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Surface tensions

October 15, 2008

In the new issue of the Atlantic, veteran blogger Andrew Sullivan writes a thoughtful and generous paean to blogging, which he calls - and he means it more as compliment than as criticism - "a superficial medium":

By superficial, I mean simply that blogging rewards brevity and immediacy. No one wants to read a 9,000-word treatise online. On the Web, one-sentence links are as legitimate as thousand-word diatribes—in fact, they are often valued more. And, as Matt Drudge told me when I sought advice from the master in 2001, the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.

But the superficiality masked considerable depth—greater depth, from one perspective, than the traditional media could offer. The reason was a single technological innovation: the hyperlink. An old-school columnist can write 800 brilliant words analyzing or commenting on, say, a new think-tank report or scientific survey. But in reading it on paper, you have to take the columnist’s presentation of the material on faith, or be convinced by a brief quotation (which can always be misleading out of context). Online, a hyperlink to the original source transforms the experience. Yes, a few sentences of bloggy spin may not be as satisfying as a full column, but the ability to read the primary material instantly—in as careful or shallow a fashion as you choose—can add much greater context than anything on paper ...

A blog, therefore, bobs on the surface of the ocean but has its anchorage in waters deeper than those print media is technologically able to exploit. It disempowers the writer to that extent, of course. The blogger can get away with less and afford fewer pretensions of authority. He is—more than any writer of the past—a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production.

He goes on to reflect on the downside of blogging's essential superficiality: its "failure to provide stable truth or a permanent perspective":

A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this—and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing.

A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts. The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.

Well put.


Sullivan did say it so well. There are many kinds of communication, and blogs (and soon, tweets) will develop their own best reasons for use. After a day in Internet land, it's wonderfully indulgent to get lost in a long-form piece. I think I'll try it right now.

Posted by: Anne [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2008 05:52 PM

Hello Mr. Carr, The article by Sullivan goes right to the point in the definition of Bloggers. I've been talking to 200 teachers in the last monday and tuesday, in the innerland of São Paulo [Brazil] about blogs. This is the main target of my doctor´s degree and, on experiencing them I came to conclusions such as: the posts must be brief; This work is made of posts not of articles in an academic way; language is more informal; You are constantly fishing for ideas on the web and choose part of them to comment; if you are a professional on blogging you must take care with your text [quality aspects; logical sense; style; grammar]. Blogs are a great device to spread out ideas and make other people get acquainted with other thinkers.

Posted by: JOÃO LUÍS DE ALMEIDA MACHADO [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2008 07:33 AM

Which brings us to the point of 'trust' in a community sense. (Within the context of the referencing blog.)

If I read (referenced or not) concepts of future trends and technology by Nicholas Carr, it has a certain weight or trust value that may not be there with the same text by popular blogger Liz Strauss(a random example with apologies to Liz)

So the definition, or attribution, of this 'weighting' or 'trust level' is still a relative unknown.

For example, there was that gentleman exposed at wikipedia for claiming a 'trusted' status for which he apparently was not as qualified as he claimed.

How do we define that trust or weighting is earned as that badge of honour?

Posted by: ERoss [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2008 12:14 PM

Just returned from a quiet corner of the building, where I sat in a comfortable chair with a printout of the article. There will always be a place in my hands for hard copy, so thank goodness for "writing". Sullivan's essay is an eloquent one and I'm glad to have read it.

@ERoss: in my mind, the "trust" attribute is a personal one. I will trust sources you may or may not trust. And those levels of trust are built up as any other relationship: through time and repetition. The level of trust will be amplified or accelerated with a recommendation from someone you trust (or are at least willing to give the benefit of the doubt).

That's the beauty of blogging to me. If a reader is willing to invest the time to follow postings over time, there is a track record, as well as a pattern of thinking that evolves, much as the personal essayist of the past.

Posted by: Chris K [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2008 02:45 PM

I love the ocean analogy or is it a simile? Suppose the blogger's sea was covered by an oil slick? What bobs on the surface or lurks below? Sharks in the Bloggers Sea or is it the great accountancy?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2008 08:14 PM

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