Initial Commit

Stephen Ramsay

So, is blogging cool again?

I’m reminded of an old joke. A student asks a professor, “You know what’d be cool?” The professor replies, “Now, how would I know a thing like that?”

Not quite a diary (still less a “log”), but not quite a collection of formal essays … This sort of occasional writing is undoubtedly ancient, but for me, the ancestral daimon of blogging isn’t Marcus Aurelius, or Michel de Montaigne, or Samuel Pepys, but the irrepressible aesthete, poet, gossip, courtesan, and genius of Japanese literature Sei Shōnagon (清少納言, ca. 966–1017 or 1025), whose Pillow Book (枕草子) is undoubtedly among the great masterpieces of Heian-period blogging. In it, she discusses cats, fashion, unscrupulous priests (and their boring sermons), poetry, ennui, and, of course, politics. There is even something of the keyword list (or perhaps just Pinterest) in her famous lists of things agreeable and disagreeable:

Refined and elegant things—a girl’s over-robe of white on white over pale violet-grey. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries. 1

Very cool, if you ask me.

But it isn’t her delicate sensibilities that make Sei Shōnagon the patron saint of blogging (such sensibilities are in short supply these days). In fact, she claims—and one can always cast doubt on such matters, I suppose—that she never intended it to be made public and was embarrassed when it was. It’s rather the origin of the thing that resonates. It seems there was some paper left over from the writing of certain important historical records, and when the surplus was offered to the Empress Consort, Shōnagon (her lady-in-waiting) remarked that such would make an excellent “pillow” (private notebook). The Empress gifted it to her immediately.

And there you have it. “Extra,” uncompensated writing on surplus media left over from the task of doing Serious History. Is this not the essence of academic blogging?

One might object to this characterization in any number of ways. And, of course, blogging never really disappeared, even if respectable publications—eager to predict, as well as to move on to the Next Big Thing—were announcing the death of blogging back in 2009. It is amusing to read these earnest forecasts. Here’s CBS News back in the late aughties:

Blogging is in some ways the poster child for Web 2.0, which when you boil it down is an expression that signifies the Web’s evolution from a static publishing platform to a communications and collaboration medium. But blogging is now in serious decline, to be replaced by tools from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google.


[The head of marketing at EMC] thought that drop-off signified that something was amiss, but I think it’s exactly the opposite: the conversations occurring on blogs has moved to other, more collaborative venues—like discussions and groups. Because, let’s face it, blogs are a broadcast medium—not a place for discussion.

(You really must click through to the article in order to behold the greatest incipit in the history of digital authorship).

The Guardian—without, I’m sure, the slightest of self-interested motives—assured us in 2014 that “We shouldn’t mourn the loss of casual bloggers as its raised the overall production quality of the blogosphere.” A matter best left to professionals, it would seem. And the professials did, indeed, take over. There are plenty of people out there blogging about serious matters, but it’s hard to deny that many “blogs” these days are little more than a verbose form of click-bait for some product or service.

I have no strong ethical objection to the strip-tease paywalls of Medium or Substack, but both evolved from the crass idea that “casual blogging” is for suckers. Anyone spending serious time crafting a serious blog will (the theory went) eventually realize that it would be better, all things being equal, to be compensated in some way for one’s efforts. If your only goal is burnishing your personal brand through carefully construed acts of self fashioning, you’d be better off on some other kind of platform (with likes, and favorites, and retweets, and stars).

And anyway, blogging isn’t real publishing. Quibble with that if you like, but it is disingenuous to imagine that there is no difference between publishing books and articles with “respectable publishers” and offering self-published material for free. The latter comes dangerously close to “vanity publishing,” and that’s said with a sneer in my world.

But not in Sei Shōnagon’s (or, come to think of it, Marcus’s, Montaigne’s, or Pepys’s), because it was really the only way. For most of history, there were only copyists and (later) printers hoping for a cut. Publishing was born when speculators entered the scene willing to bear the loss if the product flopped (and ready to reap the lion’s share of the rewards if it succeeded). A publisher need not be (and these days, usually is not) a printer, and may not be a designer, a copy editor, an indexer, or a source of meaningful editorial advice, since all of this can be either omitted or outsourced. But a publisher cannot fail to be an underwriter. There’s nothing wrong with this, absent the usual objections to capitalism. It’s just quite a bit less punk than rolling a ’zine in your basement. Or blogging like it’s 1999.

Something about the Fall of Twitter, or the Great Twitter Migration, or the … well, no one is quite sure what it is or whether or not it is actually happening (never mind what to call it). But everyone with whom I regularly interact online is wondering if some old thing is reviving. What exactly that thing is is another thing no one is quite sure about, but the internet is old enough to have a good-old-days (however dimly and inaccurately recalled), and many are wondering if those days are returning.

So again, is blogging cool again?

If you mean occasional writing without any obvious commercial intent, then no. Or rather, yes: this has always been the coolest type of blogging, and a more vibrant return of it as a form would be good news indeed. But let us not be naive. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. Montaigne was a minor nobleman. Pepys managed to become President of the Royal Society and a Member of Parliament. Sei Shōnagon spent her whole life under the patronage of a monarch. Blogging—and, indeed, much of what we consider belletristic writing—has very often been the province of people who have the time and the resources to not worry about time and resources, and anyone who can afford to blog without it being part of a hustle is part of a very privileged class of people (a class which certainly includes tenured professors). And really, anyone who says they seek no attention with a blog is undoubtedly being a bit coy.

As I write this, a scandal is rocking the world of Medieval Studies (the second, by my count, in the space of a year). And at the center of it is, of all things, a blogger. He (Peter Kidd) describes himself as a “freelance researcher,” but before going it alone, “he worked successively for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Bodleian Library, and the British Library, where he was Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts.” His cv is a mile long and his expertise entirely beyond question. I doubt he needs to burnish his “brand.”

I’m as amused and horrified by ReceptioGate as anyone else, but after learning what “fragmentology” is, I found myself perusing the rest of his blog. There, one finds all manner of illuminating technical discussion of illumination, but mostly one discovers a man writing passionately and deeply—and since the time when blogs were almost new—about a scholarly subject for no apparent reason other than love of the game.

I once had a blog with a reasonably large following (at least for a humanist academic prone to pedantry on the subject of software engineering). I took it offline years ago for reasons wholly unrelated to whether it was cool or not, but recent events have made me wonder if it’s time to try it again. So, here we are.

I have commitments now that I either didn’t have the first time around or had only in some vaguer, more attenuated form. I am more alive to the ecological footprint of our computational systems; far less willing to trust Google, or GitHub, or Twitter, or any of the other tech behemoths with my (or anyone else’s) data; far more concerned with privacy and security (and far more knowledgeable about both); far more sensitive to accessibility—both its urgency and its challenges; and yet more acutely aware of the ways in which the future has been unevenly distributed.

For all that, though, I remain fundamentally wide-eyed about certain things. I still think computers are fascinating, miraculous devices. I still think building things with code is among the most intellectually ravishing things one can do with one’s mind. I still think the internet doesn’t have to be a dumpster fire by virtue of some causal necessity.

And I still think blogs are cool.

Incoming: blog

Keywords: blogging, Sei Shōnagon, publishing, internet

Last Modified: 2024-01-20T09:46:32:-0600

  1. From Meredith McKinney’s lovely 2006 translation for Penguin Classics.↩︎