January 14, 2008

The Shelf Life (Half-Life?) of Blog Posts

In a piece on the role (or not) of public intellectuals, Russell Jacoby raises some questions about blogging that I've wondered about too:
On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or "archived"), has anyone ever looked at last year's blogs?
"Rapidly produced," he concludes, blog posts are "just as rapidly forgotten." Jacoby is interested in how blogging has affected "the quality or content of intellectual discussions." I'm interested in that too, but for now I'd just like to pick up on the issue of the status of past posts. For instance, as I familiarized myself with academic and literary blogs that looked interesting to me, I often found myself trailing through archives sometimes three or four years old. Some of the discussions--the most 'occasional' ones--obviously had become outdated, but others, including discussions of books, retain their currency just fine. But do they really? Well, not in practice, of course. Especially with the backwards chronology blogs impose, with newest always first, they do seem designed to keep us moving on. I'm also not aware of an easy way to locate material in blog archives unless the blogger has a particularly thorough index or set of labels or categories. Especially when discussions link back and forth across different blogs, the process of following older threads is extremely laborious. I guess I'm basically wondering about a couple of things: first, is there some "netiquette" principle that governs when a post 'expires' and ought not to be commented on any more? and second, does the perhaps fleeting nature of the attention any given blog post can have, as it is relentlessly shuttled down and down into the archives, add an extra dimension of futility to writing in this form?

Meanwhile, on the subject of public intellectuals, there's much discussion at The Valve about Stanley Fish, who is busy actually being one, for better and for worse, with his own blog at the New York Times. The enormous chains of comments on his recent posts on 'the uses of the humanities' (the first one reached around 500 comments, I believe, while the second one is up to 244 as I write this) suggests the rapidly diminishing returns at this extreme end of the commenting scale. A recent comment thread at the Valve raised questions about the importance of commenting for measuring the success or value of blogging; I've noted a couple of times the generally low level of discussion on literary topics and, in a more general way, felt that without active back-and-forth blogging is not as worthwhile or rewarding as I'd initially hoped it would be. But, as blogging skeptics have often noted, the greater the quantity, typically the lower the quality of the discussion. I have only scanned the replies to Fish. In general, they seemed to stand up well to the threads over at the Guardian blog, which degenerate pretty quickly. But even so, who can process so many replies or synthesize them in any kind of meaningful way? (I recommend reading the Valve comments instead; there are "just" about 80 of them, including a number of extremely thoughtful and illuminating ones.)


Amardeep said...

Hm, I'm not sure I trust Russell Jacoby with this one. If he once wanted academics to get out of their ivory towers, blogging has most certainly been one venue by which they've started to do that. He's now complaining that there are too many voices, and "who can keep up?" -- he doesn't really seem to know what he wants!

That said, I've also struggled with the questions about whether blog posts have lasting value -- also about the quality of one's interactions in comment threads and so on. In my own blogging, I tend to think that only a few posts out of many will potentially be of lasting value. (And I have no idea which posts will qualify until after they're written.) The rest might be temporarily interesting for readers, but more than anything else they are part of one's personal intellectual/writerly process.

Joel Rodgers said...

I'm also skeptical that high quantities of comments indicate the success of a blog posting. They certainly can measure the blog's ability to be sensational, but that's only one type of success (that I don't find is very productive most of the time). I don't comment on a lot of the blogs I read, but I still mull over them, which I think is perhaps more important that reading comment after comment of writers talking past one another. That only wastes time.

With posts on books in particular, I usually don't respond because I haven't read the book, but I mentally file the posting under "Keep Post X in mind, if you ever read Book X."

Rohan Maitzen said...


I've been coming to a similar conclusion about the 'real' value of blogging as a kind of live-action thought bubble (?) or notebook. In that case, though, an actual paper notebook has some advantages (just as an actual book beats the Kindle and its ilk), because you can leaf through it and refresh your recollection easily. And if I just wanted to write for myself, why do it out in public? But at the same time, I have found that writing out loud like this makes me think harder about what I say (usually--and especially now that I know sometimes it will get read by other people). Also, I'm finding more things interesting because I look at them as potential subjects of posts, or at least links.


I definitely agree that quantity of comments is as often a bad sign as a good. One of the worst features of blogging, I think, is that the worse you behave, the more attention you are likely to get.

I guess I expected a bit more conversational 'instant gratification' from blogging, but I see how in practice a lot of stars have to align for any two busy readers to be ready to discuss the same book at the same time. You're right that posts can be bookmarked, mentally or technologically, for later reference. I like blogs that give you a good long list of past posts for browsing purposes, too (as Amardeep's does, actually).

Rohan Maitzen said...

Joel, I was reviewing the comments here and realize I called you 'Jason'--sorry! RM