Monday, February 26, 2007

Why Blogging is Essential

Love him or hate him, the now legendary Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he famously surmised the heart of his entire argument regarding media in one five word phrase: the medium is the message. Some thirty years before the time of DVDs, iPods, the worldwide web, and digital technology, McLuhan rightfully predicted the path in which electronic media were headed, which in itself is fairly amazing. But, in a general sense, it's important to examine the relationships we share with these various media, since, as McLuhan understood it, media our extensions of ourselves. McLuhan had much to say about how various electronic media have emerged from print media, which shaped cultural consciousness in unfluencing the structure of thought and social institutions.

Strange as though it may seem, I am going somewhere with this. I could take this in any number of directions, but what interests me here and now and perhaps what is most relevant to my writing this blog entry is the medium of blogging itself. Andy Horbal recently wrote a couple interesting posts regarding blogging and film criticism that has compelled me to contribute my own thoughts to the discussion. And that right there, from my point of view at least, is what blogging is all about.

Many of us frequent the internet, be it for driving directions, telephone numbers, sports scores, celebrity gossip... you name it. Someone I know recently made the observation that if email were to crash - as if to vanish - society would crumble. Even those who don't use email as much would be greatly affected by such a catasrophe, and our communication habits would have to revert back to what they were like before email, before the internet. But this is practically impossible now. Our consciousness has been reshaped, re-calibrated. Internet technologies are now tools for understanding and working within the real world; and by real I mean the only reality that all people can on some level agree upon, that of social institutions (which I'd like to add are about as far from real as something can get, but that's another story).

With respect to blogging, I'll be honest about my relationship with the internet. Up until about a year and a half ago, the idea of blogging was totally beyond me. I didn't get it. I used email and had heard of Facebook (the college version of Myspace) and e-diaries, but the idea of a blog seemed kind of ludicrous to me. Since I love reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews, I frequented his site, rogerebert.com, and every now and then would catch a link to a blog called Scanners by the editor of Rogerebert.com, Jim Emerson, who I had never heard of. Nevertheless, I found his thoughts on cinema and its many elements interesting and stimulating. I kept thinking how nice it was to read commentaries on film and film criticism not within the context of popularized conventions of film reviews as perpetuated by newspapers and magazines. At that point, I had been reading many scholarly texts on criticism and cinema studies and was awed by the amazing gap between the that school of thought and mainstream media, i.e. journalistic film criticism. Which is why reading Scanners was such a great experience, because it represented a different area of the spectrum; it wasn't on one extreme or the other. Jim imbues his blog with a very scholarly, intellectual approach to film criticism, and much of his material is very demanding. But he accomplishes this using many conventions of journalistic writing, and to this day I find it fascinating and stimulating.

I was further stunned by the amount of discussion that he sparked; good, intelligent discussion. I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. For almost a year, I was content to merely read this discussion, and through his website I was able to link to other blogs I found interesting, notably No More Marriages! and The House Next Door. Then, one of my favorite writers on cinema, David Bordwell, began blogging. I know film blogs have been around for quite some time and that this world has existed long before I came into it, but so much seemed to be happening the more I was exposed to it. And like I've said before, I decided to throw myself into the discussion about two months ago. Though I have a long way to go in terms of learning about this community, it has been a great experience for me. Having some experience in both mainstream journalism and bureacratic world of scholarly publishing and reviewing, this new medium of film writing and discussion came at the perfect time for me, and I couldn't be happier about my decision to make a run at putting together a blog.

Getting back to my initial point about McLuhan, observing the practices and conventions of blogging, in particular film blogging, I have come to the conclusion, like many others, that the experience of blogging is both illuminating and frustrating. I say this because among those who aren't apart of blogging, "the blog" is an awful concept in many ways. I don't blame anyone for feeling this way. Just think about how many empty, useless blogs are out there. Like the internet as a whole, when it comes to blogging, you need to know where to look for find the worthwhile material, because it's buried under a sea of inconsequential nothingness.

