Blogs: What Are They Good For?

What do I think about blogging in this, which is apparently the year ten A.B.? Glad you asked. First, I think that blogs are here to stay and then some - that they're the first journalistic form perfectly adapted to the strengths (and weaknesses) of the internet, and that they'll probably crowd out the "web column" and the "web article" as time passes. This is obviously a somewhat self-serving point of view, since the Atlantic has clearly made precisely this bet in its recent web investments - but I think it's the right bet, and the right point of view. I like article-heavy sites like Slate and TNR.com and all the rest, but I wouldn't be sorry to see them gradually transition to a bloggier format, where Kaus and Shafer and Saletan and Zengerle and Orr and so on all have a "vertical" page of their own, and the homepage is more of a blog-aggregator than a traditional magazine homepage. There just isn't enough that's, well, webby about a web article; it's a print format trying to make it's way in a post-print landscape, going against the grain of the medium rather than with it.

So - if blogs are a big, big part of the future of web journalism, is this good news or bad? I'd say it's good news for punditry, and bad news for other, deeper forms of writing.

The good first: Yes, there are plenty of blogs that take on the echo-chamber quality that Cass Sunstein famously fretted over, and plenty of bloggers who seem to engage with the world by sifting their inbox for the most ideologically-congenial missives and links. But I don't think the echo chambers created by the blogosphere are any worse than the echo chambers of the pre-internet era pundit world - they're angrier, maybe, than the New York Times op-ed page circa 1970, but I'll take anger over a stultifying liberal gentility that denies the existence of real political differences any day. And at its best, the blogosphere exposes the enormous weaknesses of the traditional op-ed page: On the web, complicated arguments get the space they deserve, the actual underlying data for any debate is only a hyperlink away, potentially-corrective feedback is more or less instantaneous, and nobody has tenure. You can be dead wrong and still find an audience, obviously, but you can't be stale: There are fewer Bob Herberts and David Broders in the blogosphere, and while there's obviously a blog establishment of sorts, its hold on its audience is far more fragile than the "It's Ellen Goodman For You Today - Or Nothing!" iron grip that the MSM used to enjoy.

The flip side of this is that blogging is the enemy of literary craft and intellectual depth. Arguments over tax policy and the proper interpretation of Knocked Up find a natural home in the blogosphere; attempts write a great novel or compose a paradigm-shifting philosophical treatise do not. If you want to be the next George Will or Paul Krugman, you'd be well-served to take up blogging now, because it'll make you a better pundit. If you want to be the next Ian McEwan or Philip Roth, or the next Alasdair McIntyre or Richard Rorty, I'd advise you to rip your internet cable out of the wall now, before it's too late. Yes, the novelists and philosophers of the past kept diaries and wrote letters and still managed to produce longer, deeper works - but blogs aren't a private or semi-private outlet, like a journal or a commonplace book; they're a form of daily journalism, with all the pressures, commercial and otherwise, that form entails. And constant journalism has always been the foe of literary or philosophical greatness: I love G.K. Chesterton, for instance, but I think his sheer output kept him from becoming something more than what he was; he was a great Christian polemicist, which is no small thing, but I think he could have been greater still if he'd written at a less hectic pace. I'm sure others have their own examples of writers who might have done more had they written slightly less, and I think in the age of blogging those examples will proliferate. We'll have better punditry, but fewer masterpieces.