Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Rumination on Blogs

My mother, who on the whole appears to find the blog interesting, has commented that it is a good thing I write quickly. The unstated corollary, naturally, is that otherwise it would be impossible for me to write both blog and dissertation.
There is considerable truth to this. There is something seductive about this strange new genre, whereas no one has ever claimed that dissertation-writing was irresistible. Yet until the day when I first looked at Kristen’s blog, I had never imagined that I would ever contemplate embarking on such a thing. Blogs had appeared in my life mainly in the form of dreadfully slow-loading pages that I found via search engines and which never seemed to contain whatever I was looking for. If I could see that the page I had clicked onto was proving to be a blog, my usual reaction was to get away fast because it would probably be in Portuguese (not that I won’t try to read Portuguese under the right circumstances) and occupy my browser for the next half an hour.
(I hope that this blog is not guilty of annoying its chance acquaintances in this manner.)
People embark on blogging for a variety of reasons. And now that it is becoming clear that a good many Czech-based Fulbright grantees have taken it up, some of us (both bloggers and potential bloggers) have taken up discussing the pastime and its nuances.
All of the current Fulbright-related blogs I’ve encountered are structured around the idea that the blogger is living in a foreign country for anything from three months to a year and sees the blog format as a useful means of recording impressions and keeping in touch with people back home. How we go about this certainly varies depending on our personalities, but we share some degree of common purpose and, I assume, a notion of our imagined audience.
There are, mind you, bloggers out there who seem to have no particular purpose and no concept of audience, which I admit I find peculiar. Egotism and exhibitionism are traits that can have a positive as well as a negative aspect, provided they are made interesting enough, but I am not sure why anyone would choose blogging as a format for self-expressions that seem best suited to a 3x5 notebook or perhaps the fog on a bathroom mirror. Not all lists or diaries are of interest to anyone but the author. Still, as Megan and I have concluded, it is an interesting anthropological fact that people now use blogs to record data that was once simply jotted down (if even that), like “I have a math test today” or “Just woke up from my nap.” There appears to be a blurring of the public and private, as surely the person who blogs this sort of thing unadorned and without irony cannot be hoping that someone will find the page and take much of an interest.
In the Fulbright-inspired blogs, each person uses a combination of words and pictures (in some cases, like Jen and Derrick’s, mainly photos) to convey our impressions. Deborah uses photos to get across some of the types of workshops she has done with her Czech museum contacts. Kylowna presents many photos of her students and other Czechs she has met. For Jesse, Kristen, and I, who have spent quite a bit of time in our countries in the past, the focus is somewhat less on presenting the picturesque sights and our new acquaintances (interesting though these probably would be to our readers) than on picking out specific themes or experiences. (Not to mention that we are crankier than some, and incapable of sticking to sweetness and light for very long.) While we want our readers to learn about our cities, we are not temperamentally equipped to be mainstream tourguides. We like to discourse on (or at least photograph) public transit (Brno, Moscow), libraries, quirky architecture, bizarre signage, concerts (good or otherwise), encounters with utter strangers, local holidays, local customs, water heaters, and product packaging. We can’t resist bringing in topics that are not much related to our primary themes, because they strike us as an entertaining leaven (after all, don’t you want to know what kind of dog you are, or which dead Russian composer?) or because they seem important, bizarre, or unusually annoying.
I have commented to several people that I do not regard this blog as a diary (though it has a personal element), but as more akin to a column whose regular readers get to follow as it develops.
This, however, brings up an odd circumstance that Jesse and I recently pondered. There are really two extremes in blog-reading. On the one end, there are the relatively small number of regular readers who check in regularly or even subscribe to a blog. For example, last time I looked, Kristen had no less than 29 subscribers, which suggests that she has attracted a group of unusually tech-savvy readers who probably read quite a few blogs (for some reason, this seems to be a trait of passionate knitters). My own regular readers are less blog-oriented and mostly come here via their bookmarks. (Whatever the method, they get here.) On the other end of the spectrum are the large number of casual readers who happen upon a blog either randomly or by searching for words used in the blog (this brings me some readers who are actually hoping to learn more about Toyen). Such readers may or may not find the blog to their taste, but even if they enjoy it, they may regard it as a one-time pleasant read, and never return for more. The blogger must keep in mind that the regular readers enjoy having certain themes develop over time, while the one-time readers need each post to be intelligible and will probably not be interested in photos of the blogger’s friends and relatives.
Of course, this dynamic is typical of journalism in general; but I suspect that most blogs are not conceived of as being either journalism or some other sort of serialized production.
I have found, however, that there has been some discussion within the larger blogging community about what makes for a good post. Style, not surprisingly, is valued by the cognoscenti, as one Blogger Help column points out. Blogger Help also notes that it is wise to keep one’s desired audience in mind (as noted above). The very same article suggests keeping posts and paragraphs short so that “visitors can pop in, read up, and click on.” Well, perhaps. I’m afraid that I do not take this advice to heart most of the time, on the grounds that I envision my regular readers as being people who are more inclined to read books than listen to sound bytes. I do, however, think that it is wise to offer a mix of longer and shorter posts. Short paragraphs are also easier to read in this format, so I try to restrain my tendency toward long ones.
Posting frequently is alleged to attract readers (since newly posted items appear at the top of blog searches). Certainly, once the reader is really hooked, he or she may obsessively return to the blog in hopes of something new to read (rather like obsessively checking the library or bookstore for unread books by the new favorite author). However, I won’t go on about the various other techniques suggested for enlarging one’s readership (as opposed to enlarging one’s body parts), as they are not really that interesting to non-bloggers and can be read about elsewhere. (No, I do not have the URL to this blog tattooed on my forehead or written on my living-room window in soap.)
In closing, I inquire, “Megan, where did you hide that blog you started?”

Since drafting this, I located Megan's fledgling blog. Dawn has a photo blog and Hubert may eventually get around to saying something on his nascent blog.

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