A Website You Can Talk Over: Assigning Responsibility for a Meaningful Blog

What do I want this blog to be? Perhaps using that very word, blog, assumes too much, imposing a definition. What to I want this website to be?

A little while back, I posited that perhaps the essay as a format was something that more bloggers ought to rely on, as opposed to, say, the hasty, knee-jerk missive. The reason, essentially, was to lessen the noise, the pointless butting of heads and scoring of points. To encourage more thinking and consideration, and to discourage an endless episode of “Crossfire.”

It turns out, however, that there is a contradiction. A lot of my feelings about essays stem from Andrew Sullivan, who led me to Montaigne, and on. But it is Sullivan who, in 2008, said this about blogs:

There is, after all, something simply irreplaceable about reading a piece of writing at length on paper, in a chair or on a couch or in bed. To use an obvious analogy, jazz entered our civilization much later than composed, formal music. But it hasn’t replaced it; and no jazz musician would ever claim that it could. Jazz merely demands a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.

The reason they talk while listening, and comment or link while reading, is that they understand that this is a kind of music that needs to be engaged rather than merely absorbed. To listen to jazz as one would listen to an aria is to miss the point. Reading at a monitor, at a desk, or on an iPhone provokes a querulous, impatient, distracted attitude, a demand for instant, usable information, that is simply not conducive to opening a novel or a favorite magazine on the couch. Reading on paper evokes a more relaxed and meditative response. The message dictates the medium. And each medium has its place—as long as one is not mistaken for the other.

Put aside the question of physical medium for a moment. In blogs, Sullivan is describing a back and forth, not just a conversational tone (like Montaigne pioneered), but an actual discussion, a real chat. Is that in conflict with what the essay, placed on a website, would offer or imply?

“Uh oh” was my first thought.

That’s gone, though. It seems to me that the author of a blog post can hope to engender conversation that is substantive and respectful with a thoughtful essay-like piece. But the audience has to acquiesce, to buy into this approach.

On an episode of “On the Media,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in some detail how he manages comments on his blog at The Atlantic. He doesn’t simply allow anything to happen; he carefully curates, mediates, and if necessary, gives folks the boot who aren’t playing by his rules. I like that.

But this is about more than comments. Coates can’t control what happens on the wider Internet as a result of his writing. But he can choose not to engage with the activity that doesn’t suit his or her overall approach. As Pour Me Coffee has said, he can “ruthlessly curate [his] online experience.” I really like that.

So. The first part is to write in such a way, and with such a voice, that meaningful conversation (in comments, on Twitter, what have you) is encouraged, is exemplified. But then, second, the readers and participants have to play along in that mode. Third, the author then must manage his or her online interactions in such a way that incentivize substance over vitriol and snark for its own sake.

Good then!

But what else? Obviously, I’ve not limited this blog, by any means, to wordy essays. Like Sullivan, there are plenty of one-off links and a smattering of commentary. Does that dilute the site, perhaps? It doesn’t for Sullivan and The Dish, but I think that’s because his site never stops generating content. One can skim through the shorter bits, and stop and pause to read his longer pieces (or as he calls them “keepers”).

John Gruber at Daring Fireball works in a similar fashion: The norm is that a post will be a “link post,” where Gruber highlights a bit of news or commentary, throws in a sentence of his own, and even has the headline’s link lead to the originating source, not is own post. Then he sets apart “keepers,” longer essays, by marking them with a star before the title of the post. He also has no comments section on his blog, and lets all conversation happen outside and around his blog, but not on it.

But again, Gruber is more prolific than I. He and Sullivan, of course, make their livings doing this, while I am lucky to find the time and energy to blog regularly, as much as I would love for it to be my main occupation.

So can I ape their styles in an effective way in order to make Near-Earth Object what I want it to be? I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that irregular and sparse posting makes that style work.

I may have to experiment, to blog more often than I am initially inclined, to get the machinery in my brain working at full power. I’d also have to accept that, at least for a while, I may post a lot of garbage. (Would anyone notice?) I may want to retool the look of the site so that “keepers” can be easily spotted (in a sidebar?). I’m going to think about it, and more important, start acting on thoughts.

Back to physical medium, briefly. Sullivan, in the above quote, distinguishes between the reader’s behavior based on what surface they are reading content off of; a screen or a piece of paper. That was written in 2008, and I have to imagine that he’d rethink this today. There was no iPad then, and the Kindle was an expensive novelty device. And no one had heard the term “Retina display.”

Today, we have those technologies that encourage and facilitate deeper, longer-form reading, such that Instapaper is an indispensable app, and so I think that today it’s not about screens and paper, but about presentation of content. And the onus for that is, yes, firstly on the author or outlet, but now just as much on the reader. If one opts to read a piece on their lunch break at a desktop display, the attitude and mindset may be very different than if that reader has saved the piece in Instapaper, and now reads it in a comfy chair from an iPad or Kindle, free (or freer) from distractions, windows, and notifications.

It is like jazz. You can, in fact, talk over it. But you can also buy the remastered CD, put on your pricey Bose headphones, and savor every note. Your call.

I like that, too.

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