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To blog ... or not to blog

Paul Grobstein's picture

Alright, so maybe this will turn into a "blog", or maybe, even better, "something new that comes along to replace" blogs? Nice to have Laura, Anne, and Ron drop by with their thoughts, and to have Anne's reminder that there is a history of thinking about what Serendip and the web in general are good for (cf Serendip's Evolving Web Principles and The How of Story Sharing II and Intellectual Exchange as a Medium for Community Building on the Web and Beyond) that's worth connecting to as Serendip moves into its Exchange era.

Yeah, I have reservations about "blogs" as they are currently understood. What bothers me is not the idea that anyone (and everyone) may have something useful to say in a public arena. That idea I like a lot, and it has been a principle of Serendip since its inception. Moreover, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that encouraging every one to find and share their own distinctive ways of making sense of themselves and the world around them is key to making a better, more humane life for everyone ... to creating "less wrong" cultures and worlds.

That promise, though, depends not only on everyone having a voice in a public arena, but also on everyone sharing a common belief that there is at least as much value in listening as in speaking. What is important in the public arena is not persuading others of the validity of one's own understandings but rather the sharing of current diverse understandings out of which come new and less wrong understandings both in others and in oneself. One speaks not to persuade others but rather to offer to them things they may find useful in revising their own understandings. One similarly and reciprocally listens to others speaking with the expectation they will provide things useful to revising one's own. Without a shared commitment to continual revision based on the sharing of diverse perspectives, the potential inherent in giving everyone a voice in the public arena can't be realized.

That's why I have some reservations about "blogs." To the extent they make publicly available voices that might not otherwise be heard, they are a good thing in my terms. The hazard is that they will be seen, both by writers and readers, as no more than that, and so be written and evaluated solely in those terms: composed so as to reach as wide a readership as quickly as possible and judged by the size of that readership. To the extent blogs are conceived in these terms, they will not only fail to support "continual revision based on the sharing of diverse perspectives" but contribute to old and persistant barriers to that ideal.

So, is this a blog? Yes, if by that one means something a particular person writes to offer to others a current set of understandings they might find useful, with the possibility that others might reciprocate by offering understandings of their own that I might find useful. The potential for return makes it different from a journal. No, if by "blog" one means something that is aimed at satisfying myself and others that my voice is being heard by as quickly as possible by as many people as possible. What's here starts what I am currently thinking that seems useful to me (and so is different from a discussion board or forum), and that I think at least some others might find useful enough to respond to in ways I might in turn find useful. Whether the latter is true or not in any given case, we'll find out (letters "to the world/That never wrote to me" are a risk one cannot avoid if one is interested in serious exchange).

When I was in high school, I edited the school newspaper and wrote a biweekly column for it. In the inaugural column, I said something like I can't guarantee anyone that what I write will be interesting or useful to any particular reader. What I can and will guarantee is that I will write only about things that have proven interesting to me and that I think might prove interesting to others, and be as clear as I can about both why they are interesting to me and might be to others. That's the spirit intended here, with the addition of active exchange. Its not just what I think at I think at any given time, but what I think reflected on to the point where I become convinced it is worth sharing, and so am interested in what others think in relation to it.  Maybe its a blog, maybe its an invitation to exchange .... maybe its something else? Whichever, it is what Serendip has meant to me from its inception, long before "blogging" came into existence.


Paul Grobstein's picture

messages into the future

"How can we affect the people of the future directly? We can do it physically by setting up booby traps that a person of the future will fall into. Yet more interestingly, we can affect the people of the future mentally by sending messages through time. And that’s really all this "posting" contraption is; a space/time continuum that allows us to project messages into the future." ... Christina Harview

Thanks, Christina. THAT's what I meant when I expressed concern that blogs would be seen as ways of influencing people "as quickly as possible". They are (or at least this one is) indeed "for the future", however long that might turn out to be in any given case.

Christina Harview's picture

Δt = ?

Blogs should be seen as a way to influence the future quickly... but how effective is it? The stigmatizations that come with blogs are underlying negative forces with relation to influence. The sheer mass of information comes in all shapes and sizes; we have a twelve year old writing his opinion about the 2008 presidential primaries, an eighty year old woman's outlook on the negative influences of technology, George writing about how his neighbor's son John walked through the grass in his front yard for the Nth time this week. How much of it is based in fact, who has the authority to speak intelligently on any particular topic, and how do we separate fact from fiction and truth from opinion if it is not explicitly stated?


