Earlier this week I posted a reaction to the Twenty20 final that India won on Monday on a cricket blog. The post was partly about the match and partly about a comment that Shoaib Malik made at the end of the match, which seemed to suggest that he saw the Pakistan team as the cricketing representative of the world’s Muslims. Most of the comments that the piece elicited were responses to my criticism of the Pakistan captain. I read through the comments before posting them on the blog to make sure that they weren’t lewd or offensive, and in the course of this interesting, exhausting and occasionally oppressive process, I began to think about the difference between writing for a newspaper and writing a blog.
The two main differences seem to be that blogging is a form of self-publishing (which used to be called vanity publishing once upon a time), and that bloggers are directly engaged with their readers in a way that columnists writing for newspapers are not. I should clarify that I’m not opposing dead-tree journalism to online blogging: most newspapers have an online presence, but while this new medium is beginning to change the nature of newspapers, their form and content are still primarily shaped by their newsprint avatars. In the same way, while many blogs have evolved away from their founding metaphor — the conceit that a blog is personal journal or log that others can read online — that original meaning continues to exert a very large influence on the way they are written.
If a column in a newspaper is rather like a speech, an entry or post in a blog is the opening gambit in a conversation. Newspapers have always had a Letters to the Editor section, but that section isn’t a newspaper’s reason for being. It has its circulation figures, its profits, its advertising to assure it that it exists and is read. On the other hand, bloggers need people writing in, regardless of whether the blog publishes the comments. When no one writes in, a blogger is likely to begin to feel like a ghost in spite of what the page-view meter tells him. A blogger needs comments to reassure him (or her) that he exists. On my irregular, stop-start cricket blog, the posts that draw little or no comment (say, five people writing in) begin to look forlorn and neglected and I fret and begin to feel weightless. Which is odd, because when I get five email responses to a column in this newspaper, I feel buoyed and happy and widely read.
The difference is that newspapers are institutions. The opinion pieces I write for them are my personal views, but the way a newspaper is read and received laminates columns with a glaze of impersonality. I read a column with other pieces fighting for my attention on the margins. If I’m moved to respond, my letter to the writer or the editor is formally composed, complete with salutation and leave-taking. If I receive a response to something I’ve written in a newspaper, I invariably write back. In contrast, the comments I receive on my blog dispense with all throat-clearing preliminaries: they are colloquially written (sometimes in SMS-speak), often anonymous, and they are nearly always looking for an argument, but not necessarily an argument with you, the writer. It could just as well be an argument with an earlier comment.
If a successful newspaper like The Times of India or The Telegraph is a kind of religion, a successful blog is a kind of cult. A broadsheet paper has a clear sense of itself as a public space; consequently, its prose is impersonally accessible, written in a standard received idiom. Blogs tend to be more idiosyncratic, both in their design and their style of writing. I recently visited a hugely read blog called Instapundit.com, which seemed bitty (it was full of little links to news reports) and boring and self-regarding all at once. It takes a while to get used to a blog; sometimes it never happens because blogs are typically directed at a sharply defined in-group.
I find that the pieces I write specifically for the cricket blog (as opposed to the articles I write about cricket for magazines and papers and then later post on the blog) tend to assume that the reader has visited the blog before. These pieces are more self-referential, less well-organized and more aggressively opinionated than my newspaper writing. And, interestingly, they provoke more comment than the newspaper pieces do.
Now this could just be me, but from the blogs I visit regularly —The Daily Dish at www.andrewsullivan.com for example, it seems to me that this is something of a tendency. The average blog tends to be a person’s online journal, an archive of his writing and an inventory of his interests all rolled into one. Narcissism is built into the form. So is coyness. The blogger must do two things at once: cultivate his readers while being his interesting self. All writers have to do this in lesser or greater degree, but nowhere is the lag between writing, reception and response so small, and in no other medium is it so continuous. How to draw attention to your cleverness while being disinterestedly intelligent about matters of general interest becomes the daily challenge for the diligent blogger. It is an impossible tight-rope to walk for any length of time and it invariably ends in unstable combinations of knowingness and modesty or self-congratulation and discretion, whereupon an awful coyness is born.
If the weaknesses of blogging spring from individual self-love, its strengths are collective. Bloggers are the conscience of the internet and, increasingly, of the mainstream media. Any error of fact, however small, made by me on my cricket blog is snouted up in a matter of hours, if not sooner. Bloggers learn to get their facts right because their peers and their readers are so unforgiving. Newspaper columnists used to get away with much more than they do now because there’s an army of unpaid fact-checkers cruising online who see it as their life’s work to ‘fisk’ sloppy opinion or reportage.
Blogging at its best is intelligent conversation between the blogger and his readers. Collectively, blogging serves an important editorial purpose. But, on the whole, blogging produces derivative and self-indulgent writing. It’s ironic that ‘fisking’, the blogger’s verb for aggressive or hostile fact-checking, is named after Robert Fisk, Britain’s most distinguished foreign correspondent, who has lived in and reported from the Middle East for the past quarter of a century. His trenchant critique of Anglo-American foreign policy has made him a byword for bias amongst right-wing bloggers. That a great journalist who has survived danger and risked death to live in the region he reports from, whose reportage has made him the doyen of Middle-Eastern reporting, should become the blogosphere’s measure of unreliability, tells us something about the frictionless sterility of the blogger’s online world.