Friday, June 20, 2008

The Great Blog Controversy of Ought-Eight

There are times when it really is better not to seek quite so avidly after The Last Word. Consider, for example, Buzz Bissinger. After his histrionic meltdown on Will Leitch over the evils of blogging, Bissinger had made a series of carefully worded, genuine-seeming retractions that indicated that perhaps he'd figured out that tarring all blogs with the same brush was a bit hasty. He even said nice things about a couple of them. Detente broke out. Bloggers came out of their basements and stared in wide wonder at the sun and the daily newspaper in the driveway. Old-school newspaper reporters dared see what this "googly" thing those damn kids down at the water cooler were talking about might be. Dogs and cats lived together.

Until Mr. Bissinger decided he needed the last word, and hoo boy, was it a doozy. In so many words, he suggested while a few single-topic blogs are all right, the general nature of blogginess is such that, had they known about it, the founding fathers would have never included Freedom of Speech in the Constitution.

Because, let's face it, the fact that they like to use naughty words on Kissing Suzy Kolber is the sort of thing that, if left unchecked, could destroy our society, allow the British to take us back over, and lead to moral turpitude of some degree or other.

With that in mind, I think it's worth looking at what Mr. Bissinger thinks he's saying, and then seeing if those arguments hold water.

For example, he says that while a few single topic blogs are useful and factual, the vast majority are evil, mean, and snarky. Now, I for one was unaware that good writing had to be restricted to a single topic, or that it had to be "useful" to be of quality. I occasionally enjoy writing that is "fun", "amusing", or even "thought-provoking" without necessarily being "informative" all the time. If informative is the only measure of value, then, yes, many blogs fail on that particular score. On the other hand, I don't know anyone besides Buzz Bissinger who reads blogs strictly for the factoid content. I read FJM because it amuses the hell out of me. I read The Anomalist because it provides great idea stimulus for my fiction writing. I read Joe Posnanski's blog because the guy can make words laugh, cry, and sing, often at the same time. I read Rob Neyer's blog over at ESPN.com in the vain hope of someday seeing Sportsthodoxy mentioned there. And so it goes. "Informative" is just one particular wavelength in the blogging spectrum, and setting it up as the only measure of quality is rigging the table, a rhetorical cheapshot. Or, to misquote Eddie Izzard, "If you don't have a flag, then by these rules I just made up, I win."

Furthermore, Bissinger's argument doesn't even hold water when applied to his own particular medium. Let's look at print periodicals, shall we? The last time I checked, not all of them were entirely informative. The National Enquirer, for one. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, for another. You get the idea. Other print mags have been known to be full of misinformation, disinformation, wild speculation, political partisanship, unfounded editorializing, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, none of which is strictly "informative" (unless you're in touch with your inner Duelmaster, of course). The goofiness of an US magazine, however, does not detract one iota from the value of Discover; the fact that Asimov's prints mostly fiction in no way affects the merit of US News and World Report.

Or, to put it another way, just because some blogs suck - and a great many blogs do in fact wallow in innuendo, bad spelling, and uninformed cheapshottery - doesn't mean most or all blogs suck.

Next up is the accusation that blogs are mean-spirited, vicious slimepits where the worst of humanity gathers to fling mud at unsuspecting victims. To that, all a rational human being can say is, "Well, some of them, sure." Some bloggers do enjoy tearing down sports figures, using ad hominems, printing damaging rumors, and generally acting like a thirteen year old with his first copy of Playboy. (Print edition, of course.) Then again, anyone watching the coverage of our election cycle may be able to postulate that a lack of civility from commentators is hardly restricted to the blogging rabble. Bill Plaschke's hatchet job on Paul DePodesta out in Los Angeles - for God's sake, he even resorted to schoolyard namecalling, or have we all forgotten "Google Boy"? - was at least as mean-spirited as anything ever to run on Fire Joe Morgan, while being less funny, worse written, and less coherently composed. If you're going to condemn blogs for this, then the blame needs to get spread equally to other media, or the charge becomes baseless.

Then there's the suggestion that the community that gathers and posts comments on a blog is the blogger's responsibility, and that the commenting rabble's rudeness, crudeness, and lewdness is the blogger's fault. If that's the case, then someone needs to explain to me the level of venom and idiocy found in the comments sections on blogs like Jayson Stark's over at ESPN.com, or Ken Rosenthal's at Fox Sports. Surely Jayson isn't posting pictures of David Wright in a hot tub with a trio of scantily clad hotties. You can't say that Peter Gammons is quoting W.A.S.P. lyrics verbatim on his blog. But both of them, and many others, gather a community of commenters that is poisonously vicious, vituperative, and as profane as anything you'd find on a "basement" blogger's site.

So those three arguments, the big ones, don't hold water. What, then, is Bissinger going on about? I think there are a couple of things going on here. For one, he's completely missing the point of blogs, and holding them up to an absolute standard: blogs vs. New York Times/Boston Globe/Pulitzer Prize Committee. Which, grammar aside, is arrant nonsense. The point of blogging is for folks to put their thoughts and ideas out where people can read them, or not. Their nature is to be compositional, not factual. The fact that some are reliable sources of information is a tribute to the particular bloggers who compose on those sites; their success is theirs alone, and not part of a greater mandate that bloggerdom should be compelled to uphold.

For another, he's bought into the sad stereotype that blogs and bloggers are homogenous, that they're all the creation of socially inept nerds who work in comics stores and live in their parents' basement. This is, again, lousy logic. Judging the whole by the worst examples would get you thrown out of any freshman rhetoric course on the grounds that it's complete hooey. The other is just a tired ad hominem, thrown out there to rile up the yammering classes so that they go after the red flag ("Hey! I live on the third floor, thank you!") and not the dodgy premise Bissinger presents.

As an aside, I find the "nerds in basement" trope to be the worst sort of jock-sniffing. Sportswriters are not jocks, but they're the closest thing to jocks in the writing community, and they're jealous of that fact. They may not be able to play the game, but they get to hang out with and talk to the guys who do, and that confers coolness-by-proximity on them. Declaring that all bloggers wear fake Vulcan earswhen posting is nothing more than schoolyard bullying, and the reflexive "I actually TALK to the athletes" that follows demonstrates how insecure they really are in that role. Better yet, watch that old Warner Brothers cartoon with the bulldog and his yappy sidekick a few times. You'll get the idea.

Hell, my house doesn't even HAVE a basement.

Third, Bissinger posits a false dichotomy between blogs and "real journalism". When Pat Jordan posts on Deadspin and Baseball Analysts, when Paul DePodesta starts a blog, when venerable publications like Premiere go online only, there is no "us versus them" any more. We're all writers, some writing for pay, some simply to express our thoughts on the things that we care about, our words appearing in whatever format we can get them into. And the market will win out in the end. For-pay writers who can't cut it will no doubt find their material unread. Bloggers whose work holds particular appeal will find ways to monetize their efforts. The lines are blurred and disappearing. Bissinger is standing sentry on a dotted line that's already fading.

Yeah, some blogs suck, including quite possibly this one. It doesn't matter. They bring their creators joy, which is what they're all about. Holding them up to any other standard, particularly ones as artificial as those Bissinger postulates, is just plain silly. And meanwhile, the real winners are readers, whose options as to good writing are increasing every day.
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