Wednesday, December 17, 2008

So You Want To Be A Blogger: A Few Thoughts On What A Blog Is Not

Are you a lurker? Are you someone who has an RSS feed, or some such mechanism, that delivers posts from your favorite blogs every day? Are you someone who thinks, "Gee, if that clueless Radical can find an audience for her inchoate ramblings, I could really be a star?"

Well baby, if you are thinking of starting your own blog, this post is for you.

At some future date I might hazard a meditation on what a blog is, but one of the interesting and appealing things about blogging right now is that it seems to be a genre that defies categorization and has many uses: journaling, dissemination of news, political organizing, advocacy, or the creation of an audience for a wonderful new book by a well-established author. My guess is that as genres develop definition within blogging, and other utilities like Facebook and Twitter carve out niches in the "I need to be in touch constantly" market, what blogging is will either become better defined, or simply dissolve altogether into so many different modes of communication that we will forget that such a plastic category as "blogging" ever existed. But for those of you who are on the fence about whether to blog or not, the most crucial thing to think about is what your motivation is and what you want from it. So here are my thoughts on what blogging is not, so that you can test your desire to blog against your reasons for blogging, and -- I hope -- define yourself as a blogger in a way that will please you over the long term.

Journalism. Sorry, folks. You Jimmie Olsons and Lois Lanes, you H.L. Menkens and Bill Kristol wanna bes: journalism is a profession, with rules and ethical practices. Most importantly, as some of us have discovered to our chagrin, actual working journalists have editors who theoretically correct their spelling and grammar, keep them from making dumb mistakes and prevent them from offending people needlessly. Whether they are employed by a commercial news outlet or a non-profit (the line has been blurred in recent years, hasn't it?) journalists have editors who ask them questions and who are supposed to hold their feet to the fire about whether what is being published is responsible; whether the story is an opinion piece or a narrative that purports to be factual; and whether the piece has been sourced properly.

The fact that journalism has often not held itself to these standards in recent years (where is Judith Miller spending the holidays this year, I wonder?) does not make blogging journalism, nor do fears that blogging has eaten away at the audience for professional journalism mean that a blogger can wake up one day and declare that s/he is a journalist. The presence of bloggers on mainstream web publications may make those bloggers journalists; some journalists have started to blog on MSM websites without losing their status as journalists; but it doesn't follow that all bloggers -- or even more than a minority of bloggers -- are now journalists.

A virtual space where justice can be achieved. A blog is certainly a place where someone who wishes to advocate for justice can gather an audience for a cause. But whether the blogger is in the right or in the wrong; whether s/he is advocating on behalf of people wrongly accused of felony crimes or cruelty to animals, a rhetorical space is not an appropriate location to achieve actual justice for victims of harm because it does not have any real ethical requirements or rules as a court of law does. There is no statute of limitations that prevents the cause from being pursued endlessly, despite the punishment of those who were responsible for the injustice; there are no limits to the people who can be accused of responsibility for the puported offense, and there is no real accountability to the person or persons who were initially harmed. Indeed, to the extent that blogging is particularly vulnerable to the collection, dissemination and repetition of extreme views and personal attacks, single-issue advocacy blogs that attempt to shape or promote outcomes in the law bear a strong relationship to vigilance societies. And in case you think some of the more notorious of these blogs (for example the one that sells a gimme cap advertising its wearer as a "Blog Hooligan") are the only locations for this phenomenon, look at the comments on this post, where literally one line -- nay, a phrase, at the beginning of a post about the new media provoked a storm of nasty, out of line, and false accusations by aggrieved mothers that the blogger was a misogynist.

A democratic space where all opinions and comments should be welcome and uncensored, regardless of how extreme, irrrelevant, personal and/or nasty they are. Bloggers and dedicated blog commenters (or blog fans) who believe this are confusing democracy with either libertarianism or anarchy. Again, they are following in an old American tradition. Just like the formation of vigilance societies as a response to perceived or actual failures of the law, Americans have repeatedly found ways to express their opposition to the status quo in whatever cheap, free or available public venue they could find -- whether it is leafleting or pamphleteering, walking around with a sandwich board, speaking on street corners, or leaving enraged comments on other peoples blogs. But it is also the case that if you have developed a blog, you have authority over what does and does not appear there, to the extent you can enforce it. Example: someone can stand on a public sidewalk and shout at you, and the First Amendment prevents you from getting the authorities to do much about it: in fact, if you snap, and go out and drive the person off the sidewalk violently, you might be prosecuted for assault. But you also don't have to invite that person in, serve him lunch and invite him to yell at you in your own house.

