Why have a blog?

Towards the end of the podcasting workshop at the Electron Club this past Wednesday, someone turned to me, looked me in the eye and said, “Why have a blog? Or make podcasts?” There was silence for a second or two, during which I debated a flippant answer or a serious one.

In the end I supplied a real answer that consisted of examples from my own experiences and those of my friends, mostly to do with the pleasures of sharing expertise, and maintaining contact with a broad range of people at a distance.

But it is these very simple questions that prompt some thinking after the initial answer is supplied. I could have gone on to mention the way blogs enable you to track development of ideas, development of writing style, and shifts in areas of interest. This creation of a personal archive, and archives authored by others where I can observe these evolutions, have been some of the most interesting and valuable aspects of blogging for me.

And yet, of course, there are potentially many negative aspects too, and so the rewards must be balanced against the possible pitfalls: crazy anonymous trolls, spam, falling into a feedback loop of narcissism, chasing the tail of endless software upgrades, internalised pressure to post frequently, et cetera.

Theorist Geert Lovink has some thoughts on the negative aspects of blogging too, that are very chewy food for thought. To shamelessly pluck a few great quotes from the longer piece:

“…blogs are witnessing and documenting the diminishing power of mainstream media, but they have consciously not replaced its ideology with an alternative. Users are tired of top-down communication and yet have nowhere else to go.”

“We’re operating in a post-deconstruction world in which blogs offer a never-ending stream of confessions, a cosmos of micro-opinions attempting to interpret events beyond the well-known twentieth-century categories. The nihilist impulse emerges as a response to the increasing levels of complexity within interconnected topics.”

“…existing information is simply reproduced and in a public act of internalization.”

“We do not hear enough about the tension between the individual self and the “community”, “swarms”, and “mobs” that are supposed to be part of the online environment. What we instead see happening on the software side are daily improvements of ever more sophisticated (quantitive) measuring and manipulation tools (in terms of inbound linking, traffic, climbing higher on the Google ladder, etc.). Isn’t the document that stands out the one that is not embedded in existing contexts? Doesn’t the truth lie in the unlinkable?”

I disagree with some of the points Lovink makes. A great swathe of the blogosphere is a misspelled, chatty commentary on the latest headlines, that as Lovink notes, offers no original research or analysis. However, I think there is not such a dearth of sites producing original, thoughtful content. There are several research blogs I refer to consistently that offer more analysis than I can summon the courage to stay on top of reading.

I came across (through some random series of clicks) a very sad Livejournal where the author was completely aware that no one read her thoughts, and so she poured out some very angsty stuff – probably because she thought no one was listening and so it doesn’t matter, right? Her Livejournal led me to ask, if you blog and no one reads it, does it matter? Why put it out there? There are plenty of splogs, half-hearted Livejournals, and link-list blogs that are also unread and will probably stay that way. But as Lovink says, the document that stands out is the one that is not embedded in existing contexts – and along with the banal, there are also some real gems which are surely on no one’s blogroll.

So why have a blog?

(Update on 23/02/07: Seth Godin has just posted something on this topic, and asks some interesting questions in a very succinct post. His punchline is that bloggers ought to be “respectful and clear”.)