Friday, May 13, 2011

The Age of the Blogger

(Cross-posted from Belmont Club, The Ten Thousand)

The Age of the Blogger has certainly transformed the way a lot of us work, and think, and relate. It has been an impressive movement in modern history that has brought us many good feelings, many moments of success. Heck, bloggers have even changed the world. In the ramifying ranks of the blogosphere there were roads to travel and lessons to learn; but perhaps the last lesson of that Age is now beginning to take shape before our eyes: namely, that it was just age, a temporary way of “being in the moment” that came, but came to pass.

For the Internet Age involved a lot more than just the spreading of new technology. It was also a fashion and a social phenomenon. Not a passing phase which is here today and gone tomorrow, but one of those deep transformations which lends its color and shape to an entire generation. Nevertheless, those movements, too, are transitory. Of flappers and bobbysoxers there are now none to be found; greasers and socs rumble no more. Even the mighty hippies, whose sheer mass once warped the social space about them like a tie-dyed shirt, have largely slipped into memory. Here and there one meets with a few bedraggled specimens who’ve outstayed their day and now linger on as living museum pieces; but the real substance of the movement, the spirit of the age, is gone.

So it will be too with the Blogger. Does not the very word sound timeful—a bit of slang destined to break the surface for a season before slipping through the nets of language, coming to rest on the sandy bottom with other pieces of perished time? Certainly we can expect that the internet itself will continue to exist in one form or another; and as long as it exists, there will always be people who write upon it. But it will not always be “cool” to do so. Bloggers will not forever grasp the levers that move the world. It may very well become a reliable, plodding profession like accountancy: predictably gainful, predictably dull. Then the masses of casual bloggers will exit the scene, and the aspect of the internet will be forever altered. We cannot see exactly what sort of world we’ll be left with when that happens, but it may perhaps be helpful to bear a couple of things in mind.

1. Computing, coding, writing—it’s not for everybody. It never should have been made to be about everybody. When computers went from the bus-sized difference engines of the past to the palm-sized smart phones of today, and graphic interfaces took the place of punch-cards, the skill level necessary to operate a computer plummeted while its value as a consumer status symbol rocketed skyward. This allowed great waves of people who possessed no fundamental understanding of how computers worked, to use them to perform all sorts of mundane tasks, like publish blogs. The idea may sound strange in our ears, but we must entertain the possibility that this metastable situation will not always obtain. More importantly, however, is the fact that writing has always been the province of the very few. At any given time, the number of people in the world who make their livings as professional writers amounts to no more than a relative handful. The popularity of blogs has not changed this essential fact; it has only obscured it by distorting the underlying culture.

I think of it like this: In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person (that we know of) to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest. It was indeed a noteworthy accomplishment, but it was not intrinsically rare. Indeed, the sheer multitude of climbers who have stormed the summit of Everest since that date leads us to believe that the mere ability to climb Everest is somewhat broadly distributed throughout the human population, especially if they train hard for it and spend a lot of money on gear. So why do we celebrate Hillary for doing something that so many others could do, even if he was the first?

I think the answer (at least in part) is because Hillary had that rare kind of life which afforded him the opportunity not only to climb mountains, but to keep his honor at the same time. Anybody can do whatever they want, but very few can do what they want with honor. Most of us could only devote the time and money necessary to climb the Himalayas if we neglected other duties which were more important. Would the world celebrate us for that? Should the world celebrate us for that? I don’t think so. That’s why we don’t bother trying.

The same thing holds in other areas of celebrity accomplishment. I think there are a lot of people who could have played in the NFL, but few whose circumstances allowed them to devote all of their time to football. There are a lot of people who might have been concert pianists, but not many whose parents spent thousands of dollars on music teachers and made them practice 14 hours a day. Similarly, the artificial publishing ease created by the blogosphere removed all barriers that held back the would-be writer. When the internet made writing accessible to all, many people showed that they could do it, but it never really became a part of who they were. It was a hothouse atmosphere that spawned many a prize orchid, but for most it was only a temporary dream come true. Rare is the man who is destined to write; rare is he for whom it becomes his real calling and his real work, in rain or in shine, in sickness or in health. Writing is a very unusual business and few there are who are born to it.

2. We must realize that we can’t get something for nothing; or what amounts to the same thing, that we will only get what we pay for. The few outstanding bloggers out there have accustomed us to getting great news and analysis for free, but that is almost certainly short-lived. If we want to get really really good news, good essays, and good editorializing (on a regular basis, that is), then we must be prepared to pay. We can’t depend on internet cavaliers to always do the legwork for us at their own expense. Many bloggers have put forth excellent material while getting SFA for their efforts; but they have families and mortgages like everybody else, and how long do you think they can keep that up?

When blogging goes out of fashion and into arrears, then we’ll see how much we really want it and need it. Then we’ll see who and what we’re willing to pay for. The “wild West” phase of any activity cannot last forever. Eventually it must weave itself into the fabric of normal life or it must be abandoned. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is the beginning of the first large-scale readjustment.

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