Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Josh Marshall Gets It About Right....

Recently, Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote,
I've never been much for the blog triumphalism that seems always to be so much a part of the blog universe. Blogs make up a small, specialized niche within the interdependent media ecosystem -- mainly not producers but primary or usually secondary consumers -- like small field mice, ferrets, or bats.
Well, perhaps his animal choices might have been a little more pleasant - some of us are more like fluffy little bunny rabbits - but on the whole he is correct. And even when he, a bona fide, published columnist blogs, the quality of his output usually falls short of something he has polished up for formal publication. (And he's hardly alone in that department - although he appears to be far less vain and self-important about his blogging activities than other "name" bloggers.)

That's not to say that I don't appreciate the other ferrets, field mice, and fluffy bunnies, and even the vampire bats - some of them make for fun reading. Some of them are obviously rather brilliant (Hi Paul, Larry), and I get a kick out of reading the product of brilliant minds even when (no, make that particularly when) they articulate why they hold positions I don't share. Or, for that matter, when they reach the same conclusions by a different path.

When I started this blog, I added several links at the side, from the very small number of blogs I had visited up to that time. Since that time, despite some active searching, I have not really supplemented that list. Part of it is that I have never bought into the triumphalism that Marshall describes. Part of it is that, on the whole, I find the secondary analysis of the news from professionally written editorials to be more satisfying than most of what I find on the web. (Granted, part of that comes from reading the columnists once or twice per week, rather than every day - can you imagine how heavy your eyelids would be if you had a daily or twice-daily dose of Safire?) Part of it is that the more prolific bloggers tend to ride the same issue, usually to death, or become little more than partisan clipping services - like truthout or townhall.com, but with a few fragmentary thoughts attached to the links. (And I'm not going to get into the diary, self-affirmation, and "pity party" segments of the "blogosphere" - I'm on a different continent.)

I have also given a fair amount of time to various bloggers endorsed by conventional wisdom, or "best bloggers" as declared by newspapers, and have generally been disappointed. Some do have moments of brilliance, but I am not interested in adding their more typical product to my daily reading list - I don't have the time to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Besides, if they post something exceptional, they'll probably get picked up by a "clipping service"-style blog and I'll see it anyway.) Others seem like self-righteous blowhards, and hard as I try I can't see how the myth of their genius got started. In some cases, the response of these individuals to anybody who dares question their genius is so over-the-top as to be comical - although the comedy is tempered by the realization that such people are probably very insecure in their beliefs, derive a very large part of their self-worth from the reputations they have secured by blogging, and have enormous anxiety about being "found out".)

A blog I follow, although with no small sense of ennui, recently pointed to an announcement of another blogger's retirement. That blogger first notes,
The real problem; and one that's been growing in intensity over the past year or so, is that there's an increasing lack of debate between various weblogs. Few people really want to challenge their own point of view, as far as I can see. Nobody really wants to debate any longer, they are just interested in scoring points. Some are condescending, some are defiant, some are just plain boring (this, for example). But nearly all of them just want to argue themselves into positions.
Personally, I don't see much value in debate "between" weblogs - you might as well complain that there aren't "letters to the editor" in the New York Times about articles published in the Washington Times.

But if you do look at the equivalent on many blogs - the comments section - you will often see an enormous hostility by the proponents of a blog at those who disagree with their positions. As I previously noted, part of that can be insecurity, but part of it is that many bloggers are no different from the majority of non-bloggers. That is, most people really don't like to think, let alone have to figure out why people disagree with the "obvious truths" that pour forth from their keyboards. So they shut off comments, engage in censorship, insult commenters in reply comments or in subsequent blog posts, and otherwise try to drum the dissenters out of their sphere.

This blogger also notes,
I feel that most of my favourite sites - the ones that have inspired me - have become indicative that we're painting ourselves into boxes. We spend more time talking about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war than about the things that unite the left.
I think that's correct, but in a "bigger picture" sense than "just the Iraq war". Over time, most bloggers tend to rehash the same issues over and over again. This person was initially drawn to the "inspirational" blogs by their war commentary, yet now - sixteen months after the war was launched - their sneering at those who took a different position on the war seems tired, overdone, banal... irrelevant. While some bloggers have different areas of obsession, some of which (unlike "should we go to war in March, 2003") remain topical, you can only cycle through the same set of ideas so many times before.... Before you feel like you're getting that twice-per-day dose of Safire.

