Blogging and the curse of coolness
In 2004 the Merriam-Webster dictionary pronounced 'blog' the 'word of the year', and in 2005 the media revealed that a new blog was being created every second.
Today, though, blogs are out of fashion. A survey reported by the New York Times showed that blogging is fast losing popularity amongst younger people, who are much more enamoured of newer internet platforms like facebook and twitter. A Pew Research Centre survey of thousands of American web users suggests that blogging is also losing its appeal for older folks. The proprietor of Gombeen Nation, one of Ireland's most popular blogs, recently observed that, thanks to steadily falling readerships, his competitors 'are dropping like flies'. The internet is now littered with the hulks of abandoned blogs.
Blogging is in decline because it conflicts with both the profit drive of capitalist corporations and the consciousness of contemporary internet users.
Corporations find it relatively difficult to make money out of blogging - the potential for advertising is limited, compared to that available at e mail sites, facebook, and twitter, where new internet 'pages' are opened much more often. Blogging has failed to attract many of the celebrities - actors, musicians, sportspeople - whose tweets and facebook updates are followed by huge and lucrative audiences.
If blogging is out of tune with twenty-first century capitalism, it is also at odds with the thought patterns of many of the residents of developed societies. The millions of citizens who created accounts at sites like blogger.com, LiveJournal, and Wordpress soon ran out of enthusiasm for their new hobby, as the prospect of regularly turning out posts hundreds or thousands of words long came to seem oppressive rather than liberating.
With its draconian restrictions on word length, twitter spares its users the troublesome task or advancing and defending arguments. Slogans, non-sequitirs, and in-jokes replace premises and citations. Just as the brutally abbreviated 20-20 form of cricket removes most of the distinctions between good and bad players, so twitter destroys much of the difference between good and bad thinking. Martin Guptill can make a 20-20 half-century, and Charlie Sheen can become a literary star on twitter.
It is telling that politicians, who were generally rather unenthusiastic about blogging, have become some of the most prolific and popular tweeters. Political soundbites and slogans have been growing shorter and more fatuous for decades, and twitter is the perfect medium for the shortest and most fatuous of them.
With its endless opportunities for self-indulgence, facebook offers a similar escape from the tyranny of thought.
The popular abandonment of blogs in favour of twitter, facebook and other internet platforms that prioritise brevity and insouciance is part of a wider tendency in our culture. As Nicholas Carr has observed in his famous essay 'Is Google making us stupid?' and his follow-up book The Shallows, the internet is being used to enforce a 'Taylorisation' of the modern mind.
Just as the Taylorist method of factory management seeks to get higher and higher yields from workers by dividing their time into smaller and smaller portions and making their tasks more and more specific, so companies like Google are today trying, with the help of technology, to speed up and simplify our thinking. As workers become accustomed to speed-reading and multitasking at their computer terminals, their brains are, to some extent at least, rewired, so that they find it harder to do the sort of 'deep' reading and thinking which literature and serious political discourse demand. Blogging - good blogging, anyway - becomes more onerous, and the inanities of twitter and facebook become more appealing.
Whenever I wonder whether blogging will survive the second decade of the twenty-first century, I think of Alex Wild's The Constant Losers. In Wild's novel, which was published late in 2010 and recently received some well-deserved praise from Landfall, a young man and woman conduct a strange dialogue through the fanzines they self-publish and the cassette mix tapes they create and circulate.
The protagonists of The Constant Losers are twenty-something hipsters, familiar with the topography and nightlife of the bohemian zones of Auckland. Both characters are nevertheless preoccupied with the artefacts left behind by a pre-internet, pre-digital era of youth culture. For most members of their generation, the cassette anthology and the photocopied, stapled-together fanzine seem to require pointless amounts of solitary labour, and appear mendaciously resistant to the desires of readers and listeners. Their tracks and pages cannot be skipped or rearranged, or posted to a filesharing forum. But Wild's characters are enchanted by the fustiness of their cassettes and their fanzines. The scarcities and uncertainties inherent in old-fashioned DIY publishing excite them, as they seek rare issues of fanzines in the freebie racks of inner city music shops. They enthuse over the clunky fragility of their tapes, as well as the archaic hissing and sighing sounds which the cassettes impose like overdubs on the tunes they collect.
Some of Wild's readers have considered her novel a homage to youth and coolness, but I prefer, in my uncool, curmudgeonly way, to see the text as a dig at a civilisation addicted to technological and cultural innovation. Wild's characters rebel against the twenty-first century not by stripping off their clothes and heading for the nearest forest, but by retrieving and aestheticising the obsolete innovations of their parents' generation. Like Joseph Cornell, who made surreal worlds out of old-fashioned objects arranged in boxes, or Laurence Aberhart, who uses Victorian technology to photograph contemporary New Zealand, the heroes of The Constant Losers are determined to find a future in the past. The architecture of Wild's novel complements its theme. The Constant Losers appears, on the surface, to be a chaotic work, consisting as it does of fascimile-style 'reproductions' of the protagonists' respective fanzines. With their zany fonts, smudged black and white images, and corny or esoteric headlines, the zines don't initially look very considered, let alone artful.
But a closer examination of The Constant Losers reveals the author's almost classical concern with form. As they take turns entreating each other, Wild's protagonists balance and stabilise her text. The Constant Losers can be considered a novel of letters, in the tradition of Dostoevsky's Poor Folk and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Like her characters, Alex Wild refuses to prioritise fashion over history.
Blogging may have been superseded by new and inferior innovations, but the medium need not die. Indeed, bloggers should treat the rise of alternative forms of online communication as a liberation, rather than a disaster. Freed from the curse of coolness, blogging can now develop as a literary and artistic genre, or set of genres. Blogging may have lost some of its old practitioners, but it should be able to attract writers, artists, and political thinkers dissatisfied with the short attention span of twitter and the ritualised onanism of facebook. Blogging may become an act of resistance against the dumbing down of culture and political discourse in the twenty-first century.
Here in New Zealand, Richard Taylor's exciting, perplexing Eyelight is exploring the aesthetic possibilities of the hyperlink, and testing the limits of the internet 'page'. On a series of quieter but equally strange sites, Jack is showing that the blog can become a sort of cultural memory bank. Ross' A Gentle Madness documents his bibliomania, while his edition of the late Leicester Kyle's lost works is bringing an important writer out of the shadows. With his insistence on publishing one seriously researched blog-essay at the same time every week, Giovanni Tiso is using blogging to make a stand against our culture's tendency towards brevity and superficiality. Over at the Kea and Cattle blog, the newly-minted Rhodes Scholar Andrew Dean has been showing that wild eclecticism and intellectual rigour can go together, as he publishes mini-essays about subjects as different as depressed cricketers, South Island regionalism, Rilke, and The Simpsons.
Like the characters in Alex Wild's first novel, today's bloggers are consciously rejecting fashion, and showing the possibilities inherent in a supposedly outmoded medium of communication.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]