Say everything: How blogging began, what it’s becoming, and why it matters.
New York: Crown, 2009.
cloth, 405 p., ISBN 978–0–307–45136–1, $US26.00.
It is a mark of maturity that the Internet has spawned so many Web 2.0 and 3.0 content modalities that entire books are written on just one of them. So it is in the present case with Scott Rosenberg’s Say everything: How blogging began, what it’s becoming, and why it matters. The title says exactly what the book is supposed to be about. So, how well does the author address those content components? Very well indeed.
In his thoughtful introduction Rosenberg notes that 9/11 wasn’t the moment of blogging’s birth, for it had a history before then. Instead, it “marked the moment that the rest of the media woke up and noticed what the Web had birthed … a stream of link–laden posts with the latest on top.” (pp. 8; 11). Blogging pioneer Justin Hall’s early 90s confessionals gradually mutated in part into diary form with hyperlinks, with the result that he became “… a human transmitter, beaming forth on all possible [Web] frequencies. The words gushed out of him in public.” (p. 32) But serious blogging requires effort and time, and, as Hall worried, this led inevitably to him asking “Because then, what am I gonna write next?” (p. 34)
Rosenberg notes other pitfalls of blogging as well: it’s a tightrope where you can fall off for not telling the truth, or fall off if you hurt or use other people to benefit yourself (p. 43). That hasn’t stopped people from blogging, however, and indeed it is the very progenitor for the more tell–all/tell–less characteristics of social networking sites. The author tells blogging’s fascinating story through a series of prose portraits of bloggers like Justin Hall and Dave Winer. The stories are often similar. For example, Rosenberg writes, “Our Web–enabled ability to publish anything and everything without asking for permission has opened all sorts of possibilities, but it has hardly sated our human desire to have the last word. In the heat of argument, we now find ourselves tempted to keep rehashing points of contention or, worse, to attack our opponents, until all that’s left is the hostility itself. And the medium and its tools provide no brakes on that temptation. Whatever else the spread of blogging might accomplish, it was futile to think it could somehow liberate us from pettiness and discord. Sometimes the unedited voices of people might harmonize; but they’re just as likely to holler.” (p. 73)
With that it would seem there is little else to say about blogging, for Rosenberg’s words do capture what for some is the essence of a self–absorbed medium too likely to crush itself by the sheer volume of its verbiage. Yet, time and again, the author pulls out yet another example of someone whose pioneering efforts persisted and who continues to be interesting and/or relevant today. Matt Drudge’s famous Drudge Report (not technically a blog, as the author notes), with its many links, has an important historical connection to blogging. Also, blogging’s ability to focus on subjects adds filtering capabilities. The author notes: “The early webloggers of 1998 and 1999, human filters of the Web, had the idea that you could, and would, get to know them through their choice of links.” (p. 95)
The many absorbing chapters collectively give a comprehensive view of blogging, how it started, the companies formed to feature blogging (however fleeting their existence), and the rise of political blogging with Joshua Marshall’s Talking Points Memo in 2000. 9/11 and the rise in world terrorism helped fuel the plethora of politically oriented blogs and, especially, the hostile postings that came to characterize many of them (pp. 140–141). The mainline media’s gradual adoption of blogs within their own reporting is part of the astonishing story of the rise of blogs. With a blog, anyone could be a “journalist,” while the traditional journalists could no long ignore blogs as the products of amateurs — even though many of the latter were. As well, political blogs became more open, allowing posts to comments made by the bloggers (p.149). In fact, the author quotes Clay Shirky’s observation that “Blogging — an open, easy–to–enter, anyone–can–play system — was eminently fair. If bloggers at the head of the curve stopped posting, they’d lose their primacy.” (p. 216) In the case of commercial blogs, they’d also lose money. Many blogs have indeed been created as, or became, commercial ventures, e.g., Gizmodo and Gawker. By 2007 the latter had grown to around 100 employees and contractors, and was making millions (p. 186).
The discussion of commercial blogging leads Rosenberg to ask perhaps the critical question in his chapter on the success of Boing Boing, which went from an online zine to a blog: “Even as they turned Boing Boing into a multimillion–dollar business with millions of customers, Frauenfelder and his crew held on to a surprisingly hefty chunk of the freedom that had originally attracted them to blogging. At the same time they were able to retain the trust that accrued to a publication that had stayed true to its fringe–’zine roots. But could they hold on to all of it — the freedom, the trust, the whuffie, and the money — forever? That, it seems fair to predict, will prove an increasingly difficult maneuver.” (p. 228)
Despite the book’s many positive examples of blogging’s consequences, this is no blindly admiring look at them. Again and again Rosenberg is insightful about blogging’s negatives: “Even blogging’s most vigorous promoters will usually admit that blogging and the conversations it enables have regularly devolved into a culture of outrageous extremes, ad hominem attacks, and, yes, in Lee Siegel’s phrase, anonymous thuggery. But anonymity is only one of multiple reasons for this descent into rudeness. Also to blame, surely, is another long–understood weakness of online communication: the absence of face–to–face cues like expression, tone of voice, gestures, and eye contact.” (p. 259)
Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying that blogging has transformed many aspects of the world of communication. Nowhere is that seen more prominently than in journalism, where blogging has gained a level of respect that would have seemed unimaginable only 10 years ago. Mainstream media sponsor their own blogs, and link to others on their Web sites. Mainstream journalists build stories from blogging tips and treat many bloggers as respectable news sources, even though the latter may have no training at all in the treasured tools of journalism such as objectivity and fairness (however imperfectly they are realized by conventional news organizations).
To those who see technological developments such as blogging as the protagonist and users as victims, Rosenberg wisely reminds us “Like the telephone before it, the Web will be defined by the choices people make as they use it, constrained by — but not determined by — the nature of technology.” (p.323) At this writing Facebook continues to either subsume or transparently connect to what had been disparate social media components, including blogs. Many blogs have disappeared, but Rosenberg does not see them as going away because of social media. Instead, he thinks that “as people have flocked to Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, they will not stop posting to or reading blogs — but their patterns of blogging will change. The social networks turn out to be an easier and more efficient channel for casual messages intended for a handful of friends.” (p. 335)
There are still thousands of more–or–less self–standing blogs, however; it remains to be seen to what extent Facebook will eventually affect their status as well. But Rosenberg leaves no doubt as to their value or future: Blogs may be “less polished and professional than that of many of their predecessors. But they are more passionate, more numerous, and more inclusive — and therefore more likely to succeed in saving what matters.” (p. 351) Douglas Kocher, Chair, Department of Communication, Valparaiso University.
Copyright © 2010, First Monday.
Book review of Scott Rosenberg’s Say everything: How blogging began, what it’s becoming, and why it matters
by Douglas Kocher.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 8 - 2 August 2010