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Dear Mr. Will (a defense of weblogs)

(written in response to George Will’s post criticizing the importance of Youtube and blogging).

Dear Mr. Will,

First, I’ve been a fan of your writing for some time now (and recently picked up your book Statecraft as Soulcraft–it looks great!). I’ll concede the point about Youtube, but you don’t know anything about blogging. I know your columns try to be provocative, but have you really thought this through?

A blog is simply a format, a piece of software, and nothing more. Individuals, organizations and even companies use it for various purposes to solve a web publishing problem–how to notify people about the latest things they’ve written. Criticizing blogs is akin to criticizing things written in Microsoft Word or criticizing the Post Office.

I use my weblog (s) mainly for collecting/gathering information, although I’ve written for newspapers before (and consider my main occupation to be writer). Also, when I write more substantial things, I usually link to it on my blog so regular readers know where to find it. My RSS feed reader (which keeps tabs on weblogs) lets me stay on top of hundreds of blogs, including several dozen political/economic blogs. Reading blogs (and blogging about what you read) is simply another way to process information–for me, a more efficient way. It also is a way for me to go directly to the source–to find out about original academic papers more quickly before I wait for the results to trickle into mainstream media.

If I were a budding journalist, the only way I’d start my career would be to write a weblog (or write for a group weblog with a shared vision). People split the advertising revenue, so returns are small, but that’s how you get started nowadays. Here in Houston, there’s a lot of interesting collaboration going on between the city paper and local bloggers. Instead of trying to compete with bloggers for news, the Houston Chronicle has simply coopted a lot of them–offering them free blogs at chron.com. (The paid writers blog here , while the (unpaid) community bloggers blog here . The Chronicle is making a killing too; bloggers provide more content, which (for the Chronicle) means more ad space. I’m sure a number of the community bloggers will gain enough traffic to justify being promoted to paid staff.

I still trust paid journalists for first hand accounts of events, and I still prefer reading columnists from the bigger dailies (in general). But if suddenly all newspapers were to put their best articles behind a password-protected wall, I’d have no problem finding other interesting/provocative content. Lately, in fact, I’ve noticed that journalists are simply reporting/fact-checking what they hear from the blogosphere. That’s still an important function, but it’s also a sign that journalists don’t need to be relied upon for this information to surface.

Sometimes paid journalists use the “amateurish” nature of some blogs to impugn an entire community of writers. But blogging is simply a different/less formal way of writing. Often blogging is simply the “public face” of a writer/reporter/critic, so naturally it is not far-fetched to expect some to fill a weblog with personal details/anecdotes. Many young writers use blogs as personal notebooks–what’s wrong with that? You imply there is something wrong or lacking about the effort (“because there is nothing singular about it, and each is the judge of his or her own success.”). But keeping a notebook is a useful step in a writer’s development; the only difference is that previously these notebooks were kept private; now they are public.

In the literary world (where I mainly reside), paid writers and unpaid writers exist pretty much on the same footing..because we pretty much know that commercial success can’t be equated with quality of writing. The same phenomenon exists (to a limited degree) in the technology field (where I sometimes reside). Sometimes unpaid programmers do far better work than programmers who work for software companies. Perhaps it’s different in the journalism world; perhaps in journalism a paid position indicates seniority, a proven track record, a certain amount of discipline and training.

(Paid journalists/writers have the burden of deadlines, while bloggers have the luxury of being able to publish a piece at their own pace–no matter how long it takes).

In the field of literary criticism, blogging is now front-and-center. Newspapers and even highbrow magazines have totally dropped that ball. Blogging is the natural place to allow longer reviews (newspapers were never so accommodating) and opportunities for discussion. It’s gotten to the point where Sunday book review sections for newspapers are viewed as irrelevant/dealing with the already-famous rather than the up-and-coming (with WP’s Michael Dirda being the obvious exception–though I don’t think he’s been writing anything recently).

But let’s not beat around the bush. Blogging requires resources and (more importantly) time. Just to give a trivial example: bloggers don’t have copy editors, so we have to be doubly scrupulous about typos and grammar (and yes, we drop the ball on that sometimes). Although I’ve never made any effort to prettify my own blogs, some bloggers spend enormous amounts of time doing that. Your writing career has allowed you to specialize on one or two kinds of writing–without needing to worry about backend issues. But bloggers often have to be jack-of-all-trades; we are expected to do everything..and still be interesting. Once, my blogging software went bonkers; another time, a software hacker destroyed my weblog (putting my blog offline for several weeks). How many times has that happened to you?

Finally, you compare bloggers unfavorably to Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, implying that lack of a public purpose make blogs seem trivial by comparison. I am happy to report that America is (currently) a stable & mature democracy, so rabble-rousing rhetoric probably isn’t the best way to increase readership. Actually, from what I hear, many bloggers in China are using their blogs as a platform to do what Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine used to do–exposing injustices and advocating reform.

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