Mar 2, 2011
I’m trying to figure out why personal blogs, blogs about the boring and sometimes alarmingly intimate details of other people’s lives, are so interesting.
It’s sort of like a live version of an indie film where nothing happens but you get this delicious glimpse into what it’s like to be someone else. Books too are full of really mundane details; I see (personal) blogs the same way – like a chronicle of what it is to be human. That’s part of why it still hacks me off so much when people talk about the internet as a “dehumanizing” influence, something that distances us from ourselves, something that creates interaction that is “artificial”.
But the thing that really makes blogs so special is that there is no necessary or predictable ending. The story is ongoing, protracted. The characters encounter change at the same pace the reader does, because the characters exist in the same space as the reader. Sometimes their lives even overlap – figuratively (hey, this person is feeling what I’m feeling right now!) or literally (hey, this person knows friends of mine, or, hey, this person is a friend of mine!). It’s a more visceral approach to reading, in a way.
I know that literature is not ever only about the little things, but I do know that often what I’m attracted to are the details, not the plot twists. Last May I read one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. What I liked the most were the things that, on the surface, didn’t really mean anything, I mean, didn’t drive the plot forward – the fortune cookies that Tassie cracks open in a Chinese restaurant, the dress she starts to wear to impress a classmate. And as the book began to froth and buck in anticipation of its appallingly dramatic climax, I began to feel betrayed, as if I was being denied the opportunity to savor what really mattered.
I spend a lot of time thinking about why I read the blogs I do, the personal stuff: the blogs by people I know, or friends-of-friends, or friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends, and also the blogs by people I don’t know but that are written in a friendly style.
I find these more compelling than almost anything. Why do I care what someone I’ve never met wears every day, or what Heather Armstrong’s newly redecorated front room looks like? Superficially, I don’t. These things are basically meaningless to me; I have a hard enough time deciding what I should wear; I have my own family and my own life.
But as a voyeur, they mean everything. And isn’t this what the internet is all about – or, what I mean to say is, isn’t this what certain parts of the internet – Twitter, personal blogs, social networking – are all about? Being an observer of humans, a sort of online flâneur, strolling along the online equivalent of the Seine with the blogger’s equivalent of a tortoise, taking in the world?
So why do I care so much? I don’t care so much. At least, I don’t care any more than I care about bigger things (say, uprisings, elections, taxes, wars). And I don’t care any more than I care about my own small self, my own life. I just care differently. I care on the same level that I care about what Margaret Drabble’s fictional narrator thinks about her job or what she says to her newly married sister. I care because we are all human beings, because there are people out there like me (where “like me” can mean something as simple and generic as “from a similar background” or “also likes fart jokes”) who are documenting their own stories, in their own way, and this is fascinating.
Also I like the ongoing story, the succession of curated moments: which is precisely what a novel or a film is, a succession of curated moments strung together in some meaningful way. This is why I am also not opposed to the idea that we present different versions of ourselves online. Because the very act of curating a life means something. Why do we choose the things we choose to share? Why do we present ourselves in whatever way we do, through whatever medium we choose?
I saw something recently about Tumblr (which has been on my mind recently), about how David Karp set it up as “a reaction to other blogging tools” – as a sort of blogging platform for people who didn’t want to blog, in a conventional way (“I wanted something much more free-form, much less verbose,” he says).
A little later I read something by Mathew Ingram on GigaOM about how some people are saying “blogging is dead” (presumably in the same way that Camile Paglia proclaimed last September that sex is dead – that is to say, because it is a nice frame for cultural criticism because it sounds grand and means very little).
Ingram suggests that blogging isn’t dead, it’s just evolv(ed/ing). I suppose this is true; I suppose that the way we share things has changed, because we have more ways of sharing than ever before: we don’t just have blogs, we have different types of blogs – different ways to create and consume content – we have David Karp setting up a platform that allows you to simultaneously create and consume content, to curate in a totally new way.
“Personal publishing has arguably never been healthier” writes Ingram. Which is exactly right. Sometimes I worry about noise, about pollution, about all the beautiful phrases and ugly sentiments we are throwing into the ether. I worry about crowding, about waste, about how we can possibly ever sort “good” content from content that doesn’t necessarily need (or want!) an audience.
But then again to worry about this is to ignore the fundamental fact of “personal publishing”: that it is personal and it is publishing. I do not want to read everybody’s blog ever. I do not always want to know what you had for lunch or about the fight you had with your partner or about the fact that you are training for a marathon, but I find the fact that these things are there a great comfort. I don’t always care what people wear or how they decorate their rooms, but I care that I have the option to care.
