For whatever reason, I sometimes have to visit with people about blogging. These usually end up being one of two conversations. In the first, I have to justify why I waste time on such an enterprise in the first place. Or, occasionally, explain what blogging is and then justify why I do it. (Incidentally, this is probably because my short definition of a blog is “A place online where anyone can spout off about their opinions as if they were important and then other people play along and argue with their opions like they were important too.”)
The other conversation is the opposite. It’s usually something like “Wow, that’s really impressive. Have you read blog X? I think it’s the best thing ever.” I proceed to visit blog X, only to discover that the newest post is either “Obama, Hitler and Soylent Green: The Truth About Health Care Reform” or “FOX News and Cheney Use Hypnotism, Mind Control to Further Right-Wing Agenda.” Or occasionally, in Christian circles, “Bob Read Bill’s Book, Bill Once Favorably Quoted Tim the Heretic: Burn Bob the Heretic!” I’ve been noticing lately that this latter conversation seems to be happening more and more. In particular, as people who aren’t young and jaded enough to have all their filters up read blogs, it becomes a real problem. So, as someone who is both young and (unfortunately) jaded, I thought I’d put up a blog post about reading blog posts. (Notice the enormous irony of this behavior: I’m using a blog post to tell you not to trust blog posts. You’ve taken your first step into this new, more cynical world.)
1. Blogging doesn’t make the person an expert. It takes a Ph. D. to get published in some circles, and a modicum of ability with the English language (or a ghost writer) to get published in most. On the internet, it takes a keyboard. New media is the great equalizer, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I cannot count the number of blogs on economics in the current recession I’ve read by people who have never heard of aggregate supply or learned how to spell laissez faire, or the Christians who wield one proof text like an imaginary sword in a children’s game and then argue about who they’ve killed with it and who they haven’t. Sure, I’m happy that diverse voices are allowed into the conversation. But diversity ensures that it won’t just be diverse knowledgeable voices: when everyone gets in, well, idiots fall under the category “everyone.” Let me put it another way: the blogosphere isn’t a panel of experts debating a topic. It is a dinner party, where the political scientist is being yelled at by the lout who read one book and had six glasses of champagne.
I can’t write this without a wry smile at my own expense. The simple fact is that I know people over-value what is published on blogs because it regularly happens to me. I’ve been at this game in different places since I was 18, and was pretty serious about it for a few years there. I write because it helps me think, and I post what I write because it makes me edit and keeps my thinking honest. That’s all. I’d love to spark conversation or bring up an interesting idea to you which you hadn’t considered before. The great thing about new media is that people like me are allowed into the conversation. But please, treat me like a junior partner in that dialog. If I’m right about something, let it be because you’ve thought over the issue and my arguments and agree with me. If I’m wrong, well, I’m a 24-year-old seminary student whose greatest talent is sometimes being able to convincingly talk about things he doesn’t understand. You do the math.
2. Blogging doesn’t guarantee accuracy. This is a big one, particularly for people in their 30’s and 40’s who still have the cultural sense that, if it’s written down, it must contain at least generally accurate information. There was a time in our history when publication meant a degree of testing and objectivity, in the best sense of the word; that facts in a published work must have been checked; that the author’s credentials must have been examined. It had to be “fit” to print. This is simply no longer the case. (Of course, it wasn’t necessarily the case 50 years ago either, but the problem has gotten worse).
Back before I answered them with a nasty “I’ll spam you if you ever do this again” e-mail, I once spent several weeks fact-checking every silly forward I received and trying to let whoever sent it know if there were errors. In that time, only one of the forwards had no factual errors, and that was just because it had distorted some actual statistics beyond recognition. However, I guarantee my responses didn’t get nearly the air time of the forwards themselves. You cannot believe the stats you read online, at least not without cross-referencing them carefully. If that makes you feel like the blogosphere isn’t a good place to get information, you’re right. It’s one gigantic opinion page, without market forces and libel cases to keep it moderately honest.
3. Blogging demographics don’t reflect real demographics. This is a big one, especially in the era of “media buzz”. It’s easy, on a given issue, to assume that the number of bloggers with a certain opinion accurately represent the number of people at large who hold the same view. Nonsense. It’s the people with the shrillest, most in-your-face opinions who drive the conversations.
Here’s a thought experiment to prove the point: let’s suppose that I started two blogs about politics, focused on our president. On one of the blogs, I argued that he was a generally good guy with a few really bad ideas but a lot of helpful stuff to say. On the other, I announced that he was a homosexual worshipper of Satan who liked to eat babies in the basement of the White House. Which blog would everyone be talking about? Which blog would generate the comments?
I know first-hand that dipping your fingers into controversy is the single best way to grow readership (well, in Christian circles, that and writing about sex). It’s why I try not to do it anymore. There’s a little graph on my front page whenever I write that tells me how many people visited the site yesterday or read the last post. Every time I sit down to my computer, it pleads with me to say something extreme or offensive so I can have the small pleasure of watching that line climb. I’ve succumbed to the temptation of the little graph before, and it has always been something I’ve had to repent of. That little graph is a major force in the new media world as a whole – and it always rewards extremists over moderates.
So what are blogs good for? After blasting away, some of you are probably wondering whether I’ve just proved you completely wasted the hours you’ve spent poring over the blogosphere, including the five minutes it took you to read this post. Probably. But that doesn’t mean blogs have no value. Within the hubbub of conversation, there are a few voices I find genuinely helpful or enjoyable to read. This is particularly true when someone with already-clear gifts uses blogging as a supplemental outlet for their thinking and writing. What’s more, the internet is a great place to hear, in their own words, those who disagree with you. Don’t assume they’re the best examples of other opinions, but it is nonetheless helpful to hear such views.
However, I think the best way to envision the blogosphere is as a dinner party. There are a variety of people around, with enough stories and experiences to make things interesting and enough wine to let them talk freely. Approach blogs with all the critical faculties you would have in such a setting. Realize that the guy pontificating about politics is just a first-year grad student with more ego than sense. Keep in mind that the woman screaming profanities might be finding most of the justification for her outrage in a bottle of bubbly. If those realities don’t completely turn your stomach, go out and enjoy the party. Laugh at the drunk, politely avoid the grad student, and have fun hearing people’s stories and opinions. Who knows, you might make a friend or two. You might even learn something. But if you’re looking for an environment of careful and accurate thought, where stories are truer and opinions more nuanced, go to the library instead. And if you’re asking how best to spend ten hours of your week… I’d recommend making a new friend or learning to play the piano.