WHEN I BEGAN writing, only the Pentagon had Internet. The rest of us used pens and typewriters, as well as paper, which came in both liquid and solid form. You’d write out your essay, story or article, make a few changes, and then type out the manuscript, editing as you went. In some cases, you would do an additional edit, by producing a second typescript. This is what we veterans called writing. What else would you call it?
The language reflected our tools. A manuscript was just that, a script produced by hand with a stylus. Cut and paste required an X-Acto and a glue stick. In the days of manual “cold type,” the leading between lines of text was just that, thin strips of lead. If you were preparing a document for print, the finished product would be declared “camera-ready.” And, yes, we used a camera.
I’d been writing for almost twenty years the day I was first called a blogger. I knew that the word blog was a contraction of weblog, which was itself a combination of the World Wide Web and a log. I’d never kept a log, but the concept was familiar. The writers of Star Trek would sometimes use a voice-over of the Captain’s Log as a narrative device, a way to set up or advance the plot. I didn’t think that the word log was a good description of my writing, but arguing seemed a waste of time.
For years I ignored the increasing use of the terms blog and blogger to describe my work and my occupation. As long as people were reading, I was satisfied. Any objection of mine might be seen as snobbery, and I didn’t want people to think I considered myself above blogging. My argument concerned the use of imprecise or misplaced or voguish words. How was it that I could take a “column” from the days before personal computers and turn it into a “blog” simply by uploading it to the Internet? If the word writing was good and plain enough back then, why did it need to be changed to blogging now?
When I put these questions to myself like that, the answers appeared. Twenty years ago, a column was just that: a tall, vertical chunk of printed text occupying the narrow spaces between ads. The language then, as now, was technology driven. Yesterday you filed your column, today you upload your blog to the web. Because readers experience writing in differing ways across differing media, the descriptions change. It’s perfectly natural.
It never occurred to anyone, as far as I’m aware, to say that he surfs the newspaper. Printed media are highly structured, with front and back covers, numbered pages, and sections. Sure, you can jump around, but the printed page feels nothing like the vast and unmapped universe we call the Internet. The new words of readers were needed to convey their new feelings and experiences.
Even though the word blog was (in my estimation) misplaced with my writing, it did describe much of the writing taking up residence on the Internet. Many thousands of people who had never written professionally were now writing informally, posting regular entries to their small patch of the web. Their writing was personal, and often in the style of a journal or diary. The themes of daily life predominated. The old media persisted, but soon yielded to a slow decline which continues to this day. Words like column and article began to feel too solid and formal for the new modes of writing and reading. Blog, in contrast, is a whimsical word whose pedigree goes back to a time when people saw the Web as a radically democratic, open and playful space.
I still catch myself saying that I “write for the papers,” when in fact my words never touch that other web – the one made of interlaced wood fibres. The papers are digitized now, or at least the Huffington Post is. Yet we all still talk of web pages, as if the Internet were made up of the bound leaves of yesteryear. Editors ask about my “manuscript” and academics about the “paper” I’m giving. The old language has not gone entirely away, and perhaps neither have the old experiences. Some of my friends refuse to read ebooks, insistent that “it’s just not the same.” They are of a small and diminishing camp, I’m sure. Many of today’s readers are consumers of blogs and feeds and portals. They are surfers on a virtual ocean. Their book is no book, and it has no beginning or end or middle. No one knows nor cares to know just how many pages there are, and even if they did the number will change with every passing second.
Like the reader, the blogger experiences the world differently than the writer of old. Rather than readers and critics, she has followers and “likes,” stats and hits, tweets and re-blogs. She is encouraged to think about exposure and engagement and Search Engine Optimization and traffic. The blog, in short, has digitized not only the writing, but the reader. Everything is now data moving about in a virtual world. Gone are the letters that arrive from readers by post, and in their place the instant feedback of comment and email. Spam filters and trolls and algorithm are part of the new vocabulary. Anything you write can “go viral” at any moment, for reasons you’ll never fully comprehend. For most of us, our readers are something of a mystery – nameless and faceless statistics, a cookie left behind, a random keyword-driven visit, a bounce, or the accidental and momentary landing of a cyberspace explorer.
I now understand why I’m uncomfortable being called a blogger. It has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with reading. Embedded as they are in a medium, readers change as the medium changes. The blog has rendered not just columns, but the readers of columns, obsolete. Books, newspapers and magazines are going away, but so too a species of reader. That’s all fine and good, you might say, because we now have blogs and blogging, and these are better. But the point is not about being better, it’s about being fettered. We become creatures of media: a reader of blogs, a writer of columns. Soon comes the tidal wave that sweeps away the medium, but for a time we who are embedded in it pretend that we ourselves are unchanged.
There will always, I hope and expect, be readers. And there will always be writers. Yet the moment the word blogging falls out of fashion, and they describe what you have long been doing by a new name, know that you will either change or disappear.