My Life As A Blockhead

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” – Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell’s Life

A few quick thoughts about yesterday’s exchange between Jonathan Rauch and Alex Massie on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (see here then here then here):

1. The Great Bloggers (in the sense of having a huge audience) are aggregators. Most of what appears on their blogs isn’t their own writing; it’s stuff that other folks – bloggers, journalists, whatever – have written and that the Great Blogger’s blog has excerpted and linked to. As such, these blogs are performing the “filtering” function that Rauch (correctly) identifies as essential in a world of limited time and attention. In that sense, the blogosphere is much less open than it was – there are now established gates that help people determine what is worth reading and what isn’t, and it’s very, very hard to become one of those gates. But in another sense, it’s just as open – those gates are constantly, actively looking for new voices and new material to promote, so if your stuff is good there’s no reason to think it won’t be found. Apart from the nobody-gets-paid part, I would think this is exactly what Rauch would have hoped would happen.

2. Relatedly, Rauch says: “Life, like swimming pools, is too messy to manage without filters; cognition itself is a filter.” Indeed – but how does cognition work? The “Darwinian” model of how decision-making happens in the brain suggests that at any instant a variety of signals are competing within the brain to be the ones that actually get transmitted, and that what appears to “us” (whatever “us” actually refers to) as syllogistic reasoning leading to action is something far more chaotic once you look under the hood. The same model applies for perceptual systems as well – cognition separates signal from noise, but that “separation” is (in this model) the result of a contest among lots of different inputs competing to be interpreted as signal rather than noise. Whether or not the brain actually works this way, that seems to me to be the way the internet works as a journalistic medium: a vast, chaotic sea of offered information and opinions competing for attention. The question isn’t whether that sea of material is mostly good or mostly bad, or even how the ratio of good to bad writing (or true or false information) compares with any given other medium – the question is whether the existence of the sea results in a better-informed electorate and better decisions by the government (that’s the question for the existence of the political blogosphere, anyway). I’m not sure how you’d measure that, but you definitely wouldn’t measure it by reading a cross-section of blogs and comparing that cross-section with a cross-section of newspaper articles.

3. “I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else.” Is that true? Really? Because both fame and fortune seem like very distant prospects in any corner of the journalistic universe – and always, always have been. It seems to me that the motive for doing this sort of writing isn’t to get famous – much less to get rich, which is downright laughable – but to be influential. Which is quite a different thing. Compare, say, Jonathan Rauch with Kim Kardashian. Kim Kardashian is vastly more famous. But Jonathan Rauch is surely more influential – unless you consider mere multiplication of images of oneself to be a kind of influence (which I suppose it is in a very superficial way). There are, of course, people who write specifically because they can’t figure out any more sensible way to make a living – poor fellows – but most people write because they want their writing to have an effect on people – to influence them in some way, whether we’re talking about an opinion journalist trying to get people to vote a certain way or a screenwriter hoping to make the audience laugh or cry. If that’s the case – if that’s why you write – then you don’t write in order to get paid; you get paid in order to be able to write. Right? In which case, Rauch isn’t guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because then maybe Tina Brown will hire him and he’ll get paid – he’s guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s blog because that’s a way to reach more people (and more of the right sort of people) and influence them through his writing (and it might also get Tina Brown to hire him, so he can afford to reach even more people, and influence them). Now, maybe Rauch specifically hates blogging as a format so much that he wouldn’t consider doing this gig except for what else it might lead to. But even if this is the equivalent of going on a talk show to promote the book, the reason you do that is because you want people to read the book so it will influence them. That’s why you wrote it. So if the standard isn’t “does the internet help writers get paid” but “does the internet help writers find their audience”, then it’s very clear that the emergence of the internet has been a huge win. If you’re someone who writes and thinks decently well, and has that urge to communicate, to have an influence, but you haven’t set out to make a career as a journalist or essayist, well, what are the odds, pre-internet, that you would ever achieve your dream? Pretty low, right? But in the internet age, you write something for the Huffington Post, they go ahead and publish it, and . . . voila: you’re in the conversation. Maybe someone reads it and is impressed, and forwards it to Andrew Sullivan – and he links to it. Suddenly, thousands of people come and read your piece. You never got paid for it. You may never write anything again that gets noticed. But for that very reason, the internet has made something possible that would have been impossible otherwise: for you to be heard – and by a decent-sized audience if one of the various gates (like Sullivan) think you’re worth hearing.

4. Of course, nothing comes from nothing, and there does need to be some way of sustaining journalism/writing/blogging/whatever if you want it to continue. The difference between the internet and other media is that the payment mechanism on the internet is decoupled from content creation. But this is an accident of history, not a necessary feature. With a physical newspaper, the production and much of the distribution is vertically integrated with the producers of content. The same company pays the writers and editors and photographers and layout people, and pays for paper pulp and ink and printing presses, and pays for trucks to deliver the papers so you can read them. With broadcast media, there’s less vertical integration – Disney doesn’t make television sets, for example. But there’s still a considerable amount. With the internet, there’s virtually none. The cable and phone companies that provide internet access do not produce content. The primary filters – search engines – that enable you to find content do not produce content. The internet access providers capture all the value of access, and downstream none of it to filters or content producers; the biggest chunk of change in advertising revenue is captured by the filters (Google being the largest) and virtually none of this is downstreamed to content producers. And there’s no good mechanism for most content producers to impose a toll at the gate for access to their content. But the regulatory “fix” for this is trivial. Broadcast television has to run news programming as a condition of their licenses, which come from the government. That’s why there is broadcast news. You could trivially mandate Comcast and TimeWarner to spend 2% of revenue on news and educational “content.” Then they’d go out and buy the New York Times and the Washington Post and journalism would be saved. And the blogosphere would still be a roiling, seething mass of mostly uncompensated . . . stuff. Fighting to be heard. And we could debate whether as a whole that mass was improving discourse or not without getting sidetracked into discussions of revenue models, as if the emergence of blogs had anything at all to do with the financial troubles of legacy journalistic enterprises (which they didn’t).

5. Finally, why are we comparing internet-based news dissemination with print-based news dissemination? After all, newspapers started getting into trouble decades before the arrival of the internet: because of competition from radio and television. And there’s just no question in my mind that if you get your information from the internet you should be vastly better informed than if you get your information from television. That goes for straight news – but it goes double for any kind of “discourse” format. You think the internet selects for noisiness and insult-hurling and short attention spans? Have you seen what passes for debate on television? Bloggers are, of course, thrilled whenever they get the opportunity to go on one of those shows, but I dare you to find one who thinks an appearance as a talking head on television is a better way of communicating with his or her audience than writing on a blog. So before we blame the internet for ruining everything, remember that “everything” includes a lot more than just the New York Review of Books.

I am an extremely atypical blogger. Look at how infrequently I write; look at the length of my typical post. But I am thrilled that the medium exists, because I can’t imagine how else I’d be able to do . . . this. Whatever it is I’m doing. And I think I do it reasonably well. And, in my on and off way, I intend to continue doing it. Hopefully, I’ll continue to have at least a modest audience, so I’m not just talking to myself.