Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why Blog?

Peter Montgomery, one of Marshall McLuhan's old students and an English professor up in Canada, runs a MCLUHAN listserv that I belong to, and recently raised some questions about blogs. I've taken some time to compose a response, and have decided to post it here as well as on the listserv, as I think what I've written is blog-worthy. In fact, I'm going to post it here first, which makes my posting it on the listserv something of a pseudo-event (see Daniel Boorstin's The Image). But, I figured that some list members may possibly decide to take a look at my blog after reading my post on the listserv, so I wanted this entry to be there to greet them (not that I'm expecting any readers, but just in case).

So, on the MCLUHAN listserv Peter Montgomery wrote: >I'm curious about blogs.< (My response follows, with Peter's original questions and comments bracketed by "greater than" (>) and "lesser than" (<) signs. I know this should be obvious to just about anyone reading this, but since this is my blog rather than a listserv, I do want to be absolutely clear when I'm quoting someone else. And being, I believe, a bit on the Autism spectrum myself, belaboring details comes naturally to me ;-)

Dear Curious, ;-)

You raise many good questions, I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but here are some answers that I've come up with:

>1. Why have they become such a prevalent factor in web communication?<

Three reasons. The first is that they represent an easy way to set up a website. Blogs aren't the only easy way to do it, but the point is that you don't need to know HTML, XML, or any kind of code. Second, and I'm not exactly sure why this is the case, but while it is not all that easy to find a free web hosting service, there are several hosts like Blogger that allow you to set up your own blog for free (thank Google!). And the third reason, and perhaps the most important, is that blogs solve one of the big problems with websites, the fact that they tend to be relatively static. Once you've explored a website, there are few compelling reasons to return to it, because the content generally does not change all that often; from the point of view of the creator, changing content requires a certain degree of effort because of the coding. Blogs, on the other hand, are designed not as static repositories, but as weB-LOGs whose content is dated, and updated, frequency depending only on the bloggers. btw, the new phenomenon of RSS feeds is a response to the dynamic, changing content that blogs have generated, creating the online equivalent of a subscription.

>2. Do some people spend their whole lives reading and writing blogs?<

Unless their lives have been very, very short, I don't know of any people who spend their whole lives with this activity. But then again, we could ask "Do some people spend their whole lives reading and writing?" Also, we can distinguish between reading blogs and writing them, and assume that there may be more readers than writers online as there are with print media. Readers may be seeking an alternative to the mass media, and mass communication includes the printing of even a limited run of books. I imagine there is also more of a sense of relationship with the writer as a human being than would be possible for most forms of print, which is after all more of a delayed and distancing medium. Blogs have the potential to present to the reader a real sense of "this is my life and welcome to it" on the part of the writer; in a way, blogs break down the barriers set up by print media without abandoning the form of print. Writers certainly may receive the gratification of instant publication, no editorial interference, and no rejection, albeit in a trade-off with the potential for no audience. Like all online activity, there is an implosive quality where we get sucked in and oblivious to the passage of time. Also, it may be that the current blogging is another manifestation of hybrid energy (to use McLuhan's term from Understanding Media), a creative burst coming out of the transition from print literacy to electronic/digital culture, following on the heels of hypertext. And there certainly seems to be a blurring of boundaries between reader and writer, as bloggers quote and link to other bloggers and posts, not to mention other forms of interactivity such as leaving comments. And there also is a very clear blurring of the boundary between public and private that was established via print culture, so that the writer is still engaged in the private exploration of the inner landscape, but in a much more public situation that the printed book, and there is more collaboration possible. In many ways blogging represents another return to the scribal condition of communal authorship and semi-individualism.

