I will be climbing out of my blog-hole and decloaking in a couple of weeks to attend an event with a bunch of fellow blog-monsters. While I’m looking forward to catching up with some old real world friends and getting to actually meet some new online friends, I’m not really sure that I’ll add a whole lot to the discussion about the three framing questions underpinning the event: “How have blogs changed the way we communicate? How do bloggers interact with their readers? What can bloggers do to foster a sense of community with their readers?”
I really don’t have a lot to say about those big-picture themes related to blog communities, because I view blogging as a completely selfish act. It’s my own personal way of raising intellectual self-indulgence to an art form, and embracing crankiness for its own sake and satisfaction. Marcia recently offered the best definition of “crank” I’ve ever heard: “A crank is someone who has strong opinions on too many topics.” Guess who she said it about?
“Blog community” is essentially a meaningless concept in regard to how and what I write because of this. I’m a blog community of one. I like to be amused, and I find myself amusing. I’ve just chosen to amuse myself in public where other people can watch and occasionally throw crumbs and pebbles my way, village idiot style. If there wasn’t an Internet, I’d be writing all of this stuff in little ledgers and journals, and I’d be giggling and ranting (as appropriate) just as much as the words spilled out, regardless of whether anybody was ever going to read them or not. It’s the act of writing that moves me, less than the act of being read, although if the latter doesn’t take any additional effort, then I’m certainly fine with having the words out in the public domain. It’s a whole letter easier than Xeroxing ‘zines, anyway.
Given my selfish motivations when it comes to writing, the fact that there are folks out there who actually are willing to read the many, many words I gush is gravy for me. Nice, tasty gravy, but gravy nonetheless. Of course, the 724 comments I’ve received over the past three-plus years would indicate that it’s certainly a very small number of folks whose interests overlap with mine, since some of my fellow Times Union bloggers can pull 724 comments in an afternoon. A slow afternoon, even. And even worse: I’ve been blogging one place or another since September 2000, and those 724 comments are actually all of the ones that I’ve ever received, anywhere, since prior to having a blog here at the Times Union, I ran all of my earlier blogs and websites with the comments function turned off.
I wrote an explanation of why I took such a “community-free” approach back in January 2004, and I reproduce it below, not because I don’t value the comments I receive here, and not because I don’t appreciate the online connections I’ve made over the years, but rather to offer a counterpoint view to the importance of the “blog community” model that seems to have become a widely-accepted truism in recent years, and which frames the get-together next week. So, maybe I’ll see you there? I’ll be the tall, cranky guy with the Southern accent, complaining about those darn kids and their new-fangled blog communities. Carnsarnit! Git off my lawn, you little networkers, you!!! Shoo!!!
Here’s the old article . . .
I’ve been following and participating in an interesting e-conversation over the past week or so in the Albany Bloggers mailing list about the pros and cons of having comments postable and posted on blogs.
I’ve, obviously, set this blog up to not allow reader comments to be viewed, and not because I’m not interested in feedback. (I am, and if you click the “contact” link to the left, and have something to say other than “Motley Crue rule, you suck,” then odds are I’ll be happy to correspond with you and take your feedback into consideration). I think my real reasons for avoiding the viewable comments portion of this blog are slightly more subtle than “I don’t care care what you have to say” or “I don’t want my friends talking to each other on my website.”
When I first got serious (for the third or fourth time) about keeping this blog up regularly, I had in mind a quote that Jed Davis included in his blog when he moved from Live Journal to Blogspot: “I’m trying to write for me,” wrote Jed. “Yet I constantly felt like I was at the mercy of the online comment box.” That made, and makes, perfect sense to me, and I agree with the sentiment wholly.
There’s a widely held position in the blogosphere that not including reader comments in a blog makes it weaker. I’m probably coming from a more orthodox print media background, but I can’t really get my mind around such a position. I mean, does a novelist include comments from readers in his/her book? Does a musician include comments from listeners in his/her CD? While I know that the web is supposed to be the great equalizer, the ultimate meritocracy, it would seem to me that people’s writing, flash, art, whatever else they post online gets its truest measure of worth in word-of-mouth, or traffic, or response from the blog community by way of incoming links, or in private correspondence between those who create work and those who respond to it, not by how many comments are posted each day in public.
