Tensions over Blogging

Blogs, amiright? They’re writing-based but multimodally flexible, they’ve got low entry barriers, and they’ve been around long enough that they’ve started to feel comfortable even for the less digitally-minded among us – like just another part of the written landscape. But lately, I’ve been noticing some strange tensions across attitudes towards the humble blog. One the one hand – so many pros! They’re everything we could want in a tool for teaching (and practicing) rhetoric and writing in this digital and participatory age. But on the other hand – are they really? or put another way – are they still?

This tension pokes through at a few points in Deborah Brandt’s thoughtful meta-post on the UW Writing Center blog this April.  Brandt opens by discussing her longtime resistance to blogs, despite the advantages typically attributed to them. “Aren’t blogs among the most appealing forms of expression?” she asks. “Breezy, easy, low stakes, anything goes—an embodiment of the best democratic potential of the Internet?” But she’s skeptical of the genre nonetheless. So much so, in fact, that she devotes the rest of the entry to interrogating the potential downfalls of such a perspective.

Brandt raises a number of important points in her post –  about the dangers presented by blogs’ informal and shifting formation of author identities; about whether blogging assignments violate students’ legal right to privacy; and about the slipperiness with which an individual’s voice can be appropriated to serve institutional or corporate agendas. But it’s this initial tension she presents that caught my interest for this post: between the “default” view of blogging as low-stakes and democratic, and the more complicated, even (somewhat) negative view that lies underneath it.  Brandt presents the first view as a voicing of a prevailing view, an “everyone knows”-assumption that blogs are democratic, lower-stakes, and therefore great tools for contemporary writers of all kinds. A view that, despite her clear and concrete reservations, she seems to still feel some attraction, even obligation towards – framing it as a rhetorical question for herself as well as her readers.

Lately, I notice this tension throughout conversations about blogging – academic and otherwise.  It’s rarely expressed as eloquently, and the concerns about the more negative edge of the blogging sword aren’t always in quite the same vein – but in 4Cs panels and student interviews, academic blogs and TA training, there’s an ongoing uncertainty about the value of blogging – and sometimes, more pointedly, whether or not it’s worth doing at all.

On the academic side, there are concerns like Brandt’s that the very qualities that make blogging attractive also give rise to its dangers. We already have so many ways to implicate ourselves forever through out online behavior, and for that behavior to be exploited by bureaucratic interests; blogging, these arguments worry, can too easily become a long-form and even more potentially destructive path towards the same. And there are arguments for blogging as just another path towards the echo chamber effect, encouraging writers to reify their existing opinions for an audience who already holds them. But to me, the most thought-provoking argument against giving blogging top attention among digital genres is that our students are already past it – “over” blogging (at least in the form we tend to consider it) and on to other things, to microblogging and Pinning and the visual-focused Instagram. And while there’s still plenty of blogging to be found among the Comp/Rhet set, it’s definitely not an area in which everyone’s practicing what the prevailing attitude preaches. Collin Brooke recently wrote a blog post of his own about the relative dearth of digital “stock” (of which blogging is a primary element) as compared to the more ephemeral “flow” of Tweets and Tumblings. For all the popularity of blogging in the classroom, it seems like not that many of us are interested in it ourselves.

All of these arguments were mirrored, in some form or another, in my interviews with students about digital writing. Some students had abandoned blogging because they’d come to see the writing they did there as too personal to continue so publicly; some never began at all for similar reasons, saying they didn’t feel comfortable putting the things they feel and think right now out there so permanently, or didn’t see the appeal of doing so. More than one  expressed skepticism or distain for blogging by others that “just made the same point everyone else makes;” speaking to an audience of your friends, one student said wryly, isn’t going to affect anything. And while no one said anything so direct as, say, “blogging is for old people,” there was lots of implicit support for the idea that students don’t blog because they’re expending that expressive energy in other forms. Students had Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Instagram feeds, Vine accounts – but none of them had an active blog. A few had been active bloggers in the past, but for one reason or another – usually encompassing one of the three reasons above – they’d drifted out of the habit.