>3. Why haven't we discussed blogs here?<

I'm tempted to respond with, "because no one has brought them up before," but I do think that the bias of blogs in some ways run counter to the bias of listservs, or at the very least blogs compete with listservs for attention and energy (to a degree, as I have seen some people post their listserv comments to their blogs, and will do so myself for the first time with this post). Listservs such as this one and the MEA listserv, while using print as its code or content, have many qualities in common with orality, and in particular with a relatively structured discussion group. Listservs tend to be about a community in some sense, even if it is a very loosely knit one, while blogs tend to be about individuals, even when they are produced by more than one person. While people often seem to be talking at one another on listservs, and listening more to themselves than to others, they are still engaged in a form of dialogue. Blogs, on the other hand, follow the pattern of publishing, people write what they want without particular regard for the presence of a group of fellow participants (although there may be some sense of an audience or readership). Even when they are interactive, blogs are more like a republic of letters, people publishing responses, counterarguments, and even notes expressing gratitude and appreciation. And like oral communication, listserv messages tend to be here and gone. Even when they are archived, they are harder to retrieve than blog posts, blogs providing more of a sense of a record, with contents that can be retrieved by scrolling down, going to older pages, or clicking on headings or tags; moreover, search engines can come up with blog content, but not necessarily listserv archives, depending on how they are set up. I know that some of the younger scholars on the MEA listserv have long been saying that we should have a blog, and one reason, I believe, is so all those clever comments and insights posted could be made generally available to people not on the listserv.

>4. Do we have any bloggers in our midst?<

Guilty as charged (maybe it's paranoia or narcissism, Peter, but I somehow suspect that you already knew this). I just started a week and a half ago. Paul Levinson, who writes several blogs, and produces several podcasts, has been encouraging me to start doing this stuff for some time now, and my response was always, yeah, I know, I should do this, but who has the time. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he said that he wanted to link to something I had written about The Sopranos, and that I could put a copy of it online very easily if I would just start a blog, and he caught me in just the right frame of mind, so I took the plunge.

>5. Why do I find myself singularly unmotivated to pursue or peruse them?<

Now, I'm tempted to respond with, "that's between you and your shrink," but you might not be able to tell that I'm only joking in this medium ;-). But I felt exactly the same as you up until recently. I have been advising an MA student who is doing her thesis on what she refers to as "courtesan blogs," that is, blogs produced by high class call girls, which she finds enthralling reading, a window into a world very different from the one most of us inhabit. But it still didn't move me to read or write blogs, just to wish I had the time to do so. But having set one up, I have found it liberating, just writing whatever I want; it's not that I'm writing blogs instead of writing articles, it's that I'm writing more, and more freely, instead of writing less, and more carefully. I know that Neil Postman would tell me that this is not necessarily a good thing, but I find it easier to write for the blog than to just write for myself on the one hand, and certainly easier than writing for more formal publication on the other. And as is the case with many activities, once you do take the plunge and get involved, you also become interested in what other people are doing and how they are doing it; if you learn to play golf, you then may become interested in watching others golf on TV, and if you start writing blogs, you become more interested in seeing what others are writing in their blogs.

>6. Am I alone in this lack of motivation?<

Of course not. But you have created websites and run listservs, and a great many people have lacked the motivation to do that sort of thing. You are very invested in the older online technologies, and therefore reluctant to adopt this newer one. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I had no motivation to start a blog until that one moment, but having done so, the presence of the blog itself motivates my continued blogging.

>7. Are there any McLuhan blogs worth pursuing or perusing?<

Neil Postman's answer would be no. You are much better off reading Understanding Media, even if it's for the hundredth time. Or The Gutenberg Galaxy, or Laws of Media, or anything else he wrote. Or books about him, like Legacy of McLuhan, Digital McLuhan, and the like. And Neil would say that your time would be spent much more profitably engaged in conversation and dialogue with colleagues, students, friends, and family. But I think he would concede that reading blogs is a bit better that watching television. I suspect that McLuhan's answer would be pretty much the same. I would not encourage it.

Having said that, if you must look, you can find my blog at:


and I have a list of links there that include some other media ecological blogs as well.

>I once, not so long ago, attended a presentation by Derrick de Kerckhove in which he seemed to think blogs were the flagship of future web communication. Personally I find them, even when interesting (such as a Merton site I recently visited, and even contributed to), more like a retrieval of the newspaper editorial, than the hatching of a whole new egg.<

There is a definite relationship between journalism and blogging, or what I have dubbed blogism. But blogs are more like the keeping of a personal journal, diary, record, or yes log. And like other kinds of websites, blogs can remediate all other forms of media, images, audio, video, etc. (see Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin's excellent book, Remediation: Understanding New Media). What they represent, in my opinion, is a step on the way to the total recording and archiving of all aspects of our lives, both outer world of action and event, and inner world of thought, feeling, and perception. Hang onto your hats, because the changehas only just begun.

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