Friday, September 08, 2017

The Blogger Function (1)

Jonathan raises a key issue in the comments to my last post. He points out that he does not consider my writing on this blog "bloggy" and considers me instead an "essayist who happens to use the blog form". But I want to insist that the questions I'm raising are not really matters of style or form. I want to say that they are questions of structure and function. To blog is not to write in a particular style, or publish in a particular form. Rather, blogging is an experience that is structured by a particular functionality.

If Barthes is right to define writing as "the morality of form", then I want define blogging in terms of a kind of functional ethics. (Wayne Booth called his ethics of reading The Company We Keep; I'll pick that thread up in part II.) This means that style doesn't really enter into it. You can blog as essayistically as I do here or as aphoristically as I'm now writing over at the Pangrammaticon. What makes it a blog is a structural coordination of the blogger and the audience.

Indeed, I want to say that I'm not blogging at the Pangrammaticon at all these days. I'm writing aphorisms and self-publishing them. The important difference is the lack of a comment field and my (relative) lack of interest in my daily views.

Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you. You try to have an immediate, essentially real-time impact on the discourse, which makes it much more like speech than writing. Jonathan makes an important observation in this regard:
[In] Laura Riding's essay on letters ... she tries to make a case for letters as a different sort of writing than literary writing, because of that social aspect. // Many forms of written communication have their quirks: letters, emails, texts, blog posts, face book entries, tweets, etc... Their particular ways of engaging with the interlocutor and the way in which responses can come. They are all written communications, though, and thus writing.
What I want to say, and I think here I'm following Barthes quite closely, is that you can't define "writing" simply by way of "written communication". It is possible to write a tweet in the formal sense I want to insist on and some writers have in fact tried to do this. But most tweets and a great many emails are much more like speech than like writing. Think of the way we end an email chain when we're arranging a meeting with a short message sent from our phone: "OK. See you then. / T." I don't want to call that writing. It's speech in another medium.

Writing requires a structural displacement in time and space. When you read a novel, you are reading something in a time and place that is completely distinct from the time and place of the writer. When writing it, you are immersed in an experience that is very different from what the reader will experience.

This is much less often the case with online writing, and I want to say that it is distinctly not the case when blogging. The blogger, like the reader, is online, often engaging with something that is happening in the moment. Though that moment of course reaches beyond the mere instant, it is nonetheless the sort of thing that passes, and often passes before the blogger manages to press "publish", causing a misfire in the discourse or simply a dud.

The blogger works, essentially, under that pressure, with that possibility in mind. This does affect the style of the writing, but not in any essential way. I worked for years in a style Jonathan correctly describes as essayistic, but my mood was "present" in way that is not typical of the essayist. Every other morning I got up knowing what I wanted to say to readers that I expected would read me within a few hours. I hoped that some of them would take the time to engage with me in the comments. It was relatively important to me how many hits I got in the first 24 hours and whether any of them came from Twitter.

With a tip of the hat to Michel Foucault that's the "blogger function". It's a particular kind of subjectivity that is established in the discourse. It is not a way of being an "author" or, like I say, even a "writer". Or that idea, in any case, that function, is what I'm trying to explore in these posts.


Presskorn said...

These post on blogging made me think of Cavell on musical "media". You're trying to determine blogging as a medium, which has characteristic applications that are distinct from (literary) writing.

"The home of the idea of a medium lies in the visual arts, and it used to be informative to know that a given medium is oil or gouache or tempera or dry point or marble . . . because each of these media had characteristic possibilities, an implied range of handling and result. The idea of a medium is not simply that of a physical material, but of a material-in-certain-characteristic-applications. Whether or not there is anything to be called, and any good purpose in calling anything, "the medium of music," there certainly are things to be called various media of music, namely the various ways in which various sources of sound (from and for the voice, the several instruments, the body, on different occasions) have characteristically been applied : the media are, for example, plain song, work song, the march, the fugue, the aria, dance forms, sonata form. It is the existence or discovery of such strains of convention that have made possible musical expression - presumably the role a medium was to serve. In music, the "form" (as in literature, the genre) is the medium."

(S. Cavell: 'A matter of meaning it' in Must We Say What We Mean? (1976), p. 221)

Presskorn said...

Errata: These postS...

Thomas said...

Thanks for the Cavell quote. There's definitely a "media" issue in all this. But it'll take me a while to get around to it, I think. Let's see.

Andrew Gelman said...


I like a lot of what you're saying here, and I think these sort of distinctions are valuable. I'll put this post on the reading list for my class on communication.

There's one place, though, where I think you overstate your point.

