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Alan Jacobs

Goodbye, Blog

The friend of information but the enemy of thought.

About two years ago, my online life began to be centered on a computer application: not my word processing program, or my email program, but my rss news reader. rss (which apparently stands for Really Simple Syndication, though there is some debate about that) is a technology for capturing news headlines and summaries of stories, or their first few sentences, from websites. A site that offers these headlines is said to be providing news "feeds" to those who ask for them. The advantage of such syndication is that you can scan many headlines quickly, and open in your browser only the ones you really want to read.

Using NetNewsWire, I found I could get news from dozens of sources every day and thereby keep myself informed on pretty much everything I am interested in. For me the most exciting features of NetNewsWire were two: first, I could set the frequency with which I wanted to check my sites for new items, as often as every half-hour; and second, I could organize my sites in folders. Pretty soon I had a Technology folder, a Macintosh folder, a News folder, a Culture folder, a Literature folder, a Christianity folder, and so on.

Some of these sites were from what online writers call the msm (for "mainstream media"), but most of them were blogs, and with blogs you never know when someone is going to post—except for Glenn Reynolds, the InstaPundit, who posts all day every day. Normal people might write an entry three out of four days, and then go on a fortnight's hiatus; it gets tiresome to peek in at the website every day. NetNewsWire did the peeking for me, and let me know when it found something.

At first my interest was in news—whether about technology or politics or culture—but increasingly I became excited by the idea that the blogosphere could be a great venue for the exchange and development of ideas. One of the first blogs I got really attached to was called Invisible Adjunct. Now, alas, defunct, it was written by a woman who worked as an adjunct (that is, part-time and temporary) faculty member at a New York university, and her entries generated a fascinating conversation about the way the American university works, the way it should work, and how to get from Point A to Point B. I would read the site and think, "Yes, this is the way revolutions get started! Spontaneous communities of committed, thoughtful people testing their ideas against one another—iron sharpening iron!" Granted, I was excitable in those early days, and talk of "revolution" was certainly misplaced, but I think I was right to be intrigued. As a member of the professoriate, I had long since gotten frustrated with the game-playing and slavishly imitative scholarship of the official academic world—all choreographed in advance by the ruthless demands of the tenure system—and I thought that the blogs could provide an alternative venue where more risky ideas could be offered and debated, where real intellectual progress might take place outside the System.

And sometimes this happens. Last year, on the group blog Crooked Timber (crookedtimber.org), which is largely written by political philosophers and social scientists, there was a fascinating discussion of the gifted (but in my judgment disturbingly perverse) fantasy novelist China Miéville. Not only did several of the Crooked Timber bloggers write brief essays about Miéville, but also Miéville himself responded with a generous and thoughtful essay of his own. The debate was far more interesting, and more genuinely reflective, than any discussion about literature I can remember participating in or even witnessing in a formal academic setting. That fantasy writing still, despite all the canon-bashing of the last twenty years, has a faintly disreputable air among many English professors added to the freshness of the debate—as did the fact that none of the bloggers was an English professor. The whole conversation was a small victory for reading, a reminder that the importance of some books is seen from the excitement they create among thoughtful people, in this case people whose jobs require them to write about something else but who were moved or intrigued or excited or troubled by something China Miéville wrote and who therefore had to respond to it. (The experiment was recently repeated with an equally interesting symposium on Susanna Clarke's remarkable novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

But this sort of thing happens all too rarely in the blogosphere, at least in part because of what Laurence Lessig calls the "architecture" of the online world, and more specifically of blogs. Several years ago Lessig wrote one of the definitive books about the Internet, Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace. In it he tried to call a halt to all the fruitless debates about the "nature" of the internet. Is it its nature to be democratic or tyrannical, managerial or anarchic, or what? Lessig's answer was that the internet doesn't have a nature, that what it turns out to be will depend on the way it's built, the code in which it is written—its digital architecture.

Whatever one thinks about the structure of the internet as a whole, it is becoming increasingly clear that the particular architecture of the blogosphere is the chief impediment to its becoming a place where new ideas can be deployed, tested, and developed. Take, for instance, the problem of comments.

