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Republic.com 2.0

by Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 251 pp., $24.95


by David D. Perlmutter
Oxford University Press, 235 pp., $24.95

Two years ago, I was given a dreadful idea for a book: create an anthology of blogs. It could not be done, I was sure. Books are tight. Blogs are reckless. Books are slow. Blogs are fast. Books ask you to stay between their covers. Blogs invite you to stray. Books fret over copyright and libel. Blogs grab whatever they want with impunity—news, gossip, pictures, videos. Making a book out of bloggy material, if it could be done at all, would kill it, wouldn’t it?1

A blog, for those who don’t know, is a journal or log that appears on a Web site. It is written on line, read on line, and updated on line. It’s there for anyone with an Internet connection to see and (in many cases) comment on. The entries, or posts, are organized in reverse chronological order, like a pile of unread mail, with the newest posts on top and the older stuff on the bottom. Some blogs resemble on-line magazines, complete with graphics, sidebars, and captioned photos. Others just have the name of the blog at the top and the dated entries under it. You can find blogs by doing a regular Google search for the blog name (if you know it) or by doing a Google Blog search using keywords.

The word “blog” is a portmanteau term for Web log or Weblog. In 1997 Jorn Barger, the keeper of Robot Wisdom, a Web site full of writings about James Joyce, artificial intelligence, and Judaism as racism (he’s reputedly a racist himself), coined the word “Weblog.” In 1999 Peter Merholz, the author of a Weblog called Peterme, split it in two like this—“We blog”—creating a word that could serve as either noun or verb. “Blog” was born.

Today there are, by one count, more than 100 million blogs in the world, with about 15 million of them active. (In Japan neglected or abandoned blogs are called ishikoro, pebbles.) There are political blogs, confessional blogs, gossip blogs, sex blogs, mommy blogs, science blogs, soldier blogs, gadget blogs, fiction blogs, video blogs, photo blogs, and cartoon blogs, to name a few. Some people blog alone and some in groups. Every self-respecting newspaper and magazine has some reporters and critics blogging, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

Every sport, every war, every hurricane brings out a crop of bloggers, who often outdo the mainstream media in timeliness, geographic reach, insider information, and obsessive detail. You can read about the Iraq war from Iraqi bloggers, from American soldiers (often censored now), or from scholars like Juan Cole, whose blog, Informed Comment, summarizes, analyzes, and translates news from the front. For opera, to take another example, you have Parterre Box, which is kind of campy, or Sieglinde’s Diaries and My Favorite Intermissions, written by frequent Met-goers, or Opera Chic, a Milan-based blog focused on La Scala (which followed in great detail the scandal of Roberto Alagna’s walkout during Aida a year ago). And that doesn’t begin to cover it.

With such riches to choose from, you might think it would be a snap to put a bunch of blogs into a book and call it an anthology. And you would be wrong. The trouble? Links—those bits of highlighted text that you click on to be transported to another blog or another Web site. (Links are the Web equivalent of footnotes, except that they take you directly to the source.) It’s not only that the links are hard to transpose into print. It’s that the whole culture of linking—composing on the fly, grabbing and posting whatever you like, making weird, unexplained connections and references—doesn’t sit happily in a book. Yes, I’m talking about bloggy writing itself.

Is there really such a thing? A growing stack of books has pondered the effects of blogs and bloggers on culture (We’ve Got Blog and Against the Machine), on democracy (Republic .com 2.0), on politics (Blogwars), on privacy (The Future of Reputation), on media (Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation and We’re All Journalists Now), on professionalism (The Cult of the Amateur), on business (Naked Conversations), and on all of the above (Blog!). But what about the effect of blogs on language?

Are they a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

Reading blogs, it’s pretty clear, is not like reading a newspaper article or a book. Blog readers jump around. They follow links. They move from blogs to news clips to videos on YouTube, and they do it more easily than you can turn a newspaper page. They are always getting carried away—somewhere. Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don’t even stop to punctuate. And if they can’t put quite the right inflection on a sentence, they’ll often use an OMG (Oh my god!) or an emoticon, e.g., a smiley face :-) or a wink ;-) or a frown :-( instead of words. (Tilt your head to the left to see the emoticons here.)

Many bloggers really don’t write much at all. They are more like impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment. Some days, the only original writing you see on a blog is the equivalent of “Read this…. Take a look…. But, seriously, this is lame…. Can you believe this?”

Consider these two quite unrelated early-morning posts on December 5 from Instapundit, a well-known political blog operated by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee:


posted at 07:28 AM

by Glenn Reynolds

ALCEE HASTINGS resigns from Intel committee. That seems like a good thing, though Hastings disagrees:

In an interview with Congressional Quarterly in April, Hastings expressed some anger at “Democrats in high places” who made an issue—during his bid for the chairmanship—of the fact that he was impeached and removed from office as a federal judge in 1989 on corruption and perjury charges.

