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Blogging in the Global Lunchroom

Geoffrey Nunberg

Commentary broadcast on "Fresh Air,"
April 20, 2004

Over the last couple of months, I've been posting on a group blog called languagelog.org, which was launched by a couple of linguists as a place where we could vent our comments on the passing linguistic scene.

Still, I don't quite have the hang of the form. The style that sounds perfectly normal in a public radio feature or an op-ed piece comes off as distant and pontifical when I use it in a blog entry. Reading over my own postings, I recall what Queen Victoria once said about Gladstone: "He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting."

I'm not the only one with this problem. A lot of newspapers have been encouraging or even requiring their writers to start blogs. But with some notable exceptions, most journalists have the same problems that I do. They do all the things you should do in a newspaper feature. They fashion engaging ledes, they develop their arguments methodically, they give context and background, and tack helpful ID's onto the names they introduce -- "New York Senator Charles E. Schumer (D)."

That makes for solid journalism, but it's not really blogging. Granted, that word can cover a lot of territory. A recent Pew Foundation study found that around three million Americans have tried their hands at blogging, and sometimes there seem to be almost that many variants of the form. Blogs can be news summaries, opinion columns, or collections of press releases, like the official blogs of the presidential candidates. But the vast majority are journals posted by college students, office workers, or stay-at-home moms, whose average readership is smaller than a family Christmas letter. (The blog hosting site livejournal.com reports that two thirds of bloggers are women -- I'm not sure what to make of that proportion.)

But when people puzzle over the significance of blogs nowadays, they usually have in mind a small number of A-List sites that traffic in commentary about politics, culture, or technology -- blogs like Altercation, Instapundit, Matthew Yglesias, Talking Points or Doc Searls. It's true that bloggers like these have occasionally come up with news scoops, but in the end they're less about breaking stories than bending them. And their language is a kind of anti-journalese. It's informal, impertinent, and digressive, casting links in all directions. In fact one archetypal blog entry consists entirely of a cryptic comment that's linked to another blog or a news item -- "Oh, please," or "He's married to her?"

That interconnectedness is what leads enthusiasts to talk about the blogosphere, as if this were all a single vast conversation -- at some point in these discussions, somebody's likely to trot out the phrase "collective mind." But if there's a new public sphere assembling itself out there, you couldn't tell from the way bloggers address their readers -- not as anonymous citizens, the way print columnists do, but as co-conspirators who are in on the joke.

Taken as a whole, in fact, the blogging world sounds a lot less like a public meeting than the lunchtime chatter in a high-school cafeteria, complete with snarky comments about the kids at the tables across the room. (Bloggers didn't invent the word snarky, but they've had a lot to do with turning it into the metrosexual equivalent of bitchy. On the Web, blogs account for more than three times as large a share of the total occurrences of snarky as of the occurrences of irony.)1

Some people say this all started with Mickey Kaus's column in Slate, though Kaus himself cites the old San Francisco Chronicle columns of Herb Caen. And Camille Paglia not surprisingly claims that her column in Salon.com was the first true blog, and adds that the genre has been going downhill ever since.

But blogs were around on the Web well before Kaus or Paglia first logged in.2 And if you're of a mind to, you can trace their print antecedents a lot further back than Caen or Hunter S. Thompson. That informal style recalls the colloquial voice that Addison and Steele devised when they invented the periodical essay in the early 18th century, even if few blogs come close to that in artfulness. Then too, those essays were written in the guise of fictive personae like Isaac Bickerstaff and Sir Roger de Coverly, who could be the predecessors of pseudonymous bloggers like Wonkette, Atrios, or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, not to mention the mysterious conservative blogger who goes by the name of Edward Boyd. 3

For that matter, my languagelog co-contributor Mark Liberman recalls that Plato always had Socrates open his philosophical disquisitions with a little diary entry, the way bloggers like to do: "I went down yesterday to see the festival at the Peiraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, and I ran into my old buddy Cephalus and we got to talking about old age…"

Of course whenever a successful new genre emerges, it seems to have been implicit in everything that preceded it. But in the end, this a mug's game, like asking whether the first SUV was a minivan, a station wagon, or an off-road vehicle.

The fact is that this is a genuinely new language of public discourse -- and a paradoxical one. On the one hand, blogs are clearly a more democratic form of expression than anything the world of print has produced. But in some ways they're also more exclusionary, and not just because they only reach about a tenth of the people who use the Web.4 The high, formal style of the newspaper op-ed page may be nobody's native language, but at least it's a neutral voice that doesn't privilege the speech of any particular group or class. Whereas blogspeak is basically an adaptation of the table talk of the urban middle class -- it isn't a language that everybody in the cafeteria is equally adept at speaking.
Not that there's anything wrong with chewing over the events of the day with the other folks at the lunch table, but you hope that everybody in the room is at least reading the same newspapers at breakfast. 5


1. This is a rough estimate, arrived at by taking the proportion of total Google hits for a word that occur in a document that also contains the word blog:

snarky: 87,700
snarky + blog: 32,600 (37 %)
irony: 1,600,000
irony + blog: 168,000 (10.5 %)

Of course the fact that the word blog appears in a page doesn't necessarily mean that it is a blog, but it turns out that more than 90 percent of the pages containing the word are blog pages, and in any case, the effect would be the same for both terms. And while some part of this variation no doubt reflects the status of snarky as a colloquial word that is less likely to show up in serious literary discussions and the like, the effect is nowhere near so marked when we look at the word bitchy:

bitchy: 250,000
bitchy + blog: 43,700 (17.5%)

That is, the specialization to blogs is more than twice as high for snarky as for bitchy, even though both are colloquial items. Return

2. Many have given credit for inventing the genre to Dave Winer, whose Scripting News was one of the earliest weblogs, though Winer himself says that the first weblog was Tim Berners-Lee's page at CERN. But you could argue that blog has moved out from under the derivational shadow of its etymon -- the word isn't just a truncation of weblog anymore. In which case, the identity of the first "real blog" is anybody's guess -- and it almost certainly will be. Return

3. James Wolcott makes a similar comparison in the current Vanity Fair, and goes so far as to suggest that " If Addison and Steele, the editors of The Spectator and The Tatler, were alive and holding court at Starbucks, they'd be WiFi-ing into a joint blog."

That's cute, but I think it gets Addison and Steele wrong -- the studied effusions of Isaac Bickertaff and Sir Roger de Coverly may have sounded like blogs, but they were fashioned with an eye towards a more enduring literary fame. Which is not to say that blogs couldn't become the basis for a genuine literary form. As I noted in a "Fresh Air" piece a few years ago that dealt more with blogs as personal journals:

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. (See "I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs," in Going Nucular, PublicAffairs, May, 2004.)

So it's not surprising that a number of fictional blogs ("flogs"? "blictions"?) have begun to emerge, adapting the tradition of the fictional diary that runs from Robinson Crusoe to Bridget Jones' Diary. As to whether that will ultimately amount to "anything as interesting" as the novel, the jury is likely to be out for a while. Return

4. The Pew study found that 11% of Internet users have read
the blogs or diaries of other Internet users. Return

5. For a diverting picture of the blogosphere-as-lunchroom, see Whitney Pastorek's recent piece in the Village Voice, "Blogging Off." Return

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.