The industry-standard blog architecture calls for something like this: a main area on the page where the blogger's own posts are presented, with the newest post at the top of the page; then, at the left or right or both, various supplements: links to other sites, personal information about the blogger, and so on. At the bottom of each post will be the hyperlinked word "comments," usually followed by a parenthesis indicating the number of responses to the post: click on the word and you get to see all those comments. That's where the real conversation is supposed to take place. And sometimes it does; but often it doesn't—or rather, the conversation just gets started and then peters out before it can really become productive. And this happens not because of inertia, but largely because the anatomy of a blog makes a serious conversation all but impossible.

Imagine this scenario: one Thursday morning you read an interesting post on a political blog about the torture of suspected terrorists by U.S. soldiers. You agree with the main thrust of the post, but think the writer has overlooked an important point, so you post a comment that says so. You then wait to see what response your idea elicits. The next few comments are by people who think that anyone who criticizes the government on this point longs for the return of Saddam Hussein to power and rejoices in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and by other people who think the height of incisive political commentary is the coinage "Bushitler." You expect this sort of thing, you have learned to scan right past it in search of genuine reflection. Eventually someone—maybe the author of the original post, maybe someone else—responds to your claim, negatively let's say. You quickly defend your position, explaining it in more detail because more detail reveals that your view is not subject to the criticism that has been offered; but now you have to go to work, or pick up the kids from school; you'll check back later to see what further response you have elicited.

But life is busy. You can't check back until Saturday morning, and by that time the comment thread has died out. Maybe you did get a second response, maybe you didn't, but in any case you note that the last comment in the thread was posted on Friday afternoon. On many blogs the comments to a given post are "closed" after a few days—no one is allowed to make further comments—usually because that helps to prevent the accumulation of comment spam, but also because so many threads degenerate into name-calling that the blog administrator has to shoo the belligerents along to another venue. And in any case both the blogger and the commenters have moved along to other posts, other ideas, other conversations.

Or consider this: what if you come across some new information, a week or a month later, that sheds significant light on the debate? You could, of course, send an email to the original blogger asking him or her to take a look at this new evidence; but whether the debate gets renewed will depend on whether the blogger decides to start a new comment thread; the old one will be dead and gone, such that, even in the unlikely event that comments are still open on it, the chances of anyone looking back into that Paleolithic era are slim indeed.

Architecture is of course not everything here; human nature is at work too. I think first of the extraordinary anger that seems to be more present in the blogosphere than in everyday life. Debate after debate—on almost every site I visit, including the ones devoted to Christianity—either escalates from rational discourse into sneering and name-calling or just bypasses reason altogether and starts with the abuse.

Partly this derives from the anonymity of blog comments: people rarely identify themselves by their real names, and the email addresses that they sometimes provide rarely give clues about their identity: a person who is safe from substantive reprisals is probably more easily tempted to express rage. Also—and this is a problem especially on the political blogs—commenters can find themselves confronted with very different beliefs than the ones they encounter in everyday life, where they often are able to select their own society. A right-winger wandering into a comment thread on Dailykos.com is likely to get a serious douse of vitriol for his or her trouble; ditto a liberal who plunges into the icy waters of No Left Turns. And the anonymous habitués of a given site are unlikely to show much courtesy to the uninvited guest. (This is one reason why sites like the two just mentioned get more rhetorically, and substantively, extreme over time: everyone is pulling in one direction, and scarcely anyone shows up to exert counter-pressure.)

And then there are the "trolls": people who comment specifically in order to get a rise out of other commenters—people who have never transcended the discovery that being extremely annoying is one of the most reliable ways of getting attention. Most of us, by third grade or so, come to understand that hostile attention is probably worse than no attention at all, but trolls never learn to make such subtle discriminations. Thus no law of the blogosphere is more important—though also more widely ignored—than "Don't feed the trolls."

