"It's hard to be part of the avant garde when you're old news in Greensboro."
My newspaper column is about blogging and the perils of popularity. You can read the whole thing after the jump.
Does this blog make me look fat?
News & Record
Blogging is having a midlife crisis.
I'm speaking here of Blogging with a capital "B," the self-conscious and often self-important new-media phenomenon. The first famous (by blog standards) polemic declaring blogs irrelevant was published in 1999, shortly after the earliest bloggers crawled from the primordial Web onto their own personal publishing platforms, and the navel-gazing has never stopped.
Personal publishing, on the other hand, is doing just fine. The promised revolution actually happened. Blogs, along with related technologies like social networking and the Twitter messaging service, have transformed the way we get and share information, opening up unprecedented opportunities for self-expression and human interaction.
But as blogs have gone mainstream, there remains a sense of promises unkept. "What happened to the paradise I was writing about then?" asks Ur-blogger Dave Winer in Scott Rosenberg's new book, "Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters." Winer once imagined the blogosphere as a realm of civil discourse and informed comment, uncorrupted by commercial interests. "It sure didn't turn out that way," he says.
No, it didn't. What happened, as it must with every utopia, is that people showed up and continued to act like people. Technology does not change human nature, as the better sci-fi novelists know. Writes Rosenberg, "It was futile to think it could somehow liberate us from pettiness and discord."
And so we live in a rough-and-tumble online world, where people often treat each other with disrespect and even cruelty. Money and celebrity are catnip in our infotainment culture, and so too in blogland. The brave Iranians who used new-media tools to communicate with the West after last month's rigged elections are no more representative of the state of blogging than gossip-monger Perez Hilton, lately seen rolling in the mud with the now-former Miss California.
And there are other problems in this online Eden. The New York Times recently ran an article about people who quit blogging because they realized that the potential global audience made possible by writing a blog does not necessarily translate into actual readers or authority, or because notoriety can be uncomfortable, or because maintaining a site takes a certain amount of work. Similar articles have appeared since the early days of the medium, and they always contain some truth.
Again, technology happens in the real world, which explains how Stephen Crane anticipated the Times article by more than a century:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
"A sense of obligation."
It's easy to see why many people choose the friendly confines of social networking sites like Facebook, or the quick-hit linkages Twitter, for at least some of their online activities. These younger siblings of the weblog reaffirm many of the good things about blogging, while reducing some of the hassles.
But blogging itself remains vibrant and important, and, as Winer wrote recently, blogs give you room to finish a thought, and to do so in a domain that is yours alone.
World Wide Web is local
Although some bloggers have become big-media brands unto themselves, it's important to understand that broadcasting is not the goal or purpose of many sites. Think narrowcasting instead, expert voices speaking to the interested few, or short-lived, purpose-built sites hitting a targeted audience. As David Weinberger, the author, blogger and philosopher of the Internet age, has said, on the Web everyone will be famous for 15 people.
I wrote in this space back in 2002 that it's almost impossible to generalize about blogs, and that has become even truer with time. Anyone who still thinks that blogs are just political opinion journals, or places to write about one's cats, is trapped in a tiny little bubble.
And the toolkit itself has become more diverse; when we talked about putting video on personal sites at the 2005 ConvergeSouth conference at A&T, the idea seemed a little bit ahead of the curve. Now anything that happens, happens on YouTube.
People use these tools however they see fit. I recently read an interesting post on the origins and meanings of the crown-like hat worn by Jughead, of Archie comics fame. You can say I might have been reading Proust instead, but the truth is that I probably would have been watching a "Family Guy" rerun, so I think the net impact on society was positive.
Name a subculture, and there is a blogging community for it. Down in Charleston, Vera Hannaford writes Vera's Crafty Blog about needlework. It's a great resource, if that's your bag, but here, too, human nature intrudes. The flame wars between the knitters and the crocheters are the stuff of legend, and posts about socks sometimes attract people with a fetish for feet.
One area that I wish Rosenberg had covered more closely in his interesting book is the impact of place-specific blogging. We all get that the World Wide Web is, y'know, worldwide, but the power of personal publishing is profound at the local level.
Here in Greensboro, which was early to this game, blogs are everywhere. They come and go, but the cumulative impact is large, whether you're interested in music (try Monkeywhale.com and the Dotmatrix Project) or discussions of planning and architecture, which A Little Urbanity covers as well as a big-city newspaper, if big-city newspapers still covered that kind of thing. Blogs have become a useful way to find the area's good restaurants and emerging artists, and so on.
And blogs are having a real impact on our politics and public life. Earlier this month, public outcry led the mayor and other officials to cancel a trip on a developer's private plane; that feedback erupted first in blog comments and posts, after news of the trip was broken at a blog. No rezoning fight is complete without a blog set up to discuss the issue, and the restoration of protest petition rights in a city where real-estate interests have enjoyed enormous clout was pushed forward by bloggers as well. The interplay of blogs and traditional media has become almost seamless, the relationship symbiotic. It's hard to imagine one without the other.
Maybe that's part of blogging's malaise, the feeling of no longer being the hot, world-changing movement it fancied itself just a few years ago. It's hard to be part of the avant garde when you're old news in Greensboro. We assimilate technology so rapidly that yesterday's revolution is today's reality, with the next new thing getting all the attention. And that's OK. As long as people want to express themselves freely, blogging (at least with a lowercase "B") is not going anywhere.
© News & Record 2009