Thursday, February 8, 2007

Not exactly a blog yet

This is not yet a blog, but I set it up because (for reasons that should be obvious) I wanted to call "dibs" on a particular idea.

Students of Marshall McCluhan will be familiar with his saying, "The medium is the message." What McCluhan meant by that was that each particular means of communication has its own way of conveying information: A TV show can be "about" any number of subjects, but it is first of all "about" TV -- that is to say, it is about images and sound. TV is not a book, it is not a newspaper, it is not any other form of communication, and it can only convey messages in certain ways. Furthermore, there are some messages which TV is most effective at delivering (e.g., advertising) and the medium has characteristics to which any message must be adapted in order to be effective. Thus, the phenomenon of television -- its intrinsic characteristics --- has an independent effect on the content of what is televised. Ergo, the medium is the message.

The advance of computer-based communications technology has met with resistance in some quarters of journalism from the very outset. It is not unusual to meet some old-timers who proudly boast that they don't use computers. George Will insists on writing his columns in manuscript, as if he were still in an old-fashioned grammar school, where "writing" included grades for penmanship. (The sloppiness of my left-handed scrawl always resulted in the automatic deduction of one letter grade so that -- although I have since spent 20 years as a professional writer -- I never once was able to get better than a "B" in writing.)

I think that the word "computer" is a big reason for this resistance to computer technology. Some of us are old enough to remember when a "computer" meant a giant room-sized thing with blinking lights and spinning tape reels that worked on IBM punch cards. "Computers" were the province of science fiction films, or conveniently sinister weapons used by some James Bond villain plotting to take over the world. Folks under 40, who started using Apples or PCs when they were still children, have no idea what a cultural prejudice against computers there is (or at least, was) among some old-timers.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, nearly all newspapers were being "paginated" -- that is, the layout and pasteup was being done on a computer screen, rather than by the cold-type pasteup method that had replaced the hot-lead Linotype-era method. While working at the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, I was the designated "guinea pig" for our company's entry into pagination; it was there I learned to use Quark, PhotoShop, etc., and it was always a hands-on, learn-as-you-go kind of thing.

(Diversion for a pet peeve: Why do some people never learn to use basic keyboard commands? I get annoyed every time I say to someone, "Page Up," and they start to reach for the mouse instead of hitting the "Page Up" key, which is what I mean when I say, "Page Up." It is much quicker to hit "Page Up" than to reach for the mouse, click on the scroll bar and scroll upward in the window. If you are in the business of words -- e.g., journalism -- learning keyboard commands is like a magic formula for productivity, because you lose "time on task" everytime you reach for the mouse. Anything that keeps you from having to reach for the mouse -- e.g., Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V to define, copy and paste, rather than using the mouse to point-and-click with pull-down menus -- will save you time. This is not rocket science. Anybody can learn this stuff. But some people get so habituated to reaching for the mouse that, even after you point out to them the easier way to do something, they refuse to adopt the superior method.)

Here's the important thing: I didn't learn to paginate because I felt some gee-whiz enthusiasm about the marvels of computer technology. I learned to paginate because this was a tool that my employer wanted to use to put out the newspaper. Frankly, I am sort of a technophobe -- I don't know how to hook up a DVD player (that's what teenage sons are for) or burn a CD. But when working with computers is your day-to-day job -- editing photos, designing pages, etc. -- that experience tends to demystify the technology.

It was during the 1990s, while I was serving as pagination guinea pig at the Rome News-Tribune, that the Internet developed as a mass medium. This was another place where I was kind of a first-in-the-water guy, writing columns about the Internet at a time when most other newspaper people didn't know a URL from a BBS. As with pagination, the experience of being online regularly tended to demystify the medium. I was routinely using the Internet for research years before the arrival of Google.

(Another pet-peeve diversion: Why do some people not seem to understand the beauty of simultaneously operating multiple browser windows? My home page is set for Google. When I log onto the 'Net, the first thing I do is create multiple windows -- Cntrl+N -- and set one window for Memeorandum, just so I can stay on top of the blogs. I'll open another window for my e-mail, and so on, depending one what I'm doing. I always have at least one Google home page open, in case I need to research something. As I'm Googling, I open results with a right-click -- Apple-click for Mac users -- to create a new window and keep the original results available. That way, if the result doesn't turn out to have everything I'm looking for, I can toggle -- Alt+Tab -- back to the search and either choose a different result or refine my search terms. At this particular moment, I've got 31 Explorer windows open. That makes perfect sense to me, but other people don't seem to grasp the benefit of this.)

