Say everything

Scott Rosenberg’s book about blogging (say everything How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why it Matters) traces the rise of  blogging with stories of the blogging pioneers and what is happening now on the Web.

Recalling our worry and concern  about our son and his family in New York on September 11, 2009, reminded me anew how useful the internet was on that day.  We could not reach our son by telephone but – thank goodness – we were able to exchange e-mails – and again, thank goodness: he and his family were safe.  However, like so many (not only in New York but all over the world), he lost friends in these devastating attacks.

It was important to maintain contact and learn what was happening on that terrible terrible day.

In addition to e-mails from our son, we kept track of what was happening by viewing  the instant ‘blogs’ (or Weblogs as they were called at time, I believe).  This was our only way to learn of events in New York.

When Hurricane Katrina hit with such devastation, it was the blogs  that provided our news of events (the news stories came later).

In the early 1980s when I began researching my family history, I corresponded  (via postal mail)  with fellow researchers.  I was corresponding with other interested researchers and subscribing to genealogy sites on the internet in the mid-1980s.  By the mid 1990s, there were personal blogs about particular genealogy interests (geographical and family surnames).

Now, when I indicate an interest in books, genealogy, politics, stitching, vacation spots, cooking – anything at all that strikes my fancy – there is a blog that will answer some of my questions or whet my appetite for more information.

The description on the book jacket of Rosenberg’s book states that “Far from being pajama-clad loners, bloggers have become the curators of our collective experience, testing out their ideas in front of a crowd and linking people in ways that broadcasts can’t match.  Blogs have created a new kind of public sphere–one in which we can think out loud together.  And now that we have begun, Rosenburg writes, it is impossible to imagine us stopping.”

Douglas Adams wrote that “One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there.  It’s just an awful lot of ‘us.’

Marc Andreessen wrote that . . .”It is crystal clear to me now that at least in industries where lots of people are online, blogging is the single best way to communicate and interact.”

Rosenberg:  It has taken blogging roughly a decade to evolve from the pursuit of a handful of enthusiasts on the fringes of the technology industry into the dominant media form online.  Whatever it is you are aiming to do or express on the Web today, the odds are good that you, like Berners-Lee and Andreessen, will end up doing it, wholly or in part, using a blog.  Whatever information you seek, or debate you follow, or distraction you crave, the odds are equally high that your destination will be a blog of one kind or another.

This outcome looks inevitable only in hindsight.  And even today the result still sometimes inspires a double-take: Wait a second, you mean there’s a blog about that?

On one recent evening, I found myself hitting a wall as I prepared a recipe from a favorite Chinese cookbook.  It called for an ingredient, a particular type of dried preserved mustard green from Sichuan province called ya cai.  But I had no idea whether what I’d picked up at the local Asian grocery–desiccated brown shreds packaged in cellophane labeled “dried marinated mustard”–was the genuine ya cai article.  The cookbook was no help.  Even Wikipedia, that grand collaborative compendium of volunteered human knowledge, offered only scant guidance.  But Google pointed me to an American food blogger, the anonymous Kitchen Chick, who’d been cooking her way through the same cookbook and had posted hundreds of words on the intricacies of identifying and purchasing preserved Chinese vegetables–not only how to identify ya cai by the Chinese characters, but how to tell it apart from the closely related zha cai (made from mustard stems rather than leaves) or suan cai (pickled mustard in a jar).

Whatever your particular ya cai may be, there is probably a blogger somewhere who has discoursed on it.  If for some reason there is not, you can always take on the job yourself, recording your findings and opening a channel for readers to contribute their knowledge and correct your goofs.  This inclusive process has populated the Web haphazardly but luxuriantly, like the wind seeding a wild meadow.

The common explanation for this proliferation attributed it to the low cost and simplicity of blogging–what economists call a “low barrier to market entry.”  We might also call it a low barrier to obsession indulgence.  If you care deeply about some topic, no matter how obscure, and you’d like to talk about it, an empty blog awaits you.  In this way, blogging has enabled the sharing of a wealth of knowledge that was hitherto private or limited to small groups.  It has, in effect, widened the lens through which we can see one another’s passions and quirks.

Every once in awhile, someone I have known for a time, will come upon something on my Aimless and Silly Blog and remark:  “I didn’t know you were interested in _____” or “I didn’t know you did/do _____.”

My answer is that, yes, I’ve always done thus and so or been interested in this or that – but in the past I wasn’t telling the whole world about it on my Aimless/Silly Blog.

Now, I am ‘saying everything’ as Rosenburg writes about in his book.  Now, I just post a junkpile of ‘stuff’ that interests me . . . and lo and behold, I will hear from someone else who has been thinking the same thing, wondering about the same question, interested in ‘stuff’ that interests me.

It is marvelous!

Rosenberg writes that – Bloggers, most of them solo bootstrappers of their own stream of self-expression, are the most autonomous writers the world has yet seen–the least dependent on others to publish their words. . . . On a blog, you alone can edit your words . . . At the same time, of all the species of writer, bloggers are the least insulated from their audience, most vulnerable to the ebb and flow of attention and response.  They are both alone and in a crowd.  Their solitude can inspire self-indulgent ranting; their sociability can tempt them into self-serving pandering.  But every now and then they manage to hold their balance in this paradoxical position for an extended, exhilarating spell.

. . . Any act of public expression, of “putting everything out there” — your political arguments or your creative work or your personal story — is a gamble.  We offer something to the world; we cross our fingers that our contributions won’t simply be ignored or derided or misappropriated.  Sometimes we’re surprised at how much we get back, and sometime we feel used.

Either way, we are going to keep at it.  Whatever the outcome of each of our individual bets, we can now see that collectively they constitute something unprecedented in human history: a new kind of public sphere, at once ephemeral and timeless, sharing the characteristics of conversation and deliberation.  Blogging allows us to think out loud together.  Now that we have begun, it’s impossible to imagine stopping.

. . . Skeptics often disparage the value of the record that blogs provide by pointing to their fragmentary nature.  Reading blogs is like being “beaten to death with croutons,” as Bruce Sterling once put it.  But this dismissal of blogging on the basis of its unit of composition suffers from its own kind of forest-for-the -trees blindness.  Blogs are composed of fragments, but a good blog’s fragments are not simply random chunks.  What every decent blog offers is a point of view.  As the futurist Paul Saffo wrote in 1994, before either the Web or blogging had entered the popular consciousness, “In a world of hyperabundant content, point of view will become the scarcest of resources.”

A blog’s posts, then, are little pieces, but on a good blog they are created according to an individual vision, and they are assembled for a reason.

. . . Bloggers are writers who sit down to type character after character, word upon word, day by day, steadily constructing, out of their fragments, little edifices of memory and public record. . . . Individually they are stewards of their own experience; together they are curators of our collective history.  Their work may be less polished and professional than that of many of their predecessors.  But they are more passionate, more numerous, and more inclusive — and therefore more likely to succeed in saving what matters.

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