An excuse to vent all your worst feelings about other people, your class rage, your resentments, your personal vendettas towards others, or spread malicious gossip just because you have access to free publishing software. This is a particular hazard for anonymous bloggers, and something I have commented upon here and in a post here about my reasons for relinquishing anonymity. I mean, you can -- but it doesn't make it right. Posting about how other people offended you or the "funny" things they did that make them look really stupid can be highly self-righteous. I think this is a genuine hazard of blogging that causes us all to sin occasionally regardless of the vigilance we vowed after the last episode. But this doesn't mean it is right. Do not, I repeat, do not use a blog as a form of projective identification, in which you unload terrible anxieties, resentments and rage by writing them up and publishing them. And don't shrug off responsibility for this despicable act by asserting that you merely told the "truth," and that the "truth" sometimes hurts the people who needed to hear it. Having asked myself this question at a few self-critical moments, let me say that it is a useful one: who made you, or me, or anyone else, the god of truth?

So you want to be a blogger: great. Go for it. Just be prepared to stumble and fall. We all do, even as we become more mature and experienced about what we think we are doing. Be prepared for some bad moments, but also know that you can always do it differently next time.


Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or does that look like an academic background behind in that Superman cartoon?

Anonymous said...

This is actually in regards to your "letter to the academic proletariat". As a student at your current institution, I have wavered for some time on the idea of pursuing a career in academia, wondering if it's right for me, whether I am cut out for it etc.. As an undergrad, one gets the feeling that, at least at some point, almost everyone in college thinks they want to follow in the footsteps of their beloved profs. So I was thinking that perhaps you (someone who seems particularly sharp on the subject) might consider giving us students your thoughts on the matter (maybe through wesleying). I don't know, maybe you have done a similar post before, or maybe it's not your cup of tea to give out advice so generally, but just a thought...Regardless, thanks for the insightful entiries.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear 5:21 --

If there is an invitation to cross post on Wesleying, I would accept it: if you are interested in putting together something through the CPC, I would be happy to participate in a group discussion!


Professor Yorick said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you from a novitiate in the electronic word smithy. I only yesterday posted my first digi-mots, as the environment of my particular tower of ivory is getting weirder by the day. Empty offices and classrooms due to the high holy days, word of lay offs and non renewals of contracts all across campus. This blogging will in some ways be the balm we all need. What I seek most is wisdom from those of you who have been here longer. I look forward to reading more.

GayProf said...

I like this post.

But you also don't have to invite that person in, serve him lunch and invite him to yell at you in your own house.

I would also add that the person shouting at you on the sidewalk who starts to follow you around everywhere you go, shows up uninvited at your house, hides in your friends' bushes, and shouts at people with whom you work, is not protected by the first amendment. They are harassing and/or stalking you.

As you imply, it is also a good rule of thumb to not type anything that you wouldn't say to somebody face-to-face. A lack of repercussions often enables a lack of civility.

And, hey, even the best bloggers make mistakes.

Unknown said...

Good points. I agree, mostly, with #2 (there are rare cases in which #2 actually happens, for instance Josh Marshall and the Trent Lott takedown) and completely with #s 4-5. I disagree, mostly, with #s 1 and 3. There are plenty of people who have successfully turned blogging into journalism: Matt Yglesias, Ben Domenech (briefly), nearly everyone who writes for American Prospect. These people have continued to write blogs, but have acquired editors and salaries. Also, the people who've done investigative reporting on overlooked news stories, such as Marcy Winograd at FireDogLake on the Scooter Libby case. I wouldn't discount these people so quickly as "not journalists."

More importantly, regarding #3, I have a great deal of trouble with bloggers who "ban at will," without cause and a great deal of work to integrate the bannee within the blog community. I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou -- I've banned people myself, including one hilarious instance in which I was on a new blogging platform and tried and failed to ban someone who gleefully hurled insults at me while I flailed about with the software. On the other hand, though, I think the main thing that differentiates blogging from other media is the fact that it is an interactive process. People who take their "ownership" of a piece of bandwidth too seriously risk losing that interactivity and diminishing the equality, and therefore the usefulness, of the conversation. Beyond that, I think it's an essential question of fairness. Simply put, I think it's important to tolerate respect that isn't respectful, just as we reserve the right to dissent disrespectfully from our nation's government, we owe that right to our blog commenters. "If you don't like it, blog somewhere else" sounds to me too much like "If you don't like America's war in Iraq, you can leave."

Unknown said...

Gawd, could I have made that last sentence any more of a run-on? Sorry about that...

Unknown said...

Err, second-to-last sentence...I'll just shut up now.