Blogging, Cont’d: Reply to That Ninny Alex Massie

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 12 2011 @ 8:45pm

by Jonathan Rauch

I'm disappointed in the ninny Alex Massie's imbecilic response to my rant about the blogosphere. Not one personal insult! Not one noun like "ninny" or one adjective like "imbecilic"! (Not even a "fucking.")

Well, of course Alex isn't a ninny, and his response wasn't imbecilic. But that's not the point.

The point is: This is the blogosphere. I'm not getting paid to be here. I'm here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else. The way I get famous is by hurling insults at other people I disagree with, or by sneering and taking cheap shots and overreacting and whatnot, and—here's the really important part, Alex—BY BEING INSULTED BACK. That way I can be "provocative" and a subject of "controversy," which will bring me "eyeballs," and therefore "hits" and "clicks," which somehow will get me paid. (Tina Brown: Are you listening?)

Instead, what do I get called? "Refined and sensible and intelligent." That and $2 will get me on the subway. Get with the program, Alex. It's the internet era, baby. Lay it on. (Need help? Go here.)

Unfortunately, Alex did have some smart things to say. (Shouldn't he be writing for money?) Also unfortunately, they're all the things that blogosphere defenders usually say. Those things have the virtue of being largely true, and the vice of being mostly beside the point.

Basically, the argument is that the internet is a really, really big place, and it's unfiltered (which, in a democracy, we're all supposed to love), and it makes a lot of old content more available, and it brings a lot of new content into being, and a lot of the old content (poetry, novels) wasn't any good anyway, and you can find good stuff if you try because there's good stuff out there, and, anyway, it's meaningless to criticize "the internet," because the internet is so big and diverse.

We agree on all of that, except maybe the unfiltered part. (Life, like swimming pools, is too messy to manage without filters; cognition itself is a filter.) But so what? I'm not here to defend poetry, God knows. If I had to choose between the blogosphere and modern poetry as the last form of literature, I'd probably choose suicide. I don't deny that the blogosphere makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality, but that reminds me of the old joke about the food being bad but at least the portions are large. And, frankly, if the blogosphere held itself out as nothing more than a bunch of random stuff that might occasionally be entertaining, rather than a New Model for Journalism (And Who Needs David Broder Anyway!), I'd have a better attitude about it.

So here's what I'm saying.

1) The internet is great. I buy a lot of stuff there. Pay my bills. Do Wikipedia research. Read foreign news. Yay. Thanks, internet! My gripe is with its discursive elements. Primarily the blogosphere and (ugh!) comments.

2) Pace Alex, the average quality of newspapers and (published) novels is far, far better than the average quality of blog posts (and—ugh!—comments). This is because people pay for newspapers and novels. What distinguishes newspapers and novels is how much does not get published in them, because people won't pay for it. Payment is a filter, and a pretty good one. Imperfect, of course. But pointing out the defects of the old model is merely changing the subject if the new model is worse.

3) If we had but world enough and time (that's poetry, btw), we could search for good stuff all day long and the average low quality of the blogosphere might not matter. But average people on average time-budgets have to care if average quality drops, because that's what they're dealing with on an average day. (The same will be true, by the way, of historians. Can you imagine the task they'll face, wading through all that online dreck?)

4) Yes, the new model is bringing a lot of new content into being. But most of it is bad. And it's displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality. Even in the information economy, there's no free lunch. This is why I have such high hopes for the app: it can restore the economic viability of subscription models that deliver quality to discerning audiences.

5) Yes, there's good stuff out there. But when you find a medium in which 99 percent, or whatever, of what's produced is bad, there is a problem with the medium. It's as if someone replaced the ball-point pen with the spray-paint can and said, "Here, write a book!" What you'll get is a very short book scribbled on the side of a building.

I believe there are inherent problems with the blogosphere as a medium. Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness; links and onscreen clutter militate against holding a reader's attention; instantaneousness militates against impulse control; the desktop and laptop screen are physically uncomfortable for reading. Result: induced ADD, in both writers and readers. (Again, the app and the handheld/tablet will go a long way toward resolving those problems by providing cleaner, less distracting reading environments, more akin to a traditional magazine or paperback book.)

I have to agree that not everything in the blogosphere is awful. But I don't have to agree that all media are created equal. In terms of the environment and the incentives it creates, the blogosphere, I submit, is the single worst medium for sustained, and therefore grown-up, reading and writing and argumentation ever invented.

By the way, I didn't do a second draft of this post. I'm doubt any of what I just said will pass the test of time. But did I make you want to call me names? Please?