I think I first heard about weblogs—hence “blogging”— sometime in the mid-1990s, while I was teaching at Wheaton College. It was a revolutionary new form of communication wherein a few people were writing the same sorts of personal things that they once might have written in their private journals. I dismissed it as Narcissistic and another mark in the gradual decline of the post-Enlightenment West. About a decade later, however, I found myself writing blogs and two decades later, here we are.
Sometime in the early 2000s, after I had moved to my present school, one of my students suggested that I should blog. I dismissed the idea. I was beginning to post documents on the servers of a local community college for the use of my students but that was as far as I thought it would go. After all, we were still transitioning from dial-up to broadband access. The iPhone was still 5 or 6 years away. The Heidelblog began to come into existence late in 2006, as part of another blog, at the request of my pastor and colleague in a church-planting work on the coast, but it became a separate entity in 2007.
Lately I have been thinking about the evolution of the medium over the last decade. First, I am struck by the fact that blogging, an unfortunately moniker if ever there was one, still exists. Not long after the HB began I read articles arguing that the medium was already in decline and would shortly fade away to be replaced by some other medium such as microblogging (e.g., Twitter). Not only does it exist it is, mutatis mutandis flourishing. As Robinson Meyer noted in 2015, Corporate entities (e.g., schools, businesses, churches) have moved into the business of serial, online communication (blogging) in a big way. Blogs that began as small, personal enterprises have become big business and are now owned by major publishers.
When blogging first began to be more widely adopted it was not considered a serious medium. It was regarded as too casual (see below), too unstructured, and lacking sufficient editorial safeguards to be a serious form of communication or a medium fit to convey serious ideas. Academics, whose professional writing is typically dotted with carefully crafted footnotes to primary and secondary literature, scrutinized by peer review, and vetted by editors before publication, were especially dismissive. One does not see them as frequently now but it would not be hard to find articles in publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the relationship of blogging to academic work.
The explosive growth and diversification of social media has changed the landscape considerably. Much of what once took place on blogs now occurs on Facebook. Instagram now does what Facebook once did, i.e., serve as a place to post photos. For good or ill, Twitter seems to have replaced specialized discussion lists, compressing complex discussions into 140 character telegrams. Still, Twitter was a most popular way for readers to find the HB in 2016. So, evidently Twitter discussions need not die there. They migrate to other platforms.
The status of blogging has changed. One does not see as many articles decrying the medium. As I have noted here before there has always been resistance to new media. I am sure that when scrolls were replaced by codices (books), someone thought it was a bad idea. When ornate manuscripts were replaced by the printed text, surely some complained about the ugly new texts and bemoaned the passing of an age. The same likely happened with the advent of the telegraph and we know it happened with the advent of television. Think of Newton Minow’s famous 1961 speech about television as a “vast wasteland.” One shudders to think what he would say about “reality TV” in 2017. Even Minow noted, however, the potential of TV. So it is with most media.
Those essays decrying blogging, if they exist, are being written online. Newspapers and magazines are now principally online, thus blurring the line between blogging and what was once considered “serious journalism.” Have you taken a close look at your local newspaper lately? Over the holiday, while visiting relatives in Nebraska, I had opportunity to read the print version of my hometown paper, The Lincoln Journal Star. Evidently, the LJS no longer employs curmudgeonly, green eye-shade wearing, correction-barking, copy editors. The number and nature of egregious typos was impressive and this in the state-capitol, a college-town, with a major land-grant University featuring a notable college of journalism (“the J-school”). I can still hear my ninth-grade journalism teacher, Mrs Chaffee, lecturing us about the basics of writing a lead (lede) paragraph, the importance of “who, what, when, where, and how,” about how to edit copy, and the importance of maintaining journalistic objectivity. I fear she would not be pleased with the state of the art in 2017.
I also noticed that the print edition was 18–24 hours behind the electronic version. It did not take long to read the print version of the paper because I had already read it online the day before. The reporters and columnists of the LJS do most of their work online. They blog. They do podcasts and vlogs (video blogs) or vidcasts (video podcasts) all day long. So the line between “bloggers” and other writers has been obliterated. Writers are now bloggers and bloggers are writers. Amateur online writers now regularly break news stories that the so-called “mainstream media” miss or ignore. If most of the country gets its news from Facebook and Twitter, is who is the real “mainstream media” anyway?
With the mainstreaming of the new media (now twenty years old), the medium of online writing has matured but it has also influenced other forms of writing. Blogging has become more formal but newspaper and magazine columns have become more informal. Again, the line between them has blurred. It may now be trite now but it difficult for me to avoid Mashall McLuhan’s judgment that the medium is the message. The medium necessarily affects the way we communicate but, as noted, media also mature. Television did grow up somewhat in the 1970s. Today, arguably, television is better than most films. Hollywood has produced yet another re-telling of the Spiderman story. I rest my case.
Blogging began as a personal enterprise in which writers sought to expose their interior life to the watching world. For reasons not yet entirely clear to me, writing online makes it more personal and, I suspect, more affective (not necessarily effective). I try to write for the HB the same way I write for print magazines but the way the two are received is different. The very act of holding a print magazine creates a space between the reader and the writer that seems not to exist with online (on-screen) communication. Obviously, when the reader is reading a magazine online, space is reduced if not eliminated entirely. I am sure that online writing is received differently than is the printed text. I urge my students rather than reading their texts on-screen to print them before reading them. Experience shows me that the student who reads a printed text is more likely to read it more carefully. So, there are inherent challenges to online writing. Even the most carefully written online text is apt to be misread simply because of the ephemeral nature of the medium. All the on-screen texts we see daily (Twitter, Google News, Facebook etc) begin to bleed into one another. At the same time, online commentary, such as the Heidelblog, typically offer the reader direct access to the writer that does not happen in print publications. In the comments box readers have opportunity to ask questions, to give different perspectives, and to help the commentary mature. Many times over the last decade I have revised an HB article in light of what a commentator has added.
Nevertheless, despite the inherent problems, e.g., difficulty of reception and lack of editorial control in both personal and corporate enterprises, online journalism and commentary seems here to stay. The Heidelblog is devoted principally to recovering the Reformed confession. Deo volente, with a little help from a few friends from time to time, we will continue to pursue that mission and we will try to continue evolving with the medium.