Friday, June 6, 2008

The State of the Blog 2008

The Management

Last year in the annual summary, we reported on a steady rise in the volume of traffic at Our Word. That trend has not markedly continued this year; partly, perhaps, because we’ve cut back on our commentary on other blogs. In order to drive traffic you really need to make yourself visible, and that’s something we haven’t done a lot of in the last year. Maybe it’s because we spend so much time trying to figure out what to write on our own site, we don’t have time to share anything with others. However, it also has to do with the nature of the blogosphere itself.

Why blog?

It’s a simple enough question, one our colleague Terry has asked in many different ways. It would seem as if there are at least as many different answers as there are questions. But as we survey The State of the Blog for 2008, it becomes an issue worth discussing.

For our friends and fellow bloggers, we need to note that if your site is listed on our sidebar, we’re not talking about you, so we don’t want you to think that this is aimed at you. Frankly, as Terry has pointed out, there has to be a degree of ego, of self-absorption, of publicity seeking (if you will) in all of us, or else we wouldn’t think that any of our thoughts were worth the time of day. However, in surveying the blogosphere and our part in it, it helps to look back at what’s out there, and where we fit in. And this is the state of this blog as we see it.

Now, there are blogs out there that seem to detail every single aspect of the writer’s life, no matter how significant it may be. Think of it as the “Dear Diary” approach, the idea that somewhere out there is bound to be someone sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear the latest activities of the writer’s life. In previous days one might have kept these thoughts private, or at least confined them to a real diary, lock and all, but this is the 21st century, and why pass up an opportunity to share your life with everyone? We’re all entitled to our fifteen minutes of fame, after all. The best struggle to rise above the level of self-centeredness, and the worst are just plain boring.

Then there’s what you might call the “True Confessions” mode, in which not only the most insignificant but the most intimate details of the writer’s thoughts are bared for all and sundry to read. Someone from the old school might be uncomfortable about divulging such personal details to perfect (or imperfect) strangers, but, in the world of Oprah and Dr. Phil and The View, nothing is apparently too private anymore. There’s probably some Freudian principal of repression at work in it all, the thought that nothing is best left unsaid. A couple of years ago a formerly Catholic blogger discussed at length his conversion to the Orthodox church, and it was just painful to read. The temptation is to shout, “Don’t you understand? This isn’t any of our business! Don’t play it out in public!” But nowadays we do air our personal laundry in public, and then we wonder why the resulting conversations become so personal. It’s bad enough when someone invades your own private space; it’s even worse when one gets rid of their private space as well.

Running through many of these blogs is the attitude of the “Know-It-All,” the one who feels compelled to give his or her own opinion on whatever it is that’s going on out there, often making their pronouncements with a gravity that suggests some special storehouse of knowledge. You think to yourself, “Why do I care what this person thinks?” And they seem to think it’s their responsibility to comment on everything. It’s bad enough when professional pundits do this; when amateurs do it, it can set your teeth on edge. I think all of us at Our Word are sensitive to this tendency ourselves; many times I ask whether or not my writing has anything constructive or enlightening to contribute to the discussion; if, in fact, it’s something that’s even worth writing about. More often than not, if the answers are no, the piece goes on the spike – or in the trash bin, if you prefer.

In particular, there’s a blogger out there that did as much as anyone to drive us out of the Catholic blogosphere. His site proudly proclaims that “No Thought of Mine, No Matter How Stupid, Should Ever Go Unpublished Again!” and then goes on to prove it. This isn’t meant to be a harsh assessment, but in reading his site one literally comes to the conclusion that every single thing running through his mind winds up appearing on his blog. Not only that, but his opinions are often expressed in so pugnacious a manner as to turn off anyone who might be seeking an honest dialog on an issue of disagreement. No doubt this writer has enlightened many to the wisdom of Catholicism, but at the same time how many people have been turned off by his attitude and incivility, which often devolves into name-calling? People like that, one suspects, aren’t really looking for an honest discussion; they’re really only interested in putting down the other guy. You couldn't look for a better description of this trait than the one from Michael Crichton, quoted by Mollie at Get Religion:

I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It’s truly anti-American.

In fact, encountering that kind of intransigence usually serves only to stiffen the opposition of those with an opposing viewpoint. Many of us share this particular Catholic blogger's reservations about the war, about the moral fiber of America, about the two political parties; but after reading him you’re tempted to come out in violent opposition to just about anything he says, purely out of spite. That’s not a good reaction for anyone to have, but you have to think he deserves at least a share of the blame for going out of his way to provoke that kind of reaction.

So where does this leave us? Our rule of thumb is if you’d be uncomfortable seeing your material appear in a nationally syndicated newspaper column, you’re probably better off forgetting about it. That’s why we shy away from the diary approach, why we leave confessions to the church confessional. We’re not averse to expressing our opinions when we have them, but we try to do it in such a way that invites civil, intelligent discussion. Frankly, it’s often a lot more fun to have a stimulating argument with someone with whom you disagree, as long as there’s mutual respect and enjoyment involved. Life’s too short, and words too precious, to waste them on preaching to the choir.

So as we enter another year at Our Word, we’ll continue to try to provide our readers with pieces we think are interesting, entertaining, or informative. Hopefully, on occasion we’ll accomplish all three. But our goal, as always, is to strive for a high level of literacy and professionalism, to write with an originality and intelligence worthy of our readers, and to display a flair and panache while doing so. Most of all, we hope to do it while maintaining a sense of dignity and civility, as a means of showing your our respect.

* * * * *

Having said all that, we’ll now ask your indulgence to allow us a personal note. As of this weekend, Mitchell will be taking the summer off from the blog in order to work on another writing project. That doesn’t mean he’s going to completely disappear, as there are some things out there so outrageous, only he can write them. But you’ll be reading him much less frequently for the next few months. (Please, hold your applause until the end.)

In his stead, Kristin has agreed to assume the role of Principal Contributing Editor, so you’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the following months. Judie will act as Principal Managing Editor, so have no fears that Our Word will grind to a halt – nothing else will change. And over the course of the summer, you may even encounter some special contributors from time to time. Stay tuned!

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