Thoughts on writing the 600th Dial M post

According to the WordPress dashboard, this is the 600th Dial M post. Actually, I think we passed that point awhile ago: when I was migrating the old Typepad site to WordPress I took advantage of the opportunity to delete a few of my old posts that seemed too ephemeral, fatuous, or mean-spirited to be worth keeping around. I should also mention that, in the migration, I deleted the old Typepad site, which turned out to be a mistake. It broke every internal link, stripped all the pictures from our posts, and most irritatingly someone immediately bought the old Dial M domain and put up a site for “princess cut engagement rings.” This summer, my graduate assistant Alex is rebuilding the old posts and putting everything back in order, so I’m happy about that. It means that there will be a proper public archive of what is, by now, a pretty large body of work. When I went up for tenure I had my GA count up all the words I had written for the site between 2006 and 2010, so I could give the Promotion and Tenure Committee some quantified measure of all the work I had put in on Dial M. It came to 189000 words — about the equivalent of two books. (And remember, that doesn’t count what Jonathan wrote.) Now, a page of blogging does not equal a page of published scholarship. I didn’t really write the equivalent of two books, or even one. But Jonathan and I have done something, and I still don’t know exactly what that something is.*

To be sure, I have written about blogging often enough in the past. But reading back at those nature-of-the-medium posts I find that, in this matter as in almost all others, I no longer really agree with anything I once thought. Over the years I have found a variety of ways to argue that blogging is (or will be) a big deal for scholars. But it isn’t, and at this point I don’t think it will be. To be sure, people will continue to write various kind of things and publish them on their personal websites, but the idea that there is a “blogosphere” within which a characteristic kind of writing and intellectual engagement can be cultivated — that ship has sailed.

But that’s not to say that such a thing never existed. I think it did, to some degree, in the years of our first Dial M stint (2006-2010). Back then, what excited me about the medium itself (as opposed to any particular bit of content we or anyone else generated for it) was the feeling that this was an autonomous intellectual/creative sphere where people could write whatever they pleased without having to satisfy any institutional gatekeepers or participate in someone else’s business plan. The 90/10 chaff-to-wheat ratio unavoidable in all human endeavors would remain in effect, but the good stuff could generate its own conversations and its own audience, and we wouldn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do it. The authority to bestow attention on any given conversation was distributed throughout the network of interlinked blogs — that blogosphere you heard so much about in those days. Writing would beget writing. No-one was getting paid, but we were creating, and that was what mattered.

That was the idea, anyway. And again, that really did sort of happen, at least for a while. There was a lot of writing being done in those days and a lot of blogs launched, some borne along for a good many years by their high-minded ambitions. Yes, yes, most blogs were and are crap. But when the medium was generating its own heat, there was energy behind a certain kind of writing, located somewhere between epistolic and essayistic registers, that at its best was exciting and vital.

Perhaps the zeitgeist has moved on from blogging to podcasts. I know I listen to a lot more podcasts these days than I read blogs, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. But last year my old friend Ken Woods put his finger on what I think is the real cause for the change, which is social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. Do read his post on it. I’m having a hard time refraining from just quoting the whole thing here. But this, for me, is the crux:

… this shift of power is, really, all about power. Blogging used to be primarily fed by a decentralized system of mutual support among individual bloggers (even a site like Blognoggle was basically a blog) and readers. Blogging platforms gave individuals not only the power to publish to a world-wide audience (a truly historical breakthrough), but to decide which other writers to support.  It was a highly democratic and completely decentralized system.

Facebook is neither. Every post that goes up on Facebook is there because Facebook is looking to make money or gather information from it.  Running a blog in 2008 meant that when I published a popular new post, it wasn’t just bringing in new readers who might take an interest in me, it was also increasing the value of  the blogs of fellow bloggers on my blogroll. More readers for Ken meant more readers for Pliable. More readers for Alex Ross meant more readers for Jessica Duchen or Jeremy Denk.

Now, more readers for Ken means more profit and more power for Facebook. More readers for Pliable means more profit and more power for Facebook. I’d say well over 55% of my readership comes here from FB, especially for the most popular posts, the ones that really take off. Almost all of the remainder come from Twitter or Google searches.  Almost every reader for almost everything I write is making money for or enhancing the power of one of those three companies. 

I got into a Twitter beef with a couple of musicologist friends** in which I vented my spleen about this — my resentment at having to bend the knee to companies that perform psychological experiments on us and sell us out to government and corporate surveillance. I know I wouldn’t be on Twitter if I weren’t still writing for Dial M, but at the end of the day I really do want people to read my stuff, and as Ken points out, all the old ways people had of following blogs are basically gone. It’s social media or nothing. And that pisses me off, because I remember what it was like before.

