Andrew Sullivan’s Approach to Blogging: Not the Entire Story, or Even the Best One

The Liberal Ironist has just read Andrew Sullivan‘s essay “Why I Blog”–and this 2-week-old blogger doesn’t approve.  This characterization is based on the historical meaning of the term “log,” which of course forms the basis of the term “web log.”  This demonstrates the limitations of metaphors based on the historical origins of words as much as anything.

The author acknowledges there is something bizarre, or to appearances even petulant, to calling an established journalist and author who has been blogging for 10 years now, misguided in his understanding of and aim in blogging.  While the author isn’t a regular reader of his blog, he liked a lot of what he’s read.  He simply suspects that the blog’s popularity owes in part to the ease with which it can be read.  This is an understandable means of reaching people on their own terms; it also sells the medium short.

Sullivan’s characterization of blogging is hardly a necessary approach to this endeavor–an admission he makes towards the end of the essay.  While the author blogs out of interest in “conceptual scoops” that are not always timely, Sullivan views a blog as grade above tweets or wall posts on Facebook:

“…We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge. This is partly true for all journalism, which is, as its etymology suggests, daily writing, always subject to subsequent revision. And a good columnist will adjust position and judgment and even political loyalty over time, depending on events. But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.”

The author literally sees no value in “hourly writing,” and doesn’t think it too old-fashioned to say that it is a healthy instinct for writing not to be infused with “the thrill of prescience.”  (Or maybe he just feels that way because he often has the strange suspicion that catching the news as it breaks is a waste of time.)  Sullivan has a point when he says that blogging is “more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive,” and thus more-vulnerable to criticism and more-accessible to critics on average than other forms of journalism or editorial comment.  But while this certainly makes blogging different from traditional print journalism or columns, Sullivan writes–and the terse, rapid response style of his blog suggests–as if the epitome of what blogging has to offer is to emphasize these qualities as much as possible.

Sullivan sees a blog as a fundamentally-confessional form of writing.  Blogging does reveal something about the author–but this is true of almost all writing in a non-trivial sense.  But the author was disappointed to find Sullivan celebrate the blog as essentially a form of emotive exposition.  This leads him to take a blithe attitude towards the emotional invective sometimes encountered on DailyKos or the lack of perspective on breaking news that can characterize the Drudge Report.  The author tends to write column-length posts, and is more-interested in trends, even where forgotten or overlooked, than in breaking news.  He uses a blog to reveal those problems or developments that he finds interesting, but not to offer visceral reactions to breaking news–a form of expression which is indeed ephemeral, and not always thought-provoking.

“From the first few days of using the form, I was hooked. The simple experience of being able to directly broadcast my own words to readers was an exhilarating literary liberation. Unlike the current generation of writers, who have only ever blogged, I knew firsthand what the alternative meant. I’d edited a weekly print magazine, The New Republic, for five years, and written countless columns and essays for a variety of traditional outlets. And in all this, I’d often chafed, as most writers do, at the endless delays, revisions, office politics, editorial fights, and last-minute cuts for space that dead-tree publishing entails. Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free in comparison. Like taking a narcotic.”

This statement from the middle of the second page of Sullivan’s essay (which is long but still a recommended read) is as revealing as any.  (Finding pop sociology to be a guilty pleasure as I do) I wonder if Sullivan is in fact stuck on the thought of emphasizing the distinctness of blogging from other forms of writing simply because its flexibility and convenience never lost its sense of novelty for him.  Blogs have already been around for over a decade as the author writes this, so perhaps the thought of writing it in a way that could reach the most people with rapid-fire responses to the news hadn’t even occurred to him.  Perhaps the term “blogging” is overly-broad if it characterizes both what Andrew Sullivan and the current (admittedly-unproven) author are doing with the medium.

Sullivan makes another good point in celebrating the hyperlink as a means of informing the reader and holding him- or herself to a higher level of accountability.  This blog also attempts to offer lots of contextual information in posts, hoping to offer readers a path to other informative venues.  But Sullivan often offers a blunt opinion–favor or disfavor–where we could use some elaboration, and a lot more conceptual connection between hyperlinks.  That many different online sources might be brought together through a blog post in a novel relation, strangely, isn’t an approach that seems to have occurred to Sullivan.

Sullivan’s optimism wholly wins him over.  There are many virtues to the easy accessibility of various information and comment sites and the ability of readers on the great big Interweb to offer their questions, disagreements and even criticism directly to writers.  That said, Sullivan clearly believes in John Stuart Mill’s “marketplace of ideas”–“that the always adjusting and evolving collective mind can rapidly filter out bad arguments and bad ideas.”  An open discussion should be expected to “progress” in the direction of ideas that are easily-grasped among the participants of that discussion, not necessarily to a profound truth, accurate information or even a salutary or useful myth.  He acknowledges the risk of problems such as cyber-balkanization but still makes the extraordinary claim that Democrats and Republicans are brought together by the blogosphere.   That Sullivan seems confident that Democrats and Republicans have been forced to be more intellectually-accountable and fairer with each other because of the blogs seriously calls his grasp of the medium into question; in this case it doesn’t seem to matter where the links go.

Sullivan has a lot to say about the freedom and variety of potential available to bloggers, eventually acknowledging the different types of blogs we observe.  He goes on to make what is in a sense a mind-blowing admission, if perhaps still one that should have been obvious to us:

“…As the blogosphere has expanded beyond anyone’s capacity to absorb it, I’ve needed an assistant and interns to scour the Web for links and stories and photographs to respond to and think about. It’s a difficult balance, between your own interests and obsessions, and the knowledge, insight, and wit of others—but an immensely rich one…”

There are actually 2 take-home messages here, first that Sullivan has interns helping vet information he may want to write about on his blog, and second that the blogosphere has really become too large to grasp, precisely because of the democratic character he recognizes in it.  The importance of these admissions seems to be lost on him, first that his influence and efficacy as a blogger is still an outgrowth of the fact that he is Andrew Sullivan, a man who has distinguished himself in several forms of the print medium, and second that the very fact of its low entry cost tends to consign most bloggers to obscurity.  The issue isn’t that Sullivan’s characterization of blogging and its meaning or potential is wrong, but that it reflects an understandable but still-naive optimism of an enthusiastic journalist of established pedigree who entered the medium in its experimental early days–long after his excitement about the freedom and empowerment of that medium ceases to be a characteristic experience.

The Liberal Ironist owes Andrew Sullivan gratitude for clarifying his approach to blogging.  Reflecting the kind of conversation he wants blogging to be, his essay about blogging also demands a response beyond the visceral reactions and conjectural ideas that those of us who follow politics can already experience daily.  If only he would write blog posts like a more-compact version of that essay–but again, we have the absurdity of a starting blogger judging a veteran by his standard.  In closing, the Liberal Ironist would cast Sullivan’s characterization of traditional writing, somewhat-ambitiously, as the purpose of this blog:

“…In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.”

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