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May 31, 2003

Why Blog? Mix Tapes and Manners

As a top-of-my-head number, I decided 95% of the blogs in the world die after their first week, or maybe month. A friend wrote to express his own uncertainty about the point of blogging, which prompted me to requestion why I bother. My answer: part manners, part mix tape. Read on for a lightly retouched replay of Why We Blog.

When you consider the pitiful proportion of the Web a blog occupies (according to Blogshares.com, PuddingTime commands about .000032% of the blogging world's attention, which is, in turn, probably less than 1% of the total "volume" of the Web), it isn't as public an act to blog as it first seems.

The Web has, by virtue of the cheapness of bandwidth and the ease with which almost anybody with access to a PC can publish, made content an almost frictionless product that will continue to expand with the population ad infinitum. A network engineer friend told me that the next version of the Internet naming/numbering system could allow us to have a unique identifying number for every molecule on the planet (friend Ed went on to point out that it's closer to one for very electron in the universe). It's impossible to call trivial little "my little dog" pages a waste of anything, because there's almost nothing, relative to the total volume of potential resources, to waste except for the blogger's and reader's time.

So what's left is the simple existential crisis that kills 95% of blogs in their first week: why bother? The Web is huge enough to already seem infinite, I'm one voice in that vast sea, no one seems to be reading, it feels weird to ask my friends to bookmark my musings when I could just send an e-mail, the Web is already cluttered with junk opinions, etc. etc.

My own desire to blog is partially built around my loathing of "cool link" e-mail. I hate getting it because I spend a ton of time on the Web and see a lot of it days before someone with less time gets around to it. I hate sending it because enough of my friends are blunt geeks who won't pass up the opportunity to say what I'm thinking about things they may have already seen. So, I put up a blog and people have to pull it down: it isn't wasting their time, like opening a mail they think might have something about the real world only to find me telling them that there's a rilly, rilly cool article they already read a week ago would be. And if they want to waste time, there are a ton of opportunities provided in chronological order, with archives by category and a search engine.

That's only half of the equation, though. There's also a self-expression component that I think is a cousin to the mix tape or a DJ, neither of which constitute completely original creative action. Weblogs become a sort of "know me by knowing my grazing habits" hyperlink mix tape... a collage of references that use the massive amounts of raw material provided by the Web to create a composite or mosaic of the person doing the compiling. Where lots of mix tapes are acts of brotherly love or desperate calls for bootie, many Web logs are substantially "cooler" in tone (witness memepool's fetishistic use of the oblique and laconic reference), but the intended result is the same: love my blog? Love me. Or at least recognize I have good taste in re-mediated content and spend mad time finding it, yo.

That second component is why we have things like trackback pinging, services like Technorati, and online games like Blogshares: as much as any rational person who's got even a tiny grip on the vastness of the Web must surely realize deep down that only her friends are reading, there's a curiosity about how our ideas, our virtual mosaic portraits, go over outside our peer groups. What if you made a killer mix tape for the most fantastic babe ever, and it came back to you a year later with a heavily photocopied version of the collage you made for the cover on a different brand of tape from the one you used from a wide-eyed friend who said his sister got it from a friend who's now married because her boyfriend used it on her after finding it in the glovebox of some guy from Florida? Or what if I just told you that I played it at a party and ended up having to make 12 copies, and it became the smash of that summer's party circuit? I'd guess you'd be proud, and I doubt you'd fret about the sudden appearance of yet another mix tape in the already overcrowded market of oblique bootie calls.

The added value of a blog over that mix tape is the way people can eventually draw a thin, silvery little strand of connectedness to your collage... a relationship that is like the Web itself, but with links that are merely presented as hyperlinks when what they really are is expressions of some sort of kinship. I post a snarky one-liner about Andrew Sullivan wetting his pants at the prospect of going to war with Iran, and Snappy the Clam notes it, too, saying he got it from me, and he sends along a ping to let me (and people reading PuddingTime!) know: it's a small act of community, a way for a stranger to say "over here! I'm with you on that one!" There's a little self-serving "look over here for more like this!" or sometimes "look over here for why this clown you're reading is fucked!" going on now and then, but it establishes a state of relatedness and a sense that our ideas have become part of another collage of self-identification.

Some people take it all a step further and go for the "amateur commentator" gusto, but if content is endlessly available, they'll either keep it up as they accrue readers/kindred spirits or they'll quit once they feel better and realize they didn't have an endless supply of opinion after all, and that no one cared anyhow. Pithy linking is my fallback for the malady of not having much to say: I made a terrible editor on one site because I had to have an editor's note once a week and I would spend Thursday night wide awake wondering what the hell there really was to say for Friday. I'm deliberately neglecting the professionals who are loss-leading with their blogs . . . they've got a different set of motivations from mine, and I wish the decent ones luck, but the "them" we're getting in those things isn't quite so much them as it is their perception of the version of "them" that's marketable to an editor looking for a new columnist. Except Andrew Sullivan: he can't hide what he is, and Salon seems to be happy to keep him around to prove it can still throw good money away in its lean post-boom years.

And at this point, our essay trails off except to note that we had about 6000 visits here this month. Don't know how many of those were from unique visitors, but the point is: people read what's on the page, they link to it now and then, and they find it useful on some level. It's pretty easy for me to do the simplest sort of linking, so why not keep it up? If I ever get sick of it, it'll be no big loss to just slap a "closed" sign at the top of the page and wait 20 years to act rueful about the pet rock I spent all my precious bandwidth on.

Posted by mph at May 31, 2003 03:29 AM


Unsure about the 95%... that may be wishful thinking. I wonder if I will think of my blog as a "pet rock" in 20 years. I've been keeping it for over two years and it is quite habit-forming.

Posted by: Illusionaire at June 2, 2003 06:43 AM

How many do you think do survive their first month? By survive I think I mean "more than a post a week."

I suspect in 20 years there'll be something more fantabulous than blogs, and I think the significance many have attached to blogging will be considered quaint, which won't keep the worst snake oil salesmen behind "the blogging movement" from declaring victory on some semantic grounds if they aren't running around singing the praises of mounting their brains in a special apparatus that projects their thoughts in 50-foot-tall pictograms in the air over their heads.

Or something.

Posted by: mph at June 2, 2003 07:35 AM