The mass of information running through the computer every time you use the search engine 'Google' is a trade up of quantity for quality. This grand market of information brings about the necessity to sift through the sources with a keen eye, check information twice, three times, a thousand times before you can really be sure of the validity of what you are reading when it comes to facts.


Yet, one of the beautiful things about the world is that not all things are limited by a 'definition,' as we discussed in my Emerging Genres class. For a definition is not so much a statement of what compromises the subject, but more a creation of a boundary, limit, or border (as denoted by the Latin root 'fin'). It is for this reason that blogs such as Serendip can be successful. We are science students, english students, teachers, students, thinkers, writers, blonds, chefs, aliens - it doesn't matter! - we have something to say. And what we have to say may not be right or wrong; it may invoke thought, it may provoke discussion, it may invoke anger, contempt, or happiness. Whatever effect it has - the effect is there. And that’s what counts.


Internet speeds and the ease of blogging has exponentially shortened the time span for which it takes the public to hear what we have to say. But does the easy rout to information put our generation at risk of assimilating low-quality information? How have we, as individuals of growth in the 21st century, adapted our actions to restrict the flow of faulty information into our highly impressionable minds? Can we still be sure that the structure of our opinions is built upon a sturdy foundation?


I agree with all of what you said concerning how we should treat the blogs that we write; not as statements of right or wrong facts but ideas that may be more correct than others. But how can we differentiate between these two extremes when we are reading blogs rather than writing them?



Paul Grobstein's picture

blog or whatever, I think I'll keep doing it

Thanks marquise, Anne, and Ron. For further thoughts and thoughts arising see "forums, blogs, and risks".

Wai Chee Dimock's picture

Blog or whatever

I really like your idea that we're not aiming at perfection, but ways to create cultures and worlds that are "less wrong." This lessening of wrongness can probably be done only collectively, by reciprocal enlightenment and revision, so listening is as important as speaking, as you point out. I wonder how we could highlight this modest (and sometimes self-erasing and self-canceling) virtue?

Anne Dalke's picture

I wonder...

...too, if blogs might offer one answer to the question I'm asking re: new kinds of story depicting devices--both vast AND particular, collective and individual, reciprocal without being self-erasing, self-cancelling?

In Quaker meeting this morning, a friend told the story of serving coffee to a homeless man who had requested "no cream." Not having heard the request, he mistakenly served him coffee w/ cream. The man responded, "Weren't you listening to me? Why do you come out here anyway? Just to make yourself feel good?" This story led into a few other messages--one dismissing the "sickly virtue" of humility, but also a counter suggestion that "humility might be thought of as the quality of being teachable."

Now, that's an invitation to listen.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

on blogs

hi prof grobstein! it seems to me that your complaint is not with blogs but with a certain presentation of an opinion. you don't want opinions to be presented as "facts," you want writers to encourage instead of shun a discussion of their ideas, but that criticism can apply to any type of writing and not necessarily to blogs. i feel that you're not really criticizing blogs because your criticisms are not specific to the format of a blog. to me, a blog is not a forum because the internet actually has forums on it. blogs are great for having a comments section (though that can be disabled) but that doesn't express their nature: for me, a blog is more like a public diary, and part of its joy is that the expression "public diary" seems like a contradiction in terms. this is why blogs have privacy settings. of course, many blogs do not act like diairies, but in that case i see the point as one voice expressing ideas. if the way he does that is too didactic, then i won't enjoy the blog, but as i noted, that issue is not particular to blogs. when i read a blog, i want to get to know the voice, the set of the opinions, the issues that interest that voice. i'm interested in what that voice (not "author" for reasons i'll post in a blog entry, heehee) has to say to me, not in the exchange of ideas, which does not even have to be there.
Anne Dalke's picture

other options for living

  • i'm interested in what that voice (not "author" for reasons i'll post in a blog entry, heehee) has to say to me, not in the exchange of ideas, which does not even have to be there.