All in all, a blog is no place for the misanthropically inclined. Charlie Brown used to say, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand," and I have discovered that in the blogosphere, people—in Mr. Brown's subtle sense of the word—are pretty much inescapable. Many's the time I have found myself hunched over my keyboard, my hands frozen above it, trying to decide which of two replies to make: the one assuming that my interlocutor is morally compromised, or the one assuming that he is invincibly ignorant. In such circumstances it's always best just to get up and walk away, not darkening counsel by words without knowledge, or without charity anyway.

Chalk this up, if you will, to deficiencies in my Christian character. But even for those more saintly than myself— and there are a few—the blogosphere inevitably accelerates the pace of debate to the timetable of daily journalism. In terms of how they treat substantive ideas, blogs are not very different from newspapers: they present an idea and then move on, as quickly as possible, to the next idea. Perhaps there can be, later on, some brief acknowledgment that that idea wasn't treated fully and adequately—but, as the newsreel in Citizen Kane reminds us, Time is On The March, and bloggers are under enormous pressure to march along with it.

The very notion of a blog (originally a "web log") is that of a diary, a periodic account of what's happening in someone's life or someone's mind, which is why one of the most delightful sites to emerge from this new technology is the one that posts, in classic blog format—even with comments, though they are called "annotations"—the diary of that great observer of 17th-century social life, Samuel Pepys (www.pepysdiary.com, and yes, it has an rss feed). No one seems to be willing to chew over even a very substantive blog post for very long: instead, we want new ones. Otherwise our rss readers won't have anything to tell us, will they?

It's telling that the terrific conversations about (and including) China Miéville and Susanna Clarke on Crooked Timber arose not from the usual post-plus-comments format but from something very different, more centrally controlled and highly structured. As Henry Farrell wrote on the site before the first symposium, "A few months ago, the Miéville Fraktion within CT decided that it might be fun to put together a mini-seminar around Iron Council [Miéville's 2004 novel], and to ask China to respond. He very decently said yes; you see the result before you." So this exemplary intellectual exchange arose from something like the time-honored magazine practice of commissioning writers to produce a colloquium on a given subject. The Timberites even gathered the posts together and put them in a pdf, to make it all look even more like a Special Issue of some literary quarterly.

Blogs remain great for news: political, technological, artistic, whatever. And they provide a very rich environment in which news (or rather "news") can be tested and evaluated and revised, as we have seen repeatedly, from cnn's firing of Eason Jordan to the discrediting of Dan Rather's story on President Bush's National Guard service. But as vehicles for the development of ideas they are woefully deficient and will necessarily remain so unless they develop an architecture that is less bound by the demands of urgency—or unless more smart people refuse the dominant architecture. Even on a site with the brainpower of Crooked Timber, what happens more often than not—indeed, what happens so often that I've taken the site from my rss reader and only check it once or twice a month—is the conversion of really good scholars into really lousy journalists. With few exceptions, posts at the "academic" or "intellectual" blogs I used to frequent have become the brief and cursory announcement of opinions, not the free explorations of new and dynamic thinking. One notable exception is the philosopher John Holbo, who edits and often writes for The Valve (www.thevalve.org), a website sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics—and people often complain that his posts are too long.

As I think about these architectural deficiencies, and the deficiencies of my own character, I find myself meditating on a passage from a book by C. S. Lewis. In his great work of literary history, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis devotes a passage to what he describes, with a certain savageness, as "that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation." For Lewis, the issues that divided Catholics and Protestants, that led to bloodshed all over Europe and to a seemingly permanent division of Christians from one another, "could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure." Instead, thanks to the prevalence of that recent invention the printing press, and to the intolerance of many of the combatants, deep and subtle questions found their way into the popular press and were immediately transformed into caricatures and cheap slogans. After that there was no hope of peaceful reconciliation.

On a smaller scale, the same problems afflict the intellectual and moral environments of the blogs. There is no privacy: all conversations are utterly public. The arrogant, the ignorant, and the bullheaded constantly threaten to drown out the saintly, and for that matter the merely knowledgeable, or at least overwhelm them with sheer numbers. And the architecture of the blog (and its associated technologies like rss), with its constant emphasis on novelty, militates against leisurely conversations. It is no insult to the recent, but already cherished, institution of the blogosphere to say that blogs cannot do everything well. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco).

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