Bloggers As Public Intellectuals

I’m blogging another panel I heard at L.A.Con IV; this one was on blogging.

Speaker(s): MaryAnn Johanson, Phil Plait, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Kevin Drum, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Cory Doctorow (Moderator).

H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, I.F. Stone, Germaine Greer, Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt all gained prominence as American public intellectuals through newspaper columns and books of collected essays. Is the Blogosphere spawning a contemporary generation of important public thinkers? Who are the ones you can’t afford to miss? What are they saying?

The panelists introduced themselves, and spoke a little bit about their reactions to being described as “public intellectuals,” and their impressions about the intellectuals they were associated with. Kevin Drum referred to a recent article in Mother Jones News which compared bloggers and nineteenth century pamphlet writers. This idea is not new. Patrick Nielsen Hayden suggested that I. F. Stone, particularly with respect to Stone’s I. F. Stone Weekly, might be considered a proto-blogger. MaryAnn Johanson described one of the virtues of blogging as “no corporate gate keepers telling us what we can and can not say” (this is unfortunately increasingly not the case).

Cory Doctorow discussed the idea of blogging as “terse,” with respect to BoingBoing, because the content is driven by the constraints of RSS. Readers of BoingBoing increasingly read it via an RSS reader, so that terse content is more effective. Doctorow is essentially talking about the Economics of Attention. BoingBoing might be competing for a reader’s attention along side a thousand or three other blogs; terse, specific, effective subjects and descriptions are thus more effective at grabbing attention. This is much like the idea behind much journalism; that the shape of the column or article is like an inverted pyramid; the basic information is neatly, effectively, presented at the base of the pyramid, preferably in an attention-grabbing way, and increasingly, the information is increasingly less important so that the tip of the pyramid, and the end of the post, has unimportant details.

MaryAnn Johanson spoke about “blogs as conversations,” and about the fact that the underlying software tools, the blogging systems, ease writing because “the software takes care of it for me.”

Teresa Nielsen Hayden picked up on the idea of the blog as conversation and observed that “if you [blog] using the classic, closed, essay form, you leave your reader no place or point to comment.” This led to a discussion of post length, which, again, relates to an economics of attention. Several panelists commented on the importance of voice, and the idea that blogs are personality driven. Phil Plait mentioned PZ Myer’s Pharyngula, an an example, and Cory Doctorow mentioned Fafblog.

MaryAnn Johanson closed by observing that Cory Doctorow had recently finished an 80K word book by using pieces he’d previously posted on BoingBoing as his research fodder; this is an instance of the blog as commonplace book. Patrick Nielsen Hayden closed by observing that “The uses to which people put your writing is not necessarily what you had in your mind” when you wrote it.