The dominance of social media means that a blogger can have readers, but not a readership. People read the things they see on Facebook. My post on depression got more readers than anything I’ve ever written because it went up on a lot of FB walls . . . but that doesn’t change the overall pattern of site traffic. The old traffic pattern, which was driven by loyal readers who wanted to follow a given conversation — that’s gone. So the blogger is back in the same situation he was when dealing with academic publishers: he has a gatekeeper. To be sure, he can still keep writing his stuff and no-one is going to stop him, but one of the main incentives to writing — the sense that you’re having a conversation with people, or that your writing is doing something in the nöosphere — is now contingent on pleasing a boss. It’s just that the boss is now a collective abstraction. The question is now not “what does the editor want,” it’s what does social media want. This is not at all the same question as “what does my readership want?” It feels a whole lot less free.

So what’s the alternative? Putting all my elective writing energy into tweets and status updates? Not my style. The fact remains that, for me, writing is something I have an itch to do regardless of the conditions under which it is read. My book is right now somewhere around the 1,200,000th best-selling book on Amazon, which makes it about half as popular as Ramsey Dukes’s Uncle Ramsey’s Little Book of Demons. But I’m still glad I wrote that book exactly the way I wrote it.

regret nothing

Academics who read my post on Dukes might have thought that this was a case of an academic bestowing legitimacy on a crank writer, but so far as the mainstream is concerned, we’re all cranks.

And this is one reason I am going to keep writing at Dial M. There is something noble, somehow, about being a crank. Or at least kind of fun. In his wonderful essay “A Crank’s Progress,” Dukes imagines forming a Crank’s Union dedicated to the mutual encouragement and support of all marginal, obscure, and enthusiastic writers:

 … the first task of the Crank’s Union [is] to admit that it is exciting to be a crank; to recognize the thrill of seeing sudden connections of meaning between unrelated phenomena; to pit oneself against vertigo on the brink of the unknown, and then to jump.

In an earlier essay I pointed out that in an ordered and over-safe world there is a real need for dangerous ideas — that is a message that cranks would well understand as they live on the brink. When the News of the World published a poisonous article about a group of well-meaning seekers that I belonged to, I felt annoyed and hurt but, on reflection, realized that if ever the tabloids started to write in praise of any group I belonged to it would be time for me to go out and find something weirder to join. So a real crank should not only be proud to be such, but also rather jealous of that status: public recognition should mark the time to move on to crazier pastures.

It’s more fun to be free and unimportant than being important and dancing like an organ-grinder’s monkey on the end of a string. I like to write, and I’m grateful that I live in an age when I can write what I like and still get anyone to read it. So thanks if you’re reading, regardless of how you got here. I’ll be seeing you through the next 600 posts.

*I can tell you what it is according to university P&T committees, though. It’s filed under “service,” which could be defined as the work you’re expected to do but won’t get you tenure. Of course this is unfortunate, but I can’t be bothered to waste my breath complaining about it, because it will never change. Academia is intrinsically hierarchical, and any intellectual work you do that circumvents institutional hierarchy will not and cannot receive institutional rewards.

**To my friends: I apologize. It occurred to me afterwards that you might have inferred from my irritable tweets that I think that other scholars’ writing on Twitter is less valuable than my writing on Dial M. I don’t, and I regret it if it came off that way. What occurs to me now is, I don’t value blogging as such, as a medium, very much at all any more. What I value is writing, and the hegemony of social media works against writing. Twitter can serve scholarly ends, but whatever those ends are, I can’t bring myself to think of it as a genre of writing. It seems more like a placeholder for writing: ideally, you get in a Twitter conversation from which ideas arise in epigrammatic form and you work them out later. That’s what happened to me in this case — I had a bunch of Twitter exchanges that left me frustrated with the limits the medium placed on my ability to express myself coherently and without giving gratuitous offense, and am now using a medium that allows me to write something more considered.

But social media doesn’t thrive on considered essays, it wants cable-news-style heat. Facebook is infinitely more horrible than Twitter, but both are environments engineered to get people talking, and talking loudly. Talking, not reflecting, and not really writing, either, except on the terms of social media. It’s as if these platforms kept the worst parts of the old blogosphere (the noisy, gassy, self-promoting, narcissistic, petulant, and ignorantly opinionated parts) and cut out everything else. Or made everything else serve them. This doesn’t mean that my brilliant and wise friends somehow turn into mouth-breathing internet trolls the moment they open up their Twitter feeds. To think so would be to indulge in the crudest kind of technological determinism. There’s no reason a 21st-century Basho couldn’t express the most sublime thoughts and feelings in 140-character lines. But to do so you would have to swim hard against the current of the medium, which in the end has its own agenda, and I guarantee that it isn’t your agenda.

 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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