Blogging Is Legacy Technology: The Proof

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 14 2011 @ 10:42am

by Jonathan Rauch

My doughty, authoritative criticisms (here and here) seem to have just about brought the blogosphere to its knees. Looking over some of the responses, I'd have to say that a lot of people either help make my point or miss it altogether. You can look here, here, here, and here for some of the smarter responses. They fall into a few categories.

"You're Comparing Apples and Oranges." The blogosphere is intended to be ephemeral, so accept it on its own terms.

Good advice, if only bloggers would follow it. As I keep saying, I'd have a better attitude about the blogosphere if it presented itself as a flea market instead of a revolution in human affairs. The MSM, imho, is way less self-congratulatory than the blogosphere.

"So's Your Mother." There's lots of bad stuff in old media, so nyah-nyah.

Right. My claim is not that old media are perfect, it's that blogging is a format that makes producing good stuff difficult, which is why there's much less good stuff in the blogosphere.

Dan Blatt: "As if mainstream journalism had produced much of distinction or durability in the same time frame." Well, actually: it has. I can think of many recent articles from The New Yorker and The Atlantic that struck me as memorable and beautiful (not even counting my own), and that's just two magazines.

As for newspapers, they produce news, which is a form of knowledge, which is important and durable insofar as it is true. If I had to wave a magic wand and make either the Associated Press or the entire blogosphere disappear, I would certainly keep the A.P.  No contest.

"You're a Geezer." I don't get it, I'm old fashioned, I don't understand the new media, I don't use the right filter doodads on my thingamajiggy, etc.

Now, as someone whose stereo is full of vacuum tubes, and as a self-proclaimed radical incrementalist, I can't say this charge lacks merit. But it doesn't prove anything, either. In fact, it misses my point, which is: No, blogosphere, you're old. The app supports the fundamental human desire to engage in a sustained way with narrative and argument, which is why it will displace blogging as a medium of cultural importance. Blogging is a cultural dead end, trapped by its own idiosyncracies: links and comments and other ADD-inducing emanations and penumbrances of HTML circa 1995.

"Average Quality Doesn't Matter." As long as you and your RSS thingamajiggy can find good stuff in the numerator, it's irrelevant if the denominator gets more and more common. Adam Ozimek:

The average quality of blog posts, books, or any media, is relevant to the reader only to the extent that this increases the cost of finding what they read. In this way, complaining about the average quality of blogs is like a fisherman complaining about the average quality of fish in a lake rather than the quality of the fish he caught and how long it took to catch them. Also like fishing, the more time you spend reading blogs the better you get at reeling in good ones, and the less average quality matters to you. Being a clear novice, Rauch is probably pulling in a lot of small, inedible fish, and a fair share of boots.

In my world, if the fish in a lake are getting small and sickly and are being replaced by boots, I'm alarmed. There's something wrong with the environment.

Every time someone who could have done good science does sloppy science, or does worse journalism instead of better journalism, or mediocre writing instead of fine writing, it's a loss. When resources are scarce—and of course human talent is the most scarce and precious resource of all—it matters if blogging is inducing ADD in many of our best writers and thinkers, or driving talent away altogether.

I watch with growing concern as young journalists get channeled into content mills where they post three, seven, who knows how many blog snippets a day. I spoke with one young guy who told me he puts up seven posts a day and would like to break into longer form by doing only three.  One of the most promising young journalists I know couldn't take it and quit for medical school. Another young writer tells me he longs to "get off the hamster wheel."

To learn writing and thinking in this environment is to be conditioned to compete with a blizzard of links and ads and comments and emails and IMs and…and…and… You can't assume the reader will stay with you beyond the next link. You learn to deliver a payoff in every sentence and apply attitude with a trowel. Once you acclimate to pushy, punchy blogspeak, the habit can be hard to break. 

Some bloggers and snippet-crunchers manage to do good work despite being handicapped by a terrible medium. All credit to them. But too many will never develop beyond blogspeak. The "old" way has its flaws, of course, but it is much, much better at challenging talent to do its best work.

Fortunately, in the dawning world of Atavist and Byliner and Kindle Singles and more emerging every day, the old is new again. Blogging is legacy technology.

And, yes, I admire David Broder.