I read that blog, Gaby, and was most intrigued by the distinction you make between the genres of books and blogs:

blogs...give details into other lives....the important aspect here to me is not getting to know other people who exist...but on seeing other options for living, other models....the rise of the blog cements the death of the author because now text is readily many anonymous voices....since not need to go through the hassle of publishing a book, their reception is not modified by critics, so no one is there to dominate the way in which a blog is read, to persuade the public that a blog, like a book, is merely the literary representation of the soul of its one author...books...tend not to be this anonymous because the author is establishing or maintaining a reputation.

If I'm understanding you aright (or even if I'm not, you've given me an interesting idea) the 'flatness' of the internet--the fact that all of us can produce our own content and make it public--has reduced both the hierarchies of value that were once gate-kept by critics and the fetish of the author, the illusion that when we read a text we are 'getting' the truth of someone's biography.

Intriguingly oblique to the dialogue, below, regarding differences between 'me' and 'the ideas in my brain'?

Paul Grobstein's picture

blogs, literature, and selves

Glad you're back, and to hear that evolit proved useful. Yep, same issues here in a different context. And yep, agree that "complaint" isn't just about blogs but has wider applicability ... "to encourage instead of shun a discussion". Is even more intriguing to get back to Proust and "stories", as in whether one reads/writes (in "blogs" or elsewhere) to reveal/find a unique self, or/and for some other reason (to develop new stories)? See "forums, blogs, and risks".
Anne Dalke's picture

keeping @ this....

"What's here starts what I am currently thinking that seems useful to me
(and so is different from a discussion board or forum), and that I think
at least some others might find useful enough to respond to in ways I might in
turn find useful. Whether the latter is true or not in any given case, we'll
find out (letters "to the world/That never wrote to me" are a risk one
cannot avoid if one is interested in serious exchange)."

work on this a little more with me? how is thinking aloud about "what seems useful to me" different from a discussion board? because a discussion board thinks about what might be useful to others? why is writing without the likelihood of response an "unavoidable risk" of serious exchange? isn't the risk, rather, that someone MIGHT respond, and that one needs, then, to be accountable for what one has said??

Paul Grobstein's picture

forums. blogs, and risks

Nope, the distinction between "this" ("blog" or whatever) and a "discussion board" or "forum", for me at least, isn't "useful to me" versus "useful to others". I wouldn't be writing if I didn't think what I was writing might indeed be useful to others. The distinction, at least for me, is that people come to a discussion board or forum because they already share a common interest in some announced topic (as per Laura). Here the only "topic" that might attract people is ... me? And my hope is that people are actually coming not because of an interest in "me" but rather to see what new topics my brain generates that they might prove to be interested in. I can certainly imagine someone "blogging" because they presume at least some other people are interested in them as individuals. Maybe that's another difference between what this is and "blogs"? Whatever this is, it isn't intended to be about "Paul Grobstein" but rather about what ideas happen, at any given time, to be in his brain.

And there, of course, is the "unavoidable risk of serious exchange". That one might get a response, and so be "accountable for what one has said" isn't, for me at least, a hazard; its the whole point of writing, to tell others how one sees the world in hopes that others will respond with different ways of seeing the world that might contribute to changing one's own. The "risk" (for me at least, and I'm not alone, as per Emily and Ron is the opposite, being exposed to the possibility that what is in one's own brain at any given time isn't in fact (at least immediately) interesting/useful to any one else. This means, as Richard Rorty says, "accepting that what matters to you may never matter much to most people".

This can be distressing, even "saddening". Challenging as it might be to one's sense of self-worth or wish to be connected to others, there is though probably as much to learn from what others don't find interesting about oneself at any given time as there is from what they do. If nothing else, it can be enjoyed as a celebration of individual differences (Rorty's "orchidaceous extras"), the observations that verify that one is indeed a distinctive individual writing one's own story, that others are as well, and that, because of this, there is the potential for new stories arising from the sharing of them.

Whatever its called, that's what this is about. Thanks to all for helping me better understand it.

Anne Dalke's picture

Not to put too fine a point upon it...

...but what's the difference between Paul Grobstein and his brain?


My question is about the dualism implied here, the separation between self and brain, between the container and what's in it, between the body and (gasp) the soul. It's the old feminist critique of Descartes' dualism, an insistence that our individually gendered/raced/classed/(dis)abled bodies are locus and foundation for our knowledges. Makes it hard to separate "me" from "what's in my brain." Or you from what's in yours.