Still Nobody, or, How my Home Page Became a Blog
Issue #62, December 2002
Weblogs are a new form of online publishing that have rapidly become a popular way of getting news and information on particular topics. Some are run by journalists, while others operate in competition with journalists.
— Course description for UC Berkeley School of Journalism's course on blogs
Blogs have turned me into a nervous person.
— Annalee Newitz, Bad Subjects co-founder
I'm nervous, too, although probably for different reasons than Annalee, who continued, "Reading them makes me want to run around in circles squeaking like a beaver." Me, I'm already a beaver; in fact, the beaver might be the perfect anthropomorphic symbol for the blogger. Industrious, we run around in circles, squeaking; it's ironic that what we do when we write our blogs makes our readers want to do the same thing. One difference is that bloggers choose our beaver-ness, while blog readers have their beaver-ness thrust upon them. Another difference is that blog readers can quit reading, while bloggers feel compelled to keep working. Small surprise that MetaFilter (a "community weblog") claims to be "more addictive than crack." I assume the addiction is suffered by the blogger, who writes; although it's possible MetaFilter means to label their readers as addicts, in which case, maybe blog readers can't quit reading after all.
MetaFilter's definition of itself as a "community weblog" points to an initial problem when discussing blogs and blogging: while it's not difficult to define a blog, the existence of several types of websites which pass as blogs makes the term "blog" too unspecific. MetaFilter demonstrates this when they distinguish themselves from a "typical weblog ... one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web," claiming that in contrast, they exist "to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion." But even here, MetaFilter assumes that the "typical" blog is based on stuff found on the web, and indeed, the earliest blogs were basically annotated lists of links. More recently, however, another form of blog has become increasingly prevalent: the diary blog. Relying less on lists of links and more on the kind of self-exploratory writing which in the past was hidden under the fragile lock and key of a personal diary, these newer blogs are likely what John Dvorak had in mind when he listed, among the "reasons why people blog," "Ego gratification ... Societal need to share ... Wanna-be writers."
All of these various versions of blogging suggest different notions regarding community. The List o' Links assumes community in the act of linking: the link immediately takes you to someone else's home. The Community Weblog makes specific the importance of community, inviting everyone to contribute to the site, but what they contribute is, you guessed it, annotated links. Meanwhile, the diary blog is an almost freakish blend of private moments and public displays; the content is solipsistic enough to deny the existence of community ("yesterday I did this, today I thought that, tomorrow I will blather onward"), but in publishing the texts online, the blogger assumes the existence of an audience, which denies the existence of solipsism.
In any event, it's important to keep the variety of blogs in mind when wading through the various attempts by pundits, journalists, and bloggers themselves to explain the Blog Phenomenon. How the Phenomenon is perceived is heavily influenced by which kinds of blogs the writer is thinking of when they do their explaining.
Bloggers vs Journos is easily the most entertaining show on the Web - it's less like the Super Bowl, more like the weekly running gags between two sitcom characters who can't admit they've got the hots for one another.
— Paul Boutin, http://paulboutin.weblogger.com/
Annalee Newitz is nervous about blogs in part because she is a journalist, or "Journo". Blogs are immediate; bloggers can post early and often. Journalists have to wait to be published. "As a writer I'm trying to put my stamp on the news as quickly as possible, and bloggers inevitably get there before me with their endless updates and capacious discussion threads and daunting lists of hotlinks." Annalee is successful primarily because she is a smart and entertaining writer, but at least part of her success in technology writing comes from being on or around the cutting edge, and blogs, where a new "issue" comes out any damn time the blogger wants it to, have the lead over more traditional media when it comes to immediacy. That lead isn't always useful, of course. Annalee may be nervous because "all the bloggers and just-in-time news sites have already made hacker extravaganza CodeCon ... into old information, and I'm just getting started with my analysis of it," but her eventual analysis will be all the more cogent for the time she spends thinking it through. Bloggers can think and analyze, too, but often we're more interested in being first. It's ironic, in fact, that bloggers, who are seemingly the opposite of journalists, mimic one of the most destructive tendencies of the popular news media: the need to be first takes precedence over the need to be instructive, intelligent, or detailed.
