A history of blogging – and why it matters.
I first heard the word “blog” in 1999 or 2000. A friend and I were visiting his old college buddy, whose shaggy haircut and charismatic personality belied a deep, techie dorkiness. He worked in an IT department and his bookshelves sagged with science fiction and experimental novels.
Our host was a blogger, my friend explained. Every day, he wrote down everything he did and thought and put it on the Web for a group of people to read. Then he read what those people were doing and thinking. Once a week, everybody got together. Then they raced home and wrote about what they’d just been doing and thinking. Sometimes they argued. Or gossiped. The whole enterprise struck me as a juvenile, self-absorbed waste of time.
In Say Everything, his enjoyable, highly readable history of blogging, Scott Rosenberg corroborates most of my initial impressions. The form of short, frequently updated posts was created in the early 1990s by sociable, Web-enthusiastic geeks who wanted either to express themselves or organize the sprawl of information online. They quickly formed a digital community with cults of personality and social hierarchies. Many of their posts concerned blogging itself: the best ways to host and build a blog, the character flaws of other bloggers, how great blogging was. The most-visited blogs often displayed an aggressive or snarky tone. These characteristics – in addition to the silly-sounding name, derived from “web log” – made many noninitiates recoil.
Not Rosenberg. A cofounder of Salon.com and an early devotee of blogs, he espouses the Walt Whitman argument for the medium, characterizing it as an opportunity for a multitude of human voices to form a vast creative and intellectual landscape – a manifest destiny of expression.
The trials of the early bloggers
He recounts the travails of blogging’s pioneers: Justin Hall and Heather Armstrong, whose frank self-disclosure cost them personal relationships and a job, respectively; Jorn Barger, who sacrificed his reputation with a few ill-considered links to seemingly anti-Semitic content; Dave Winer, who insisted so fervently that no one could tell him to shut up that he inspired thousands of annoyed strangers to try to silence him.
Rosenberg also traces the clash between blogging and journalism. Rosenberg, a former print reporter himself, has little patience for the suggestion that blogging is bringing down the mainstream media. He argues that the MSM (as the influential group of pro-Iraq invasion “warbloggers” dubbed it) broke faith with the public and created an unsustainable business model all on its own. Although his point is well taken, Rosenberg risks a false dichotomy when he characterizes bloggers as motivated by love rather than a paycheck, and therefore more passionate, dogged, and unconstrained than print journalists.
Rosenberg’s most instructive observations are independent of the personality of bloggers versus nonbloggers – and, as Rosenberg points out, aren’t we all bloggers now, anyway?
The rewards of writing regularly or creating community aren’t original, but being able to publish one’s own media to a potentially wide audience is authentically a new opportunity. Moreover, because it’s possible to publish 24/7, blogging is liberated from the news cycle. These realities create change, just as the Pony Express, the radio, and the telephone did. And because these changes are inevitable, Rosenberg draws the hasty conclusion that those who resist blogging are curmudgeons or critics – dissenters whose cranky objections are being drowned out by the 133
A realistic appraisal of blogging
I am now one of them, although, like half of registered bloggers, I rarely update. As such, I can attest it’s possible to accept blogging with neither cynicism nor Rosenberg’s unequivocal enthusiasm. Blogging is time-consuming no matter what your profession, and if you happen to be in the business of selling your intellectual and creative capital, giving it away free can be a mystifying and maddening expectation.
Also, many prototypical blogs – Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Gawker – practice a potentially alienating, king-of-the-hill approach to writing and commenting, in which participants elbow one another with superior information, call-outs, and mordant wit. Sure, those who don’t want to join the fray can find another blogosphere, the same way that those who don’t want to participate in free market capitalism can get a cabin in Montana and raise their own goats.
These hesitations aren’t reasons not to read Rosenberg’s fine book or start a blog of your own. They simply acknowledge that even though blogs are indeed creating a new world online, the old ways still beckon and acculturation takes time.
Kelly Nuxoll, a freelance writer based in Washington, blogs at freelancefirstlady.blogspot.com.