In Praise of Blogs, a Brief Overlapping Typology

The number of reactions you get to the word “Blog” is only slightly smaller than the total number of blogs in existence. In some circles, bringing up blogs in conversation will result in patient skepticism, derision, or simple confusion; in others, it can lead to name-dropping enthusiasm, technofuturist forecasting, or old-news shrugging . I know computer-savvy 20-somethings with smartphones and overactive Twitter accounts who think of blogs only as the things you make on Blogger.com to write home about your semester abroad. I’ve met middle-aged professors who consider blogging to be an important part of their professional work. Blogs are a nice tool to keep in touch with friends; or, they are for solipsistic navel-gazers; or, they are responsible for the destruction of the news ecosystem and the polarization of public life. There are a number of popular conceptions of blogs, not all of which are flattering.

In this post, I’d like to offer a typology of the functions of blogs that I most enjoy. I’m not going to get into the (fascinating and tedious) arguments about what you might call “blogs as a phenomenon” – arguments about their general role in media, intellectual merit, etc. Instead, I’m introducing a bit of my Philosophy of Blog – what blogs can be and can do, the particular aspects of the form that I enjoy. As a typology, it’ll be non-exhaustive and semi-overlapping. For instance, I’m only considering blogs that have some sort of intended public audience – that is, more than the family-and-friends-style blogs, which are wonderful in their own way but a different kind of animal.

Staying true to blog style, I thought I would write it as a list with pulled quotes from some of my recent reading:

1. The blog as Wunderkammer. I owe my use of this term to one of my favorite bloggers, Jason Kottke. He links to an article from the old webzine Feed that summarizes the idea nicely:

The genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums — to the “cabinet of wonders,” or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects…reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing… these days we’re obliged to recognize that indexes and search engines are themselves barely adequate to the job of taming the data storm, that grows far faster than their ability to filter it.

Looking at a blog as a Wunderkammer is in some ways just extending the “semester abroad” style blog – a collection of things you’ve stumbled upon and the thoughts they aroused. It’s just that instead of writing from Italy, you’re writing from the Internet.

2. The blog as a reader’s medium. For this one I’ll pull from Christopher John Farley’s project to blog his way through Infinite Jest. Along the way, he writes:

I think blogging and online journalism actually may be the best form to discuss and analyze  works of art (and ultimately enjoy and appreciate them more).  A print story can be inert–a stone tablet brought down from a mountain. Books about books are often unread, or go so far up their author’s behind as to be supremely irreverent to most readers…I’m going to try to keep my blog about “Infinite Jest” open to the reactions of readers–if anyone’s actually reading this, and perhaps that will make it more accountable as well. I hope in the end it’s amusing, but also something more than that.

I think Farley’s feelings apply to more than just works of art – really, you can apply them to anything that is at least partially shareable online. The generally short, quote-heavy medium of a blog is perfect for reflecting on and sharing content written by somebody else. The openness adds just a little bit of accountability to the writing, without adding so much seriousness as to prevent the sharing from happening in the first place.

3. Blogs as thumb tacks for ideas. Turning now to Anil Dash’s “If You Didn’t Blog It, It Didn’t Happen:” 

Sometimes, we just have ideas we’re pondering. Maybe we aren’t sure of the full implications of something we’ve noticed, but we want to help catalyze a conversation…Capturing those ephemeral moments of observation in a permanent and persistent form is essential for the ideas to mature into something larger.

It might strike some people as funny to emphasize the ‘permanence’ and ‘persistence’ of blogs, which themselves seem somewhat ephemeral in contrast to the printed word. In the article, Dash is comparing blogging to using Twitter. But I’d say his point is equally applicable to the offline analogue of casual conversation, in which ideas can dissolve faster even than a tweet. It’s nice to pin down an idea to come back to later; it’s even nicer when people like Jonathan Bernstein or Tyler Cowen do so in a public fashion that lets the rest of us appreciate what we might not otherwise get a chance to hear.

4. Blogs as alimentary canal. This one is my own metaphor, so I’ll just quote Wikipedia:

Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into smaller components that are more easily absorbed into a blood stream. In mammals, food enters the mouth, being chewed by teeth, with chemical processing beginning with chemicals in the saliva from the salivary glands…

I think you can fill in the rest. The point of the metaphor is that, in being Wunderkammers, reading logs, and public thumb tacks, blogs serve as collective processors for many of the chunks of ideas and information that we all generate and encounter every day. After all of that processing, some of those chunks go on to give energy to all the non-blog thinking, talking, and writing that goes on in the world. As for the writing that doesn’t seem relevant to the rest of the world, well, even this most positive of typologies must acknowledge that blogs produce a certain amount of effluent whose only “cabinet of wonders” should be a porcelain bowl.

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