Part of the argument is that journalists are Professionals, while bloggers are Amateurs. This is mainly a continuation of the long-running complaint that 95%, or 98%, or 87% of everything on the Internet is a lie; that the ethics of the journalism profession should foster a trust in the consumers of journalism; that what you read in The New York Times is accurate and reliable and true, while what you read on the Internet is sloppy, unreliable, and false. Internet utopians might see a world where everyone has a blog as a truly democratic world; "Journos" would see that world as one where every schmoe with a keyboard can post unedited screeds of dubious veracity and potentially harmful implications. (This is clearly NOT Newitz's argument; she has a long history of writing and publishing her work in an enormous variety of forums, including Bad Subjects, and her case of nerves isn't a reaction to the uselessness of bloggers but rather a response to how well bloggers can do what she also tries to do in a more traditional venue.)
This Journo argument only holds water, though, to the extent you believe that professionalism ensures quality. It may be true that, all else being equal, a person with professional training will be better equipped to sort through and present information to others than the same person without such training, but all else is rarely equal. Ultimately, respect must be earned; it won't be handed to you based solely on your professional status. When I stand in front of a classroom for the first time in a semester, I will be the recipient of a certain amount of respect because my students assume my professional training has helped me to be good at my job. But if over the course of the semester it becomes clear I'm a lousy teacher, that respect will and should disappear. A bad and lazy writer with a degree in journalism isn't better than a talented and hardworking blogger with no degrees (and the reverse is obviously just as true: a sloppy amateur isn't good just because they're unprofessional, and the best professionals are indeed the best). What makes you worth reading, whether you are a journalist for The Washington Post or an online blogger, is the quality of your writing and research. What makes your reference materials useful, whether they be encyclopedias or Lists of Links, is the quality of the information. The Bloggers-vs.-Journos "debate" is bogus; what matters is quality. Dave Winer predicts that "in five years, the publishing world will have changed so thoroughly that informed people will look to amateurs they trust for the information they want," but what will be true in five years is actually what is true right now: people will look to anyone they trust for the information they want.
Nonetheless, a blogger still needs an audience. If no one reads your work, the quality is irrelevant. Here is where traditional media outlets have an advantage. Chances are you've never heard of my blog; chances are just as good you know what CNN is. Similarly, if you are looking for information on the Internet, it will be easier for you to find The Nation's Eric Alterman's writing on MSNBC.com than to find Steven Rubio's Online Blog. To some extent, the fears of the traditional journalists and the hopes of Internet utopians are both exaggerated: a writer for The San Francisco Chronicle has an established, concrete, substantial audience, while a blogger's audience, potentially enormous due to the number of people online, is realistically tiny in the vast majority of cases. (My blog has fewer than a dozen regular readers, with maybe another dozen or so over the course of a few months who happen upon it by accident.) The Internet gives me the opportunity to speak my mind, but it can't guarantee me an audience, no matter how good I might be, whereas CNN has a large audience, no matter how good or bad it might be.
Ultimately, though, this is all old news. Many if not most of the popular blogs are a part of the new world of journalism, not separate from it. Eric Alterman and Andrew Sullivan have blogs; now we have new places to read the same writers we were already enjoying or hating. Some especially useful blogs don't even "look" like blogs, at least to my eye: Jim Romenesko's Media News is a List of Links, but I never really think of it as a blog as much as just an excellent reference. The same goes for Aaron Barnhart's TV Barn, or even Plastic, which kinda looks like a blog but which lies somewhere in the Is It or Isn't It Limbo of blogland. For worse or, mostly, better, these blogs and pseudo-blogs are part of the standard online landscape. For more current, if not cutting edge, blogging, we must look to the Diary Blogs.
While weblogs had always included a mix of links, commentary, and personal notes, in the post-Blogger explosion increasing numbers of weblogs eschewed this focus on the web-at-large in favor of a sort of short-form journal.