Yet despite all these concerns, students felt the same conflicted pull towards the genre as those of us over in Comp/Rhet. Students who kept active blogs in the past universally spoke of the experience positively, almost wistfully at times. Blogging helped them clarify and articulate otherwise confusing opinions and feelings; it was an outlet for frustration and self-expression (emotional and intellectual). That’s not something, the interviews suggest, that they’ve found so freely in these other forms of digital writing. And for almost a third of them, keeping a blog was an attractive future project. Some even had specific ideas about what these blogs would look like – a home for an ongoing graphic novel project, a silly collection of frisbee-related jokes; a place to informally muse about all things science. These students don’t have blogs now – but the idea of one is not without interest. All of this points to the same kind of disconnect visible in C/R’s conversation: there’s something about blogs that makes us reluctant to write them off – but often equally reluctant to actually write them.

My own experience follows this pattern to a T. I was a very prolific blogger throughout college, a direct offshoot of my years of “analog” journaling. This blog was sometimes public, sometimes private, and very much a product of College Becca’s worldview. Once I got to grad school, however, this kind of blogging no longer seemed like what I wanted to be putting out in public, so I began a new blog with vague ideas of being more “academic” but no specific idea what that would look like. Without that guidance the new blog drifted into a similar vein as the old, and I largely lost interest. Every year or so I’d resolve to begin blogging about my work for real, a few times even going so far as to create accounts with a post or two, but despite this underlying feeling that I really should be blogging, it never stuck. (Until now, that is – fingers crossed.) In retrospect, I think a big part of my blogging inertia in those years came from my confusion about what it meant to transform this activity and genre that until then had been primarily personal into one that was only semi-personal. I knew blogging could do a whole range of things, but now I needed it to be something pretty specific – and making that transition was harder than I expected, harder than I felt it was supposed to be for me as, you know, a student of these issues.

When blogging was the only public digital writing game around, it made sense to use it for a very broad range of purposes and posting style – and people did. But now we have a much wider range of platforms and genres available for expending that impulse to share, write, interact online. Social media updates have taken over as a way to keep social circles up to date on the minutia of daily life; Twitter has become the central platform for self-promotion. Before, it wasn’t as necessary – or even useful – to think to much about what a blog should be – its promise was located in all the things it could be. I think now, though, it’s become very much a question of “should.” Because what the picture above says to me is that we’re all aware that blogging fills a role that isn’t quite there in all these other available forms. As Robin Sloan says, and Brooke takes up, it’s a means of generating more permanent, complex “stock” – the material that underlies our online presence.

I’ve mention this idea of stock vs flow here before; I find it extremely useful. And I’d argue that the persistent concern over blogging – its (some would argue) disproportionate presence in our teaching and research, its distinct but distant appeal to contemporary students – is a result of blogging’s continued force as stock-builder. We sense, consciously or not, the truth of Sloan’s reminder that “we neglect stock at our own peril.” And we sense that blogs are a good solution for that problem. But stock is harder than flow. Not just because it’s longer-form and less woven into daily routine and  – but because it’s a longer game, and one whose success rests on the permanence and coherence of its whole. And that makes it a harder, more conscious effort to pinpoint what we want our stock to be – what it should be.

It’s not purely a question of the individual, either – for better or worse the majority of us going to end up part of some industry, field, organization, and there are some conventions and best practices that go along with that. Blogging is a great way to build our portfolios as both individuals and members of that larger (and often future) group as well. But that’s a specific purpose, with a particular kind of imagined audience. The work of formulating those is greater; the risks of miscalculating are larger; and it’s usually both easier and more immediately enjoyable to use our energy on one of those other forms. But at the same time – we’re glad blogging’s out there. Because we know we’ll likely need (or simply want) what it offers at some point down the line.

Which is to say, I don’t think we should write off blogging yet; I think it’s still a genre worth teaching, studying and engaging with. But part of doing those things effectively means being aware of its limits – including the limits of its authorship and appeal among our students (and ourselves). One of the arguments for teaching with blogs as opposed to more “traditional” academic genres is that students find it more recognizable and relatable. But there’s a lot of evidence out there that this isn’t necessarily the case, or not the way we might be assuming. But it seems like there’s also signs that students are interested in blogging in specific ways, in its potential for projects and writing outside the rest of their social media circles. The trick to resolving this tension, then, might be in considering blogs more specifically – as sites for a more particular purpose and kind of writing. Because graphic novels, extended frisbee jokes, and one-off academic musings need their digital genres too; and someday we’re all likely to need our names to turn up some rich stock when we’re Googled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *