Are Bloggers Human?

commonsense-pamphletThe act of blogging has come under criticism in both civil and religious spheres. Recently, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) wondered aloud whether bloggers are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Last week Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) raised the same question. a This question has bounced around for a decade and courts have ruled in favor of extending 1st amendment protections to bloggers.

The question has also been raised in religious circles. Recently I participated in a discussion wherein several people began their remarks by saying, “I don’t blog and I don’t read them.” I found this interesting since I blog and three others present also blog or publish online. What is it about blogging that makes it so disreputable that it reasonable people feel it necessary to create rhetorical distance between themselves and blogging? The first and most fundamental reason is that it is a radically democratic, unmediated medium. Anyone with access to a keyboard and the internet can, in 10 minutes, set up a blog and say virtually anything about anyone. It is unmediated publishing. Those who are used to negotiating with mediators (acquisitions editors, copy editors, reviewers et al) in order to publish find the speed and immediacy of blogging a little frightening, because it is a little frightening. New media are always a little disturbing.

1290koilAnother concern is that it is part of a new and relatively unknown market for ideas. Of course, not every blogger can attract and keep an audience. Just as other media markets have fragmented, blogging has also become more niche publishing. When radio began, many stations operated on the department store model. There was something during the day for everyone. The broadcast television networks still operate on this model. Cable, however, is all about niche markets. There are cable channels for just about every conceivable demographic group. Radio became gradually more focused. In the post-war years, with the baby boom, top-40 radio developed but it was still aimed at a broad audience. As late as the early 70s it was common to hear Sammy Davis Jr followed by the Beatles on our local top-40 station (“The Mighty 1290 KOIL”). Through the 80s, especially after deregulation, radio became just as targeted as cable TV.

Generally, the market works. If writers are producing material of value, they will find readers. If not, they won’t. There is an exception. It is possible to do bad work and generate downloads and traffic. Like pamphleteering it seems particularly susceptible to controversy. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, if a blogger writes a serious piece that goes beyond 1500 words it will find fewer readers than if he writes a controversial piece that criticizes other people by name. The latter tend to get circulated quickly, “Oh did you see what so and so said about so and so?“ Every medium has been abused. The abuse of a medium does not invalidate a medium or there would be no media.

Sometimes when I hear folks talking about blogging and other forms of digital publishing, I wonder whether we might sound a little like 15th-century monks whispering about that radical new invention, the printing press. Prior to the invention of the press, texts were copied manually by teams of monks. Within a century or less that once truly valuable and necessary work was obsolete. The press made the process semi-automated. Ideas that once had to be dictated and copied before being distributed and even then on a limited basis could, after the printing press, be reduced to typeface and published quickly and disseminated widely. Without the printing press the Renaissance and Reformation movements would have taken much longer than they did. The printing press reduced the number of mediators and increased the speed of information transmission. Printing was more democratic. Instead of an ecclesiastical hierarchy or the bureaucracy of a monastery, a friendly printer or a friendly patron could put something into circulation. The 15th- and 16th-century worlds shuddered at the prospect of virtually anyone being able to say anything.

Another, closely related, concern is anonymity. Bloggers sometimes hide their identities. Sometimes this is for good reason and sometimes it is sheer cowardice but either way anonymity is powerful. It reduces accountability and thereby eliminates checks and balances. It creates the sense that one can say anything without consequences. Anyone who has ever read the comments following a news story has seen where this can lead. This is why the HB does not permit anonymous comments except in the case that one’s life might be jeopardized by commenting on the HB or in the case that the management feels like permitting it for some other reason. Nevertheless, as a matter of history, there is a long tradition in the west of anonymous or pseudonymous pamphleteering and publishing. One of the more important 16th-century works, in defense of the Protestant resistance to tyrants, <em>Vindiciae contra tyrannos</em> (1579) was pseudonymously published by a certain “Brutus.” The American founders published pseudonymously. There is a place for pseudonymous or anonymous publishing when one is facing tyranny.

Part of the problem may be rhetorical. The medium of blogging wasn’t developed by artistic types but by technical types. Thus we have “blogging” instead of some more elegant or dignified term. The word blog began as weblog sometime in the 90s. The first time I think I heard it was while teaching at Wheaton College in the mid-90s. I remember thinking to myself that it seemed self-indulgent and Narcissistic. Though it can certainly be those things it doesn’t have to be. I’ve read plenty of Narcissistic and self-indulgent writing in reputable newspaper columns, those vetted by editors and other mediators. I read many blogs and find much of value there. Useless, stupid, or abusive blogs get deleted from the subscription list.

