I was joking with Frink last week that if blogs hadn’t jumped the shark sometime back in 2004, they certainly had as of last week. The defining moment was, I think, the appearance of Duncan Black as himself in an episode of The West Wing. Secretly, I was pleased that I’d managed to avoid being associated with that medium for over a full year, and I said that while I had a LiveJournal, it was in no way, shape, or form a blog. If people want to harbor the illusion that LiveJournal is full of emo-listening teenagers whining at each other, so much the better: nobody, and I mean nobody, will ever take this seriously, nor will I ever be in a position to ask that people take it seriously.
But owning a blog these days is, for the most part, an exercise in seriousness. Sure, you’ll run into people who are damn funny and know that it’s all a big joke and aren’t interested in changing the nature of dialogue — they’re just being funny as best they can. Some of them are really damn funny, and others (like me) are.. well, the less said about that, the better. The upshot is that blogging is mostly an exercise in pretentiousness, and “serious” blogging seems to require an outsized belief in the ability of the medium to somehow influence the world outside of the community of your readership.
Let’s put it another way: I don’t know a single person who reads blogs because they want to be challenged with truly new information. They want their biases and their beliefs confirmed. I slogged my way through a 750 page biography on Brian Mulroney back in the day because I wanted to understand something about the guy; it was really more of a hagiography rather than an actual biography and after I was done I needed to take a drink of cold water because I thought the dude was actually OK. Then I came to my senses and realized that he was a jackass and I’m still glad he’s out of politics. But this frequently happens when I’m reading something in The Atlantic or The New Yorker — I’ll think, “hey, this isn’t what I expected” and I’ll end up having to think about it later. But you don’t do that with blogs, because a blog’s readership self-selects and if you challenge them, they’ll self-select off somewhere else. Self-selecting to read the oppositions’ postings doesn’t work, either, because they’re so snotty and obnoxious that you don’t want to spend any time around them at all. So blogs really serve to reinforce the impressions of their readers: you guys, what you think, and what you believe, are OK. When the conventional wisdom is challenged, viciousness usually results. (Just ask Kevin Drum how much love he gets for being a “reasonable Democrat” who picks his fights carefully!)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we’re doing anything magnificent or remarkable in the greater sense of the world, nor should we believe that what we hold as dear are necessarily true all over. Nor should we pretend that the outside world cares about what we think.
This point was dramatically rammed home over and over again every time Xeni would post about Jill Carroll, who we are all thankful is home safe and sound, as though somehow, the collective will of the Boing Boing readership would make a difference in whether she was released alive or not. Don’t get me wrong — I’m really happy she’s home safe, mostly because nobody deserves to be taken hostage and threatened with death as part of their job, especially if they have to do that job unarmed. But seriously, who are we fooling here? Boing Boing readers are not going to get hostages released in Iraq, they aren’t going to get Senate legislation overturned, and they aren’t going to get major companies to stop being jackasses. The organizational power of a blog is limited to the collective power of the group it organizes, and let’s face it, most people who read Boing Boing aren’t the sort of demographic that people listen to.
(I will not go so far as to call them geeks or nerds because that would imply that some of them have technical skill. Xeni is not a geek. She’s a wanna-be geek, but so far as I can tell her technical skills consist of being able to write some HTML, use a Web browser, and work a tape recorder. Great! I got a dog that can do that, who, by the by, is a lot cuter than Xeni.)
(Incidentally, the reason that guys like Atrios and Kos can be powerful is because his readership acts with something other than a fax machine: it acts with money. And not just threats to withhold it, either — they give it out, and that always buys you at least an audience.)
The actual effectiveness of the move doesn’t matter, though. The Boing Boing crowd, and bloggers more generally, likes to think of themselves as participating in some kind of journalism project and so therefore the plight of actual journalists (who have to wear clothes to do their jobs) is intriguing and important to them. They probably won’t kick any cash towards RSF and that’s OK, because they’ll have the pose and raise awarness, whateverthefuck that’s supposed to mean. None of them are ever going to be at the mercy of a bunch of insurgents weilding AK-74s (TANIII) because none of them would ever be in that situation in the first place. (Cell phones don’t work over there, for instance, and you can’t get EVDO access, and nobody will fix a Prada bag, and how in the hell are you supposed to charge a widescreen iBook when the electricity is only on for an hour a day?)
It’s a lot like the argument about Google and China (which summed up really well a couple months ago): We agree, in the abstract, that network freedom is a very good thing, and worth fighting for, but most of us aren’t really in a position to do anything about it, and the vast majority of us will merely blog really furiously about it and then do nothing else. Rest assured it was not blogbursts about Jill Carroll that saved her life — it was the fact that a bunch of insurgents decided to let her go on their own. Believe me, outside of the people who read blogs.. nobody gives a shit about blogs.
But those who do give a shit about blogs give a really big shit, because it’s supposed to be this new way to think about the world. It’s kind of sick, actually; you have to pander to readers, or people buzz off and leave. Frauf has, for instance, had this weird obsession with earwax picking for about a week now, and keeps posting stuff about how to pick your ears, even after an otolaryngologist told him (much as any otolaryngologist worth the vowels in his name will) that it’s a really dumb idea to shove objects into your ears. Boing Boing’s readership likely buys into this new paradigm, that the Internet can substitute for expert judgment, and well, hell, if everyone does it and says it’s OK, what does the ENT guy know about it? Hack your body, man. Basically, I conclude that Frauf is continuing to post about this subject because he’s either ignoring the doctor because he’s pandering, or actually doesn’t believe him, because he (Frauf) is stupid, or because he (Frauf) believes that all viewpoints are equally valid, like on cable news. (This third option does not in any way, shape, or form imply that Frauf isn’t any less stupid, btw. Yeah, I know this is not clear. Do you know what time it is right now?) At no point has anyone said, “gee, you know, if I keep posting stuff like this someone might poke a big ol’ hole in their eardrum, and that doesn’t seem like a very good idea.”
There’s nothing very wrong with pandering but it does get old after a while, and I’ve often thought about setting up some kind of a game where you can pick from a list of well-known bloggers and figure out who said what from their archives. (Obviously, in the interests of being fair, you’d have to get rid of catch phrases, but this would be pretty heh-worthy, I think.) We shouldn’t think we’re doing anything remarkably amazing here. As TNH said once, cranks have always found a way to self-publish their ravings to people who are eager to listen. The only difference today is that nobody has to learn how to run a mimeo machine.