May 12, 2003

Blogito Ergo Sum?

I've been thinking about how bizarrely self-conscious an activity is blogging.

Turbulent Velvet has a really interesting post in which he argues that blogging is like letter-writing, which he understands in earlier, indeed in 18th-century, terms:

"Letters inhabit a kind of middle ground between writing and orality. They are written, but they are formally dialogic in much the same way that speech is. Letters exist in the context of an ongoing correspondence--they proceed by turn-taking, they respond to previous mentions and 'calls,' and they anticipate responses, which means that any statement made in a letter may have to be elaborated or revised or rescinded across narrative time in dialogue with another person. Statements are never finished in letterwriting the way they are in a 'closed' form like an essay, which does not open itself formally to dialogue in the same raw way."

Like 18th-century epistolarity, T.V. suggests, blogging takes place somewhere between privacy and publicity. I like this because it allows me to think of blogging as a social form: not quite public but not fully private, either: somewhere in that intermediary social realm that falls in between.

So it's not keeping a private diary and then publishing one's innermost thoughts and musings on a website. Or it shouldn't be, if you want to have any readers. Aha! There is always the consciousness of readers, and of their responses, and then of one's own responses to their responses. Back and forth we go, from blog to blog, entry to comment, and back again.

And yet there's no getting away from the self-consciousness. I am sometimes amazed (occasionally even appalled) by my keeping a blog, it sometimes strikes me as altogether too self-indulgent an activity. The "I" that is all over these pages: who is this "I" and what am I doing? What a massively insignificant authorial intrusion into cyberspace. Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing or something or just what, exactly? Is this a feat of derring-do? Hell no, it's more an act of sheer folly.

Then, too, I sometimes worry that I'll start thinking in blogbytes.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 12, 2003 01:45 AM

There is always the element of 'conversation' between the writer and reader of anything that is written with an audience in mind. Diaries are usually not written with an audience in mind..unless its a diary written by a polical figure or someone along those lines who intends that it become part of a body of papers handed down to 'posterity'. Does one write differently depending on who is going to read it..sure. As long as one knows that, its acceptable. Motive is something that readers and writers of history are prepared to cope with. The general reader..maybe not....

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 12, 2003 03:24 PM

"What a massively insignificant authorial intrusion into cyberspace."

But people like intruding "I's" and hope theirs will be liked in return. It's the generosity of writing and responding that makes conversations and communities.

Posted by: ogged at May 12, 2003 03:46 PM

Blogging is very unlike letter writing and journal keeping in this respect: in blogging, you send your thoughts out in search of readers. I discovered recently that I really don't want my academic peers, i.e. academic philosophers, reading my posts (I don't always like to write in a way that anticipates those nitpicky fingers). But I can't say in advance who else might conceivably be interested. Perhaps no one, but there's always the fantasy that someone might be interested. I think it's a healthy fantasy to imagine that, if you do your best to make yourself presentable, someone might actually show up to greet you.

Posted by: Ted Hinchman at May 12, 2003 06:15 PM

Then, too, I sometimes worry that I'll start thinking in blogbytes.

Heh. One week blogging and I already find myself thinking "this would be great for my blog!"

I do think that the possibility of a responsive audience is one of the compelling attractions of blogging. Heaven knows, I've been filling up a lot of bandwidth commenting at various blogs, and a lot of that I know is egotism; I want to see my ideas in nice tidy print and I want people to respond to them as if they meant something. (Says something about my need for affirmation, doesn't it? Or lack of such feedback in my daily life?)

But I'd also like to think that blogging (and commenting on blogs) is not purely a selfish activity; a fair percentage of my comments (I believe) are directed at reinforcing someone's observation, or elaborating on it, or offering support for people wrestling with issues and questions of importance to them.

So I think the letter analogy works, for the most part.

Posted by: Rana at May 12, 2003 06:33 PM

I don't think it's purely selfish or self-oriented or self-indulgent. There is an important social dimension, a genuine desire to enter into a type of conversation that involves give-and-take on both sides.

Lack of feedback in daily life? You betcha! that's one reason why I started a blog.

Ted raises a good point: there is something bizarre (to me) about a semi-private form of communication that addresses itself to anonymous readers and actively seeks out the feedback of utter strangers. Though they don't remain utter strangers, of course, because once you start reading and commenting regularly at someone's blog, you come to feel that you "know" that blogkeeper in some way.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 12, 2003 08:00 PM

I'm definitely intrigued by these questions of blogging and audience. One of the things that strikes me is that I *can't* always anticipate how people will comment on my blog posts. I've also been experimenting with my blog subjectivity a lot lately: Do I want to speak primarily as an academic? How are my students (some of them are a ware of my blog) going to respond to my ideas? How are people in my local blog ring going to react? I definitely have *all* these audiences in mind when I write, and sometimes the effect can be a little intimidating, but bceause of that, I feel like I've learned a lot about writing (among other things) from my experiences so far.

Posted by: chuck at May 12, 2003 08:06 PM

Thanks! I'm flattered by the notice.

Just to clarify, though, for people who didn't go read the whole thing: I compared blogging to eighteenth-century epistolarity, which had a lot of peculiarly *public* qualities as compared to the letterwriting in later centuries.

In eighteenth century letterwriting, there was a certain sense that, although you were writing to a known other, your letter--unless you specified otherwise--would likely be passed around to others, perhaps strangers that you did not know. So writing was "anchored" by the address to a known person, but there was a sense of a penumbra around that person which included strangers that you might want to "attract" (or not).

This *particular* construction of letterwriting strikes me as very similar to blogging. I think I do have one of four or five blogfriends somewhat clearly in mind as a primary audience when I write in the weblog--but I'm aware of a shadowy group of strangers beyond that, and what connections might form with them is a gamble. But the gamble is taken (i.e., I blog instead of writing a private email to the person I imagine as my primary audience).

The gamble might turn out well. Or it might turn out badly (the epistolary novel of the period is full of this exact paranoia: in a way, you *want* your quasi-intimate letters to be circulated among strangers who might appreciate them--but if they fall into nefarious hands you can be ruined!)

Posted by: T. V. at May 14, 2003 04:08 AM

Another interesting connection with 18th-century letter writing, I think, is the use to which it can be put for "self-fashioning." If you go back and read collections of letters written in that period, the letters are often as much about constructing oneself as about communicating a specific idea to another person or to other people.

And, specifically in regard to the letters of middle-class women of the era, whose socio-economic standing tended to be rather insecure, that self-fashioning was often explicitly or implicitly designed to gain power that was otherwise denied them by society. Perhaps the explosion of left-oriented blogs in recent years is similar...?

Posted by: rorschach at May 15, 2003 05:50 PM