This weekend is the BloggerCon conference at Harvard. A young audience member had the courage to ask “What should I say when someone asks me what the point of having a blog is?”
Indeed this is a variant of the early 1990s question the first personal Web sites went up “What is the point of having a personal Web site?”
What then IS the point of personal Web site or blog?
Let’s go back to the beginning. The commercial publishing world supports basically two lengths of manuscript: the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads; the 200+-page book. If you had a 20-page idea and didn’t have access to the handful of “long-copy” magazines in the U.S. (old New Yorker, Atlantic, etc.), you could cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimize size to fit into the book distribution system (cf. any diet book or business bestseller).
Personal Web sites are interesting because they support 20- or 30-page essays beautifully, with search engines directing interested readers to those essays right at the moment that they’re curious about that topic.
Blogs are interesting because they support the 2-paragraph idea. It is sort of ridiculous to create a separate .html file for every little aphorism or fleeting thought and it would be a shame to clog search engines with pages that have such a high machinery-to-content ratio. Blogs and the RSS format make it work. Everyone can write like Nietzsche or a Marcus Aurelius, even if few people ever come up with enough clever small ideas to fill a 200-page book.
Of course there remains the question of why write at all. You don’t make any money from writing and wouldn’t it be more pleasant to concentrate on getting full value out of your digital cable TV subscription and luxury SUV?
What did folks at the conference have to say about this topic? One panelist noted that Benjamin Franklin was an early blogger (personally I prefer Marcus Aurelius as an example). Emerson, a Harvard alumnus (just like Ted Kaczinsky) was dredged up. He would have loved blogs (“A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.”). The journal is a well-respected literary form and the blog is simply a more efficiently available journal.
Some panelists seemed insanely optimistic. One guy noted that the nation-state wasn’t working. We are afflicted with racism, wars, etc. We need a new way to aggregate the wisdom of people and blogs are the answer. Listening to this, I was struck by a horrifying thought: George W. Bush must represent the aggregated wisdom of the American people, i.e., us. Adam Curry compared the Weblog to the telephone in its potential to revolutionize society. If the early results are mostly lame he related that “the telephone was first used to call ahead to say that a telegram was on its way.”
My personal answer: my main site (philip.greenspun.com) is there to relate things that I’ve learned so that others don’t have to repeat my mistakes; this blog is here to entertain friends and if other folks stumble across it and are entertained or find their thinking sparked in new directions, that’s gravy.