Intersections: History and New Media

The Mythology of Blogs: A Top Ten List for the Uninitiated Historian

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, May 2009

To some readers of this newsmagazine, the word “blog”—a term derived from “web log” that’s now used to refer to all sorts of sites—probably conjures up images of narcissistic, self-confessional writers who love to go on and on about their pet peeves. So, let me begin with some personal details, a confession, and a pet peeve. The details: I teach about China and contribute regularly to a group blog. The confession: up to about a year-and-a-half ago, I had never blogged and didn’t read blogs much. The pet peeve (that won’t come as news to anyone who read my “Eurocentrism and Its Discontents” piece in Perspectives back in January 2001): essays that focus on global phenomena, such as blogging, and make generalizations that apply to the United States and Western Europe but not necessarily the rest of world. (What follows, in fact, began as a letter of complaint triggered by an otherwise very admirable New York Review of Books essay on blogs that had precisely that flaw.) So, when reading what follows, keep these things in mind: (1). You’ll hear a lot about China—not a bad thing, really, if you’re curious about the web, as that country now has more internet users than any other. (2). The category of “uninitiated historian” in the title included me until mid-2007. (3). Many of the mistaken notions I want to debunk are things I believed myself until recently—though 18 months in the blogosphere (where time passes so fast that it is better reckoned in dog years than in human ones) isn’t actually such a short period.

Misconception 1: All bloggers prattle on about themselves, make confessions, and rant about pet peeves. Some bloggers do, but not all. Take, for example, the team responsible for China Digital Times (tag line: “The revolution will be blogged”). This great site (http://chinadigitaltimes.com/) is devoted to updating readers on Chinese politics. You won’t learn much about the bloggers from the posts they write for it, which summarize press reports, translate pieces by bloggers based in the PRC, and so on. (You can tell that they’re bugged by the fact that China isn’t a more open society, but isn’t that too big an issue to count as a “pet peeve”?)

Misconception 2: All blogs have cutesy tag lines. Some do. The group blog I’m part of, for example, The China Beat (http://thechinabeat.blogspot.com/), has the tag line “Blogging How the East is Read,” which we like to think is clever. For some other examples, see a posting called “The Best Website Taglines Around the Internet”—e.g., “The Straight Dope: Fighting Ignorance since 1973 (It’s taking longer than we thought)”—at the Daily Blog Tips blog (www.dailyblogtips.com/). Many blogs, though, don’t have tag lines, cutesy or otherwise. Several sites I’ll mention below are tag-free. And, ironically, so is Daily Blog Tips.

Misconception 3: Blogging is a fad that is bound to go away soon, so we can just ignore the phenomenon and wait the trend out. No one really knows how long any form of communication will stay popular or significant. It seems doubtful, though, that blogging will disappear soon. And lately blogs have become an increasingly unavoidable part of the intellectual as well as political landscape. For historians, there are the blogs that are important parts of a great site devoted to the discipline, Rick Shenkman’s History News Network (http://hnn.us), and also the blogs linked to our professional organizations (the AHA, for example, at http://blog.historians.org). Many (perhaps all) university presses have blogs. Even the venerable Times Literary Supplement (London), long considered an arbiter of “serious” intellectual discussion and hardly thought of as a rapid responder to fads, sports not just one but two blogs on its web site: Classicist Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life (http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/) and TLS editor Peter Stothard’s eponymous one (www.timescolumns.typepad.com/), both tag-free. It is true that the New York Review of Books doesn’t sport a magazine-linked blog yet, just one associated with its “NYRB Classics” book series (http://nyrb.typepad.com/classics/). But the New Yorker has several (including a very smart tag-line-free Letters from China one, just started by Evan Osnos, at www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/evanosnos/?xrail), and the New York Times Sunday Book Review Section has an excellent one called Paper Cuts (http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/, simple tag line: “A Blog about Books”), so the NYRB could soon follow suit. And in its February 14, 2009, issue, it did make blogging the focus of one of its trademark long essays. Called “Blogs,” the essay by Sarah Boxer—whose latest book is an anthology, Ultimate Blogs, comprised exclusively of blog posts—tells readers a lot about the American blogosphere, with occasional nods to Europe. But while it does have some lovely tidbits about other parts of the world—she mentions Japan being a place where “neglected or abandoned blogs are called ishikoro, pebbles,” for example—it’s the one I had in mind earlier when mentioning my pet peeve. I was annoyed, for example, that in summarizing the political functions of blogging, she failed to mention things such as the reliance on blogs by non-Islamist dissenters in Egypt and the useful muckraking function that Chinese bloggers often perform.

