Sunday, May 25, 2008

New York Times on Blogging

I'm not sure I need to bring more attention to the Times's article by and about the blogger Emily Gould, but what the hey. It's a long, loooong essay about blogging for Gawker and what it did to her social life. No, really, it is. It's also the cover story for this week's magazine. When the Times published it on their website a few days ago, it immediately racked up more than 500 comments, most of which were the "What has the Times sunk to?" variety.

Well, as we know, the Times sank to much greater depths not too long ago. So putting a giant content-free bag o' fluff on their home page is no great betrayal of their reputation or anything. I like blogging, I think blogging is interesting and fun, and I think it has a lot of largely untapped potential. But I don't get the appeal of this kind of blogging -- blogging about celebrities, gossip, and one's earring holes -- at all. I suppose I can understand why someone would want to do it, but why read it? I thought we were all, you know, pressed for time and everything.

I guess that's my feeling about the article, what I'd say in a comment at the end: more power to Emily Gould for figuring out a way to make a living writing. You go, lady! This stuff isn't any more trivial and fluffy than the rest of our popular culture -- Gawker is People Magazine for a younger, snarkier generation. I think so, anyway. I've followed links there several times but never quite figured out what it was all about, what's at the center of it. Maybe I'd get it if I lived in Manhattan.

What does bug me is the way Gould's kind of blogging -- gossip blogging, really -- has come to represent all blogging in the public imagination. Because it's self-absorbed and confessional and catty, all blogs have to fight that reputation. When anti-blog snobs decry the shallowness and essential badness of blogs, that's what they're thinking of. They're not thinking of Talking Points Memo or Hullabaloo or Condalmo or Moonlight Ambulette and so on (see blogroll for more goodies), all of which address their subjects with great thoughtfulness and intelligence. And best of all, they actually have subjects.

19 comments:

Warren Adler said...

The rise of the blogosphere with its endless feedback of commentary has become a sewer of hate infestation. People armed with their keyboards, sealed off in their cells with little direct human contact, apparently feel empowered to say anything that comes to mind, however insulting or bizarre, without the restraint of consequences. At times, I am shocked at the depths of anger, loathsome animus and spitefulness that I find embedded in these rants. Worse, these comments are a far cry from any serious informed argument. It never fails to amaze me how uninformed people make judgments based on nothing more than rehashed rants perpetrated by the equally uninformed. And yet, despite the appalling horror of it and the absolute truth of the fact that words matter, indeed, matter most, I cannot bring myself to advocate any official regulation on such unfettered expression. Words, indeed, are the most powerful symbols on earth. Indeed, I'm not even certain that the oft-used homily that a picture is worth a thousand words is a worthy truism. Would the bible have retained its power over the centuries if it had been a movie instead of a text? In the end, words, in speech and text, are our principal instruments of expression, the fuel of our imagination and the motor of our alleged civilization. Words can be used by our species to serve good or evil ends. I keep wondering which end of the spectrum is losing and which is gaining ground.

Pale Ramón said...

Read George Saunders' essay "The Braindead Megaphone."

jrlennon said...

Saunders essay: good indeed.

I feel as though the internet, as a medium for commentary and debate, is at the stage right now that a six-year-old might be at, were he locked alone in a bakery overnight with a display case full of chocolate cakes. We are gorging ourselves sick on junk.

But this is the most egalitarian communication medium ever devised, and it's going to take a little time to get used to it. All of us will have to develop our personal noise filters a bit. Warren, I'm sympathetic, to be sure--but I think, ultimately, it's better this way, with every idiot given his platform. As I've posted here before, the result is that you actually have to be excellent to be heard through the noise. It is unfortunate that the Times seems to be listening harder to the noise than to the excellence.

If, before the internet, you were fairly sheltered from the true breadth of humanity's anger, bitterness, and misinformation, then the amount of same that you find in the blogosphere is bound to shock. Personally, I see it as merely the public expression of what I always assumed was there, and I'm not too bothered. Any anonymity allows us to vent our spleens--there are dimensions to people's personalities that they leave out of an anonymous blog post, and in the real world, we are not as quick to make dumb judgements.

rmellis said...

I find all that uninformed ranting disgusting, too -- but I also find it suprisingly easy to ignore. It tends to cluster in certain places. I can hardly believe the excellence of the comments we get here and that I find on many other blogs. What bothers me most is the idea that there's more great stuff I haven't found -- and I know there is -- but that it takes a lot of wading through trash to find it. I don't wander around and explore as much as I'd like; instead I depend on others to point the way.

What I meant to say in this post, though -- so often I forget to get to the point before I hit "post"; a real foible of the medium -- is that a lot of blogging and commenting and feedbacking is about loneliness and people trying hopelessly to connect. Why so much of that comes out as bile is a mystery, but no different from the other worlds, like, say high school.

puc is back said...