Yeah, can you believe they’d be so uptight?

posted at 07:21 AM

by Glenn Reynolds

The items are short and elliptical—teasers. To see what they are about you click on the links. Here, clicking on the highlighted words “AND NOTHINGNESS” whisks you to a blog post by John Podhoretz on the Web site of Commentary magazine with the title “Huckabeeing and Nothingness”; clicking on “resigns from Intel committee” brings you to an article about Hastings quitting the House Intelligence Committee that was posted on CQ Today, the daily news Web site of Congressional Quarterly. Following links is like putting on 3-D glasses. Too bad there is no equivalent in print.

Political blogs are among the trickiest to capture in a book because they tend to rely heavily on links and ephemeral information. But even blogs that have few or no links still show the imprint of the Web, its associative ethos, and its obsession with connection—the stink of the link. Blogs are porous to the world of texts and facts and opinions on line. (And this is probably as close as I can come to defining an essence of blog writing.)

Bloggers assume that if you’re reading them, you’re one of their friends, or at least in on the gossip, the joke, or the names they drop. They often begin their posts mid-thought or mid-rant—in medias craze. They don’t care if they leave you in the dust. They’re not responsible for your education. Bloggers, as Mark Liberman, one of the founders of the blog called Language Log, once noted, are like Plato. :-) The unspoken message is: Hey, I’m here talking with my buddies. Keep up with me or don’t. It’s up to you. Here is the beginning of Plato’s Republic:

I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, to pay my devotions to the Goddess, and also because I wished to see how they would conduct the festival since this was its inauguration.

Wait a second! Who is Ariston? What Goddess? What festival?

And here, for comparison’s sake, is a passage from Julia {Here Be Hippogriffs}, a blog about motherhood and infertility:

Having left Steve to his own devices for the past three days I am being heavily pressured to abandon the internet (you! he wants me to abandon you!) and come downstairs to watch SG-1 with him….

So this will have to be quick. Vite! Aprisa aprisa!

I went to Blogher. It was rather fun and rather ridiculous and I am quite glad I went although I do not know if I would ever go again. One thing of note for my infertile blogging friends: DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. Do not go. Do not ever ever go to Blogher.

Huh? Who’s Steve? What’s Blogher? A blog? (No.) A mothers’ club? (No.) A blogging conference? (Yes.)

You get the point. Bloggers breeze through places, people, texts, and blogs that you might or might not know without providing any helpful identification. They figure that even if they don’t provide you with links you can get all the background you need by Googling unfamiliar terms, clicking through Wikipedia (the collaborative on-line encyclopedia) or searching their blog’s archives.

The very tone of most blogs—reactive, punchy, conversational, knowing, and free-associative—is predicated on linkiness and infused with it. And that’s no accident. Once upon a time blogs were nothing but links with bits of commentary.

Although blogging has precedents going back to the early 1980s—on-line newsgroups, on-line diaries, and the “What’s New” sections of personal homepages—blogging as we know it (according to Rebecca Blood’s essay in We’ve Got Blog) began gathering steam around 1998. That was when a number of people began using their Web sites to record and to link to the new sites they had discovered. These early bloggers didn’t always offer much commentary. What they did do was offer place names and coordinates on the Web—like a ship’s log. They provided, Blood notes, “a valuable filtering function for their readers.” They “pre-surfed” the Web.

That small, cozy world exploded in 1999, the year that a handful of build-your-own-web-log tools for setting up blogs popped up on the Internet—LiveJournal, Diaryland, and, most importantly, Blogger, a free blogging tool courtesy of Pyra Labs. After that anyone with a computer and Internet access could start a blog. You’d simply go to a service like Blogger (now owned by Google) or, in later years, to a social networking site like MySpace. Then you’d follow the instructions: choose a name for your blog, consider how much to reveal on the “About Me” page, decide whether to allow comments from readers, and pick a template—including the layout, font, and background screen.

At the beginning of 1999 there were a few dozen blogs, Blood reports. By the end of the year there were thousands, and it was impossible for anyone to keep up. At the end of 2003 there were two million blogs and the number was doubling every five months. In early 2006 Technorati, a search engine that tracks blogs, counted 27 million. In late 2007, the count passed 100 million. (The largest number of blog posts, some 37 percent, are now in Japanese, according to a recent Washington Post article by Blaine Harden, and most of these are polite and self-effacing—“karaoke for shy people.” Thirty-six percent of posts are in English, and most of them are the opposite of polite and self-effacing.)

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    In fact, I did it. See my Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web (Vintage, 2008).

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