A corrollary to Godwin's Law
May 15, 2005 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Blogs are bad, essays good. Yet another priesthood is taking defensive action, this time essayists. In this piece, the author argues, without much thought or precision, that the throughtful, precise essay is much, much better than those dirty blogs. With apologies to Bill Maher, NEW RULE: If you think Matt Drudge is a blogger and cite him as such, you've already lost the argument.
posted by baltimore (20 comments total)
Checkers sell better than chess.

Get over it Victoria and try writing something the people want to read. It's like a classical musician railing against bands like Good Charlotte. Yeah, GC sucks to a degree hard to quantify but pimply little kids buy it up and seem to genuinely like it. Artists, in general, have suffered for decades from uneducated and ill-conceived works that people still seem to buy. What can you do?

She pines on about bloggers but all it is is culture finally making a dent in her small world.
posted by j.p. Hung at 6:48 AM on May 15, 2005

the author argues, without much thought or precision

Which would seem to be one of the big points she has against blogs.

Won't someone think of the children?
posted by ao4047 at 6:49 AM on May 15, 2005

I love that new rule. :)
posted by dabitch at 6:51 AM on May 15, 2005

What has she got against pancakes?
posted by warbaby at 7:12 AM on May 15, 2005

In blogging, the checks and balances of standard essay writing seem not to apply.

Yeah, that's because they are BLOGS, not essays.
posted by c13 at 8:10 AM on May 15, 2005

Essays should be more than sycophantic name-dropping and a pretentious pose. I fail to see how Miss Brownworth's "essay" is more than that. Sure, most blog entries don't mirror the quality of A Modest Proposal, but then again neither do 99.9% of the essays dating back to the "pre-blog era".
posted by clevershark at 8:11 AM on May 15, 2005

Any dot-commer can blog - a serious journalist with years of experience like, say, myself, or the teenager down the block spewing political rants during breaks from Grand Theft Auto. The problem in the blogosphere is that the kid and I will be received with equal credibility.
And why not? One of the things that intelligent people do is fact-check for themselves. I don't blindly trust anything I read anymore, whether written by a kid or a pompous jackass serious journalist.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:41 AM on May 15, 2005

Blogging has replaced the real essay for most people under 30, just as the Internet has replaced the daily newspaper.

Maybe for "most people under 30" who were really into essays. All 5 of them.
posted by teg at 8:54 AM on May 15, 2005

Regarding the passage that exlotuseater quoted, the author of this article is actually dead wrong. On a blog, you can easily tell the dumbasses from the people who actually have something intelligent to say, and you can quickly dismiss them. An essayist, like our author in question, has the weight of her newspaper behind her: the decision over whether she is actually full of shit takes a tad longer because, well, she does write for the Baltimore Sun (or the New York Times or whatever). In blogland, imposters are quickly outed.
posted by goatdog at 9:01 AM on May 15, 2005

An essayist, like our author in question, has the weight of her newspaper behind her: the decision over whether she is actually full of shit takes a tad longer because, well, she does write for the Baltimore Sun (or the New York Times or whatever). In blogland, impostors are quickly outed.

One would think so. The reader has to go through the mental process of questioning first the writer, then the copy editor, then page editor, etc. There appear to be at least three people who don't think that this is a transparent crock.

What the recent series of articles lamenting the rise of the blogsphere and the fall of the multiply edited opinion essay in the MSM shows is that for most articles, multiple layers of editorial checking do little to catch even the most basic factual errors, and nothing to catch illogical and fallacious reasoning.
posted by tkb at 9:36 AM on May 15, 2005

Once again we are presented with one of the universal laws of humanity: People are afraid, often illogically, of change. This is especially apparent in situations where those people don't understand the basic undercurrents of the change, but is still clearly observable even when they are.

I am reminded by this series of events of a periodic barrage between one peeved syndicated comic artist and one free online comic artist. The argument is always the same. One claims that syndication is inherently the mark of quality in the industry, and sees nothing but the model he's based his life upon under attack. The other claims that all voices should be allowed to be heard so that the public can decide what quality is, and sees an outdated business model crumbling under its own weight.

I also want to point out just how correct goatdog is in his preceeding comment. Quality is easily discernable on the web. MeFi itself is a perfect example, with users building up reputations, sometimes over years, that add to or detract from the weight of all future postings. New members, even ones who had been readers for years (such as I had been), are regarded with careful scrutiny until their true colors become clear.
posted by mystyk at 9:40 AM on May 15, 2005

exlotuseater, your equivalence of blogs and newspapers with respect to credibility doesn't make much sense. Newspapers have millions dollars of sunk capital and decades worth of reputation riding on each article. Blogs have nothing. Sure, newspapers make mistakes. But when they do they are overzealous about detailing and revealing those mistakes. Are bloggers? To "intelligent people" it should be clear that blogs don't even maintain the pretense of objective but professional journalists stake their reputations and livelihood on such.