The original post and Adler's comment describe a symptom, not a problem. Part of that problem has been described as a reading crisis (see QC Researcher “Reading Crisis?” by Marcia Clemmitt, February 22, 2008). It's uncertain though where correlation or cause and effect exist, but in any case, to Adler’s point “I cannot bring myself to advocate any official regulation on such unfettered expression” – even if feasible, would only be treating the symptom, not any possible root causes. So what to do? Well, in the spirit of positive hope, how about volunteering at your local school, as a tutor, reader, grader, whatever. Gladwell at this year’s New Yorker Conference argued that the most effective way to improve student performance is by hiring better teachers (Gatto agrees – see “A Different Kind of Teacher”). But, Gladwell goes on, teacher unions, administrations (see the story though out of WA D.C.), credentialing process – all conspire to discourage many would be effective teachers (his presentation was about more than teachers, btw; it was about how we go about finding a good fit). Anyway, don’t stop your volunteering at the grade school level; high schools and community colleges have a desperate need. So instead of bemoaning the bad blogging, get out and do something to improve reading, writing, and arguing skills. In any case, sites like Gawker are simply an extension of what we’ve been seeing on television for some time. Another thing you can do (and this is right to the point of Adler’s comment regarding forgotten writers): donate books; students can’t read them if they don’t have them in their hands. Just some thoughts – trying to stay positive!

jrlennon said...

Great comment, thank you!

rmellis said...

Oh, yeah, Puc! As a former elementary school teacher, I have long said that the problem with schools -- and with our current crisis -- is just plain old bad teaching. Part of it is that so many teachers are just not any good (and there are many reasons for that), but an even greater problem is that the whole system is designed to thwart the good teachers -- to undermine their individuality and their idiosyncratic methods. I believe the best teachers ARE idiosyncratic, but that the system(s) won't tolerate that. I'm thrilled to agree with the awesome Gladwell.

I spent valuable years of my youth teaching kids to read and write. I got me lots of ideas on that subject.

The only way -- and I think I said it on this blog before -- to get people to read more (if that's a goal we can agree on) is to expose them to good literature in a positive way MUCH earlier. But sadly, that's not a priority for most teachers, parents, or administrators.

Writer Reading said...

I read the article and I've since forgotten what I read, suggesting the paucity of content. I am always shocked at the superficial way journalism presents the blogosphere, giving me the sense that they do very little research that would not be acceptable for covering any other story. Bloggers like Ms. Gould are just the most visible to write about, and supposedly represent us all, which is shoddy journalism at its worst. As for the Gawker, it's no different than the tabloids that have been around forever. As for anger and bile, I do agree that anonymity makes it easier, like being in your car and giving someone the finger and certainly expressing road rage. But there are many other reasons for anonymity than merely seeking permission to rant. Some of us who blog are not in writing professions but rather professions that might require high confidentiality and/or security clearances and cannot afford to be perceived by our institutions as "stooping" to blogging and revealing even opinions on a public forum, however innocuous the contents of our blogs. As two bloggers who are not anonymous, I suggest you don't jump to conclusions about anonymity. For writers, blogging can enhance a career and visibility. For some of the rest of us, any visibility at all can destroy careers.

Warren Adler said...

Donate books? You are so right, Puc.

bloglily said...

The subject of kids reading is dear to my heart, having three kids and a lot of opinions on this subject. The two biggest factors in making a child a reader are (a) having parents who read all the time and (b) living in a house where there's nothing better for you to do in your free time than to read.

(b) is sort of pathetic when you initially think about it, but really, who can compete with a screen? It reaches toward your child with its long snaky arms and grabs him in a way that a book is much too polite to do, and there's not a lot you can do about that as a parent who wants your kids to read other than turn the damned thing off. Then when the kid says he has nothing to do, you look at him blankly (from above the page of your book) and swing your arm in the direction of the stack of books he and his brothers checked out from the library the day before and wait for the obvious to happen.

The other thing that turns kids into readers is having a teachers who shows them how magical and entertaining books are. Those are the teachers who sacrifice a little standardized test prep time for Friday afternoon reading time -- that's when the teacher sits on a stool, as Mrs. Topel my third grade teacher used to, and reads you Little House on the Prairie, or as Mr. Ufer, my science teacher in the 8th grade used to do on Friday afternoons, re-tell, as though he had made them up himself, the entire contents of every Ray Bradbury book ever written. Or so it seemed. Actually, you knew there were more stories about illustrated men, so you got yourself over to the library to check them out.

