Last week’s piece on blogging was unfair to the genre because it overlooked blogging’s most important function, which is neither fact-checking nor editorializing, but the often dangerous business of testifying to our times. In countries like Iraq, Bosnia, Myanmar, where civil society and public discourse are destroyed by despotic states, foreign occupation and sectarian violence, solitary bloggers, protected by anonymity and empowered by the World Wide Web’s global reach, have borne witness to the cruel mayhem of the modern world.
In a closed society, where journalism and reportage are stifled by a tyrannical state or a suffocating consensus, blogging becomes the contemporary equivalent of samizdat literature. Self-publishing isn’t always self-indulgent: sometimes it’s a form of heroism. Samizdat literature was a system of publishing in the former Soviet Union whereby banned texts were clandestinely printed and distributed. Samizdat is a compound of two Russian words, one of which means ‘self’ and the other ‘publishing house’. Far from being a form of vanity publishing as I suggested, blogging can be an act of selfless testimony and documentation. One of the most famous of these bloggers is the Baghdad Blogger, a young Iraqi architect who wrote about Saddam’s Iraq in its death throes under the pseudonym Salam Pax. As The Guardian wrote four years ago:
“It was the great irony of the war. While the world’s leading newspapers and television networks poured millions of pounds into their coverage of the war in Iraq, it was the internet musings of a witty young Iraqi living in a two-storey house in a Baghdad suburb that scooped them all to deliver the most compelling description of life during the war.”
A kind reader pointed out to me that the genre of blog writing I had described and criticized in last week’s column was best understood as bourgeois blogese, blogging devoted to opinion, random reflection and polemic. Typically, blogs of this sort consist of little editorials written by the blogger about the subjects that concern him with links to the writing that he likes or dislikes on those subjects.
It is this genre of blog that debauches writing. Here, the great strength of the form — the near-absolute freedom to say what you want — becomes a serious problem. Anonymity, instead of being a necessary invisibility cloak for the samizdat blogger, becomes, for our editorialist, a licence to ‘be himself’, which is always a bad idea because as a writer it’s one’s best self that’s attractive, not the self that rolls out of bed and begins to hold forth on the state of the world without brushing its teeth. In blogs that publish comments, anonymity turns into a ranter’s charter, where readers freed from all restraint and inhibition, turn threads into sewage.
But most widely read blogs aren’t anonymous; a successful blogger is often something of a celebrity. I suspect the difficulty I have reading the bourgeois blogger stems from something that’s integral to the nature of the editorial blog. This sort of blogging is a form of opinion-mongering without the editorial restraint or the discipline imposed by addressing a diverse readership. The motto is: put it out and they will come…and even if they don’t, there’s nothing lost because the investment needed to start and run a blog (apart from the blogger’s time) is negligible.
The successful bourgeois blog is the blog that assembles a large congregation of the like-minded. It’s a monoculture. Reading it regularly as an outsider is nearly impossible because it reads like a televangelist’s lecture: always with a message (the message could be anarchist, left wing, liberal, libertarian, conservative), with constant references to the enemy (the overarching state, lefties, America) and (this is the most unbearable part) endless self-promotion. The editorializing blogger is a walking advertisement for himself. Ironically, despite the drumbeat of derisive references to the MSM (the mainstream media), the self-promotion generally consists of references to articles published by the blogger in newspapers or (more rarely) books published on old-fashioned paper.
As an experiment, I followed the writing of four conservative American bloggers: Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan. At the end of a week, I was ready to sign on to the fashionable postmodern view that there is no real world out there: it exists only in the minds of people who think about it. I had read conservative magazines and newspapers before — The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, the Times — but nothing had prepared me for a world as rigorously tailored by prejudice and ideology as the one I found in these blogs (with the partial exception of Andrew Sullivan whose beliefs ran aground on the Iraq war and who is, therefore, trying to cope with the novel idea of reality). I’m perfectly willing to believe that lefty blogs are as bad. The point is that unlike journalists, bloggers live in a kind of communion with readers exactly like themselves, a communion that the technologies of the internet make simple. The result of this is writing that’s self-righteous, self-referential and polemical, a style that irons out nuance and flattens the world.
In a way blogs reflect the larger fragmentation of the mainstream media. The death of the generalist news magazine, of network television where everyone watched the same programme, and the secular decline of newspaper reading the world over are trends that pre-date the blog. The modern magazine kiosk is full of specialist magazines geared to specific forms of consumption: cars, computers, mobile phones. One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows people to find the things that interest them, instead of having articles and programmes broadcast at them. It’s not surprising that one of the great success stories of the net is the search engine. People google the subject they’re interested in, most often that special interest is themselves. One way of looking at bloggers is to see them as part of this trend, as leader-writers writing edits for people like themselves.
Fortunately, the company that has come to define both sharply defined search and targeted advertising, Google, has also pioneered the news aggregator site. Google News is, I think, the newspaper remade for the net. The aggregator site with special versions for different countries (like regional editions of a newspaper) is the meta-daily, which offers the reader the diversity of a newspaper (politics, sport, business, technology, the arts and entertainment) with the added bonus of dozens, even hundreds, of takes on the same piece of news. Its expansiveness is the perfect antidote to the claustrophobia induced by sustained blog-reading. The solipsism of the blogger is balanced by the mainstream media’s documentation of a world that a diversity of readers can share.