After having previously noted that his blog receives significant traffic but not much commentary, this blogger's last contention is,
I don't write here to vent my spleen, but to try and interact with others; to hear how they feel, what they believe.
While many bloggers would endorse that position - that they blog to learn and grow - experience dictates that, for the most part, it isn't true. If it in fact was in this particular blogger's case, it is a shame that he is retiring.


  1. Aaron,

    Good post.

    I'm surprised at the hostility which sometimes obtains between discussants in the comments area of blogs - there's alot of heat, and little light. It can be entertaining, though, at least on occasion!

    Several years ago I read a decent book called "The Philosophical Programmer," which parenthetically discussed the moral dangers of warfare conducted computer terminal to computer terminal; pushing a button continents away from where the destruction would be wrought. I think that there's a bit of that "dynamic" in the blogosphere - it's easier to tear into somebody who's saying something that you don't like, when there's that "abstract" or removed quality. By contrast, personal acquaintance can be disarming.

    I plan on blogging on civility, and why I value it, so perhaps I ought to say less now ... especially 'cause I definitely am vulnerable to the shortcoming in blogging that you identified: incessantly circling around the same theme. It seems like more often than not I'm addressing Iraq, so I covet the opportunity to say something wholly unrelated to it.

    I think you strike an admirable balance in your posts between flagging articles, excerpting a section or two from a piece for comment, and occasionally writing something extended. If I'm remembering correctly, some time back you had a good, detailed vivisection of a Hitchens piece. I'd like to see you do more of that kind of stuff - bringing your strong analytical skills to bear; I love a good logical analysis.

    And, as far as those guys that you complimented earlier in the post ... I would imagine that they are grateful and reciprocate the sentiment.

    Paul (Craddick)

  2. Everything old is new again--viz. FidoNet, Usenet, BBSes.

    The one place I disagree with you is the analogy to letters in one newspaper about another. The nice feature blogs have that newspapers don't is the ability to follow trails. If Commenter A says something interesting, I can click to A's blog and see what else A is saying (whether or not I agree with A).

    One of the blogs I read regularly, Alas, A Blog, is well-done not because I usually agree with it and it's therefore right, but because the authors post links to other blogs they *dis*agree with, and with contrary positions, exhorting posters who wish to see different points of view to please be polite if they choose to join in the debate there.

    I'm afraid my own blog doesn't even rise to the level of journalism, except perhaps by op-ed standards of journalism.

  3. For the record, although the timing is remarkable, I was not aware of this when I composed this post (and obviously not this, which exemplifies some of my comments). That decision was apparently made while I writing....

    mythago, I don't want to overstate my case. The type of referential linking you describe can be valuable.

    Paul, while it can be fun to take apart somebody like "The Hitch" (or whatever his fans call him) when his work falls short of the mark, most of the time when editorials fall short it's like shooting ducks in a barrel, or just isn't that much fun to do. So I need good material and a dose of inspiration. But if you ever spot some good material for me to work with, please let me know - It's probably good for a chuckle and I may become inspired.

    Until I again find a good piece to work with, let me give you some generic dissections of particular columnists, which I hope will at least serve as an appetizer for a later entree.

    David Brooks - Does he make this stuff up? Um.... yeah, it looks like he does....

    Ann Coulter - Ann Coulter? Ed Anger? What's the difference.

    Ted Rall - Thank you for that fine contribution, Ted - it really opened my eyes. Here, have a cookie.

    Maggie Gallagher - Yes, Maggie, everybody really does hate Catholics. Even the Pope. Here, have a cookie.

    Nicholas Kristof - You were in the country for how long? Seventeen hours, including your overnight in a five star hotel? No wonder you have such remarkable insight into the various cultures of the developing world....

  4. Thomas Friedman.... I can't take credit for this one:

    "If journalists can't find news at the Democratic Convention -- and, it seems, no one can -- they can always take a page from the Thomas L. Friedman manual of reporting ("Everything I needed to know about outsourcing I learned from Harish, who drove me to my Mumbai hotel ..."). In other words, get "news" from their taxi driver on the way to or from the airport, hotel, or event they are supposed to be covering, incorporating the cabbie's wit and wisdom into an otherwise going-nowhere story."

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