IN THE BEGINNING
were the words
I had a blog before you knew what one was.
I had two, in fact, before they even had a name -- back when they were still considered Web journals or online diaries, two years before Peter Merholz and Evan Williams introduced the word we know and can't quite escape today. The first, "Slap Shots," was a notes-style sports column; the second, "The Adam Bomb," offered "monthly narratives of three-year-old fallout," which was a too-clever-by-half way of describing my dispatches on the trials and tribulations and occasional, blessed epiphanies of loving and rearing a young son.
They each lasted about two years, read mostly by friends and family and a random few who, thanks to some ancient, long-archaic Yahoo! algorithm, stumbled upon one of the sites and decided to stay awhile.
I enjoyed the process and obsessed over the entries and found, as I always have, that word-processing all those doubts and hopes and fears and passions helped bring order to my mind and comfort to my senses. But soon came the demands of a promotion at work and a second son at home. Things changed. Opportunities waned. And so, with sadness for what I'd given up but certainty that I had done right, I stopped blogging.
It wouldn't be the last time.
FROM TEACHER TO WORDSMITH
you speak to the world
By the time I stopped, it seemed, almost everyone else had begun.
Blogs spread, proliferated and begat other blogs. Voices rose. Standards fell. And what began as a few impassioned murmurings from the far corners of the Web soon became one of the digital age's indispensable fashion accessories. You were, therefore you blogged; you blogged, therefore you were cool.
I was not cool. At least not yet.
Many of my former Carnegie Mellon students carved out their own little online niches. Some of my friends did the same -- all of them energized by the chance to write, speak, publish and pontificate on any subject of their choosing, without first winning the approval of an editor, publisher or some other arbiter of taste. It was, and still is, intoxicating: the idea that you can speak to the world, unfettered and unfiltered, and that, after a few clicks, a couple of keystrokes, and a reasonably reliable Internet connection, the world, or at least some small part of it, might even speak back.
The sense of power is palpable. Sense of perspective, not so much.
Those friends and former students urged me to start another blog. I resisted. In part from stubbornness and simple inertia, in part because much of what I'd seen and read in the burgeoning blogosphere told me I didn't belong and would not fit in. I didn't have any good dish. I didn't sleep around or drink to excess. I didn't have an ax to grind or a cause to push or, unless you count the defense of good thinking and writing. Plenty of academics and frustrated paralegals and former philosophy majors were already screeching about one thing or another. What could I add to the cacophony?
Two former students cajoled and persisted, arguing that I was a writer and a teacher of writing and so I should surely be blogging. They had a point. They also had a name: Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman. Before long, they'd charmed me into using it. And so, moved by the sheer force of their (good)wills and inspired by the challenge of trying to find something worth saying and saying it in a way worth something, I relented. But not before I made a few promises to myself.
That I would try to fill TWM with everything -- critical thought, emotional and intellectual honesty, lively and lyrical prose -- I thought a blog should contain. That I would avoid (most) self-indulgences and try to meet a standard that, personal notes and vulgarities aside, meant everything I posted would be major-paper, op-ed quality. That the craft and content would be as strong, polished, and compelling as I could possibly make them. That I would write every day. That I would make every word, subject, and syllable count.
And that the moment my head, heart, or soul were no longer bound to the writing, I would stop.
FROM WORDSMITH TO MADMAN
you surrender to the Philistines
I lasted for three years and 303 days, 1,856 posts, 637,194 unique visitors, six citations in Forum's "Cutting Edge" and three death wishes.
That's right. Death wishes. A trio of anonymous comment-thread posters on other blogs -- they couldn't muster courage of conviction enough to e-mail me directly -- took exception to my suggestion that Randy Pausch had been overcovered, that the merits of his lecture had been overstated, and that most people now loudly proclaiming to be inspired by him will, 10 years hence, struggle to remember his name. For these sins, which seem to me no more than the untimely utterance of the obvious, I was wished dead or dying. (Sample: "Perhaps I'm blinded by my ... hatred of Chad Hermann, but that ... is exactly how I picture him when I imagine him dying of stomach cancer.")
This was one of the signs that it was time for me to quit.
Not because I feared for my safety -- if the acuity of their writing were any reliable indicator, I could have handed them a loaded gun, cocked it, and still had nothing to worry about -- but because I wept for my syntax. For my diction. For my whole damned culture.
I spent almost four years trying to be smart and serious and rational. Detailed and thoughtful. Complex, lyrical and emotional. I aimed high, succeeded at times, failed as often as not, and tried always to strike a balance between. I was open and honest -- yes, sometimes painfully so -- never hiding myself or my opinions behind the convenient cover of anonymity. I disagreed with a lot of things and a lot of people, and I never shied from saying so. But neither did I shy from explaining, clarifying, or qualifying. I was critical of others but also of myself. I called 'em as I saw 'em argued 'em as I believed 'em, and, foolishly it turns out, trusted that anyone who took time to read would take time also to understand. Or at least to debate.
