Blog Post

What Draws the Reader to a Blog?

 

I originally wrote and posted this on 2 October 2007. I've been digging out some of the files of my long-gone blogs, and wanted to re-blog this one here. Please note it does not necessarily reflect what I think now, or, in other words, I most probably would not say it in the same way now. Certainly Facebook changed a lot of things online: it suddenly became OK, under the illusion that one can decide who sees what and how much, to share 'personal' information online, the self exposed like a turned-out glove. What happens in Facebook nowadays was severly criticised when it happened on blogs before the age of social networking sites.

My main critique has to do with clichés around the concept of the personal, the private and the public, and of "information" apparently being only that which is supposed to be "useful" in a straight-forward kind of way. As an academic I have advocated for the recognition of blogging as a legit academic or scholarly output. Nevertheless, this does not stop me from noticing that much discourse around the professionalisation of blogging is haunted by the spectre of depolitisation. The personal is political, but the personal is also in a continuous state of flux and redefinition. The suppression of a more intimate or personal voice from academic writing has always aimed at some kind of standarisation and should I dare say to negating the empyrical conditions of existence and production of academics and their work. 

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The reader of a novel in fact looks for human beings, from whom he derives “the meaning of life”. [...] The novel is significant [...] not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps too didactically, but because this stranger’s fate, by virtue of the flame which consumes it, yields to us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to a novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

-Walter Benjamin, 1936

 

There’s an interesting news item about blogging and journalism on today’s Financial Times [October 1 2007] As someone who has been blogging for five years without interruption, I have mixed emotions about the relationship between mass media and blogging: on the one hand I feel that print media (newspapers in this case) haven’t been able to (or haven’t wanted to) properly understand the possibilities that blogging offers; on the other hand their general perceptions on the medium (if we can call blogging a medium, that is) make me feel sometimes that I am not doing enough with this blog.

The Financial Times‘s description of a blogger as “a solitary outsider who worked from home – preferably in pyjamas – railing against the arrogance and excesses of the so-called mainstream media” is not necessarily false, but not necessarily true either. The same newspaper had run a piece last week about the increase of people working from home (this is people who have full time jobs and not only freelancers) that suggested that people working from home (presumably, methinks, sometimes also in their pyjamas, but they didn’t say that) was indeed the way forward for organisations.

I like to think of this blog as a work-in-progress, a kind of virtual happening that is not merely limited to sharing information. Media companies seem to think of blogs as simple templates for on line publishing. I think this is a very constraining view of blogging. Blogs, like books and magazines, are not only containers of data, but complete life projects in their own right. It’s relevant here to recall here Walter Benjamin’s ideas on storytelling and journalism; the differences between “distraction” and “art”, “information” and “storytelling”, et cetera.

In my view the blogger is closer to Benjamin’s storyteller than to the contemporary journalist. Unlike the latter, the blogger is not forced to write about the news of the moment; a blog’s readership comes back once and again to it not because it seeks information, but because it wants to share an experience. To paraphrase Benjamin, the blogger’s gift “is the ability to realte his life; his distinction, to be able to relate his entire life. [The blogger]: he is the man [or the woman] who lets the wick of his [or her] life to be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his [of her] story.” (The Storyteller, October 1936).

Contemporary mass media’s interest on blogging automatically relates instant on line publishing with the superficiality of what is most immediate. 24-Hour news broadcasts, reality shows and media blogs all share the same approach to events, showing only an interest in what’s “new” and immediate. There is more banality in daytime TV 24-hour news than in the most naïve blog entry by any given teenager living in the middle of nowhere.

That’s why, in a way, I totally agree with poet Nada Gordon when she commands us to ‘never ever “engage current debate.”‘ (Nada’s Anti-Rules of Poetry Blogging). Sadly, the reason why Ron Silliman’s blog is most probably one of USAmerican poetry blogsphere’s most visited sites is because it is a publication one reads, to use the words of a blogger poet, “too keep in touch with contemporary poetry”. In general (but not always, because sometimes there are nice surprises when information is replaced by more personal pieces) one reads Silliman’s blog looking for information, not someone’s “wick of life”.

The mass media-promoted stigma of the average blogger as a solitary outsider in pyjamas reveals contemporary culture’s discontent with the intimate and domestic. The public sphere is the one to be seen in; the private must remain covered. In Britain, for instance, the pub (short for “public house”) is the perfect excuse to leave the individual and private private and individual (in other countries you invite people to yours for drinks; in Britain “back to mines” are almost last measures when everything else’s closed).

The personal blogger (like Benjamin’s storyteller) wants to tell his “entire life” (even if it is taken for granted, at least from the blogger/storyteller’s perspective, that it is never truly possible to do so), the blogger reveals him/herself on line, in the public sphere. Thus, blogging disturbs preconceptions about what’s supposed to be left unsaid publicly, about what should and shouldn’t be expressed in a potentially mass medium.

The emphasis on “pyjamas” unveils a belief that “work” is “public” and therefore is not “initmate” or “casual” (as pyjamas are). No, work is serious and hard, therefore we should wear uncomfortable and unnatural clothes: the tie, the stockings, the high heels. That mass media giants want to make blogging “respectable” by using blogs as corporate current information transmitters (that is, substitutes or companions for print newspapers) kept by blokes in suits comes as no surprise. Maybe poetry and other artist bloggers are the ones with the challenge to prove that blogging can be so much more than just a permanently updateable news feed.

In my view, some blogs are closer to the novel (or the “collected poems”) than to the newspaper. Not all blogs have to be “informative”, “objective” and “relevant”. I personally like blogs that yield to me the warmth of a vital experience which is not mine; I look for blogs with human beings behind.

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