Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why we blog; why I won't Tweet

"The blogosphere. When it's good, it is very good; when it's bad, which is often, it is quite horrid, a culture of grudge, a place for malcontents to broadcast their resentments and fleetingly fantasize potency." So bellows, in Longfellow-ish fashion, Leonard Fein in the March 27, 2009 issue of the Forward. On Jewish Standard Time, it arrives in our mail, three weeks late!

Over in Arts & Culture, the rhetoric's less heated about this medium we share. Liel Leibovitz in "Communication Breakdown" appears to start a regular feature, "Dispatches from the Virtual World." The tagline below credits him with an entire book on the WWII song "Lili Marlene," and informs us that "[h]e has a doctorate in video games. Seriously." Sounds perfect for the kind of student body my employer aims to create.

He opens by imagining Moses on the Mount, whipping out iPhone and tapping out Twitters that the Israelites below follow, while the Lord's favored one then snaps a photo to post to his Tumblr account, to memorialize a moment for bloggers to blather about. He then shifts into a lament. This move to briefer bits of bytes portends for the People of the Book a shift towards dumbing down further our literacy.

Dr. Leibovitz relates the evolution of the term "blog." I knew its derivation from "web log," but never gave it any thought. Turns out that around '97 it emanated from the fertile mind of none other than Jorn Barger, whom any Joycean will know from his pioneering conglomeration of massive amounts of data, most of it not even Joyce-related-- which tells you how much he amassed-- at his gigantic portal Robot Wisdom. He's a pioneer, from his first programmable computer bought as a child of about eleven in 1964, through Usenet, the Web, blogging, and Twitter. He invented the term "we blog"~"web log" from his love for modernist lit and AI, apparently.

The RW site has been on and off over this decade, and when I mentioned him a few years ago to the Joycean I know, she grimaced. Apparently he went off the deep end, and has been sighted around New Mexico and Arkansas, frequenting public libraries. He looks exactly like you'd imagine. For all his reported idiosyncracies, he did any Joycean and doubtless all us bloggers an enormous service in exploring what's out there in cyber- and literal spaces. You can find out more about him, his Joycean and Web-based forays, and, as Leibovitz alerted me to, an aspect that I never knew, his anti-semitism. Here's more: "Jorn Barger: Wikipedia"

Do such diligent thinkers-- setting aside his views on Jewish power-- as Barger deserve acclaim for the path they blazed for blogging and Twittering? Leibovitz sums up the shift from the first to the second medium:
"As developments occur at a breakneck pace, there is little need to try and place things on a timeline. What you do have to know is this: At some point, probably early in 2007, writing blog posts — averaging, usually, around 300 to 500 words — began to seem like an imposition. Even blogs, after all, demanded a modicum of respect for the English language and a few minutes to form a coherent thought. What was needed now was a “quick and dirty stream of consciousness” containing only “the barest whiff of a finished published work… really just a way to quickly publish the ‘stuff’ that you run across every day on the Web.”

As is apparent, I don't mind blogging even if it's about as popular as St. Francis preaching to Brother Wolf among the otherwise occupied populace. At least he did some good in taming the vulpine municipal menace. It keeps me in shape writing, typing, and thinking. I see it as a discipline, a mental workout that others can participate in, whereas if I read a book, it's me and the page, silently communing. By publishing myself, I keep my self aware of the possibility a reader may wander in from anywhere, and find a kindred spirit with whom to commune. I've met wonderful friends this way, here.

Blogging also thrives on not only our own musings, but combining those with others, as a commonplace book once did for previous generations, or a diary, or a letter sent to one treasured correspondent. Now, this epistolary drive can be accelerated and deepened by aggregating. Barger and Leibovitz for once may agree. Blogging fills my need for (sometimes, me being me) "pithy dispatches that linked to other people's work, often accompanied by a bit of sharp opinion or value judgment. A Web site, in other words, should resemble not a book, but a personal journal or a log," Leibovitz explains.

This move from blogging at length to "microblogging" does show a diminished attention span, and this concerns Leibovitz. Warning of the risk in commenting on commentary divorced from the original source, he contrasts modern social networking's missives with those that returned to the Torah, not only trapped in tackling the Talmud's thoughts on Tanakh. "Without being unduly alarmist, one can say the Internet may be killing off the Jewish mind." We need grouding in the fundamental text, not merely its twitters and tumblrs.

He admits that blogs overwhelm with democratic variety and reductive minutiae, and certainly from my daily visits to my FB page, I agree with the fun of acing an "What's Your L.A. I.Q?" quiz and the disgust in abandoning its counterpart "Where Should You Live in L.A.?" My age, income, mindset, and occupation apparently left me unable to join the FB coffeehouse, Blackberried, trustafarian, transplant demographic it solely addresses. The space on FB for my blog is relegated to a snippet of their first few words posted as a "Note" and filed therein, but I have yet to notice an enormous leap in readership for my broadcast resentments and imagined potency!

My peers, on the other hand, who garner more of an audience for their culture of grudge may do well to diversify their transmissions. I noticed that my fellow Angeleno, the restive blogger who leads "Liberal Rapture" (a site my wife and practically everyone she knows would find scarifying) joined Twitter this Easter, and he reflects: "my young computer friend tells me it is the future of blogging.... a proposition I find horrifying.... like saying Chicken Mcnuggets is the future of food." As he, despite a knack for vitriol against certain powers that be that makes mine look like Pollyanna or MSNBC, is nearly my age, I wonder what drives those of us settled into older media to migrate to newer ones? I gave up on the Stumble Upon add-on to Firefox, but I did join Facebook last month. Still, not being a cellphone zombie, much to my spouse's blogged-about and nagged-over disdain, I doubt if Twitter will be my conduit of expression. I quote Alexander Theroux, that like-minded misanthrope: "Birdsong is squabble."

I close with two thoughts on Barger. One: his "Inverse Law of Usenet Bandwidth." The more interesting your life gets, the less you post on your blog. Enough said!

Two: He bought his first computer from an ad in "Scientific American." Today, deep in research, I am leaving early to find its March 1992 issue on microfiche. Neither Caltech, LAPL, or Pasadena's libraries carry any bound past numbers anymore. Technology's archival reach does have its limits, and knowledge for a few of us oldsters lurks on other shelves beyond a button's push or a mouse's pull.

For how long will such data as back issues of SA remain there, who knows? The library at the institution where I teach must downsize from 18,000 to 3,000 volumes; our librarian is encouraged by our bosses to buy e-book readers for the students, if any will still patronize the tiny room (six carrels!) the library will claim, instead. We are meeting their digital demands, we respond to the way they learn, so we are told, and so the shelves diminish and the stacks compress, as if all can be retrieved where you and I here communicate. Leibovitz and Barger may disagree on Talmud, but they would both remind us that true learning lives far from screens, often. I bet both of these digital-savvy scholars can be found in a public library! I presume not only using its computers.

Image: It was this or a photo of Jorn. "When She Was Bad," William Ard. Great "Killer Covers" site at "The Rap Sheet" of vintage crime pulp paperback art.



I do not think you could twitter if you tried. Limit yourself to 140 characters at a time? Not a chance!! :-)

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of Jorn Barger. I must say he begins to remind me more of Lucia Joyce than of James. Rodger Cunningham