And that is inherent to the internet. Any person with a computer can post his or her thoughts or feelings on something, which is kind of scary when you think about it. So, the frustrating thing about it is that by partaking in blogging, even in a productive way, it's hard not to wonder if I am contributing anything relevatory or intereting, or whether I'm as deluded as 98 percent of other bloggers thinking that my opinions are important, when in fact they're not really, at least in a public forum.

The world of publishing, especially in academic or journalistic film criticism, is so hard to break into that it's no wonder that there are so many wonderful bloggers out there. But the publishing world's greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness, and that is its checks and balances. Establishing oneself as a prominent figure in film criticism, no matter what the arena, is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Even getting an individual article published can be a dreadful and laborious process. Not everyone is cut out to do it. Writers for these media are under deadlines and sometimes must perform assignments that they would rather not do because they rely on it for a source of income. This is both good and bad. In an earlier post, I argued that the two factions within film criticism, the scholarly academic end and the mainstream journalistic end polarize each other so much that the content of both sides has become questionable in terms of its validity. Like anything else, there is good writing in both, but one needs to know how to get to it amongst all the mediocrity. That is where the blog can potentially fill a great void.

Writers can do things on their own terms. It's the complete and total opposite extreme of deadlines and the politics of gearing material towards the least common demoninator in terms of audience and playing to advertising. It has freed up film lovers to express whatever they would like with no limits. The problem is that since it's so accessible to so many, the door has been opened for anyone, even those without any kind of qualifications or background, those who just have something to say, to pollute the blogosphere, thus giving it a bad name.

Which brings up the issue of credibility. As much as we have progressed into acceptance of these new media - such as the internet - the norms of print media have dominated our comprehension and relationship with such media, thus essentially keeping the internet among other things in the realm of "not to be taken seriously." And as stated before, who's to blame anyone for thinking that? We have entered into an electronic age of immediacy. Investigation, understanding various perspectives, and forming intelligent arguments are becoming ever so rare even among print media, since it has been influenced by the mass popularity of these new media despite still holding some degree of control over the position of new media in society. One reliable fact about published work is that its very framework suggests that those who partake in it have great experience with a particular discipline and aren't merely spouting out opinions.

Nevertheless, there are so many intelligent, insightful, and downright brilliant blogs out there. It's a shame that they only get noticed by those within the blogging community. But I suppose the same can be said of academic literature. Here's where McLuhan comes back into the picture. Our understanding of media often determine their content. So, however long internet is to be held in the category of "not worth it," which in many ways is true, then useful material will rarely emerge from within it. Yet that's not entirely true, as these many film blogs have proved. In fact, blogs have surpassed journalistic criticism in many ways as a result of being free of the shackles of pandering to the least common denominator. This aspect is what makes blog writing so fresh. It's where those of us with an actual knowledge of a given area of sudy tend to flee, outside of academia of course. But since academia can be so hard to penetrate, blogging can represent and fulfill a great need for those fed up with the practices of journalistic criticism, which has largely become so homogenized that it's scary.

Yet here I am publishing this long analysis of blogging and new media, pretending to embody both academic and journalistic tropes yet probably making several typos in the process. This analysis is also subject to lacking a strong cohesive structure that the editing process in publishing can provide. Some of the larger blogs are in fact edited much like a newspaper or magazine, but in my case, I have my own editing skills to go on, which are fine. But no writer can be his or her own editor and be good at both jobs. It's good that articles and books have to go through the hands of so many people and endure a review process to determine whether the arguments are succinct or valid. Yet such process can become very political and bureaucratic, giving an advantage to blogging in the sense that people can truly write about something that means something to them. Blogging, then, is a direct response from people who refuse to take part in the bureacracy of mainstream media. But the issue is that since anyone can do and it is situated within the discourse and practices of the internet, blogging is subject to a lack of credibility, which is reflected in the typos, mistakes and lack of cohesion in some blog posts since there is no peer review or editorial process beyond one's own. A blogger can go back and change what he or she has written, correct typos, and change the overall content if he or she so desires. This is both good and bad. Writing for publication is more final, which is why writing goes through so much editing and restructuring; again, which itself is good and bad. But the internet is so expansive and polluted with nothingness that it's often hard to know where to find the worthwhile blogs; and ones that are worthwhile are usually prone to follow the empty practices of internet immediacy. So, how can blog reading or writing be in any way credible? How do we know that we're not all buying into our own fantasies that we're contributing to film discussion? It's tough to say, because blogging is in many ways so incredibly different than other forms of published writing. It certainly helps that scholarly writers like David Bordwell have jumped in, crossing over from academia into blogging, bridging the two. His website is one of the most innovative staples in film studies; it is so great to see him embracing all forms of presenting film discussion content.