This essay is a bit off but it's quite revealing how quickly the argument is dismissed by MeFi'ers. As I see it, her essential point stands. While bloggers have certainly expanded the political and cultural conversation, it's not clear at all if they've actually improved the quality of the conversation. It might be that this expansion trumps the decrease in quality (e.g. newspapers and radio broadcasts), but I don't think so in the case of bloggers. I suspect the majority of bloggers have the express intent to deceive themselves and others.
posted by nixerman at 10:11 AM on May 15, 2005

nixerman: I would argue that the professional journalists don't stake their reputation on objectivity, but rather on continuity. The argument is largely discredited, not dismissed outright, and is so because the conversations can be not only kept alive but spurred on and even fully created by the openness and immediacy of the web. How often do you open your local paper and find a thoughtful point-by-point discussion in an open letter about an editorial? It is rare to say the least. Even rarer still is one that has a response not by the editor but by the author to such critiques. Traditional journalism lacks the flexibility to respond. A MeFi thread can go on for 150+ posts for the hotter topics, and although a decent half may be worthless the other half will be point-by-point critiques of other posts in the thread. It is uncommon for an active thread to not have return critiques/clarifications/comments from the author of the post or some of the more hotly discussed prior comments. This flaw, this inflexibility in the very methods of traditional journalism is not something that has come about because of the internet or blogs; rather it has always been there and instead becomes increasingly apparent as the technology of our everyday lives expands the ways in which we are capable of communicating.
posted by mystyk at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2005

nixerman:Ok, but we're talking about essays here. Which are essentially subjective. "A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author." (dictionary def.) Whether you're a "professional journalist" or joe blow doesn't really matter, does it? It's not a news article so much as an op-ed.

I concede that newspapers have factcheckers and that they have money riding on the veracity of what is presented as fact.

Another problem that the author points out is that many are turning away from newspapers entirely. This is because the newspapers, while trying to be objective and factual, avoid reporting the stuff that they should be reporting because of conflicts of interest with their corporate/government masters. Those presses aren't free. (At least in the U.S.)

Blogs, while much more subjective, are under no such constraints.

Quality will vary, and as some pointed out upthread, anyone with half a brain can either do some factchecking themselves, or immediately rule out the crap.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:48 AM on May 15, 2005

this article isn't going to stop people from reading blogs ... it isn't going to do anything but let the reader share in the writer's alleged superiority over "those bloggers" ... the elite "essayists" are finally being shown that they're a small minority with a small audience ... the great unwashed masses taking public writing into their own hands makes them feel embarrassed and awkward at having to admit it ... too bad
posted by pyramid termite at 2:59 PM on May 15, 2005

My two cents: People actually put more thought into blog entries than we give them credit for. Hell, even on this silly little website, I have to think for a while before pressing the "post" button, lest I get torn a new one by my fellow mefi'ers.

Also: I love blogs with comments. Yes, many times the comments consist of ranting lunatics or bunnies with pancakes. But many times, the comments are as well thought out as the posts. And it gives you a reality check after reading something - nothing like fifty people saying "That can't possibly be true." "Photoshop!" "Hoax!" or "Pepsi Blue!" to put a highly controversial post into context.

Essays, while always welcome, do none of these things.
posted by fungible at 6:15 PM on May 15, 2005

tkb: What the recent series of articles lamenting the rise of the blogsphere and the fall of the multiply edited opinion essay in the MSM shows is that for most articles, multiple layers of editorial checking do little to catch even the most basic factual errors, and nothing to catch illogical and fallacious reasoning.

The problem as I see it is that with the majority of blog content as directly or indirectly derivative of the MSM, the notion that the blogosphere is in a position to replace the MSM in the near future.

Most of her criticisms are dead-on, but I think where she misses the boat is here:

There are those who will argue that the kind of essays written by Orwell, Said and Oates are apples unable to be compared with the oranges proffered by even the most talented bloggers. But it's not so much comparability that's at issue; rather it is the excising of careful, well-thought-out prose, replaced with writing that is often mere political musing and cultural journaling (and not of the Samuel Pepys variety).

Blogs are not essays, and perhaps more important than that, they are not replacements for essays. If we are to argue that blogs replace any old media, it would be the prolific personal correspondence that thrived until the rise of car culture in the 20th century. Doubtless a ton of correspondence expressing an opinion on Swift's "A Modest Proposal" has passed through the postal system since it's initial publication.

Likewise, on any given day on mefi, you will see at least one link to a fairly traditional essay written with varying degrees of skill. (Just today: 1, 2, 3, and 4). Daly Kos today seems to be fond of linking to NYT essays. Many of the frequently cited blogs here, appear to be nothing but links to opinions. One of the things that blogs do best is provide "word of mouth" advertising for MSM sources when they get it right, and criticism when they get it wrong.

This is where I think that the MSM doesn't really understand blogging. Blogging is not going to replace Will, Novak, Hentoff, Ivins, Goodman or Paige. They are not going to replace the editorial board of the NYT, the WSJ, the Economist or any other publication. What they will do is provide a medium by which their best essays are celebrated, and their worst essays are torn apart.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:30 PM on May 15, 2005

she can quote Orwell, but has she actually read and understood him?
posted by quarsan at 6:07 AM on May 16, 2005

I've read quite a few very fine essays on blogs, says the guy who was and is a newspaper and magazine columnist, and also writes on his own site. Moreover, one of the great things about writing online is that one has space to write an essay to the length it needs to be, as opposed to having twelve column inches and no more.

I would argue that more people are essayists now, thanks to blogs, than were before. Mind you, the vast majority of these essays aren't very good, but, per Sturgeon's Law, this should not come as a complete surprise.
posted by jscalzi at 6:16 AM on May 16, 2005

Well, like anything written about blogs, the more they write the more likely it will be wrong. After wasting my time reading that public masturbation dressed as an essay, the only thing I have to satisfy me is that the author will likely live to regret making this false alarm for the impending funeral of the "finely wrought essay."

Each blog works in whatever way the author wishes it. Spontaneity is an option, not a straightjacket. This goes the same for the quality, quantity and just about every other measure of the "form."

TV did not kill books or radio. Blogging can't kill a form of writing anymore than any one essay could once and for all define blogging. Writing these articles is just a way for writers to spin in place and get paid for it.
posted by john at 7:53 PM on May 16, 2005

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