Saturday, December 20, 2008

The depth of blogging

A lot has been written on the significance of blogging; my stance has been, so far, that blogging is not as significant as some people would like to think it is. Sure, I'd like to think that I'm changing minds and hearts through the power of my thinking and the eloquence of my prose, even if it's only in a "contributing to the global consciousness" sort of way. We all want to believe that anything on which we spend a great deal of time is important, but, just as, after you're gone, your kids will throw out that end table you lovingly fashioned, the vast majority of the words we write are vanishing into the ether as fast as we can churn them out.

There are a few blogs that have become more mainstream, that seem important because they get thousands of hits and hundreds of comments a day, that appear to be little media outlets all on their own. Many of them have affiliations with existing publications or organizations, like Kevin Drum at Mother Jones or the vast stable of Atlantic Monthly bloggers (I'm not sure what they're doing there, but they have stockpiled some kind of talent - Sullivan, Douthat, Coates, McArdle, Fallows, and more). There have been several graphical depictions of the blogosphere (unfortunately, I can't find one now when I need it), and they generally show these as segmented clusters, with a big political clump, and one for sports, and another for cooking, and so on. All the well-known names in each category are in the clumps, and the rest of us just isolated off in space.

What would be even more interesting is for the graphmakers to show directionality, demonstrating how much more likely it is for me to link to Sullivan than for Sullivan to link to me (as an aside, the effect of a "wrong-way" link is remarkable; Eric Zorn linked to me a few weeks ago, and my readership shot up for a few days - apparently, I don't have a lot of staying power, as the numbers bounced back down). We would see just how much mindshare some blogs have, and I think we would find that, in whichever cluster we choose, there is a gravitational tendency. Some blogs will remain popular no matter what they do, and new voices will have a hard time breaking in, unless they're institutionally supported in some way (anyone The Atlantic puts up is going to get big numbers).

This all puts pay to the idea that the Internet will support thousands of distinct voices. Instead, we're seeing some blogs become virtually canonical, others not so much. This clustering is, of course, what you'd expect. After all, there's only so much time in the day; my feed reader is easily filled by the 54 feeds I get now (and many of these are dead, near-dead, or once-a-day posters). Just to keep up with Sullivan, Yglesias, and Drum is more than I can handle some days. I'm not out scouting around for more reading material. With everything I have to do, it takes a lot to convince me to follow anyone else.

Which brings me to another form of segmentation. Many of the more popular bloggers are real writers, that is, they're paid for it. So they tend to put their dashed-off stuff on the Web, reserving the longer or harder pieces for some form of (paid-for) print medium. For me, on the other hand, this is it. I have no other outlet for my writing, so some of my pieces are long and filled with every thought I've ever had on the subject. If I want to express something, I do it here; the pros may wave their hands on the blog while reserving the deep stuff for the cents-by-the-word articles.

And I sometimes forget that. What I was originally going to write was a critical post about Matt Yglesias, who has recently published posts about jobs and transportation that I found facile and simplistic. He is one of those who writes blithely that we need to help the people instead of the companies, then offers up little more than extended unemployment benefits and worker retraining as solutions. He writes, as he often does, about congestion pricing for our roads and parking (as he did here), talks about setting fares and fees intelligently, but gives no details as to how we might actually accomplish this. (He also spoke here a bit too casually about the relationship between free parking and business vitality; there's a big cause-and-effect problem in what he's writing here.)

But then he writes an excellent post yesterday on education. In it, he talks about all the things we could do that we absolutely know would make our schools better (prompted by a trip he just took to Finland, a place where they pretty much do all those things). And he writes, in conclusion:

But even though I don’t think anyone would really dispute any of that, we don’t just do that stuff. Instead, we’re trapped in a frustrating circle of passive acceptance of the idea that we just have to live in a country where public services are ill-funded and poorly delivered. And it’s not just that conservatives block reforms — progressives have let their horizons slip incredibly low. A country that once built transcontinental railroads and sent people to the moon has decided that for some reason it’d just be impossible to solve our current social problems. And when you point out to people that there are countries where the political system has taken decisive action to tackle these challenges, people kind of shrug and observe that the United States is very big. Which is true. But the country was also big years ago when we were building the world’s first mass literacy society. Indeed, it used to be considered advantageous to the United States that we were so big and people used to wonder whether small countries weren’t just inherently stuck in poverty.

The truth of the matter, however, isn’t that our problems couldn’t be solved it’s that we’re not seriously trying. And we’ve developed a political culture in which that’s considered okay.

And this is dead on the mark, and confounding, and frustrating, and I realize that Yglesias probably does have a good handle on the issues he discusses (even when I don't agree with him). But it is likely the form of blogging prevents him from pursuing the larger implications of what he writes, sometimes.

So, now, because the market for journalistic writing has become fragmented, I have to figure out the motivation of the writer before I comment. If Sullivan seems to just glide through a particular post, it may not be that his thinking is faulty or that he's missed something; it may just be that the really deep stuff is going to be in his next magazine article or next book.

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