The same kind of gripes that I'd heard about pagination from technophobic newsroom colleagues, I also heard about the Internet. In the mid-90s, the big rap against the Internet was that there wasn't any way to make it pay. Of course, 10 years later, the Internet is now a huge money-maker -- one ad at DailyKos costs $3,000 per week -- but nobody could envision that in the days before PayPal, Amazon, Fandango, etc. Other typical anti-Web beefs heard 10 or 12 years ago included the idea that the Internet is a waste of time (as if watching TV isn't generally a waste of time, yet still lucrative as a business) and that most people don't enjoy sitting around in front of a computer (as opposed to sitting around in front of a TV).

Nowadays, of course, most people use the Internet for so many different things they don't even think twice about it. Just think about Mapquest, for example. Anytime anybody under 40 wants to go somewhere they've never been before -- like when they get an invitation to a friend's wedding, for example -- they will get directions from Mapquest. It's just automatic, a given, a thing taken for granted.

And now the blogs

I am told that there are currently 56 million blogs. That's probably inflated somehow (as if every MySpace page were a blog) and it is certain that very few of what they are counting as blogs are oriented toward news and politics. Based on my experience in spring 2006 blogging at Donkey Cons (where our best month was 9,000 hits) you have to be fairly active just to average a few hundred hits a day.

There are certainly fewer than 50,000 news/politics blogs that regularly attract any significant readership and, as Jon Henke likes to say, 90% of everything is crap. Most blogs aren't really good. Most don't have anything significant to say. The few hundred blogs that stick around and develop something of a following are in some way better than the rest -- the bloggers who create or contribute to them actually add something useful to the discussion. So when a Joseph Rago starts trashing blogs generically, he's mashing together into one big wad a bunch of blogs (and a bunch of bloggers) that are really quite different.

It doesn't require any journalistic training -- or any special insight, or even basic literacy -- to throw up a Blogspot page. But to attract readers and keep them coming back for more, if I may paraphrase Billy Preston, you gotta have something. That "something" may be a snarky sense of humor (like Wonkette, Allahpundit or Ace of Spades), or it might be some special area of expertise (like the "milbloggers" at Blackfive), but the blogs that succeed do so for a reason.

To trash "blogs" generically is to trash, on the one hand, people like Instapundit (whose site doesn't even have comments) and, on the other hand, the big membership group blogs like Townhall, Red State and DailyKos, where anybody can create their own account and start blogging. Very different things, as I said ...

Bloggers, with few exceptions, aren't "journalists" (another term that lumps together a lot of very different things). Most bloggers don't pretend to be journalists, or want to be journalists, or consider that what they're doing is the same thing as being journalists. Bloggers are not going to replace journalists, any more than TV has replaced radio or magazines or newspapers. A blog is a medium -- a means of communications -- that has its own unique characteristics, its own strengths and weaknesses.

An essay with links is not a blog

One of the weaknesses of blogging as a medium is that it favors short-form expression: a few links to timely news stories, a quick comment or two, and then on to the next thing. It is possible to do actual reporting on a blog, although few people do so. It is a medium peculiarly suited to short attention spans.

Because of the medium's predisposition to the brief, the timely, and the ephemeral, nobody in their right mind would use a blog to post a 2,000-word essay, but, as I said, this is not a blog yet -- and nobody has ever accused me of being in my right mind.

Which brings me to the thing about blogging that distinguishes it from every other medium of mass communication: Anybody can try it. There are effectively zero barriers to entry. If you have a computer with Internet access, you can blog. No publisher, no editor, no producer. No application to fill out. No need to send a query and wait for a reply -- nothing. Just log on, write and publish.

Of course, there's no guarantee that anybody will read what you write, and very little prospect that you'll make a cent from your writing on the blogosphere, but you can put it out there for anybody to read.

On the one hand, I could write a 2,000-word essay on blogging, send it The New Republic, and never hear back from them -- the editors at The New Republic are a bunch of liberal snobs who don't know me from Adam's housecat. Unless you are a member of the tiny clique of people whom the editors of The New Republic consider important, it doesn't matter how well you write, or what you have to say, there is no point even bothering to try to offer something to them on a freelance basis. The old saying about "who you know, not what you know" is quite true in publishing. If you wonder why you find yourself bored to death by most of what's in The New Republic, it's because the editors would rather publish tedious articles by their tiny clique of friends than to publish anything remotely interesting by somebody they don't know.

So, finding myself in a mood to share a few observations about the blogosphere, I wrote it -- just the way it came into my head, pet peeves and all -- and put it up on the Web.

This is not a blog, but it is an essay attempting to explain (in part) how the blogosphere works as a medium, what its distinct nature is, and why it has become popular. Probably nobody will read this. But if you do read this, please (a) buy my book, and (b) be advised that the comments are moderated.