140 characters or bust

When I was a teenager in Decatur, Illinois, in the early-to-mid 1990s, I thought Wired was just about the coolest thing ever. Having grown up on science fiction novels, it was easy for me to get caught up in the magazine’s relentless, starry-eyed cheerleading for the wondrous technological future. I also thrilled at being part of the in-group: nobody else I knew read or had even heard of Wired, and according to the writers and editors of the magazine, the fact that I (unlike my peers) was hip to their message meant that I was bound to be a part of the nascent techno-geek aristocracy.

These days I have a hard time with Wired: the problems with the magazine’s techno-libertarian politics are obvious to me now in ways that I failed to understand at fifteen, and its continued breathless cheerleading for what’s new and what’s next sometimes reaches absurd proportions. A case in point: a column by Paul Boutin published in Wired last month, which recently came to my attention via Bookninja. According to Boutin, the fact that professional bloggers associated with major websites draw more readers than amateur bloggers means that there’s no point in anyone else continuing blogging. “Thinking about launching your own blog?” Boutin writes. “Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.” He suggests that because amateurs lack the skill and/or the time to write blog posts of the same quantity and quality as the blogging pros, they really shouldn’t bother blogging at all. The real action, he claims, is in brief message updates via Twitter or Facebook, and argues that the enforced brevity of the messages (a mere 140 characters for Twitter) “puts everyone back on equal footing.” As an amateur blogger, “it’s almost impossible to get noticed,” and therefore you ought to just throw in the towel.

I think it’s telling that Boutin equates a lack of recognition by the broadest mainstream readership with failure and pointlessness. In his article, he says nothing at all about the content of blog posts (amateur or professional); rather, he’s obsessed by matters of popularity and style. No doubt it’s true that many bloggers start out in the hope of having the whole world listen to them; and no doubt it’s also true that more than 99.9% of folks who go into it with that attitude eventually give up in failure. But I don’t think getting noticed is the sole point of blogging—not by any means. Personally, I’m happy when a post gets a (relatively) large number of hits, but even if I didn’t get any traffic at all, I’d keep posting all the same. I use my blog as a means for recording and expressing my thoughts on what I’m reading, listening to, watching, and thinking about. It’s also a great means for interacting with an informal community of bloggers, readers, and writers who are interested in the same kinds of things I am.

And this is the more fundamental and important point that Boutin misses here: even blogs that reach very small audiences perform real and powerful social and cultural functions—and in ways that mainstream blogs (or, for that matter, mass media) generally can’t. Though the most popular book bloggers have readerships in the thousands, rather than the millions, they’ve all the same part of a lively and deeply engaged subcultural community. Because of book blogs, I’m able to keep track of what’s going on in the world of literary writing, criticism, and publishing in an in-depth, instantaneous fashion. I’m never going to get anything like that from a mainstream blog; nor am I going to get it from the television, Facebook, or Twitter. Maud Newton may never draw enough readers to meet Boutin’s standards, but my life is better because she’s out there blogging about books. The same is no doubt true for any number of interest groups and subcultures—I’m sure there are similar corners of the blogosphere dedicated to fly fishing, showtunes, actuarial science, and many other things that I don’t particularly care about, and it’s wonderful that blogs have made those kinds of discussions and communities possible.

I’m also bothered by Boutin’s assertion that amateur bloggers are always necessarily outclassed by professionals. This isn’t true; there are many perfectly fine writers and commentators out there who don’t get paid for their work. But even as he asserts that the pros do better work, Boutin also expresses a longing for the days when posts by amateur bloggers would top the search engine results. He writes:

Today, a search for, say, Barack Obama’s latest speech will deliver a Wikipedia page, a Fox News article, and a few entries from professionally run sites like Politico.com. The odds of your clever entry appearing high on the list? Basically zero.

First off, Wikipedia is written by anonymous amateurs, so it’s an exceedingly poor example of the professionalization of the web. Second: it seems perfectly reasonable to me that professional news content would rise to the top of the search engine results on a topic like a presidential candidate. Professional journalists are the ones who are out there doing the reporting; bloggers add value to their work by linking to it and offering commentary and opinion from diverse viewpoints and for specific audiences. There’s nothing wrong with this pattern, and nothing wrong with the news sources getting the most hits. And besides, there’s little doubt that blogs continue to have a powerful influence over the way that news is reported: sites like DailyKos (with its mix of professional and amateur writing) really do get heard in the mainstream, and others, like FiveThirtyEight, have only recently succeeded in catapulting themselves from blogging obscurity and into the mainstream spotlight. In other words: not only is Boutin wrong about the implications of the supposed decreased importance of amateur blogging, he’s also wrong that new blogs can no longer reach the attention of the mainstream.

What bothers me more than anything about Boutin’s essay, though, is something else entirely: the absolute absurdity of the idea that a blog entry is somehow too long and cumbersome to be an effective means of communication—or that the 140 characters of a Twitter message could possibly be adequate for anything and everything that a would-be blogger might want to communicate. Even Boutin’s own article is well over that limit—3,198 characters, according to the word count feature in MS Word. As if to answer this objection, Boutin offers a Twitter-sized precis of his essay: “@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?” And I suppose Boutin’s right at least in his own case: there’s just about as much substance in his 140-character Twitter message as in the whole of his article for Wired. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t have better things to say on our blogs (and at whatever length we please).


2 Responses to “140 characters or bust”

  1. 1 Jim Gill November 22, 2008 at 6:40 PM

    Man! With that title, I thought I was going to be reading about Pynchon or something. I enjoy the fact that you have a blog. It’s nice to be able to see what someone else who I know and respect is thinking.

  2. 2 goodreadings November 22, 2008 at 11:32 PM


    Maybe you should start blogging again yourself. Have you ever thought about reviving Avant Front? (Though unfortunately, a Google search for “avant front” now turns up lots of reviews for the front view of the 2009 Audi Avant.)

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