But in the last six months, as so many things I wrote left me in the long shadows of readers like the death-wish commenters and other angry, intemperate e-mailers, I failed to achieve that balance. My posts were now the province of people determined not to reason, but to insult. Not to discuss, but to demonize. My words and thoughts little more than cannon fodder for people who, uninterested in civil or spirited debate, were content instead to brand me a racist (because I criticized Barack Obama), or a pedant (because I often lamented the same, sad media excesses), or a sexist (because ... well, I don't know, but it makes me sound bad, doesn't it?), or a right-wing kook (because, again, I criticized Sen. Obama, and how could a true Democrat do that?), or a self-righteous expletive (because of all these things, I suppose, but mostly because I wrote with passion and argued with conviction and did not share their indelicate sensibilities).
I expected people to disagree with me and, when those disagreements came in the form of impassioned, respectful e-mail exchanges, always appreciated that they did. But as those responses gradually gave way to bunkered assaults, as my posts began to fuel not thought or reflection but the very sick, sad opposite of them, it became clear that the reach of my efforts had exceeded the grasp of readers willing and able to engage them. As my reputation grew, the caliber of my audience precipitously declined. And much of what I'd hoped to achieve with TWM no longer seemed possible.
Perhaps that was my fault. Perhaps not. Either way, I grew weary of the game and the genre and everything that went with them. Even as I remained confident that TWM still kept those early promises, I feared that its company with the kind of shrill, toxic, intolerant crusading that these days so often passes for blogging would diminish it by association. If certainly not by comparison.
One month ago today, after one more dismissive, disappointing response, my head, heart, and soul unbound. And so I shut down.
It was the right thing to do. Even as it felt, in some ways, like I'd surrendered to the Philistines.
FROM MADMAN TO MORTUARY
to bury, not to praise
And I suppose I may as well have. Because the Philistines are everywhere. And they're winning.
Want proof? Just look at a few local or national political blogs. If you have a strong stomach, dip into the comment threads. You'll see why I never allowed them on TWM. And you'll think you've stumbled into an Edward Albee play. Without the wit or the erudition.
You'll find broadsides and empty rhetoric, rank intolerance and vile vitriol, aimed at Barack Obama's race, at John McCain's age, at Joe Biden's hair, at Sarah Palin's -- in the delightful phrasing of one local blogger -- retarded kid. What you will not find are much nuance, subtlety or context. Even less courtesy. And almost no shame. In part because the technology that makes them possible -- everyone now a digital Gutenberg -- also makes possible a nasty new breed of commentators detached from interaction and accountability.
Blogs as we know them, or as some of us would like to know them -- a place for open, serious, long-form debate and discussion -- are dead, their promise and possibility undone by ignorance and indifference, by the numbing drone of single-minded partisan noise, by the sacrifice of truth on the altar of agitprop, by disdain for the complex in the era of the expedient.
Blogs have fallen victim to, and in many ways fueled, our foul and festering and decidedly uncivil discourse. They have been infected by the very ills -- illogic, hypocrisy, sound-bite snark and spin -- they might have cured.
This is the irony, and also the tragedy, of the blogosphere.
Most of its readers and almost as many of its writers don't want to think new thoughts or learn new things; they want to find new ways of believing and justifying the old ones. They embrace -- when they should resist -- fragmentation of media and perspective, of philosophy and ideology, that allows us to consume only news and opinion that we like, and to ignore or dismiss any we do not, so that we perceive reality only as it fits our long-held beliefs. This is the intellectual difference between looking out a window and looking into a mirror.
I wanted TWM to be a window. And I hoped the blogosphere would be a gleaming, gaping city of them. Turns out it's just a long, dark hall of mirrors, stretching out to infinity.
AT THE END
of days and blogs
In the last days of TWM, two of my most faithful readers were people who, early in the life of the blog, I'd taken to task for (what I judged to be) their suspect writing and/or rhetoric. I'd savaged both their works. They protested vehemently and were justifiably angry. But ultimately they came back. Kept their minds open. Did not agree with everything -- or, perhaps, much of anything -- but respected the opinions and the writing and often engaged them both. We traded e-mails. We gained mutual respect.
If I'd had more readers like them -- or even if I thought there were more readers like them out there, somewhere -- I might have kept blogging. I might have kept pecking away and tried to hold on long enough for the tone of the discourse and the tenor of the culture to rise back up to meet us.
Still, they give me hope. Hope that we can engage and disagree, be taken to task for our opinions, held accountable for them, and then made to defend them not for what we try to make them, but for what they really are. Hope that we can, in the blogs and the mainstream media and the daily flow of our intellectual lives, find ways to agree to disagree and then to agree that we really mean it. To turn away from the mirrors and look out a few windows and, every now and then, let in a little fresh air and rhetorical sunshine.
If that happens, perhaps I'll go back to blogging. Or perhaps not. Because if we really can get to that point, there won't be much left to lament.