Blogging. What’s new?

UPDATE: I have greatly expanded on this post in this article written about a month later.
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Last night on Twitter I asked:

OK, who were the best bloggers and Twitterers from before the WWW, perhaps before the 20th century? Letter writers, pamphleteers, diarists – who of old would have been a Natural Born Blogger?

This is what people came up with in responses:

Samuel Pepys (yes, click on it, it’s a blog, also on Twitter)
George Orwell (yes, see his blog)
Darwin (here, on Twitter),
Aldous Huxley (on Twitter)
Richard_Owen (on Twitter)
Mark Twain
Oscar Wilde
James Boswell,
Nellie Bly
H.L.Mencken
Leonardo da Vinci
Ezra the Prophet
David Hume
Alexander von Humboldt,
Aldo Leopold,
Walt Whitman
Socrates,
Plato,
Aristotle
Galileo
St John
Michael Faraday
Nietzsche
Ben Franklin (That would practically be Boing Boing)
Jesus’ apostles
Maimonides
Confucious
Einstein and Freud wrote some interesting letters back and forth that were published at some point.
Virginia Woolf,
Samuel Johnson,
Emerson,
Graham Greene
Robert Scott,
Admunsen,
Joseph Banks
Anne Frank
Jane Austen
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël
Montaigne
Walter Cronkite
Joseph Priestley
H.P. Lovecraft (who wrote more correspondence + commentary than he did fiction)
Albert Camus,
all the great war correspondents were proto-bloggers,
Various diarists

Also all of these guys (watch the animation, play with parameters):

And read: What Bloggers Owe Montaigne.

Letters and diaries were meant to be public, shared, read, saved, then published (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook today….

Many wrote letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read).

I bet a lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets, right? With geolocation apps (RT @Cdarwin Just became mayor of HMS Beagle). And those are still very useful today.

Nothing new under the Sun. Apart from technology (software instead of writing/printing on paper), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image on the left) and number of people reached (potentially millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging is nothing new – this is how people have always communicated.

It is the broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – that is an exception in history, for just a few decades of the 20th century.

It took 150-250 years or so between the invention of printing press by Gutenberg until we get to the first examples of something similar to the 20th century system of communication. London Gazette of 1666 is usually thought to be the very first newspaper. First English-language scientific journal was the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665.

But until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course there were no radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper which, then, had to serve everyone, so had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers and thus advertising revenue.

All we are doing now is returning to (old but important link to revisit) a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, but using much more efficient ways of doing it. And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well.

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, look for additional sources.

But that is not new, either. The only thing that was really wrong is the way so many people unquestioningly accepted what 20th-century style broadcast media served them. Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition. In the 20th century we lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CNN.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted. With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception.

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10 responses to “Blogging. What’s new?

  1. Well said! I always thought there was never anything truly “new” in the new methods of communication other than the technology.

  2. Oh, and I second putting HL Menken on the list!

  3. Can I vote for Richard Feynman?

  4. Most of the entries in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary clock in at under 140 characters, and were originally tossed off as column filler for the various newspapers he edited. That alone would make him the most popular twitter feed of the 19th c.

    And, like Poe before him, Bierce tended to play with the reliability of published information, often walking a fine line between fiction, satire, and outright hoax in many of his works, as a deliberate challenge to the credulity of his readers.

    I once spent an enjoyable evening reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book reviews, which turned out to be much more like blog posts triggered by something he’d been reading rather than formal literary reviews.

    That said, the “world of letters” in the pre-web era was a much more privileged world than what we have now. The democratization of publishing and sharing ideas really is something new; even if we “elites” tend to be dismissive of YouTube comments and MySpace pages and the like, it’s still real communication of real ideas.

  5. Thank you, HP, I meant to add Poe myself.

    And I totally agree that today is much more democratic, and that is a Good Thing!

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  7. Interesting post. Especially the point that blogs may not be especially trustworthy, but neither can we assume that the mainstream media are.

    Of course some mainstream publications are very trustworthy and are trusted as a result. But they’re not trustworthy *because* they’re big, have lots of money and lots of readers. They’re trustworthy because they have a good track record. on the other hand you have junk publications which are often even bigger than the good ones, that are junk because they have a long history of printing junk.

    Very few bloggers have been around long enough to establish much of a track record. so in a sense it may be true that there are no bloggers who are as well established as the best newspapers or magazines. but there is no reason to doubt that some of them will be in a few years.

  8. Well, some bloggers have been around long enough and are good enough to garner such reputations. Think of TPM’s Josh Marshall, or Ed Yong who just got a big Award. Many bloggers on networks almost automatically gain reputation because a media organization gave them a stamp of approval. It won’t take long…

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