Misconception 4: “[A blog post is] there for anyone with an internet connection to see.” This is one of the lines from Boxer’s article that set me off when I read it. Why? Because many Chinese netizens can’t see a great many blog posts. This is due to the censorship mechanism that Western reporters routinely call the “Great Firewall of China,” but which one of my favorite bloggers, Jeremy Goldkorn, has dubbed the “Net Nanny,” a term that nicely captures efforts on the part of the Chinese government to steer PRC internet users toward some locales and keep them away from others. This isn’t, moreover, just a Chinese issue. Lots of countries filter the internet; relatively invasive systems, much like the “Net Nanny,” operate in, for example, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. And even when government censorship isn’t involved, not all blogs are open to “anyone with an internet connection to see,” since some are password protected. There are also children who find themselves blocked from accessing certain kinds of sites on their household computers, due to software, including some produced by a company called “Net Nanny,” that filters out specific types of materials.

Misconception 5: Books and blogs are so different that the publication of Boxer’s anthology was a “man bites dog” novelty. This is how Boxer approached Ultimate Blogs in her NYRB essay, explaining how she’d come around to the idea of creating the anthology, despite viewing it at first as a “dreadful” prospect. Thomas Jones, writing about Boxer in the January 24 issue of the London Review of Books, begins: “Books and blogs, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are as different as two kinds of published text can be.” He goes on to dub Ultimate Blogs “an early contender for most pointless book of the year.” All I want to note is that Chinese readers would find this framing of the issue a bit odd. They know well that writing books and writing blogs can be very different endeavors, but they’ve grown used to bloggers bringing their posts together between hard covers. In the West, there have been enough books based on blogs for a special term to have been coined for them (“blooks”—albeit a term that hasn’t exactly caught on) and a prize to be offered for the best ones (called, perhaps inevitably, the “Blooker Prize”). Some have even sold well, with Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a notable case in point. They do remain in the English language world, however, a fairly minor, fringe genre. But more and more are appearing, with 2009 titles including China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, a China Beat-based anthology that also contains materials reprinted from other publications and brand new essays, co-edited by Kate Merkel-Hess, Kenneth Pomeranz, and myself (with assistance from Miri Kim), and with a foreword by former AHA President Jonathan Spence; and (late in the year from Profile Books) It’s a Don’s Life, a between-hard-covers version of classicist Mary Beard’s blog. There’s nothing marginal, though, about the genre in China. As far back as April of 2006 (about 21 years ago, if we reckon time in the blogosphere the way I’ve suggested), according to a posting on the wonderful Danwei.org web site (a must for anyone who tracks trends in Chinese culture and media), not just one but two spots on China’s general non-fiction bestseller list were made up of books by bloggers. One was the “print version of Pan Shiyi’s blog,” another “Xu Jinglie’s collection of blog posts.”

Misconception 6: Blogging is for the young. This is a tempting notion for someone my age. After turning 45, as I did a few years ago, every chance to be counted as “youthful” began to seem precious—and born in the same year as Barack Obama, I couldn’t get enough of all the election-cycle references to how “young” he is. Still, some of the bloggers I’ve mentioned above are on the same side of 40 that I am. Pan Shiyi, for example, who is not just a popular blogger and bestselling book author but also a real estate magnate, is 44. Peter Stothard is 57. And though I don’t know his exact age, I can tell from my department’s web site that Jon Wiener, one of my UCI colleagues who blogs the most (his witty, historically informed commentaries show up on the Huffington Post quite regularly), got his doctorate in 1973 (back when Barack and I were in middle school). This isn’t to say that generational issues are irrelevant, just complicated. At The China Beat, we began with a core team of bloggers in which Ken Pomeranz (like me a professor in the history department) and I were definitely located toward the high end of the age spectrum. In looking for people to do guest posts, we often focused initially on people no older than about 40. We assumed that they would feel more comfortable with contributing, partly because we’d gotten more skeptical comments about creating a blog from relatively senior China specialists than from more junior ones. But our hesitancy about soliciting guest posts from those Ken and my age and older has now been discarded. Why? Because of the response Daniel Little, a philosopher of social science with a long-term interest in China who graduated from college in 1971 and is now a university chancellor, made to a tentative query we made to him about his willingness to make a venture into the blogosphere for us. We assumed, quite incorrectly as it turned out, that this would likely be his first attempt at blogging. He said he’d be happy to contribute, especially since he’d already done pieces on a related topic for two of his own blogs, and mentioned in an off-hand way that there was a clip from a YouTube video he was looking for a way to use and this would do just fine.