My biggest concern with comments (other than the obvious ones like spammer comments filling up a blog with commercial rubbish) and bulletin boards dedicated to one writer/artist/musician is that over time, the most devoted and serious commenters will also tend to be the most sycophantic ones: “I love [whatever] the most, and will prove my devotion by stating it here,” “No, I love [whatever] more than you do, and will prove my devotion by stating here twice.”
Mutual appreciation societies become inherently inward-looking and stifle growth, and I think some commenters use feedback on other people’s blogs to enhance their own stature or status vicariously: “If I’m the all-time greatest, most visible fan of [whatever], then I must be almost as good as [whatever] myself, or certainly more important than all the other fans of [whatever].”
So I would much rather people choose to link to my website or contact me directly by e-mail as a lasting endorsement of their estimation of the value of my work (or not), than have daily comments that (again) over time would become less and less challenging, and more and more comfortable, and more and more focussed on the commenters and not the creator (remember: criticism comes easier than craftsmanship)(a fact that, I think, I came to forgot too often during my years of music criticizing). Such a public feedback mechanism ultimately builds a cocoon of fuzzy warmness that would, I think, keep me from pushing in new directions of my own choosing, not the choosing of the those who support my current work and want to see more of it.
Real world example: I’ve been writing and publishing music criticism for nearly 20 years. The first version of jericsmith.com went online in late ‘94, and it was primarily dedicated to music criticism. As the website grew over the past ten years, it became more and more focused on music criticism. I wrote a novel during that time, and it was about music criticism.
But I have to admit that I am really sick of music criticism at this point: there are only so many ways to describe music, and I feel like I’ve done each of them way too many times. So my blog began (in 2000, originally, although I didn’t get serious about it until October 2003) as a way for me to have an outlet for non-music-critic writing. (Specifically poetry for 2004, but that’s not necessarily a permanent fixture once I finish this year’s writing project, and after a year’s sabbatical, who knows, I may want to write music criticism again).
So the issue here is one of comfort and getting stuck by what readers/commenters want: I get regular posts from musicians and bands asking me to go back to more music criticism, praising my work there, not understanding why I’d want to write (shudder) poetry, hoping that I’ll see the light and return to my roots, and that then I’ll review their new CD or come to their concert, since they’re sure that I will love it! Where can they send it? Or can they just drop it off at my house?
So it’s not really about support for my work: it’s about what support for what my work can do for them. And if I listened to them, I’d spend the rest of my writing life recycling used and stale music writing cliches. My earliest writing successes were in poetry (I won a statewide contest in high school, competing against adults) and lyrics (probably the only thing of any lasting value in my entire music-making career). Somewhere, though, I got derailed onto a writing path that led to a seemingly permanent rut of music reviews.
And, ultimately, that’s the real reason that I want to do something different with this blog, and, for the moment at least, listen to myself, not focus too heavily on what others have to say about the direction my writing’s taken, and not post what others have to say about the direction my writing’s taken on the very blog that’s taking me there.
This blog, publicly, is a monolog at the moment. (A monoblog?) I have lots of online dialog (diablog?) and feel a strong sense of internet community via the Xnet2 mailing liste (involving people with whom I’ve had e-relationships for over ten years) and Albany Bloggers and Upstate Wasted, among other outlets. I read lots of other people’s blogs, and heartily endorse any link listed on this page as being worth regular visits. I appreciate those who link back to me. I enjoy e-mail conversation among and between these various communities.
I’m just not ready to let this page go from monoblog to diablog, though. Not yet, anyway. But keep those e-mail’s coming, I appreciate the feedback, and am glad we can share ideas and observations. Let’s just not feel obligated to let that laundry air dry.