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In praise of the parasitic blogger

March 05, 2007

Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, recently decried what he sees as a tendency among journalists to characterize blogs as "a 'parasitic' medium that wouldn't be able to exist without the reporting done at newspapers." He calls the charge "a poorly informed insult of many hard-working Web publishers who are doing fresh, informative and original work."

I confess to having trafficked in this "insult" in the past. A little over a year ago, noting the dominance of New York Times articles on the technology news-headline site Techmeme, I wrote, with a tacit nod to Eric Raymond, "Sometimes I think that if it weren't for the shadow of the cathedral, there'd be no place to set up the bazaar." I suppose my intent at the time was to get a rise out of folks like Niles who are always ready to ride to the defense of the blogosphere's honor - that tattered maidenhead - but since then I've come to believe that being a literary parasite is no bad thing. I'd argue, in fact, that parasitism is blogging's most distinctive quality.

What got me blogging, nearly two years ago, was the attraction of working in a new and still embryonic literary form. Such an opportunity doesn't come around very often - never, basically - so I figured I might as well give it a whirl. Bloggers blog for a whole lot of reasons, of course, but what I think sets blogs apart, as a literary rather than a technical form, is that they offer the opportunity for a writer to document his immediate responses to his day-to-day reading. The continuous flow of text through the eye and mind is a characteristic of many people's lives, but the experience has never been able to be captured in the way it can through blogging. Diaries come closest, but they're private rather than public, and I'd argue that they place more distance between the act of reading and the act of writing about reading.

The reactionary, or parasitical, quality of blogging defined the form from the start. Blogs, after all, began as logs, time-stamped catalogues of usually brief descriptions, and sometimes critiques, of what their writers found in their daily perambulations around the World Wide Web. Many of the most venerable bloggers - the Winers and the Searlses of the world - continue to write in this form. The least interesting blogs, from my perspective, anyhow, are the ones that simply replicate existing journalistic forms such as news articles, company profiles, or product reviews. They can be very useful, and they can certainly be very popular, but they're blogs in a technical sense only.

I've been reading Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about the great London cholera epidemic of 1854. The book opens with a richly scatalogical survey of the city's teeming underclass economy, which was built almost entirely on scavenging. The poor were parasites who sustained themselves by collecting the leavings of other Londoners - rags, bones, bits of coal and wood, feces - and, with remarkable enterprise, transforming them into cash. There was even, Johnson tells us, a booming market in dog shit - lovingly known as "pure" - which tanners purchased to rub on their leathers to neutralize the lime they used to remove hair from hides.

"We're naturally inclined to consider these scavengers tragic figures, and to fulminate against a system that allowed so many thousands to eke out a living by foraging through human waste," writes Johnson. "But such social outrage should be accompanied by a measure of wonder and respect: ... this itinerant underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people ... Far from being unproductive vagabonds ... these people were actually performing an essential function for their community."

Johnson goes on to draw an analogy between these human waste-recyclers and their microscopic counterparts, bacteria. "Without the bacteria-driven processes of decomposition, the earth would have been overrun by offal and carcasses eons ago," he reminds us. "If the bacteria disappeared overnight, all life on the planet would be extinguished within a matter of years."

I like to think of the blogosphere as a vast, earth-engirdling digestive track, breaking down the news of the day into ever finer particles of meaning (and ever more concentrated toxins). Another word for "parasitic," in this context, is "critical." Blogging is at its essence a critical form, a means of recycling other writings to ensure that every nutritional molecule, whether real or imagined, is fully consumed. To be called a literary parasite is no insult. It's a compliment.

So, yes, Rough Type is a parasite, a bacterium, a scavenger of bones and turds and the occasional piece of pretty cloth. And I, for one, couldn't be happier.

Comments

Are blogs parasitic or symbiotic?

Blogs offer a means for "old media" to get near real-time feedback on the news stories of the day. Also, when you look at all the inaccurate MSM reporting that has been uncovered by blogs you have blogs serving as fact checkers. Add to this the many blogs with domain experts contributing commentary that actually adds further value to articles and you have a situation where many blogs actually improve upon the coverage provided by existing media sources. And that does not even include blogs such as K.C. Johnson's that played such a prominent role in the Duke scandal.

Of course, many of the blogs out there are complete dribble but then so are many of the "old media" articles that somehow get published.

Posted by: Ross the Heartless Conservative [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 12:08 PM

Excellent Commentary, Nick:

Speaking of bacteria, my gastroenterologist told me that up to 50% of person's feces consists of dead bacteria, who have just sacrificed themselves to help you digest your food.

This is very enlightening, because I have for a long time considered the bulk of professional journalists to be news digestors, whose major outputs are gas and crapola.

Posted by: Norm Potter [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 12:40 PM

Cool, but, Mr. Carr -- one of your other themes is to dispell the illusion of an anarchic "web n.0" by pointing out the inevitable rise of contentious authority, hierarchical structure, etc.

I'd really appreciate, I think, seeing the blogosphere self-organize (much more than it already is) with new business models to channel the high volume of interesting content into edited magazine-like presentations, ideally linked to organized investigative capacities.

Ever thought about starting a business?

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 01:33 PM

First the Long Tail, and now the Long Intestine. Rather elegant, actually.