The unhappy reality seems, which we 21st-century monks shall have to face, is that printing as we’ve known it is dying. It’s being replaced by pixels. The mediators and guardians of print media are disappearing. Books will continue to exist but in a more limited form. Print newspapers and magazines are dead trees walking. I myself, a big fan of the printed page, tend to read popular stuff on my iPad or my phone. I’ve not read a printed newspaper for months, if not years. In contemporary terms, by the time something gets to newsprint, it’s not news, it’s olds. The news is online.

So, how should we then read blogs? There are better and worse blogs. The better blogs are the equivalent of a newspaper or magazine column. That’s how I try to write and read them. Some blogs or some posts are like pamphlets, a medium that flourished from the 16th century until the late 19th century. On those two analogies, the answer to the constitutional question seems clear. The founders clearly expected pamphleteering to be protected speech, since they themselves were active pamphleteers. There is no question whether newspaper and magazine columns are protected. Does political speech cease to be such simply because it appears in pixels rather than print? Such an argument seems absurd on its face.

If the analogies of the printing press (describing the transition from one medium to another), of the newspaper/magazine columnist, and the pamphleteer hold then why should we dismiss blogging? We shouldn’t. It’s just the next step in the evolution of communication. It’s no more radical than the invention of the printing press and only a little less mediated than the 18th-century pamphlet.

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  1. Very helpful Scott. I agree with your thoughts here, however, I think some are most concerned that the level of theological discourse has been lowered through the blogosphere. What used to be argued in peer reviewed theological journals is now debated (much more widely) on the internet. Everyone is an expert (just ask them) and the arguments of the average Joe blogger are taken as seriously by some within the church as those of a scholar in the field.

    There seems to be “democratization” of media that has changed the way we discuss serious theological issues. I realize this applies much more broadly than blogging, but it is the most accessible medium at this time, and thus it has become a target of concern for many. I think your analogies (printing press, columnist, pamphleteer) are good. Perhaps the greater concern is the way in which readers perceive blog content (authority of the author) and interact with it (and each other) through comments, etc.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks. These are important points. I agree that the level of discourse in the blogosphere can degenerate quickly—as I noted regarding comments.

      I also agree that readers need to be able to distinguish between peer-reviewed journals and other types of publications. Here the distinction isn’t between online and paper, since journals increasingly appear online and there are paper journal that aren’t peer-reviewed.

      To further muddy things, however, there are “peer-reviewed” media that are so only nominally. I can think of titles that appeared in “peer-reviewed” media that can only be explained on the grounds that the authors were saying what the editors wanted to hear. In other words, as important as “peer reviewed” publication is, it isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. I’ve been a “peer” in this process and I’ve had work reviewed in the process. Sometimes the process works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I’ve received real help from reviewers. I’ve reviewed PhD dissertations that were not ready for prime time only to see the candidate with a PhD degree in hand 2 weeks later! I’ve seen reviewers essentially kill projects by making unreasonable demands. So, I can understand how thoughtful readers might be a little confused sometimes about which publications are trustworthy and which are not.

  2. As you say, Dr. Clark, any form of new media may be abused. Certainly this happened in the late 70’s throughout the early 80’s as video tape machined were developed with better quality and smaller footprints. The public still had to be convinced to “pay the price” for the new technology and the material that pushed it to become common place was pornography. In like manner, once access to the Internet became convenient with wide-band transmission facilities, porn sites more or less led the way.

    This is not to say that any of this mechanisms should be abandoned simply because they have been abused by some. Clearly, VHS tapes have been a great boon for the distribution of Christian education materials. And so has the Internet. I listen to broadcasts from Office Hours and the White Horse Inn all the time via streaming audio. We have to realize that along with the good comes the evil (or sometimes the other way around).

    Having said that, the one big thing that I found most rewarding about blog sites focusing on theological issues is that it gives the opportunity for us lay people to have direct access to theologians – pastors, professors, counselors, etc. – experts in the field to which many of us would have a rather difficult time gaining access. My wife and I belong to a rather large congregation and, though it has a senior pastor as well as a decent size staff of specialized assistants and associates, we have never had the opportunity to visit with any of them one-to-one other than the time when we first joined. There are just too many members.

    The other things about blogs that we bloggers have to be careful to realize is that, though they are very democratic from the aspect of giving everyone a voice, they are not a completely free democracy. The owner or moderator of the blog retains control over the comments and if he or she decides that blogger is rude or excessively inciting (or sometimes even if they just disagree with the moderators personal opinions) they can be suspended. And there are no government regulations (yet) to stop them from doing so.

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