Sunday, January 15, 2012

If Everybody Blogs, Who Will Read?

It is, perhaps, somewhat paradoxical that I would write about this topic in this medium. Perhaps it is best; this may be the perfect means for me to find a counterpoint to my own thoughts. And if someone out there does actually read this, you can probably let me know where I've gone astray.

I have a friend who grew up in a very large and very musical family. His father is a music teacher and each of his siblings is proficient in one or more musical instruments. I was naturally surprised, then, when he told me he does not really play anything. His explanation: "If everybody plays, who will listen?" To his credit, he is an excellent singer, but his response made me wonder about a few things. What happens when everybody starts writing?

I'm not sure when I became aware of blogging, but when I first looked into blogs I suddenly had this urge to start one myself. I suppose I just have a very "not to be outdone" personality. I had read a few and I noticed that there wasn't really much to starting one. Of course, reality took hold after a while and I decided I probably wouldn't have the time or material to keep it going at that point. I also thought about what a blogger really does and how many there are out there. Friends of mine ran blogs, mostly of the personal variety, and of course they all followed other blogs. Continuing this in my mind, it seemed that if those bloggers followed by my friends are anything like the people I know, they are following blogs of their own, and more likely than not those won't be my friends' blogs. Extrapolate ad infinitum and what do you have? A giant loop of bloggers following bloggers following bloggers. Add in the non-blogger followers of bloggers, and you have a picture of the whole blogosphere. Of course, it is more of a web than a loop, but you get the idea. Now what does this mean? What it meant to me was that in blogging I would just be jumping into this web, getting my pet followers and following a few blogs. If I have something to say, a few people would hear it. If what I have to say is interesting, maybe a few other people would hear it as well. However, unless I have some pretty fantastic ideas, I probably won't be heard by many. Then why blog in the first place?

That was simply a thought experiment, so imagine my surprise when I came across this article. I felt a little bit like Einstein must have felt when astronomers confirmed that light bends around the sun. It's great to see how reality conforms to logic, especially when it's logic as shaky as mine (okay, it's a little ambitious to compare myself to Einstein, I'll admit that). Anyway, the article reports about 33 million bloggers, and they haven't even considered the community! It points out, just as I expected, that the blogging community is now well-saturated. Starting a blog at this point is something like going into a room full of people in conversations with each other and trying to begin a public discourse. You might get a few listeners, but unless you are very interesting most people will ignore you. So here's where my title comes in: "if everybody blogs, who will read?"

Now, a few hundred years ago, you might think that blogging did not exist. Granted, due to a complete lack of computers and internet capability, no one really posted on wordpress or blogger. However, people found ways to get around this. For isn't blogging simply an expression of ideas and opinions publicly distributed, either for instruction, persuasion, or exposition? Early in the eighteenth century in England, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele produced a daily periodical known as the Spectator that has been compared by academia to a blog (particularly the portion contributed by Steele). Newspapers from roughly the same time period printed gossip columns in the same general style as a gossip blog. Another great example of an "eighteenth-century blogger" is Thomas Paine, author of many propaganda pamphlets and most notably Common Sense, the pamphlet written in support of the American Revolution at the beginning of the conflict. Paine was a political blogger.

There is a major difference between us and them, however. That time was a great time for the dissemination of information and opinions, but the field of contributors was not saturated as it is today. Of course, we don't know how many people in that age "blogged" (published materials of personal importance, in the form of pamphlets and periodicals) but we can safely assume that the barriers of literacy, time to write, publishing costs, and limited distribution prevented every average person from telling the rest of the population about his dog or her latest recipe. Those willing to publish had something more important and more engaging to say, and they were careful to say it properly. Readers of a pamphlet had a reasonable guarantee that there would be something interesting and perhaps important inside. Furthermore, the way pamphlets could be distributed and their cost ensured that public opinion would filter out the best ones for widest distribution. Once obtained, a pamphlet was likely read and reread, considering the scarcity most people probably encountered in finding new reading material.

Ease of distribution and lack of cost have removed nearly all barriers today. Hence people these days are less likely to deem information unworthy of publishing, and we end up with blogs telling us which celebrities had the worst hair, blogs describing the minutia of the daily life of the author, and even blogs intentionally about nothing (I thought about linking to examples of each, but your time is more valuable than that). If it can be put into words, it has been in blog form somewhere. Thus we (or I, at the very least) are much less likely to expect to find anything worth reading in a given blog. We also have a much less trustworthy system to determine which are good. Furthermore, even if I deem a blog worth reading once, I will likely not read it more than once and I will more likely than not forget about it later. Put simply, blogs have drastically devalued publicly distributed writing today.

What if Thomas Paine had written Common Sense as a blog today? Would it stand out among all of the various political statements made in blogs everywhere? Probably not. Sure, a few people might share it on Facebook. But really, the inundation of information by saturation in our age has diminished the ability of any individual to effect any change in public thought. In response to the titular question, then, a few people will read any given blog. But not enough to make a difference.

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