Then you have the issue of readership. I have no idea who reads this blog of mine. I've been at it for two months. I've had a few responses to my posts, which I greatly appreciate, though I wish I had more. Many of my profile views are due to my own account when I'm trying to see how much it's been viewed no less. This all hits on an issue so important to all forms of writing, which is the idea of validity and self-importance. How can anything one person conveys through writing really contribute to anything, really? And is not blogging or academic publishing just another form of an individual getting off from seeing his or her own name in print? I love reading blogs and have come across so many great ideas, but I'm always thinking about how I can engage them and what I can do with them. In other words, writing itself is one big act of indulgence. While I think there's something to that, I don't think that attitude is the be-all, end-all of writing. The point I'd like to make is that it's certainly worthy of discussion when we debate about these forms of writing. That angle is not exclusive to any one area of writing; it's something that manifests itself in all forms of writing in some form or another.

There are some things these media have in common. But it continually amazes me that the content of such forms of writing are often decided based on how the medium itself is situated amongst other media and our relationships to them as readers/spectators and producers of that writing. I don't think I'll be able to answer any of the "big" questions about the validity of blogging or any other form of writing, suffice to say that as is true of most media, there is quality blog writing out there. We just need to rid ourselves of overly simplistic and blanket notions about entire media, be it blogging, print media, the internet, scholarly writing. Blogging, and the internet itself, represents a form of communication that exploits the weaknesses of print media while in its own weakness highlights their enduring qualities. I think there is room for writing in all of these media, even if the content is often controlled by those very media. It is a direct result of the immediacy that the internet creates, which is why there is so much variance between blogs in terms of how ideas and concepts are presented. The format of most blogs allows for writers to structure long, analytical pieces as well as short, quick thoughts as well as reference other blog posts, thus becoming a more direct for of dialogue, something that is just not possible in peer-reviewed jurnals. There are an infinite amount of ways to engaged a subject like film. The discussion that may result from it can get you reading other blogs and becoming aware of so much more that is out there. So in that sense blogging is absolutely essential.

Blogging is one big discussion. All of us have a common love of movies that manifests itself in the writing of posts like these, which other film lovers can read and enrich their own ideas and writing. It's a more hands-on approach to engaging cinema and cinema lovers. It strengths and weaknesses are built-in to the frameworks that structure the writing and presentation. The content of these varaious media for presenting film writing all have strengths and weaknesses, and we must constantly be juxtaposing them and measuring them against each other, because only through doing that can we encounter new ways of conceptualizing and structuring arguments and discussion of film. Even though the internet is a far less credible institution by and large than peer-reviewed journals and such, it most definitely capitalizes on the weakness on display in those media. There is no one ideal medium for evaluating film, especially since we are still learning about all of the time. But the unique element of blogging is that it allows that discussion to exist in a different way and to allow all of our capacities for learning to grow. This past year and a half in the blogging world (though only officially two months) has been a great experience for me, and I know it has for others. I have encountered new ideas and different perspectives, and that is what this is all about. That is why I do this. That is why I take the time to write these long, expansive posts. I'm sure not many people will read it; but I have something to say, for better or for worse, and I am proud to engage in a larger discussion of cinema that may some day garner to notice it deserves.