Misconception 7: Blogging is the latest thing in online writing. Actually, some teens and twenty-somethings think of blogging as something that’s been around quite a while and is mostly done by people who are older than they are. They prefer forms of communication that allow for much quicker interaction between participants than occurs via the comments section of a typical blog, and they think that blogs that don’t allow comments or moderate them strictly are stodgy. These teens and twenty-somethings—and, again, it would be wrong to generalize too much on generational terms, as there are plenty of quite young bloggers—prefer online chat and Facebook messages and what I think of as a very new form of communication (though it is probably considered oh so last year and hence passé those really in the know): Twittering, which involves creating 140-characters-or-less “tweets” as opposed to “posts.” It has given rise to the wonderful term twitterati—used, naturally enough, to describe those who gain fame within certain virtual communities via what they pass on using this novel medium. And though I’ve been skeptical about it, I feel I need to learn more about how exactly it works, since some of the bloggers I admire most, such as Rebecca MacKinnon of Rconversation (http://rconversation.blogs.com/), have started to combine blogging with tweeting.

Misconception 8: The academics and other intellectuals who turn to blogging are attention-seeking people who have trouble getting published in more traditional venues. Surely this is true at times. But Mary Beard maintains an active blog and also publishes essays and books at a prodigious rate. And in terms of attention-seeking, sometimes one motivation for blogging is to get attention for print publications. This was definitely the case with my initiation as a blogger. My first post was for the “Campaign for the American Reader” site (http://americareads.blogspot.com/), to which I’ve developed what I think of as a pretty healthy addiction, given how many interesting new books that weren’t on my radar screen I’ve learned about from visits to it. When invited to contribute to their “Writers Read” feature (http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.com/), I agreed readily for the following reasons: I was flattered to be asked. It gave me an opportunity to talk up some works by other writers I’d benefited from reading. And I had just published my first trade book, China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and worried that it would remain unknown to many of those elusive “general educated readers” I’d hope might read it (some of whom might never see it reviewed, but might, just might, check out that blog).

Misconception 9: Academic blogging is an indulgence best reserved for the tenured. There are dangers involved in blogging, especially if you don’t have tenure. You can spend so much time blogging that you fail to do things you should, or you can slip into posting intemperate comments in cyberspace that come back to haunt you at tenure time. Those of us who teach graduate students or mentor junior faculty should point out these risks to those we advise. This said, I don’t think we should necessarily encourage those we advise not to blog. Many sorts of textual exercise, after all, can improve someone’s writing muscles. And, pragmatically, good things sometimes come to those who blog—if they do it well. Here are two, admittedly quite atypical, illustrations of what I have in mind. At UC Irvine, we have something called “Schaeffer Fellowships” that are given to students who show a knack for “creative non-fiction” or simply an ability to write stylishly even when dealing with scholarly issues. One recent history department recipient (the awards also go to English and comparative literature students), Jana Remy, got the award largely because of the quality of her blogging at sites such as Making History Podcast: The Blog (http://makinghistorypodcast.com/), a venture she launched to explore experimental approaches to historical narrative (topics she’s blogged about there included the work of AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). I also know of another local graduate student who has been invited to write book reviews for a prominent literary journal after she had done blog postings on books that impressed one of the editors of that publication.

Misconception 10: Bloggers think that everything can be boiled down to a top ten list. This just isn’t true. I’ve fallen into the popular top ten format here, but at The China Beat, since we cover a country fond of “Five Year Plans,” our lists tend to be only half as long.

—Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at University of California at Irvine, who blogs regularly for The China Beat (http://thechinabeat.blogspot.com/) and the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/), and has published in various academic journals and general interest periodicals, ranging from the TLS to Newsweek. He is the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and a past associate editor and (for one year) acting editor of the American Historical Review. His most recent books are (as author) Global Shanghai, 1850–2010: A History in Fragment (just published by Routledge and not based in any way upon a blog) and (as co-editor) the blog-related China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).