Posted by: Brian Phipps [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 01:59 PM

Parastic or Symbiotic? For my two blogs I generously quote from NY Times, BusinessWeek, MIT Technology Review, Business 2.0. I sure as hell hope media is reading my stuff and that of other enterprise bloggers to get a clue beyond the usual Apple, Google, MS stuff. As I wrote below there is almost a directly inverse relation to what enterprise spends money on and what media reports on in tech

http://dealarchitect.typepad.com/deal_architect/2006/03/is_the_media_bi.html

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 02:23 PM

If blogging to you then was "a new and still embryonic literary form," then in acknowledging the parasitic nature of your avocation now, you not only endorse the dilution of such a literary form, but, in doing so, I believe you give in, rather without a fight, the hijacking of this blogging medium by "journalism," and "news/views and opinion making."

Come to think of it, if blogging these days is anything, it is an exercise in a convenient and repeated conflating of such a "literary form" with the nearly form-less act of opinion-making, by the acknowledged shit-collectors.

Before you bend over and jump with joy and pride at what blogging has turned out to be, I wish you would go back and think how inappropriate and condescending Mr. Johnson's words are, even within the context of that ghost of a book, and ought to question if that was an appropriate inspiration for celebrating the present state of the blogging, especially given that this very act of blogging has an immensely richer promise. Provided you don't relegate it to, I repeat, to scavenging the turd. If you don't agree with me, then you ought to read once again these words, written nearly 125 years ago.

Never mind who wrote them. Bet your boots this author knew a thing or two about the "literary form."

--being quote--

The view of life of these people, my comrades in authorship, consisted in this: that life in general goes on developing, and in this development we -- men of thought -- have the chief part; and among men of thought it is we -- artists and poets -- who have the greatest influence. Our vocation is to teach mankind. And lest the simple question should suggest itself: What do I know, and what can I teach? it was explained in this theory that this need not be known, and that the artist and poet teach unconsciously. I was considered an admirable artist and poet, and therefore it was very natural for me to adopt this theory. I, artist and poet, wrote and taught without myself knowing what. For this I was paid money; I had excellent food, lodging, women, and society; and I had fame, which showed that what I taught was very good.

[...]

Moreover, having begun to doubt the truth of the authors' creed itself, I also began to observe its priests more attentively, and I became convinced that almost all the priests of that religion, the writers, were immoral, and for the most part men of bad, worthless character, much inferior to those whom I had met in my former dissipated and military life; but they were self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is. These people revolted me, I became revolting to myself, and I realized that that faith was a fraud.

[...]

From my intimacy with these men I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what.

[...]

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote -- teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life's questions: What is good and what is evil? we did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another -- just as in a lunatic asylum.

Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over...[...], and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us.

It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: "All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men." This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money and those on our side praised us, so each of us considered himself justified.

It is now clear to me that this was just as in a lunatic asylum; but then I only dimly suspected this, and like all lunatics, simply called all men lunatics except myself.

--end quote--

Regards, Crazyfinger

Posted by: C F [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 02:48 PM

Crazyfinger,

I'm jumping with neither joy nor pride. (The happiness was purely rhetorical.)

Great quote. To go back still further:

Socrates: But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.

Phaedrus: Yes.

Socrates: Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?

Phaedrus: No, indeed. Do you? ...

Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was writing. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to writing, Theuth said, "This will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it improves both the memory and the wit." Thamus replied, "O most ingenious Theuth, the inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the good or harm that will come to those who practice it. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have. For this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, as they will no longer exercise their memories but rather rely on the written characters. Writing is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Phaedrus: Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 03:20 PM

Nick and Crazyfinger - I am in awe of the size of your bladders -)

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 03:46 PM

Ah, but, Nick, you are a pundit by profession - of course you enjoy an expansion in opportunities for punditry. Your post here might be summarized as "Pundits are parasites, but socially useful ones".

The problem is that there's several different, somewhat related, issues that sail under the flag of "bloggers vs. journalists"

1) The desire of some very powerful interests to utterly destroy professional journalism and replace it with propaganda and product marketing.

[Yes, yes, knee-jerker in the audience, most of what "journalists" write is already so. Got it. Heard it. Save it. The point is that those interests want to get rid of anything else]

2) The replacing of employee positions with unpaid freelancers

3) The hypsters and hucksters who peddle the idea of status as respected pundit to ranters.

4) The shifts in information distribution and business models from The Internet.

There's a lot of confusion when someone is talking about one of these items, and someone else replies to a different item.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2007 06:36 PM

"The relation between the subject of knowledge and its object has never been thought in terms of exchange; instead it was understood that the active subject took information from the passive object. The use of the terms "data" and "given" in philosophy thus reveal that the objective or external world gives for free and asks nothing in return. Consequently, the knowledge link becomes parasitical. The subject takes everything and gives nothing while the object gives everything and receives nothing. Knowledge is then treated as disinterested in turn. The active or technical relation to the world exploits it and that is all. We did not know we were acting as parasites or predators." (Michel Serres, Ctheory, 11/2006)

Posted by: pitsch [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 03:40 AM

Yes Nick, a parasite is probably as happy being a parasite as a horse doesn't think his nose is long. However, I bet a parasite doesn't care that he is useful to a larger ecosystem, and in that light bloggers should not seek self-importance either. It is a side-effect if, yes if, blogging would help digest an overwhelmingly large amount of "professional" writing produced on a daily basis. And even then, the benefit of that can only be determined by the person looking at us through the microscope. I am not sure what he would conclude.

Posted by: davidgn [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 03:46 AM

You've got the right argument re how bloggers ingest and recycle MSM droppings, but the wrong word, I think:

A person who lives by amusing the rich

Posted by: Sissy Willis [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 18, 2007 04:20 PM

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