The medium may indeed be the message, and there is still much room for improvement within all these media. But it is so crucial to consider the strengths and weakness of all these vehicles of writing and how they allow us to understand ourselves and our perspectives.

3 comments:

jason sperb said...

Hi, Ted,

I really liked this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's a very comprehensive and intriguing look into the mind of someone just coming to terms with the reality of being a blogger.

I see a little of my own past here, but I had the (mis)fortune of a reverse experience. I started blogging, and then later became aware of the vast landscapes of film blogs out there already. Thus my first blog was misplaced and misstructured (ie, without any awareness of flows or audience).

The down side there is that I found myself quickly disillusioned with blogging because I didn't know why I was really writing, and I haven't quite gotten back to that level of blog production with the new blog that I am now a part of.

Re: readership. For only blogging two months, you have a lot of readership to get any comments at all. I suspect this is because you've situated yourself nicely within the film blogosphere. And, if you keep posting stuff like that Departed bit above, I suspect you'll get a solid, sustained response soon enough. Don't compare yourself to Andy or Girish.

The key, of course, is reciprocity, which you seem to have a handle on.

So, I wouldn't sweat having enough readers yet. Your blog is barely out of the womb. Don't get discouraged. I think you have a good thing here.

peace,
js

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks very much for your comments, Jason! Judging by your profile, I'd say that you have situated yourself quite nicely in cinema studies. I'm quite envious, actually. Your book on Kubrick looks fascinating, and your CV is already building upon itself. I will soon be faced with the decision of applying to doctoral programs in Communication and Culture, which you cite in your profile. But enough about that.

I think there is still so much more to be said about this subject, specifically regarding the details of each writing medium and how they dictate content, as well as representations of "blog writing" or "scholarly writing." I fully encourage writers of all kinds to stretch the tropes of their medium and, like David Bordwell, find ways of engaging different forms of writing and different audiences, and in turn, different approaches to cinema studies.

As frustrating as blogging can be with time restraints, seeing how I work full time and take graduate courses, and my voiced concerns, I really love doing this and would hope that it will someday grow up into a valuable discussion of communication and cinema studies from many angles. Responses like these keep me encouraged! Thanks again, Jason! I will definitely be looking into your work more.

johanna said...

It's always good to see someone hashing out his thoughts on blogging, particularly a 'newbie.' It takes some getting used to. I deleted my first four blogs out of sheer caprice. The Lone Revue was the fifth, and it stuck. I've often thought of myself as a toddler blogger even now, after more than two years of blogging...

Just think about how many empty, useless blogs are out there. Like the internet as a whole, when it comes to blogging, you need to know where to look for find the worthwhile material, because it's buried under a sea of inconsequential nothingness.

And that is inherent to the internet. Any person with a computer can post his or her thoughts or feelings on something, which is kind of scary when you think about it.


1.) I heard a really good interview with professor and Slate writer Tim Noah on NPR, talking about how we haven't gotten used to the nature of the web yet. The fact that his postman, Noah said, may be posted on Wikipedia doesn't preclude anyone's ability to look up the Earl of Sussex...(I can't remember the exact example he used, but you get the drift...) and so, no it's not buried... I've been discussing the merits of YouTube and the like as a means of promoting mini-budget films and the idea of reputation surfaced...you are correct in saying that the Internet has a poor reputation, but that is only a perception and learning howo to navigate the web and use your blog as a tool for that navigation (if you're really into it) is part of deconstructing that myth.

2.) Actually, talent is being picked up by people outside of the blogging community. I've had three offers this year alone (in addition to the review I wrote for M-80 Communications last year) to write reviews for a website. I had to turn them all down on ideological reasons, even though the last offer included free screenings and the possibility of pay in the near future...

I add this to spread the suggestion that writing and writing well can have it's benefits. Perhaps one of these days I will get an offer I like. In the meantime, I write.