As for Emily, and her blogging adventures, I have little to say. She seems so young, and her mistakes seem like they'll disappear into the ether the way all mistakes made when you're that young have a way of doing. What I hope for her is that maybe she'll turn to reading better things than Gawker and, who knows, writing some good fiction. She has the look of someone who, if she could look up from her navel for a moment, might actually be able to do that.

rmellis said...

WR -- I think there's different ways to use your anonymity -- you can protect yourself with it, or you can hide behind it. You obviously protect yourself.

Bloglily -- That's what I meant by the power of good teachers -- I think they can even overcome a bookless household.

Additionally, while parents have a lot of power over whether children become readers, they aren't omnipotent. JRL and I both have siblings who don't like to read. (They are awesome people anyway!) I think schools have more power to change the culture than individual families, but if families somehow all got together and threw out the teevees, yep, that would certainly help.

Elizabeth said...

rmellis, your idea that schools may hold more sway than individual families freaks me out a bit (as the parent of a 5-year-old in public pre-K). Are you saying you think individual children are more influenced by what they see and hear and do at school than they are by what happens at home? Or do you mean that schools can somehow change the collective culture without influencing (more than parents) one child at a time?

My view on reading is that it's like anything else: if a child has an affinity or natural talent for it, he will pursue it, and if it's a struggle, he'll turn to other things that come easier. (Hence the dynamic of siblings with different reading habits.) Helping the struggling child push through his discomfort is the job of the parents, the school, the village...

But I'm fascinated by the notion of familial vs. institutional influences; it came into startling bas-relief when, at 3, my child got on a tenacious and alarming Disney Princess kick -- I felt powerless. Will I be similarly impotent when it comes to reading, or kindness, or God help me, politics?

bookfraud said...

"people armed with their keyboards, sealed off in their cells with little direct human contact, apparently feel empowered to say anything that comes to mind, however insulting or bizarre, without the restraint of consequences"

that always works for me!

but also, i think what is getting lost (a bit) is why should the personal escapades of a 20-something be so enthralling or why gawker and its ilk gather such a loyal viewership. if you read gawker, the most common word is "douchebag," as it celebrates slamming the very success people like emily gould are seeking. and yet it (and emily gould's self-referential, meta-article) generates tons of readers, many of whom (if you read the comments) are on a personal quest to write something snarkier than the last person.

so for those of us jealous of such "success," are these the types of people one wants as readers?

rmellis said...

Elizabeth: I'm talking about the culture as a whole. You know, educational policy. Certainly my public school sons aren't more influenced as individuals by school than by me. (I think?!)

I'm probably not explaining myself well. I guess what I meant to say was that telling parents to read to their kids works great in families who get that message and have the means and wherewithal to listen, but you're leaving a whole bunch of kids out. Schools can have a more sweeping and egalitarian effect.

bookfraud: welcome back! Hope you feel well-rested. Thank you for getting my point!

Anonymous said...

You are all talking about Emily Gould's mistakes but she is doing very well for herself. Her book deal—and book deal there will be—will no doubt be substantial. And she is literary minded and it would seem well aware of what she's up to.

For what it's worth, within a week of her starting at Gawker, my opinion of the place went up substantially. It's flagged since she left, but really—how else to keep up with media news?

Looking down your nose at Gawker readers as not worthy of reading your own work? (derisive snort: not interested by being read by anyone under 40 in publishing, then?) And judging a quality of a woman's mind by her appearance? The comments I read on this post are in some ways just as "bad" as the worst of the Gawker comments, and worse because you seem to be claiming the moral or aesthetic high ground.

rmellis said...

No, I think she's very savvy. Any of us, myself included, would love to get paid for blogging -- though I don't think I could find it in myself to reveal enough to keep the readers happy.

Where does anyone criticize her looks?

Alicia said...

With Gawker, I used to enjoy reading it when it was more publishing industry based and cracked on famous literary couples or ranted about elitism. Occasionally, there was news. Gawker has taken a turn towards being primarily a pop culture and gossip blog, almost dropping to the levels of TMZ and Perez Hilton. Ms. Gould left Gawker before the site began to change. Her article resonated with me, which could possibly be because I'm 24, live in Jersey City and started my first blog at 18. I could relate to her opening about the close feeling of reading and commenting on people's personal blogs, and having them do the same on yours. Also, I smiled and laughed at the line - "I have to censor my office-inappropriate sentiments or shop the sale racks at Club Monaco for office-appropriate outfits", because I had just spent the day shifting through clearance racks searching for office clothes. My life is full of young, ambitious NYers, I.M., Flickr, Facebook and it was nice seeing it reflected in the NYTimes.

Alicia said...

My mom's a primary school teacher and a lot of her students don't have active, involved parents, so the books my mom introduces to her class are a major influence. If her students' parents did become more involved, it would greatly shape their child's cultural life and make my mom's job easier.

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