First Set of Weblog Books Criticized

· Weblog Concepts

Charly Z tipped me off to this diss-cussion of the two Perseus blog books from Andrew Sullivan and Kurt Andersen in Slate today. Sullivan trots out most of the usual criticisms you hear about books that address online technology or trends:

It’s almost silly to write a dead-tree book about blogs anyway, don’t you think?

What does “almost silly” mean? Is he hedging?

The critical language of blogging—the hypertext links to other Web pages, for example—cannot even be translated into book form, and you end up with lame appendixes and footnotes crammed with Web addresses.

Of all people, for an old-media hound like Sullivan to trot out this argument, it shows a lack of critical thinking. Since when can’t you comment on one medium in another? Do blogs make books useless? I think not. It seems he’s falling into the imitative fallacy. The only way to describe blogs is through the medium of blogging itself? Perhaps Slate’s e-mail dialogue format yields this kind of sloppy thinking the way some say blogging does.
Next Sullivan goes after the clubby atmosphere of the early famous bloggers, perhaps an easier target:

Like year-rounders in a seaside resort, they both need and mock the tourists. Rebecca Blood, who wrote one book and introduces the other, oozes alternative-weekly, grass-roots-loving piety. Her ground-breaking definition of a blog is: “a coffeehouse conversation in text, with references as required.” Why does the word “coffeehouse” send me running for the exits?

This made me laugh, since the anthology of (pre-blog) web writing I coedited in 1997 was called Coffeehouse: Writing from the Web. However, I also cringed when I read that definition, as it seems like a perfect example of this habit of confusing one way that blogs have thus far been used for the essence of blogging.

Finally, Sullivan gives us the other commonplace:

Weblogs are pretty self-explanatory.

I’ll call this the early-adopter fallacy: “I figured out, so any dunce could.” From my technical publishing experience, I also remember, “Who would buy a book about Macs? They’re self explanatory.” (Ask David Pogue.) “Who would buy a book about AOL?” “…games?” etc.
Sure, any new enabling technology (and weblogging is nothing if not that) makes things so much easier that the first wave of adopters needs nothing more than their own bootstraps, but as the weblog model extends beyond the coffeehouse and technogeek set (and Sullivan uses pros for his site design, for example), who’s to say that the next wave of users wouldn’t appreciate some kind of handholding?
Now whether they want advice on how to write or how to fit into the existing culture is another question. I tend to think the next wave will want help getting their blogroll inserted into the page.
Sullivan hits the nail on the head, finally, when he says:

In an age of PR and marketing and media conglomerates, the blog stands apart, unvarnished, raw, unmediated. Even when you try not to reveal things about yourself, you do. … It ensures that you will occasionally blurt out things that are offensive, dumb, brilliant, or in tune with the way people actually think and speak in private. That means bloggers put themselves out there in far more ballsy fashion than many officially sanctioned pundits do, and they make fools of themselves more often, too. The only way to correct your mistakes or foolishness is in public, on the blog, in front of your readers. You are far more naked than when clothed in the protective garments of a media entity. But, somehow, you’re liberated as well as nude: blogging as a media form of streaking.

Andersen’s reply contains some of the same usual-suspect ideas:

We don’t need to say much more about either of these books, which seem pretty deeply unnecessary, as you suggest. … Too many bloggers remind me of Dennis Millers manqué or the comic-book store owner on The Simpsons … combined, in the Rebecca Bloods of the world, with Mr. Van Driessen, Beavis and Butt-head’s hippie teacher. In other words, passionate and smart but also irritating and smug and faintly, inescapably sad.

Then he comes down off his old/new media high horse to allow:

Because blogs tend to be intimate in a way first-person journalism seldom is, even bad or substantively boring blogs are revealing, which can be interesting (up to a point). At best it’s the pleasure of watching smart peoples’ brains at work in real time… the intellectual and rhetorical choices they make, the dots they connect, the obsessions they wittingly and unwittingly reveal.

He also makes an apt analogy, just as e-mail seems like a resurrection of an older epistolary tradition, blogging seems to hark back to the days when people of letters self-published their ideas (in Latin, usually) and made them available to the (then, much smaller) audience of colleagues, wrote in diaries, and created commonplace books:

As modern as they are in their instantaneity, blogs, like e-mail, seem winningly old-fashioned to me. E-mail enabled the revival of an essentially dead epistolary tradition. And blogs remind me of nothing so much as the published diaries of the 19th-century New York patricians Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, whose daily diary entries consisted of frank, pithy commentary on trends and important news interwoven with vivid personal glimpses of metropolitan life.

Andersen, responding to Sullivan’s dig about the money Inside.com lost, then confesses:

Lately, however, thinking about blogs, I have entertained a retrospective fantasy about a kind of endowed blog model that would have been interesting to try with Inside.com: If we had put the capital we raised into Treasury bills, we’d have had $1.5 million a year in income, with which we could’ve employed and published our best dozen reporter-commentators forever.

And ends with the now-familiar meme “Wasn’t X actually the first blogger?”:

By the way, format aside, wasn’t Jim Cramer, filing a dozen dispatches a day on TheStreet.com in 1996, really the first blogger?