You write, "Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you." I can't argue with your experience, of course, but . . . blogging does some other things too:

1. Blogging is permanent (at least on the scale of years or a decade or so; I could well imagine that the software will start to fall apart and much of my blogging will be lost in the future). So when I blog, it's not just to have a conversation now, it can also be to lay down a marker. For a simple example, often I'll blog about an article I've been given, just to avoid forgetting it and to have the article there in a searchable form. Other times I'll post something knowing that I'll be referring back to it in the future.

2. A related point: blogging creates a sort of community memory, so that, for example, on my blog I can talk about Weick and Weggy and Kanazawa, and air rage and himmicanes and PPNAS, and even the good stuff like multilevel modeling and Stan and the birthday model, and readers know what I'm talking about---or even if they don't know, they have a sense that there is an ongoing conversation, a density to the discussion, in the same way that a good novel will give the sense that the characters have depth and that much is happening offstage. Indeed, awhile after the Monkey Cage moved to the Washington Post, our editors told me that my posts were too "bloggy" in that they were presupposing some continuity that was inappropriate for a newspaper feature.

3. And, just responding to the "short-term effects" thing: my blog is on a six-month delay, so the effects don't have to be short term.

4. Finally, to get back to the issue of different forms of communication (in your view, blogging is "much more like speech than writing"): A blog post, or even a blog comment (such as this one), can be "written" in the sense of being structured and arranged. One thing I like to tell students is that writing is non-algorithmic: despite what one might think based on naive theories of communication, you can't in general just write down your thoughts, or write down what you did today. Part of this is that, as the linguists say, ideas don't generally exist in the absence of language: writing down an idea helps to form it. And part of it is that language has some internal logic, I guess related to the sound of the words and related to the idea that we are often trying to convey notions of cause and effect while reporting discrete events.

5. How do you characterize chatty journalism, such as in George Orwell's "As I please" columns? This is not a trick question. They would seem to fall somewhere in between what you're calling "writing" and "blogging."

I think our goal here in this discussion is not to come up with some sort of perfect categorization, or to argue about whether blogging is "really" writing, or the relative literary merits of book writing and journalism, but rather to lay out some connections between goals, methods, audiences, and media of communication. When framed that way, I guess there's probably been a lot written on this sort of thing, but I'm ignorant of any relevant literature.

Ummm, I like this comment. I think I'll blog it so it won't get forgotten. Next open spot is mid-Apr. I'll also email it to some people I know. Emailing a link is kind of "cheating"---I want everyone to be reading all my blog posts anyway---but it can't hurt.

Andrew Gelman said...


One more thing, which I thought about after clicking Publish:

One thing that blogging does not seem to supply for me is "closure." For example, I hope you will follow up on the above discussion, and maybe some others can contribute too, and . . . we can write an article or book, really nailing down the idea. Somehow a blog post, no matter how definitive, never quite seems to get there. And it's not just the content, it really does seem to be the form, or maybe I should say the placement, of the post. For example, last year I wrote What has happened down here is the winds have changed, which was one of the most successful posts I've ever written, both in terms of content (I like what I wrote, and I developed many of the ideas while writing the post) and in reception (it was widely discussed and in an overwhelmingly positive way). Still, I'd feel better, somehow, if it were "published" somewhere in a more formal way---even if the content were completely unchanged. I'm not quite sure how much of this is pure old-fashionedness on my part and how much it has to do with the idea that a mutable scrolling html document inherently has less of a definitive feel than an article in some clearly-defined place. I could reformat that particular post as pdf and put it on my webpage as an unpublished article but that wouldn't quite do the trick either. And of course one good reason for keeping it as a blog post is that people can read and contribute to the comment thread.

One way to think about this further, I suppose, would be to push on the whole demarcation thing. For example, when I publish an article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, it seems real. If I publish in a more obscure journal, not so much. If I publish something in the New York Times or Slate, it gets many more readers, but it still seems temporary, or unfinished, in the same way as a blog post.

There's also the question of how important it is to have "closure." It feels important to me to have some aspect of a project wrapped up and done, that's for sure. But in many settings I think the feeling of closure is a bad thing. Closure can be counterproductive to the research enterprise. Think of all the examples of junk science I've discussed on the blog over the years. Just about every one of these examples is associated with a published research paper that is seriously, perhaps hopelessly, flawed, but for which the authors and journal editors go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging error. They seem to value closure too much: the paper is published and it seems unfair to them for outsiders to go and criticize, to re-litigate the publication decision, as it were. My impression is that these authors and editors have an attitude similar to that of a baseball team that won a game, and then a careful view of the videotape made it clear that someone missed a tag at second base in the fifth inning. The game's already over, it doesn't get replayed! Science is different (at least for me, not maybe for, say, Susan Fiske) in that it's about getting closer to the truth, not about winning or losing. Anyway, that's a bit of a digression, but the point about closure is relevant, I think, to discussions of different forms of writing.