me?

*1*Before I go any further, some caveats. There are some wonderful blogs out there, written by witty and insightful people. I am not talking about these. I am talking about the 90% of complete dross that clutters the internet. I am also not saying that my blog is any better, or worse, than the 90%. I would like to think that I have a certain gift with words and that my blog is more of a joy to read than the average, but then I'm biased. I would also like you to bear in mind the slightly dubious anthropological ground I find myself standing on. There are two schools of thought when it comes to anthropological fieldwork: the impartial observers; and the submerged participants. The former would find the idea of a blogger reporting on the phenomenon of blogging abhorrent. The latter would say that it is only by doing something yourself that you understand it. Do remember that I am not impartial here. I blog. I enjoy blogging.Back
*2*And here is where the trouble tends to start for bloggers. The internet is still new and the ethical rules are still being written. Certain conventions (capitalization equates to yelling, L33T equates to annoying, surrounding words in ** indicates action) have solidified to a state approaching universal acceptance. Other conventions are still working out the kinks, such as the conveyancing of humour (especially sarcasm/irony), leading to considerable confusion, even offense, when the mores of one place don't translate to those of another. The issue of what it is and isn't appropriate to say is one of the major bones of contention in the world of blogging. Rule of thumb I try to stick to? If you think someone might be offended by what you have to say, don't say it. Keep it for the nice leather bound journal you got given for Christmas by your godparents.Back
*3*Another rant I won't get into now - the fact that the 'American Dream' we ascribe to makes everyone feel they are entitled to that 15 minutes of fame, regardless of true worth.Back
*4*I also won't go into a long diatribe about gender discourse, or about the validity of ascribing authority to authors depending on their institutional background, or the million other problems inherent with over simplifying my arguments. Know that I am aware of what is being said on the subject, and that I am generalizing so this post doesn't approach the length of a dissertation.Back


At 2:00 AM, Blogger Jackson B said...

That was great!
I wish I started lengthy debates like that all the time!

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Cas said...

For curiosities sake, I just did a word count on that screed... 2654 (with endnotes). Um, that's longer than some essays I've written this year. Sorry folks.

Blame JB. He seems perfectly happy to accept responsibility.

And I spent the better part of the afternoon writing that, so I want more feedback/debate than "that was great". What happened to constructive criticsm people?

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Jes said...

I figure each blog serves a different purpose to which the blogger is most comfortable and familiar with.

I, sadly, am the kind of person who loathes making small-talk. I don't like droning on about the mundane details of my life, whether the askee is genuinely interested or not. This generally leads to me ignoring the IM lists unless there is something I need to say to someone on there. So my blog = a means for people to see the 'small-talk' going on in my life, so I don't have to repeat in annoying repetitiveness. I know some people probably feel ignored by this behaviour.. but what can I say. :(

Not all blogs are going to be interesting to everyone. Personally, I don’t care whether anyone finds mine interesting or not. :) It’s there as a means for people who know me, not random passer-bys of the net.

But.. I think I may have strayed from the intended response you wanted Cas. :( I need more caffeine.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Jackson B said...

Hey! I have a job! Reading that meant I had to take the train that gets me to work with 10 minutes to spare! So I only had time to write "that's great"!

Right some things I thought were trenchant & insightful -
"I also suffer from that oh-so-common malady of wanting to believe that my opinions matter and that I have some special talent that the world just hasn't recognized yet."

Most of the blogs I read regularly demonstrate a talent with words. Its an overlooked talent in today's world, but for me, its better than being able to run dead fast or put a ball into the back of a net.

I also like your observation that blogs are good for shy people. I never thought about that before. I'm not shy, but I have been working hard on my antisocial streak for a good while now, and I much prefer an email than a phone call. I'm also a bit of a loner, which sits at odds with my big mouth, so sitting tinkering with the internet satisfies me utterly.

I liked your observation - " if someone wants to know what is going on in my life, they will ask, but frequently people don't ask." People don't ask because, on the whole, people are dicks. Trust me. I spend a lot of my working day acting as a receptacle for other people's weird hang ups, so they can feel good about themselves for an hour or so.

Speaking of which, new comments always give you a buzz, don't they? Funny how we can be so proud of our own little world we have created on the internet, and yet still enjoy the validation of others... Social conditioning, methinks.

