The Good, The Bad, and the Blogly

Filed as News on June 18, 2003 9:56 pm

by Duncan

The following article appeared at Tech Central Station today and is a worthy read, if only for the controversy in will probably create in the Blogosphere on the issues of what makes a good blog, at best a subjective topic worthing of many a good blog posting and for the blogs Glenn Harlan Reynolds did not consider worthy;

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Well, after that opening pun I suppose there’s nowhere to go but up. . . . Anyway, the editors at TCS thought it might be a good idea if I wrote a bit on the difference between good weblogs and bad ones. Given the sniping inspired by Dave Winer’s Harvard essay on what makes a weblog, I should probably be afraid to raise this topic, but bloggers rush in where angels fear to tread.

So what makes a blog good? First the inevitable, though sincere, dodge: it depends. Blogs come in many different flavors and styles – though political and tech blogs get the most attention, there are many other varieties (including the huge but largely ignored mass of gay blogs) and what makes one good or bad naturally varies accordingly. What’s more, there’s a way in which blogging, like jazz, always succeeds: if it’s reflecting the feelings of the blogger, it’s a success at some level, regardless of whether anyone else likes it. (There’s only one hard-and-fast rule: get rid of the typos. No blog that’s full of typos looks good.)

But that said, there are some things that – in my opinion – make good blogs good. And the most important of those things are (1) a personal voice; and (2) rapid response times. By this token, some blogs aren’t really full-fledged blogs: my MSNBC “weblog,” GlennReynolds.com, has a personal voice, but since MSNBC’s antiquated publishing platform means that I have to email my entries in and then wait hours until they appear on the site, it doesn’t offer the kind of rapid response – and on-the-fly editing and revision – that more typical weblogs, powered by things like Movable Type, Blogger, or Radio, offer. On my InstaPundit weblog, which is powered by Movable Type, I can post something, think better of it moments later, and change it, or add an update in response to a reader email that comes in sixty seconds after it’s posted. I can’t do that at GlennReynolds.com. So although MSNBC calls it a weblog, and it sort of is one, I think that’s a real lack.

On the other hand, a number of house blogs have rapid response, but no personal voice. TomPaine.com’s blog, for example, is timely and interesting, but anonymously institutional. The same is true for The American Prospect’s blog, Tapped, and The New Republic’s blog, &c. (What is it with these lefty house blogs and anonymity?)

By contrast, the National Review Online house blog, The Corner, features signed entries by many different NRO writers, and rather a lot of back-and-forth disagreement and personal reflection, which makes it far livelier and far “bloggier” than its more staid lefty competitors. The same is true for Reason’s much newer house blog, Hit&Run, which also has signed entries and considerably more life to it than the anonymous lefty house blogs. (And when did lefties become “staid”? About 20 years ago, I’d guess.)

So while you can have an anonymous “institutional” blog with rapid response, it’s bound to have an institutional voice, which isn’t as interesting or, I suspect, as much fun for the writers. The Corner, and to a lesser degree Hit&Run, seem to attract posts at all hours, too, while the anonymous institutional blogs seem to operate on a more 9-5 – or, really, 10-2 – basis, with postings not only less personalized, but less frequent. I suspect that means that the anonymous house blogs feel like work to their writers, rather than like self-expression. So the personal voice seems to be awfully important to good blogging, and to frequent blogging. (Note that you can have a personal voice in an anonymous blog, but not in an anonymous institutional one – there are plenty of anonymous non-institutional blogs with strong personal voices.)

Then, most importantly, there is the link. And here, I’ll quote James Lileks:

A wire story consists of one voice pitched low and calm and full of institutional gravitas, blissfully unaware of its own biases or the gaping lacunae in its knowledge. Whereas blogs have a different format: Clever teaser headline that has little to do with the actual story, but sets the tone for this blog post. Breezy ad hominem slur containing the link to the entire story. Excerpt of said story, demonstrating its idiocy (or brilliance) Blogauthor’s remarks, varying from dismissive sniffs to a Tolstoi- length rebuttal. Seven comments from people piling on, disagreeing, adding a link, acting stupid, preaching to the choir, accusing choir of being Nazis, etc.

I’d say it’s a throwback to the old newspapers, the days when partisan slants covered everything from the play story to the radio listings, but this is different. The link changes everything. When someone derides or exalts a piece, the link lets you examine the thing itself without interference. TV can’t do that. Radio can’t do that. Newspapers and magazines don’t have the space. My time on the internet resembles eight hours at a coffeeshop stocked with every periodical in the world – if someone says “I read something stupid” or “there was this wonderful piece in the Atlantic” then conversation stops while you read the piece and make up your own mind.

When hypertext for computers was first invented (lawyers invented hypertext for paper back in the Middle Ages, but that’s another column topic) the inventors thought it would revolutionize discourse, and it has. People who write on dead trees can still (sort of) get away with mangling quotes to produce a desired meaning – though bloggers will quickly call them on it – but bloggers tend to link to original sources wherever possible. The result, as Lileks says, is that you can follow the link and make up your mind for yourself. A blog that doesn’t have links is less interesting. (This, by the way, is why I never linked much from my own blog to Sean Paul Kelley’s blog, The Agonist, even before it turned out that many of The Agonist’s entries were plagiarized. I didn’t exactly suspect plagiarism – I was just disinclined to rely on a blog that didn’t link to sources. With good reason, as it turned out. The link isn’t a guarantee of accuracy, of course – the source you’re linking to can always be wrong – but it does let the readers evaluate the source themselves.

The best links, usually, are to things the reader would never have found otherwise. Fred Pruitt’s Rantburg blog specializes in interesting information from obscure military and regional sources. Meanwhile Caterina Fake’s blog – probably my favorite of the largely non-political, day-in-the-life blogs – has posts on things like what to do in Finland, full of links and reader comments. In both cases, the selection of links has to do with the “personal voice” thing: Fred and Caterina are very different people. Both have built blogs around their own knowledge and interests, instead of trying to imitate someone else, and the result, in both cases, has been something very interesting and useful indeed.

Bloggers who don’t unearth unusual news, on the other hand, can still stand out and contribute by having – as James Lileks does – a unique perspective on the stories people have already read. (Read this deconstruction of a pretentious puff-piece from The Guardian, and you’ll see what I mean.) In this light it’s no surprise that bloggers who are successful generally bring something special to the table. For famous journalist-bloggers, it’s their journalistic smarts and connections, on evidence with Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Virginia Postrel and Josh Marshall.

For some, like Lileks, it’s that they just flat-out write better than anyone else. Still others, like the various bloggers at The Volokh Conspiracy, or Howard Bashman at How Appealing, or Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft, offer academic or legal expertise. For others, like famed Baghdad blogger Salam Pax and now G in Baghdad, it’s their proximity to events. (And local-blogging, I think, is something that’s likely to take off, since it provides something – knowledge of one’s hometown – that’s comparatively scarce.)

In every case, though, what brings success is knowing something other people don’t know, and expressing it well.

All of this means, of course, that if you came to this column looking for blogging secrets, well, there aren’t any. The key to good blogging is simple: have something interesting to say, and say it well. Kind of like, well, every other sort of writing – just faster, and with links. There’s nothing new about that, but it’s still a kind of magic, as good writing always is.

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  1. By johny posted on December 23, 2003 at 2:51 pm
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    good advice something we should all take into considering