The Internet’s Smug Pioneers

Year-rounders in a seaside resort who both need and mock the tourists and ooze alternative-weekly, grass-roots-loving piety. Well, yes; exactly. And that is a function of geography: The three capitals of Coffeehouse America are San Francisco and Seattle, not coincidentally the epicenters of the digital revolution, and Cambridge, where The Weblog Handbook and We’ve Got Blog were published. So, agreed: We don’t need to say much more about either of these books, which seem pretty deeply unnecessary, as you suggest. And so much less interesting than the phenomenon they aim to explain and exploit. It’s particularly odd, I think, given the subject, that there are no annotations for the 34 pieces reprinted in We’ve Got Blog. No distinct point of view, no thread tying them together, not even a named editor.

As much as I enjoy and even depend on several blogs (including yours), that incestuous, smug-but-needy, seaside-resort-full-timer sensibility is a besetting sin of the genre—as it always has been, indeed, of Internet pioneers as a species. Too many bloggers remind me of Dennis Millers manqué or the comic-book store owner on The Simpsons … combined, in the Rebecca Bloods of the world, with Mr. Van Driessen, Beavis and Butt-head’s hippie teacher. In other words, passionate and smart but also irritating and smug and faintly, inescapably sad. (andrewsullivan.com is not a bit sad, of course, although as salutary as ad hoc, post-publication fact-checking by bloggers may be, your harping on Howell Raines—e.g., eight mentions in the last week—and the New York Times does seem unnecessarily predictable and self-congratulatory.)

I agree with you that the great attraction of blogs for readers is the rawness and transparency: You really are out there on your own, for good and ill, tics and errors and all. In some cases I’m reminded of the shock, when I became a magazine editor, of seeing writers’ unedited copy for the first time.

But, as you say, because blogs tend to be intimate in a way first-person journalism seldom is, even bad or substantively boring blogs are revealing, which can be interesting (up to a point). At best it’s the pleasure of watching smart peoples’ brains at work in real time—the intellectual and rhetorical choices they make, the dots they connect, the obsessions they wittingly and unwittingly reveal.

I was prompted by your reference to Moby to go to his blog. His lack of capitalization annoys me, but the fact that he really does post every day, with a location specified (New York, New Mexico, Las Vegas, wherever), I find charming and winsome. It made me realize that winsomeness is a rarity in professional media and (see kausfiles, for instance) a true blog virtue (up to a point).

Since blogs are a new, more candid, rapid-fire form of the old-fashioned newspaper column—Walter Lippman crossed with Walter Winchell—and if successful columns have always been about a continuing, pseudo-personal “conversation” between columnist and reader, the touches of banal humanizing candor in blogs are delightful (up to a point). I derive some tiny but real pleasure in knowing, for instance, as a result of reading andrewsullivan.com, that you spent the last month in Provincetown attending Space Pussy concerts.

As modern as they are in their instantaneity, blogs, like e-mail, seem winningly old-fashioned to me. E-mail enabled the revival of an essentially dead epistolary tradition. And blogs remind me of nothing so much as the published diaries of the 19th-century New York patricians Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, whose daily diary entries consisted of frank, pithy commentary on trends and important news interwoven with vivid personal glimpses of metropolitan life.

I also agree that another good and possibly great thing about the genre are the venues it provides for fun-loving, mischief-making smart people who don’t fit into tidy ideological (or aesthetic) pigeonholes. Particularly at a time when Michael Moore and Ann Coulter purport to define the available ideological options.

As for Inside.com, it has rendered itself pathetically irrelevant, but it did not “go under.” It’s owned and operated by Primedia. (Lately, however, thinking about blogs, I have entertained a retrospective fantasy about a kind of endowed blog model that would have been interesting to try with Inside.com: If we had put the capital we raised into Treasury bills, we’d have had $1.5 million a year in income, with which we could’ve employed and published our best dozen reporter-commentators forever. By the way, format aside, wasn’t Jim Cramer, filing a dozen dispatches a day on TheStreet.com in 1996, really the first blogger?)

Am I jealous of you, Andrew? No, no, no, no. Like you, I don’t have to go to an office every day or suck up to venture capitalists—but unlike you, I don’t have to do this every day, either.