The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, January 12, 2004

... In case you couldn't tell.

Inspired by Clive Thompson's musings at Collision Detection, Lisa Williams at Learning the Lessons of Nixon makes a case for the significance of blogging in all its permutations, including the average disjointed/barely-decipherable teenage angst blog. While Clive's original piece concentrates on how blogging enriches people and the world in the here-and-now, Lisa latches onto the idea that today's blog entries are valuable in terms of how they'll communicate our modern times to future generations, in slice-of-life format.

As you can see from her entry, Lisa was gracious enough to incorporate my comments on her pre-updated post into her final product:

CT has some great comments that I wanted to pull out of the comment thread below:

Actually, thanks to the impermanent nature of digital data, I'm fairly convinced that future historians are going to find a huge blank spot where the late 20th to early 21st century was.

Count me among those who have a dim view of the teenage angst blogs... There's nothing wrong with them per se, but I don't really like to lump them in with sites that are more structured and focused on things other than people and events that mean absolutely nothing to the world outside of a clique of friends. I don't think there's anything wrong with making distinctions in the blogosphere based on substance. In fact, it's a little ridiculous to group Blog A and Blog B together only because they're both created and maintained through Blogger, yet their content and purpose are completely different; frankly, I don't want my site to be associated with some 12-year-old kid's journal of daily rants.

Her response to my feedback points to at least the chance that blogging, through its democratizing effect, gives to establishing a wealth of information to future generations. (You gotta love a gal who cites the always-appropriate Sturgeon's Law in a discussion!) I'll refer you to her post for the full low-down.

I stand by my original comments, although I think they need a little filling-out. As is usually the case when leaving comments on another blog, I sacrifice detail and qualification in favor of brevity, as I feel the comment box isn't really the place for lengthy replies. So I'll use my own space here for that, while still keeping things relatively brief.

My pessimism regarding the chances of blog data becoming permanent historical records does indeed stem from the signs so far of digital media's lack of long-term utility. This is especially acute with blogging, and blogs that make extensive use of external links, as mine does. I made note of this on the one-year anniversary of my blogging activity:

The repository function of this site, as described best here, in a discussion of Vannevar Bush's Memex machine, has and hasn't come to pass. It has, in the sense that my impressions on a particular news story have been preserved in the archives. But fundamentally, the reliance of a blog like this--or just about any website--on external hyperlinks that, in most cases, have a limited shelf life, in a way dooms it. I'd like to build something here that will last for years, that I could look back on decades from now and get a pretty complete picture of what was going on when I was writing and ruminating. I realize that the nature of nomadic data means that it would be a neat trick for these scribblings to survive long-term, but still, it's depressing to me to consider that, probably, at least half of the links I planted on these pages are irretrievably broken. (This is a chief reason why you'll rarely, if ever, see a post on here that simply says, "[link]Check this out[/link]"; I know that there's no guarantee that the hyperlink is going to be good in even a day's time, therefore a post like that, without any supporting commentary, is pretty pointless to archive.)

Even now, this is probably the only thing I dislike about blogging. The hypertexted document that I'm creating on this site is probably never going to survive intact. I can save it to my hard drive, I can print it out, but with extensive linkrot a given, it'll never be the way I originally intended it to be. Much of what's left is undoubtedly of interest, but ultimately incomplete without the external material. Therefore, it fails as my personal Memex machine, and as a complete guidepost for anyone else making reference to it.

Regarding my desire to not have my work here compared directly to blogs that are more journal-based, I'll add that the converse is true: I'm sure many people who produce deeply personal, introspective blogs would resent being equated with what I do here. In both cases, no one wants to announce to a friend or acquaintence, "I've got a blog", and get a response along the lines of, "Oh yeah, my 12-year-old niece has one of those she shares with her friends", or "Well, I have a lawyer friend who does a lot of networking that way", or any other assumption that would come with what's perceived to be the "typical" blog. (Perhaps this is a baseless concern, for now, as some 79 percent of Americans have never even heard of blogs.)

Finally, back to Clive's original entry, I take some issue with the portion that Lisa highlighted:

And the thing that most writers and pundits don't realize is that, before the Internet came along, the vast majority of Americans never wrote anything -- ever -- after they left high school or college. There was neither any need (their jobs didn't require it) or any vehicle for doing it in their spare time. What the Internet did was give us all a reason to write -- and write tons. Which is where things get cool, because that helped Americans realize that they are, beneath the surface, a hell of a lot more outre and odd than they're normally allowed to be in polite company.

I don't think it's totally true that "the vast majority of Americans never wrote anything" after school was done. For one thing, Clive's referring to, at most, the second half of the 20th Century, before the telephone became truly ubiquitous; and really, he's probably talking more about the last quarter-century of the 20th Century, when long-distance telephone calls were no big deal and long-distance travel was commonplace. Prior to this, back into the 19th Century, writing was indeed the predominant way to communicate over long distances.

But even after the predominance of electronic (mainly telephone) communications, I'd say that plenty of people still did a fair amount of writing--not out of necessity, but out of desire. The key is that that writing, in the form of diaries, love letters and journals, had a very limited audience. The difference now is that all that writing that formerly saw only a few sets of eyes now is posted on the Internet, and so is read and viewed (in theory) by millions. Because of that, I think it only seems that there's more writing going on nowadays; there may or may not be, only because it's taking place on a broader, more broadly visible medium.

I'd also argue that, even with the availability of blogging tools and online space, not everyone feels compelled to make use of them. You have to enjoy writing and feel it's worthwhile to write (whether that comes from sharing your thoughts with others or just for yourself). For example, I convinced my friend Tom to start up a blog as he was embarking on married life and a family. But as you can see from the link, he didn't take to it; he simply doesn't get enough out of it to keep up a blogging habit. As blogging is still a minority pursuit, I'd say there are scores of other people who feel the same way.