Blogging, the nihilist impulse

posted Mar 07, 2007

You'll need to read at least some of that piece to understand the ways I'm critical of it, but you don't need to read it all. Be sure to get the last paragraph (quoted in my post body).

I find myself agreeing with about a quarter of it, disagreeing with the reasons given but agreeing with the conclusions for about a third, disagreeing with the rest, and finding some of the implicit casual assumptions to come pretty close to "arrogant asshole".

All in all, a stimulating read, which is why I blog about it.

Last paragraph:

Can we talk of a "fear of media freedom"? It is too easy to say that there is freedom of speech and that blogs materialize this right. The aim of radical freedom, one could argue, is to create autonomy and overcome the dominance of media corporations and state control and to no longer be bothered by "their" channels. Most blogs show an opposite tendency. The obsession with news factoids borders to the extreme. Instead of selective appropriation, there is over-identification and straight out addiction, in particular to the speed of real-time reporting. Like Erich Fromm (author of Fear of Freedom), we could read this as "a psychological problem" because existing information is simply reproduced and in a public act of internalization. Lists of books that still have to be read, a common feature on blogs, lead in the same direction. According to Fromm, freedom has put us in an unbearable isolation. We thus feel anxious and powerless. Either we escape into new dependencies or realize a positive freedom that is based upon "the uniqueness and individuality of man". "The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own." The freedom from traditional media monopolies leads to new bondages, in this case to the blog paradigm, where there is little emphasis on positive freedom, on what to with the overwhelming functionality and the void of the empty, white entry window. We do not hear enough about the tension between the individual self and the "community", "swarms", and "mobs" that are supposed to be part of the online environment. What we instead see happening on the software side are daily improvements of ever more sophisticated (quantitive) measuring and manipulation tools (in terms of inbound linking, traffic, climbing higher on the Google ladder, etc.). Isn't the document that stands out the one that is not embedded in existing contexts? Doesn't the truthness lie in the unlinkable?

I could probably reply with an essay of equal length, but I'll confine myself to one of the errors I think this guy makes, which I find endemic to much leftist academic discipline, especially in the "identity politics" domain. I think it's fair to say this essay is predicated on the idea that "bloggers" form an identity group, upon which the standard precepts of identity politics can be projected.

I find this casual assumption fallacious. One of the fundamental assumptions of identity politics is to the extent that a group exhibits some similarity, that the similarity must necessarily arise from some group norm enforcement mechanism. It is the "must necessarily" part that is incorrect; in reality, group norms can emerge from deep similarities in the component members.

One of the most compelling demonstrations of this is in the computer nerds of the 1970s up to the early 1990s. Back then, there were many computer nerds that may have been the only nerd in their town, or connected only to a small isolated group of other nerds with no significant connection to the larger group of nerds. Yet, there were certain deep similarities in political thought, choice of hobby, and other such things that can't really be explained as anything other than an emergent phenomenon brought on by similarity of the group. I happened to catch the tail end of this; I wasn't connected into "larger nerddom" until college, because even as recently as 1996, the "internet" was not something that high schoolers were aware of, even very nerdy ones.

Yet when I got to college, I was "with my peeps". The culture shock was minimal, and indeed I found rich veins of it previously unknown to me, which I greedily consumed. Never was any of this enforced to me, never did I suffer any stress for not being nerdy enough; it emerged.

Similarly, much of the piece I link to hypothesizes that "a blogger" will experience stress about being unable to meet the norms of blogging. It's mostly an underlying assumption that you can see even in the quoted paragraph, but the best short quote where it comes to the foreground is "This stylized uncertainty [about what to feel, what to think, believe, and like] circles around the general assumption that blogs ought to be biographical while simultaneously reporting about the world outside." There are other places where this assumption comes up, that blogging is an identity group imposing norms upon its members.

