What is blogging for? How does blogging pay? I have a couple of "answer candidates.
1. What is blogging for?
I have a friend whose mom, an avid gardener, retired to West Africa. If Mom doesn’t like the look of her new garden, she only has to replant, and, hey presto, she has something new and fully formed in a couple of weeks. Things grow so fast, Mom has taken to experimenting. "What would happen if we made everything blue? Twelve days later, she knows.
Blogs are experiments. Each of them says, in effect, what happens to this way of thinking if we apply it to a variety of topics for an extended period? Do the ideas flourish or wither? Do they evolve or merely repeat? Do they scale up in their complexity, or, forgive me, bog down.
If things go well, I guess, blogs go off like an alpine ecosystem: tiny flora make a platform for minor flora which make a platform for major flora. Pretty soon, there’s a forest on a slope. Actually, in the best case, blogs "terra form." By steadily converting ambient resources, own and others, they create a sustainable intellectual space where none before was possible. They make their own worlds, and so prove the possibility of these worlds. They "discover" worlds by creating them.
To be sure, we can’t intervene or experiment as my friends Mom does. Bloggers are notoriously resistant to external influences when these are unsolicited. But then we probably don’t have to intervene. There are so many blogs out there, any thing we might want to try is probably happening on a "naturally occurring" basis. Curious about a libertarian take on the politics of the opera world on the eastern seaboard? It’s out there somewhere.
One of the key questions here ("loose concept/sliding metaphor" alert) is whether the blog is actually ventilating. Anyone can build a little world sui generis. Just bang away at our favorite topics often and at length, and Bob’s your uncle. But good blogs inhale data before they exhale comment. And we expect them to address the big issues in a timely fashion (the presidential elections, say) even as they show a certain imagination and versatility in finding issues not now on reader’s radar.
A friend at Cambridge did his thesis on the epic poem and he was particularly interested in the notion of the "sustain." Could the poet sustain themes in large and small over the vast architecture of a poem? And this is an issue for blogging. Some people are entirely without themes and pretty completely episodic. Others are the captives of a few mighty themes and their slavish repetition. All of us hope for a sweet spot: a body of smart and various themes that organize without compressing discourse, that give us analytic range without costing us focus, that give the blog an exoskeleton without specifying what it must look like day to day.
To put the matter more honestly: every little blog is buffeted by the high winds of a dynamic culture even as it has its favorite "go to" ideas with which it is most comfortable making sense of the world. This is, I think, pragmatic sweet spot of the blogging world. The real challenges here, I guess, is constantly to cultivate and enlarge the "go to" ideas without taking on or forswearing too much of the world in the process. Our sweet spot should be the smallest, most powerful ideas that illuminate the largest, most various parts of the world most cleanly. I do realize there is a notion of parsimony here that the "po mo" party no longer cares about or thinks possible. But it is worth pointing out that it is precisely this parsimony that gives a blog its claim to something like an identity and a readership.
Finally, blogs are tests. Can the blogger sustain a discourse that is recognizable but cannot be anticipated, in which utterances play back constantly in the reformation of the code from which they come, over a set of applications that is neither too small or too large, out of which emerges a way of thinking that draws from, touches on, but does not duplicate other players in the field, in the creation of an "idea space" that is disciplined and reckless, venturing and themed, marshaled and fecund, and finally, getting some where? This is hard, and this is the test of blogging.
And the test of the test is the sheer daily press of blogging. We have to do it every day, or just about every day. And this means we are, as journalists are, forced to go with what we have, forced to live with the imperfections of the moment and the limitations of our "art." You can’t be precious. You have to go with what you know. This puts you in intimate contact with your own limitations, and now you have an additional carrying cost: a certain self loathing. But constant bloggers are a lot like journalists, professional athletes, theatrical performers. It isn’t perfect? Of course, it isn’t perfect. Just do it. "Good enough for television" is a phrase most bloggers would recognize.
Tomorrow, the second question: how does blogging pay?