Back in the Game

So Jonathan and I are back, after a 3-year hiatus. The old posts have migrated to this new WordPress site, which looks a fair bit like the old one. In the years elapsed since the old Dial M went dark, the internet media landscape changed thoroughly and with inconceivable speed. Blogging, which was a “somewhat new medium” when Jonathan and I started doing it in 2006, is now rather old-fashioned. The idea of reviving Dial M came about not because I wanted to be on the cutting edge of new-media humanities (which was one reason to do it in the early 2000s), but because I wanted a place to write, and Twitter, whatever its other virtues, is not that place. There are, I think, still some virtues in the blog medium as a space for writing.

At some point during the blog hiatus I wrote a message on blogging to the listserve of the American Musicological Society: 

A few years ago I was teaching a doctoral seminar in which I required students to write posts on a class blog. About half the students liked this work, and the other half did not. Those who didn’t had an interesting objection, which might also be in the minds of many AMS members who want to communicate with a wider public but not through a blog-like medium. My students were working through some long and difficult readings for each week, and I had insisted that they had to post as they read, because otherwise there would be an avalanche of blog posts on Monday night (the seminar met on Tuesdays) and no-one would have a chance to respond to (or even read) what anyone else wrote. Since conversational back-and-forth is the essence of the medium, or at least was what I wanted to cultivate, I had to ask people to write stuff as they were still in the midst of forming their ideas. As I say, some people liked this: they especially liked being freed from the choking feeling that every idea they came up with had to be perfectly polished before they could let it out the door. From this point of view, there is something exciting about thinking and writing caught on the wing; for some, it was liberating to discover that an idea could develop in the give-and-take of a public forum rather than being locked up in one’s own skull. But the other half disliked the experience for the same reason — it felt to them as if they were being forced to come up with half-baked stuff, when what they really wanted was to go away for a while, work quietly and patiently on a problem, and present their thoughts when they were settled. From this point of view, blogging encourages superficiality and immaturity, and works against the values of scholarship we strive to cultivate — being painstakingly clear, careful, thoughtful, and responsible. It may sound strange coming from someone who used to blog a lot and wrote his fair share of wide-eyed encomia to the medium, but I have a lot of sympathy with the latter view. I blogged because I did value the fluidity and intersubjectivity of the kind of public writing and thinking that “Web 2.0” encouraged, but I confess that I’m now a bit tired of it and see its limitations a bit more clearly than I used to. Who knows, I’ll probably change my mind again later. 

And here I am, changing my mind and blogging again, because even if, by comparison with the medium of the book, the blog medium seems to reward short attention spans, the subsequent dominion of Twitter, Facebook, etc. has revealed the blog to be a medium that at least demands some kind of attention — enough to work through 800-1000 words of a sustained idea. I’ve been reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock (a great book, BTW) and have been thinking about his idea that different media of written communication each stand in a particular relationship to time. We could think of books, print essays, blogs, and Twitter as standing along a continuum of timescales. The book lies at one end of this continuum. A book stores a lot of time: the time it took its author to think it all out and write it, the time in which it is calculated to make an impact (at their most ambitious, academic writers are aiming at influence over a span of decades), and the time in which it is relevant. A print essay still inhabits a leisurely scale of time — an academic author will still aim at making a lasting contribution (ideally, though let’s be real here, s/he might also just be trying to score a publication, especially if s/he is on the tenure clock). But the turnaround time on essays is shorter than books, and their shelf-life is shorter as well.

Blog posts inhabit a much shorter time-scale. They take less time to write, and indeed the medium exerts a certain pull on its author to finish up and publish NOW. They are relevant for much shorter times — I would be surprised if anyone is reading or getting much out of my old Dial M posts — and it is on this point of our continuum that we find written media that prioritize what Rushkoff calls “flow” over “storage.” The analogy here is to different types of computer memory: RAM memory, which is used for running tasks, and hard drive memory, which is used to store all your stuff. They are different kinds of memory, and Rushkoff’s argument is that we are using task-running, short-term memory to do the work of storage, and it’s screwing us up. (Rushkoff calls this “overwinding.”) But to get back to our continuum, blogs may be flow-oriented, but at least they have some relationship to “storage” memory. They can be assimilated to the longer timescales of the article and book. Indeed, some of the things I wrote in the old Dial M made it into my book. But Twitter is almost pure flow. Any given tweet matters only in the moment it appears. By comparison to Twitter, the blog winds up much more time. 

So I have spent the three years since retiring Dial M finishing a book, which is called Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. In that time I was focused exclusively on this very long-term, timebound project. (It has taken me about 10 years to complete it.) I did not miss blogging; working on a shorter timescale was irrelevant to the writing work I was doing. Now that the book is done and soon to be released, I have a different outlook on shorter-term writing. (Or at least I do right now.) Thus the relaunch of Dial M, not much changed from its 2006-era form, still with the minimal layout and corny phone-dial banner and the same two guys writing about (probably) the same kind of stuff. I don’t know if anyone is going to read it, but I am looking forward to writing it. Getting back in the game, like Jack Lalanne.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Back in the Game

  1. jonathanbellman says:

    Talking about writing, are we? That’ll be my first real one, too—tomorrow.

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I’m sorry to say that you guys are stuck with me.

  3. Sara Haefeli says:

    I have an article coming out this fall in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy about blogging in the classroom. I argue that writing is a discovery process. Blogging is a way to *think* just as much as it is a way to write.

    So glad you two are back. You have been missed!

  4. Welcome back–to Phil and Jon and also, I see, some loyal readers from a few years ago! Count me in! I’ve missed the blog.

    Thanks, Phil, for summarizing some points from the book about how diff. kinds of writing relate to time (time put into thinking and time, but also shelf-life). Reminds me of some things I’ve been reading in a wonderful book about introversion vs. extroversion: Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Both kinds of people–or both kinds of _behaviors_–have their contributions to make. I’m glad that blog, a middle space between the long-meditated and the spontaneously eruptive, is still with us as a medium.

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