But it's not. It's true that every blogger comes to their first blog with some ideas about what their blog "should be", but anybody who makes it past the first six months will find their own voice and dispose of the old ideas. (Or they will choose to cease blogging, in which case they no longer count as "bloggers".) It's true that I've struggled (publicly to some degree) about why I write iRi, but that's not because I'm worried about how it's a "bad blog", but because I've been trying to figure out what it means to me, and why I seem so compelled to spend so much time here. (Relatively speaking. Many thousands of other bloggers have me creamed on the time front, of course.)

The blogging zeitgeist emerges. Only the very largest blogs are ever pressured about how their blog isn't a real blog, and in my experience such criticisms generally get shouted down anyhow.

Blogging is more like a giant brain than a piece of literature; it thinks what it wants to think, it does what it wants to do, and no amount of academic crying about what "should" be thought or done is going to stop it. This isn't blog triumphalism, because in this case the word "blog" fails my adjective test; in fact the body politic will think what it wants to think, etc.

This guy is like the cerebellum complaining that the entire brain isn't monomaniacally obsessed with the position of the parts of the body, of course all right-thinking neurons are concerned about such things. To look at the people thinking about whatever they like, and to declare that it's not thinking in the right way or about the right stuff is somewhat arrogant.

And yet, there are certain valid criticisms to be made. I got this link via dangerousmeta, where he linked to this article with the comment:

We may be helping deconstruct, but building something new and better is terribly difficult. The major problem is, noone seems to be seriously trying.

I'm not sure I can condemn bloggers for that (see: arrogance of telling bloggers how and what to think), but it is certainly a true criticism that the medium lends itself to endless deconstruction, both in the academic sense and the more traditional sense of the opposite of construction. A reporter spends a month doing an in-depth quality report on something, and a thousand bloggers hop on the story and deconstruct it; what is left?

That's something of a trick question; the answer is, a quality story and lot of conversation. Nothing has really been destroyed. But little has been truly created beyond the reporter's story (assuming a quality story that held up to scrutiny), either; a significant part of what makes an online story valuable is the difficulty of creating it. (This is a second-order effect; the value comes not from some sort of intrinsic value of labor theory, which is of course a pernicious economic fallacy, but from the fact that everything easy has already been produced, in quantity; there's no shortage of easy comments and easy observations, it's the hard ones that contain the unexpected stuff and are therefore more valuable and informative. The information value of a statement can be defined as the extent to which it is a "surprise"; the easy stuff is no surprise.)

To tear down somebody else's opinion is always easy, especially if they never fire back (and once enough people join the pile-on it becomes impossible to address all the putative errors). To build a coherent competitive structure is much harder. Much, much harder; the difference between an hour's blog post and months of work.

The problem is the weblog structure just doesn't lend itself to sustained contemplation. We post a blog post, and within days it has scrolled off the bottom of the front page, within a month it is in an oblivion so thorough that comments must be closed lest they fill with spammers, the only people paying attention to such blog posts. Two months later, if a similar thought arises we are almost (but not quite) necessarily required to restart the thought train from scratch. There's some value in being forced to re-write your arguments from scratch a few times (my experience is they tend to get better for the first few times), but there's also a lot of value lost.

Yet we also know from direct experience that static web pages aren't the answer. Wikis only work in constrained circumstances. Pretty much any conversation that allows arbitrary people to post back and forth at each other becomes little more than a spinning of the wheels.

Building is hard. It's probably irreducibly hard, though perhaps we can at least create some structures where it isn't borderline impossible.

This is, ultimately, what my BlogBooks are about; an attempt to parlay the easy thinking that weblogs engender into the creation of larger structures that take on the challenge of true creation.

This is one of those things where I agree with the conclusion but disagree with the reason. Yes, bloggers are doing an awful lot of cynical deconstruction, but it's not like the "community" will yell at you if you do anything else, it's just that deconstruction is far, far easier than anything else; it is cognitively easier to disagree than create something new, and the technical format affords drive-by-deconstruction. (Busting out slugs to the beat of the bass, in the words of someone who isn't a blogger (heck, doesn't even actually exist) but clearly has that blogger esprit de corps....)


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