The 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.
Another 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.