So part of learning to live in a world where “personal publishing has arguably never been healthier” – part of learning to live in what I’ve seen called so often the “digital age” – is learning to accept, and to filter.
In a lot ways what I read online is relatively random – I saw something in this person’s blog that appealed to me and so I read it. But that’s also how I read offline. I pick up a book from the shelf and sometimes it is something that I will keep coming back to and sometimes it is something that gets buried under the piles I make by the side of the bed of things I think I want to read but really actually don’t want to read.
And also the thing is this: I get invested. Ultimately it’s all selfish. I get invested in the ongoing stories about other people’s ongoing lives mostly because I see something – even just a glimmer – of my own life in them: by which I don’t mean my own life specifically (at least, not always), but simply my own life as a person. I mean that I see some element of humanness that touches in me the urge to consume stories and to create them. I mean that I care deeply about something really banal in someone else’s life because I care deeply about the banal things in my own life. Because this is what it is to be human: to ultimately be boring, to eat and shit and say stupid things sometimes and have thoughts that go nowhere and thoughts that change everything, to get dressed in the morning and drunk in the evening. To love. I could read a hundred blogs about love.
Then there is the issue of how much is ever really shared on a blog. In a New York Times profile of Heather Armstrong (of Dooce fame), Lisa Belkin comes to the conclusion that Armstrong “will tell readers something is going on . . . but not what. She will let strangers feel as if they know what she is going through . . . but not completely.”
Belkin goes on to quote Armstrong’s husband:
“This is where Heather has become a master,’ Jon told me earlier when I asked him whether a blog like Heather’s was sustainable as children grow up and families tire of the magnifying lens. ‘She has the ability to take a single episode and turn it into an epic, and then, if you go word by word and ask, ‘What did she reveal?’ it’s really not very much. David Sedaris once said that his stories are ‘true enough.’ Blogs, the ones that last, are also ‘true enough.’”
So yes, this is true: we don’t know the people whose lives we examine. We don’t even know as much about their lives as we think we do. But true enough is also good enough. True enough leaves enough room for the necessary interpretation. In other words, we help build the narrative. We take the glimmers of information and hope that we absorb from other people’s blogs and make them mean something.
This would be harder if everything was true, everything exposed. If everything was exposed it would be easier to feel different than to feel similar, easier to feel alienated. In politics we’re always selectively building narratives – it’s what candidates run on, an idea – a value, maybe – that becomes a story that everyone can be invested in. The reason it works is because a good narrative is felt by many. A good narrative is inclusive, not necessarily specific.
Something else in the New York Times piece, too, stands out. Belkin writes that,
The month Leta Armstrong was born, Technorati estimated that there were two million blogs on the Internet, a number that was doubling every five months. Of those, Armstrong’s was one of the few — one of the earliest — successful personal narratives…It was the start of an explosion, a meeting of 18th-century journaling, 19th-century magazine serials and the intimate universality of cyberspace. Click almost anywhere on the Internet on any random day and you will find yourself in the middle of someone’s story…Having a tale to tell is only the first step, of course.
So having a tale to tell is the first step. But is it? What does that mean? What is a “tale”, when it’s all ongoing anyway?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself in a different context for several years now. I’ve been trying to write this book, you see, and the thing that’s always stopping me, even when I get halfway through, or, once nearly all the way through! writing it, is what I call “structure” – how do I frame it? How do I organise it? But what I really mean when I say I don’t know how to structure it (I see now) is this: I don’t know where to draw the invisible lines into which the story fits.
I’m not very good at this, because I’m a blogger, and because I’m a person who consumes stories in this ongoing format so frequently. I read blogs more often than I read books: it’s a fact. Not because my enjoyment of books is in any way diminished by my enjoyment of blogs, but because the blog is easier, requires less of me. I only have to feel what one piece of the story makes me feel; I don’t need to worry about the implications of the next piece of story yet, because the next piece hasn’t been written (because of course the next piece hasn’t been lived).
So I’ve been trying to write this book for so long without realising that I have the power to decide where to end it (and where to start it). Because I am just so used to story imitating life – to story being told at the same speed as life, I should say.
So how do I choose that moment? How do I decide, “this is where I want to stop telling this particular story”, when I’m still living it and still writing it?
I guess the thing is that I just do decide. Because if I don’t I will never tell the story at all; and because this is all part of the process of curation and creation.