— Rebecca Blood, http://www.rebeccablood.net/
Websites like Blogger changed everything. Blogger, "a web-based tool that helps you publish to the web instantly - whenever the urge strikes," makes blogging easy. In the earliest days of the blog, you needed a home page on which to publish, and you needed at least rudimentary web-authoring skills to maintain that home page. With Blogger, you can be up and running in minutes. You log onto their website, you write, you post. It's as simple as that. Blogger and other weblog aids allow you to do more than just write and post, if you have those rudimentary skills; the difference is, without the skills you can still write and post to your heart's content.
And write and post we do. I watch Buffy, I post to my blog. I go to the baseball game, I post to my blog. I see a movie, I post to my blog. Here's what I said in my very first blog post:
Snapshot of life at the moment: My chair has broken rollers. As I type this, the stereo is playing 'Prisoner of Love' by Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra featuring Lena Horne. Robin is in the livingroom reading the Sunday paper and steaming to help her sinuses. Jillian's coming over tonight for dinner and DVD.
This isn't exactly cutting edge, up-to-the-minute journalism, even though I did include a link to the Teddy Wilson entry in the All-Music Guide. This is a diary, a "snapshot of life." In those early blogs, I tried to include useful links, but over time, the only links that remained were topic-specific ones like that for Teddy Wilson. All I want out of my blog is to have a place where I can write and post. I want to tell the world what I am doing and thinking. A month after I began my blog, I wrote "This blog is one month old today. Here's something I wrote on January 6: 'My chair has broken rollers.' It still has them. I never fix anything. I'm too busy writing on my blog." Another month later: "I tried something new today. I took a nap." Just a couple of days ago, I wrote "I'm sleepy." It would seem my life lacks variety. It would also seem I have precious little need for a blog, when the extent of my creative output is to update the world on my sleep patterns. I certainly wonder why mainstream journalists would be nervous about the emergence of a new forum that results in endless "snapshots" about nothing.
Lorraine Adams in the Washington Monthly recently referred to a new genre of books she called "nobody memoirs," the published autobiographies of people who were "nobodies." Diary blogs are online nobody memoirs, perhaps more "populist" than the books to which Adams refers, since we don't need a big time publisher to get our stuff out to the public, but ultimately just virtual versions of the vanity presses of old. Ever since I can remember, I dreamed of having a weekly column in a magazine or newspaper where I could expound upon whatever crossed my fancy. With Blogger, I have achieved my dream. What I haven't achieved is an audience.
At least, I haven't achieved a large audience. When I post to my blog, I am aware of how many people are likely to read what I write: Steve H and Charlie, Jillian and Chris and Sue, sometimes Robin, and Sylvia the Mystery Student. I have no illusions that what I'm creating will reach the dreamed-for Big Audience.
Nonetheless, the very act of posting my writing to a public space admits the existence of an audience, no matter how small. This wouldn't be worth noting if all I was doing was creating Lists o' Links. But I'm writing a diary. Therein lies the rub. For diaries, at least as I imagine them, are private affairs. When you write "Dear Diary," you are speaking to a schizophrenic audience of one, a combination of the abstract "Diary" and yourself (in theory the only person who will ever read what you write). Nothing is more fear-inducing than the idea that someone else will read your diary; it records the thinking you want to keep to yourself.
So, why post it to a blog, where someone, anyone, can read it?
I think I know the answer to that question, but first, I want to consider the difference between what I might write in a private diary and what I would post in a public blog. I know people are out there when I write for my blog, and so, before my words ever hit the web, I've self-censored all the "good stuff." I'm not about to say what I really think if someone else is listening. I might write "Dear Diary, I love Robin, do you think she likes me, too?," but the blog version would be a semi-fictionalized construct around which I hint at some person named Robin without ever truly declaring myself. A blog is less confessional than a diary; I don't mind telling my diary/myself who I am, but I'm wary of exposing that true self to the Public. So my blog is, I would argue, not just censored for public consumption, but ultimately better for that censorship. Knowing that you are reading over my shoulder, I get creative with my life. The unfiltered self-indulgence of a diary gives way to the more considered, craftlike blog. Certainly, the constraints of craft result in a certain loss of immediacy in my writing compared to a diary. But I am also forced to acknowledge the existence of others, and that's a good thing, a crucial step on the road from solipsism to community. A good thing, that is, unless you yearn for the glory days when James Taylor could top the charts navel-gazing his way through fire and rain.
