Waggish

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Genre

In the relatively short time that blogging has existed as a medium, lots of niche genres have sprung up within it: litblogs, political blogs, PR blogs, livejournals (I think they qualify as a genre unto themselves), techblogs, print media blogs, etc. The purpose of this highly speculative exercise is to see how the parameters of the blogging medium influence work within these genres.

First, some clarification. I’m interested in blogs that chiefly offer original content. There are many “aggregator” blogs out there that serve mostly as collecting grounds for links and original content, and many of them are far more popular than comparable blogs with original content, serving as they do as gatekeepers. But that is a different subject. I’m focusing on blogs that offer more text than links.

Second, some parameters of the medium. These are rough observations that appear to hold true for the vast majority of blogs. They’re debatable, and are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. To the extent that a blog is something better-defined than a bunch of text on a page that gets updated fairly regularly, these are the constraints that most seem to operate under.

  1. The Short Horizon: Tristan Louis speculates that what makes big blogs popular are lots of short entries. Well, this blog doesn’t provide any evidence to the contrary. But it underscores a major aspect of blogs, which is the brutally short horizon for content. Between RSS aggregators and how rarely people go through archives of blogs, a given entry has prominent existence for a week at most, and far less on many blogs. Consequently, most readers will only read each entry of a blog they’re following once, and may often miss entries.

  2. Quantity: Following from the short horizon, bloggers do best when they post early and post often, and most of them follow this model. There is little harm from overposting; the worst that will happen is that people skip an entry. There is great harm from underposting: people will forget about you. Having taken some sabbaticals myself from Waggish, I’ve seen the downside to leaving your blog in a static state for too long. Yet the emphasis on quantity leads inevitably to more redundancy and less originality in content, on average.
  3. The Gestalt: There is much less of a focus on discrete work in blogs than there is in most other media. Individual posts may be called out for brief (or occasionally permanent) fame, but in the stream of work being published by an individual, quickly fading into the horizon, blogs are identified by gestalt characteristics rather than by discrete posts. To draw the literary analogy, bloggers are much more Balzac than Joyce.
  4. Specialization: How many blogs do you know that wander all over the place, topic-wise? (Answer: “My friends’.”) Someone like languagehat establishes themselves and attracts interest by focusing resolutely and consistently on a core set of topics. Again, with the lack of attention on discrete entries, blogs do best when they have a definable gestalt. (This applies to aggregators as well–the best ones stick to their areas of interest.)
  5. Instant Feedback: What with the short horizon, most responses to a blog entry are received within hours or days. Not only does this provide a huge amount of feedback to authors before they distance themselves from the work, but it encourages collaboration and argument, as well as nudging authors to work with their audience’s reactions in mind and address them. (Okay, this one is pretty obvious/unarguable, though someone should write a more thorough piece on the difference between political single-voice vs. community blogs. Freepers scare me; it would be interesting!)
  6. Need for Triage: Between the short horizon and the sheer quantity of blogs and content out there, a role for aggregators/gatekeepers to point people to selected pieces of content was inevitable. Whether MeFi, BoingBoing, or Things, many of these are more popular than most blogs consisting of original content.

Enough of the painfully obvious and/or ridiculously reductive. The first conclusion to draw is that blogging remains a lot more like journalism than it does any other format. Journalism shares with blogs the first two constraints mentioned above. Individual pieces of work are deprioritized (I can never remember what a given person ever won the Pulitzer for), and articles vanish into the past day by day.

When you apply the exceptional/exemplary categories that I mentioned earlier (exceptional describing genres where the best work departs from the norm; exemplary describing those where the best work embodies the norm), it’s difficult to see how they fit into genres within the blog world. If most entries are not seen as discrete (and I can’t think of any blog entries offhand that jump out as so much better than anything else the author, or other authors in the same blog genre, wrote), but as part of a continuum, what does that say for what kind of work can emerge?

The aspects of instant feedback and increased collaboration also dilute the notion of authorship. People aren’t paying attention to indivdual works, and many blogs have multiple authors. The ability to distinguish an exceptional work does not exist. In the 30s, romantic comedies, as Ray suggested, struggled to embody a certain type of movie people wanted, thus their homogeneity. What happens, then, if there is not the discrete product of “a movie” and instead just streams of collaborative information?

But, you say, the authors of these blogs are distinct and discrete. Even ignoring the collaborative aspect of blogs, I don’t think this quite holds true. Blogs are not content-focused, in that the content rolls by too quickly to be lasting. (Yes, they provide content, but when it’s so subject to being missed or disorganized, the structural integrity of the content is not the focus.) But nor are they personality-focused. If Josh Marshall started writing exclusively about Andrei Tarkovsky tomorrow, he would lose much of his audience, who would nonetheless stick with Kevin Drum. Not to say that they’re the same, but they are not unique in the way that novelists are. They can be replaced.

Blogs, then, are topic-focused. (And by topic I effectively mean the definable gestalt of the blog.) Individual content matters less in a blog than sticking to a consistent topic over time. And this is where the analogy to 30s romantic comedy seems apropos; these movies too stuck to a remarkably consistent topic, and the individual variations were practically indistinct. To put it another way, it was up to the individual to distinguish what variations they preferred, because the level of homogeneity was so high. And so it is with any given blog, or even with a blog genre. The difference is that the medium makes it that much more difficult to ever separate out individual works for praise, and so the gestalt is left to stand on its own. In the 30s, people could see one movie and remember it well, whether it was good or bad. In the medium of blogs, that’s not really possible; you absorb an entire gestalt as you consume them.

This produces two diverging effects: either people get lost in the mass of repetitive, homogenous content and process what they happen to run into, or they abstract quite heavily to synthesize large amounts of data into a graspable gestalt. Sort of like reading Balzac.

To be continued…

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