Nov 3, 2008

The New Media Frontier

When blogging burst into public consciousness--see a sample timeline here--it promised to revolutionize everything. To paraphrase O Brother Where Art Thou: out with the old media mumbo-jumbo, in with the new democratized world of critical thinking. Every person a pamphleteer, every nabob a newspaperman. A veritable age of reason--just like the one they had in France.

In the last decade, what've we got? A few big blog-broken stories, a few bankrupt newspapers, gallons of the same old partisan fractiousness, and several gazillion pixels of gossip, confession and half-baked thought.

But I'm not all cynicism and snark. At their best, blogs connect the previously unconnectable. Academics reach an audience far beyond the readers of obscure journals. Ordinary people become niche experts and artisans and artists. Writers get discovered. Others get duly buried.

In an attempt to make sense of--and something good out of--this woolly world, the sixteen Christian bloggers in The New Media Frontier offer advice to interested believers. Unfortunately, because of the target market, non-evangelists will miss the title and some of its enormously practical advice.

My brother's chapter, the splash of cold water on a crackling blog-fire, moves past the traditional criticism of the medium* to focus on its soul-changing effects on the blogger. First, he claims, the new media threatens to numb its creators; the feverish pace of participation shuts out reflective silence. Second, virtual communication lacks the depth and authenticity of the face-to-face, creating a subtle pressure and permission to create what he calls "selective self-disclosure." Our online personas exaggerate or mask the true state of our being. These are good points, and any serious blogger, Christian or no, should take them seriously.

I want to focus on the third and final caution, not because I think it is off the mark, but because it is the least worrisome. My brother writes,
As a novice blogger, I advocated adopting the medium on the grounds that it made me more attentive to things happening around me. "I am always looking for my next blog post," I claimed. Such an approach, however, crippled my ability to understand reality and experience it as reality.... The productions of our interpretations of reality becomes a more important end than our own understanding of reality itself.... Reality is a mystery rich enough, good enough, and powerful enough to hold our fascination, but only as long as it remains outside of us as a good to be sought for its own sake.
Certainly the blogger who can't play backgammon without mentally writing his next blog post has lost a little balance in life. But the opposite extreme is even more deadly, mentally speaking. My brother begins his chapter by writing about a high school class, new media fish unable to describe or even perceive the water they swim in, and "resistant" to critical examination of their habitat. I have those same students--but they are students who need to start blogging, to try and understand their world, and, more important, to have their understanding refined by fellow bloggers.

Last, a parable. I'm a Wired subscriber, cashing in a few unused frequent flier miles a couple months back so I could keep up with the ongoing technological revolution. Its editors, whenever they're breathless about some kind of paradigm-shifting invention, need to remember that they're still publishing a print magazine, feet firmly planted in the 15th century.

As Jesus might have put it, the page we will always have with us.

*By way of comparison, consider an excerpt from Andrew Sullivan's blogging apologia in The Atlantic.
If all this sounds postmodern, that’s because it is. And blogging suffers from the same flaws as postmodernism: a failure to provide stable truth or a permanent perspective. A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this--and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing.
Sullivan's critique is what my brother what describe as "uninteresting," since it makes the obvious point: blogs are ephemeral. Or perhaps just Emersonian.

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