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I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs

By Geoff Nunberg

Commentary on "Fresh Air," 12/10/01

The Diary of a Nobody is a curious comic classic. It was published in 1892 by George and Weedon Grossmith, two well-known Victorian music-hall performers, adapted from a series of pieces in Punch. It purported to be the diary of a clerk named Mr. Charles Pooter, who lives in the drab London suburb of Holloway. Mr. Pooter is an bumbling, self-important, and slightly pathetic character who dutifully records his daily encounters with tradesmen, neighbors and co-workers. You can get a sense of the tone from the chapter descriptions: "A conversation with Mr Merton on society. Tradesmen still troubling. I make a good joke, but Gowing and Cummings are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected result." That density of humdrum detail is what fixes Mr. Pooter's diary in its particular historical moment, and it's probably also the reason why people are still reading it more than a hundred years later.

If the Grossmiths were living today, I feel sure they would have written Mr. Pooter's chronicle as a blog. For those who still associate that syllable with the French word for "joke," I should explain that "blog" is short for weblog. Weblogs began their lives as a cross between news digests and clipping services -- regularly updated sites where someone put up links to other sites of interest, often with comments and personal asides. Most of the early blogs were dedicated to specialized interests like programming, motorcyles, or martial arts. Then a few people started putting up personal journals at their home pages and updating them daily. Bloggers linked to other bloggers. Blogrings formed, then blog registries, blog hosting sites, and metablogs. There are blog divas, who receive thousands of hits a day, and the wannabes called blog whores, who inveigle other bloggers to link to their diaries. There are racy blogs and philosophical blogs and depressive blogs -- there are quite a lot of depressive blogs. There are blog groupies and blog stalkers. And there are quarterly blog awards. (Many bloggers prefer to think of themselves as "journalers," but "blog" is clearly a word whose time has come.)

The only thing bloggers seem to have in common is that they have a lot of time on their hands and an exhibitionist streak. To get a sense of the blog world, you're best off following links aimlessly, or clicking on the "random blog" link at a hosting site like OpenPages. A 60-year-old poet in Somerset ruminates on Robert Frost and gives his recipe for corned beef hash. A 19-year old boy frets over having only ten months left as a teenager. A Sacramento lawyer named Elizabeth dilates divertingly on the differences among "Beth," "Betsy," and "Betty."

Like most of the phenomena of the Web, blogging is connected to a lot of things that have been going on on the other side of the screen -- the journaling that has been part of the self-help movement, reality TV, the mimeographed Christmas letters that people send out to friends and family. For that matter, there's nothing new about publishing a daily journal -- that's a tradition that stretches from Defoe and Boswell to Edmund Wilson and Anais Nin. But journal publishing has never been a democratic option before, or something that was carried out with so much collaboration and corroboration. Readers write in with encouragement for an AIDS-infected singer-composer in Los Angeles. A woman in San Francisco puts up a webcam and asks readers if they think she ought to streak her hair. A college freshman posts a blog recounting his painfully inept day-to-day quest to find a girlfriend, as readers offer him dating tips.

People often talk about "blog communities," but "community" is too vague to have much meaning here. Blogs aren't written for friends and family -- in fact a lot of the sites warn off anyone who knows the writer from reading further. But they aren't really public records, either, at least not in the sense that the word has in a phrase like "the reading public." It's more a question of someone writing a journal in public -- it's not addressed to everybody so much as to god-knows-who.

What's most compelling about the blogs is their incessant dailyness. The other day I was looking at an entry in the blog of a young woman from Boston. She described a trip to Baltimore that she had made with her boyfriend, in numbing, yard-by-yard detail, and accompanied it with photographs of the Dunkin' Donuts where they had breakfast, the flag they saw on the George Washington Bridge, and the copy of Cosmopolitan she was reading on the road. When I mentioned that entry to my friend Lisa, who keeps a blog of her own, she said, "That's what we call oversharing."

I could see her point, but the entry had a certain Pooterish fascination, too. There's something very familiar about that accretion of diurnal detail. It's what the novel was trying to achieve when eighteenth-century writers cobbled it together out of subliterary genres like personal letters, journals, and newspapers, with the idea of reproducing the inner and outer experience that makes up daily life. You wonder whether anything as interesting could grow up in the intimate anonymity of cyberspace. But it doesn't really matter, as long as people are having fun. And in the meantime, we can visit the blogs for glimpses of other lives, in all their humdrum glory. Or if we're looking for an older sort of collaborative journal, we can call up George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. It's on the Web, too.

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