Andrew Sullivan, a well-known writer, has been blogging since 2001 and won the 2008 Best Blog award (displayed at his site.) In November, prior to this competition, he published an excellent essay on blogging in the Atlantic Monthly, one that I read at the time and meant discuss. Give it a read.
While his lessons are conclusions are directed at literary and political writers, there are many well-expressed observations that resonate with me – now that I’ve been blogging for 4 years (hard to imagine.)
Blogging as a Form
Sullivan observes the importance of the reader community in the ethos of a blog and how the blog host can shape this ethos:
The role of a blogger is … similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate.
We can think of examples of other blogs, where one feels that the blog host/hosts fail to do that. One of the reasons for my insistence on readers avoiding food fights and my disappointment with readers when these happen is summarized in the above metaphor. You expect people to be polite at a dinner party; I expect them to be polite here.
He observes the sort of companionship that develops at a blog – something that I find quite noticeable here:
It renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends….
Sullivan observes that blogs end up exposing the blogger’s personality:
the atmosphere will inevitably be formed by the blogger’s personality.
You end up writing about yourself, since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world.
A reader recently questioned what a column on a squash tournament was doing on a climate blog. Well, I like playing squash and the tournament was a big deal for me, so I wrote about it. No one’s obligated to read it. I don’t read Lucia’s knitting posts, but I like the idea that she writes them. My editorial guess is that, while personal touches are distracting and irrelevant in a journal publication, they add to a blog.
I’m continually surprised at what delicate flowers are modern climate scientists. None of them seem to like being discussed here. We’ve seen this recently with Steig’s intemperate reactions to online discussion; while Steig’s outbursts have been particularly extreme, we’ve seen surprising anger not just from the original Team, but from Santer, Peter Brown and other dendros, etc. In this context, it’s perhaps reassuring to read Sullivan’s characterization of writers as “sensitive, vain souls”, who’ve had pretty cloistered lives, and are not used to feedback that is “instant, personal, and brutal.”
Again, it’s hard to overrate how different this is. Writers can be sensitive, vain souls, requiring gentle nurturing from editors, and oddly susceptible to the blows delivered by reviewers. They survive, for the most part, but the thinness of their skins is legendary. Moreover, before the blogosphere, reporters and columnists were largely shielded from this kind of direct hazing. Yes, letters to the editor would arrive in due course and subscriptions would be canceled. But reporters and columnists tended to operate in a relative sanctuary, answerable mainly to their editors, not readers. For a long time, columns were essentially monologues published to applause, muffled murmurs, silence, or a distant heckle. I’d gotten blowback from pieces before—but in an amorphous, time-delayed, distant way. Now the feedback was instant, personal, and brutal.
My guess is that a considerable portion of the angriness that informs the animosity of a number of climate scientists to this blog is nothing more than an expression of this human instinct. Having said that, they’d also be wise to understand that belligerent and contemptuous outbursts, no matter how clever they may seem to the scientist, usually end up sounding as merely rude, subtracting from the dignity of the scientist involved.
We often hear about the wonders of journal peer review as a gold standard for quality, with pointed and often snide comparison to the fact that one can publish a blog column at the push of a button. Sullivan:
No columnist or reporter or novelist will have his minute shifts or constant small contradictions exposed as mercilessly as a blogger’s are.
Sullivan’s description of the editorial overhead for a literary column sounds an awful lot like actual peer review (as opposed to theoretical peer review):
I’d edited a weekly print magazine, The New Republic, for five years, and written countless columns and essays for a variety of traditional outlets. And in all this, I’d often chafed, as most writers do, at the endless delays, revisions, office politics, editorial fights, and last-minute cuts for space that dead-tree publishing entails. …
Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices.
Blogging seems to have a deceptive ease:
Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free in comparison…
with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles [with editors] evaporated.
However, Sullivan found that he quickly received online reviews that were far more severe than anything from his editors:
Alas, as I soon discovered, this sudden freedom from above was immediately replaced by insurrection from below. Within minutes of my posting something, even in the earliest days, readers responded. E-mail seemed to unleash their inner beast. They were more brutal than any editor, more persnickety than any copy editor, and more emotionally unstable than any colleague.
He argues that this online immediate review is just as effective as anything from editors:
And so blogging found its own answer to the defensive counterblast from the journalistic establishment. To the charges of inaccuracy and unprofessionalism, bloggers could point to the fierce, immediate scrutiny of their readers. Unlike newspapers, which would eventually publish corrections in a box of printed spinach far from the original error, bloggers had to walk the walk of self-correction in the same space and in the same format as the original screwup. The form was more accountable, not less, because there is nothing more conducive to professionalism than being publicly humiliated for sloppiness. Of course, a blogger could ignore an error or simply refuse to acknowledge mistakes. But if he persisted, he would be razzed by competitors and assailed by commenters and abandoned by readers.
There’s a considerable truth to that – my slightest mis-step seems to provoke immediate and vociferous demands for correction. I certainly don’t claim infallibility (how could anyone who supports audits and due diligence), but I do try to be careful and the relative rareness of accusation of error may provide reassurance to readers. Plus I try very hard to provide original sources and documentation to readers.
Sullivan makes an interesting observation on the importance of the hyperlink and access to original sources as adding a depth to blog postings, that, in a sense, is unique to the form:
But the superficiality masked considerable depth—greater depth, from one perspective, than the traditional media could offer. The reason was a single technological innovation: the hyperlink. An old-school columnist can write 800 brilliant words analyzing or commenting on, say, a new think-tank report or scientific survey. But in reading it on paper, you have to take the columnist’s presentation of the material on faith, or be convinced by a brief quotation (which can always be misleading out of context). Online, a hyperlink to the original source transforms the experience.
Quite so. Even when I’m critiquing someone, I try as much as possible to make original materials (and calculations) available to readers. One can think of other blogs that don’t – which rely on paraphrasing and re-stating their opponents’ positions, rather than providing access and analysis of original materials. In a way, the extensive citation of turnkey R code can be construed as an extended riff on the hyperlink idea- it sure puts interested readers in touch with the original materials in a way that is incomprehensible in traditional publications.
Sullivan observes acutely that blogging as a form of publication is not the same as a print article. He cites Drudge’s aphorism that a blog is a “broadcast, not a publication.”
as Matt Drudge told me when I sought advice from the master in 2001, the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.
I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I think that I’ve sort of adapted to this empirically. I work in bits and pieces, I’ll work one theme for a while, abandon it for some months and perhaps return to it later. Annoys some critics and some friends, but things keep moving along – where, I don’t know, but they keep moving.
The lack of finish obviously annoys some observers, who point to my lack of output in the formal journals over the last few years, but, in fairness to me, this lack of output in formal journals has been accompanied by copious output in this forum.
Many readers are looking for answers and I warn such readers that, if they’re looking for “answers”, they’d better go some place else. My interests are in process and in questions. It seems that “meandering” and “unresolved” posts have some distinguished examples, with Sullivan contrasting the “meandering, questioning, unresolved dialogues” of one famous philosopher with the “definitive, logical treatises” of another. While I make no claim to special authority or accomplishment for anything presented here, Sullivan observes that “meandering, questioning, unresolved dialogues” are a “skeptic’s spirit translated into writing”, which is perhaps why I’ve become comfortable with the form.
For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism.
Blogs are not a substitute for academic journals. Readers are inclined to make much more grandiose claims in this regard than I do. They’re not better – they’re different. They are a sui generis form of publication, that is evolving pretty rapidly. The Sullivan article is here.