I do love the way that this philosophy of blogging is spreading. Maybe the people who use L33T (that's what its called? Ta!) should spend a bit more time self-analysing.

Oh and finally, thanks for bigging up Fishballs!

At 12:43 PM, Blogger The Guy in Charge said...

Hello, this is a nice place, I think I may return
Anyway, that was an interesting post. I don't know much myself, and this is perhaps more a bunch of random things but don't you love the way blogging is becoming influential?
Recently there have been two cases of UK newspaper writers being targeted by bloggers (Dilpazier Aslam on the Guardian and Anthony Browne on the Times) for pieces they wrote. The funny thing is that the papers reported the online reaction to their initial pieces, and, in the case of Dilpazier Aslam, the bloggers' pressure on The Guardian saw Aslam's contract as an intern terminated after he refused to resign from Hizb ut-Tahrir (one of the groups targeted by Tony Blair in yesterday's terrorism crackdown). Funnier still was the fact that one of the bloggers who brought about Aslam's downfall had applied for the same intern's job and been beaten to it by Aslam.

But in the wake of bombings and the, ahem, war on terror, I think it's interesting that our newly politicised nation and world can chatter away like this. And provide their own eye-witness accounts to events without the intermediary of news organisations. It's the same principle with camera phones video phones.

Then there was the case of a New York fashion magazine deputy editor who was removed from the publication because she was revealed as the woman behind a blog (which was just for her friends) which fairly innocuously detailed the freebies given to journalists by fashion houses. Of course, she's gone on to sign a book deal with the William Morris Agency. That sort of thing, and the story of the Waterstone's employee who referred to the his 'evil boss' as a 'sandal-wearer' and his employer as 'Bastardstone's' and got fired for it, make me very wary of what I write.

I'm getting off the mark, and rambling. My blog is primarily only read by three people on the other side of the world. And I largely only write for them, they all know who each other are. I'd like more people to read and then comment, but then perhaps I don't have enough to say often enough to make people keep coming back.

There is, however, a nice feeling of control in ordering your accounts of events and letting those people know. I've had much more contact with those far flung friends in the so-called blogosphere than on email and text.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Cas said...

Jes - At the risk of sounding all faux-philosophical, there is no such thing as a wrong comment. The entire point of the post was to try and investigate who blogs, why, and what they want from a blog. Hence, your comment = good :)

JB - Oooh, I've never been called trenchant and insightful before. At least I can't remember it happening, and that feels like something I would remember happening. I agree with you on the importance of having a talent with words. I, sadly, am not well acquainted with a related talent - being concise. Why use one word when ten will do just fine. To paraphrase West Wing "in my family, anyone who only used ten words when they could have used twenty just wasn't trying hard enough".

Yeah, comments always do make you feel good about yourself. Partly it is social conditioning, but also I think it has something to do with the fact that people very rarely compliment each other in the real world. It seems that the only form of feedback most people get is negative - whether that is because it is often easier to think of negative things to say about a piece of work than positive, or because compliments seem frivolous and close to mollycoddling, I am not sure. There could be an argument in there somewhere how in a predominantly male-led society, it is deemed feminine and weak to say nice things about someone or their work. Then again, there might not be.

Which brings me in a round about way to what the Guy In Charge has to say. Really, my unseemly pleasure at getting comments, even (or especially) from random strangers is out of all proportion to the effort involved on both sides of the exchange. Must be the virtual equivalent at getting all prettied-up for the dance, then waiting at the side for some guy to come over and ask you to dance. Or, maybe that's just in my head.

Welcome oh person-who-I-have-identified (and will keep referring to in the absence of other instruction) as Mr Flexible after much cyber-detection. Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out.

Yep. Agree with pretty much every word you just said. Might have a more insightful reply to you later on, but knowing me, I wouldn't hold your breath. I think I can only deal with being considered 'insightful' in one post a month - more than that and the fabric of reality is in danger of tearing.

So, my fine feathered french fries, I am off to the wonderful world of wikis, or the WWW. Dispatch the search party if I'm not back soon...

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous moose said...

do a teeny-tiny bit of re-writing to make this more article and less blog, and send it off to a couple of journals... it definitely should be published to a (slightly) wider audience.


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