The subject matter of the diary blog is also affected by the audience lurking in the background. The most straightforward and "honest" writing on my blog is probably the movie reviews. I can express myself in those write-ups without wearing my heart on my sleeve. My heart is still there, it's just offered at a distance, through the conduit of whatever movie I'm talking about. I can say "what I really think" in ways I won't if I have some deep personal secret to share with the world at large. In those latter cases, my writing becomes cryptic, and basically uninteresting to anyone except myself. Ironically, I expose myself most when I write about something outside myself, and I hide myself most when I purport to write about Me.
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — Too?
— Emily Dickinson
Six years ago, I used the above Dickinson quote to kick off a consideration of home pages on the Internet. At that time, I offered as "the most representative home page on the entire Internet" the immortal Walter Miller's Home Page. I claimed that "we enjoy the freedoms Walter Miller represents: the freedom to express ourselves." Walter Miller's Home Page was an astounding bit of net literature that Miller himself was told had "a particullar style and syntax remminissent of diallect writting-much like Marc Twain and Willaim Foulkner." Miller's playful take on authenticity intrigued me at the time; his idiosyncratic writing seemed too bad to be accidental, a fact he dealt with in his canny disclaimers: "Other than certain exagorations that stem from emotonal problems, disfUnctonal family sitaution & a poorselfimage THIS IS THE TRUE STORY of a yuong man a.k.a. Walter (underscore) Miller" followed immediately by "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person or persons living or dead is unintentional and purely coincidental."
What I couldn't have known in 1996 was that Walter Miller wasn't just an exemplar of the home pages of that time, but also the precursor to the diary blogs that populate Internet 2002. Now more than ever, we enjoy the freedom to express ourselves. But we also enjoy the freedom to invent ourselves every time we update our blogs. Walter Miller's disclaimers could serve truthfully for all diary blogs: we tell the true story, but it's a work of fiction. If few of us are as creative in our efforts as the great Walter Miller, we are nonetheless avid acolytes of the techniques he introduced.
Of course, it would be a mistake to ascribe too much socio-political power to our self-expression. As I argued six years ago, riffing on another Walter (Benjamin), accepting the chance to express ourselves in lieu of demanding our right to change property relations is "the logical result of Fascism ... the introduction of aesthetics into political life." Property relations haven't gotten any better in the last six years; indeed, given the increasing and dangerous contraction of media ownership into fewer/larger corporate powers, I could argue that they have gotten demonstrably worse. As I argued above, more of us have blogs but fewer of us have the resources of an MSNBC to expose our work to a larger audience. We have freedom of expression, but we are Nobodies, and our Nobody Memoirs are mostly unread. (Recently I took part in a peer-review program for blogs. No one, not Nobody-with-a-Capital-N but literally nobody, volunteered to review my blog.)
Why post my so-called private thoughts to a blog, where someone, anyone, can read them? Because I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — Too?
Dear, dear diary, I want to tell my secrets/'Cause you're the only one that I know who'll keep them
— Pink, "Dear Diary"
As an unexpected example of how the personal nature of blog posting butts up against the public nature of blogs, I point to my friend D, who despite a lot of encouragement resisted posting anything to my blog because he wasn't sure what he had to say. I assured him that no one read my blog; he finally broke down and posted something; within a few days, I got the first of several e-mails from an old friend of D's who had "found" him on my blog and was dying to rekindle old acquaintances. D. hasn't posted anything to the blog since.
Steven Rubio was a founding member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. While not enjoying his "retirement" from this publication, he teaches Mass Communications at UC Berkeley.