What is “blogging”? Is it different from “writing”?

April 21, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Thomas Basbøll wrote:

To blog is not to write in a particular style, or publish in a particular form. Rather, blogging is an experience that is structured by a particular functionality. . . . What makes it a blog is a structural coordination of the blogger and the audience. . . .

Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you. You try to have an immediate, essentially real-time impact on the discourse, which makes it much more like speech than writing. . . .

You can’t definite “writing” simply by way of “written communication”. It is possible to write a tweet in the formal sense I want to insist on and some writers have in fact tried to do this. But most tweets and a great many emails are much more like speech than like writing. Think of the way we end an email chain when we’re arranging a meeting with a short message sent from our phone: “OK. See you then. / T.” I don’t want to call that writing. It’s speech in another medium. . . .

I responded:

I like a lot of what you’re saying here, and I think these sort of distinctions are valuable. I’ll put this post on the reading list for my class on communication.

There’s one place, though, where I think you overstate your point.

You write, “Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you.” I can’t argue with your experience, of course, but . . . blogging does some other things too:

1. Blogging is permanent (at least on the scale of years or a decade or so; I could well imagine that the software will start to fall apart and much of my blogging will be lost in the future). So when I blog, it’s not just to have a conversation now, it can also be to lay down a marker. Often I’ll blog about an article I’ve been given, just to avoid forgetting it and to have the article there in a searchable form. Other times I’ll post something knowing that I’ll be referring back to it in the future.

2. A related point: blogging creates a sort of community memory, so that, for example, on my blog I can talk about Weick and Weggy and pizzagate, and air rage and himmicanes and ages ending in 9, and even the good stuff like multilevel modeling and Stan and the birthday model, and readers know what I’m talking about—or even if they don’t know, they have a sense that there is an ongoing conversation, a density to the discussion, in the same way that a good novel will give the sense that the characters have depth and that much is happening offstage. Indeed, awhile after the Monkey Cage moved to the Washington Post, our editors told me that my posts were too “bloggy” in that they were presupposing some continuity that was inappropriate for a newspaper feature.

3. And, just responding to the “short-term effects” thing: the blogging here mostly on a six-month delay, so the effects don’t have to be short term. (Regular readers will recall that “long term” = 3 days or possibly 5 minutes!)

4. Finally, to get back to the issue of different forms of communication (in your view, blogging is “much more like speech than writing”): A blog post, or even a blog comment (such as this one), can be “written” in the sense of being structured and arranged. One thing I like to tell students is that writing is non-algorithmic: despite what one might think based on naive theories of communication, you can’t in general just write down your thoughts, or write down what you did today. Part of this is that, as the linguists say, ideas don’t generally exist in the absence of language: writing down an idea helps to form it. And part of it is that language and story have some internal logic (see here and search on Ramona), I guess related to the sound of the words and related to the idea that we are often trying to convey notions of cause and effect while reporting discrete events.

5. How do you characterize chatty journalism, such as George Orwell’s “As I please” columns? This is not a trick question. They would seem to fall somewhere in between what you’re calling “writing” and “blogging.”

I think our goal here in this discussion is not to come up with some sort of perfect categorization, or to argue about whether blogging is “really” writing, or the relative literary merits of book writing and journalism, but rather to lay out some connections between goals, methods, audiences, and media of communication. When framed that way, I guess there’s probably been a lot written on this sort of thing, but I’m ignorant of any relevant literature.

Ummm, I like this comment. I think I’ll blog it so it won’t get forgotten. Next open spot is mid-Apr.

And I followed up with one more thing, which I thought about after clicking Publish:

One thing that blogging does not seem to supply for me is “closure.” For example, I hope you will follow up on the above discussion, and maybe some others can contribute too, and . . . we can write an article or book, really nailing down the idea. Somehow a blog post, no matter how definitive, never quite seems to get there. And it’s not just the content, it really does seem to be the form, or maybe I should say the placement, of the post. For example, last year I wrote What has happened down here is the winds have changed, which was one of the most successful posts I’ve ever written, both in terms of content (I like what I wrote, and I developed many of the ideas while writing the post) and in reception (it was widely discussed and in an overwhelmingly positive way). Still, I’d feel better, somehow, if it were “published” somewhere in a more formal way—even if the content were completely unchanged. I’m not quite sure how much of this is pure old-fashionedness on my part and how much it has to do with the idea that a mutable scrolling html document inherently has less of a definitive feel than an article in some clearly-defined place. I could reformat that particular post as pdf and put it on my webpage as an unpublished article but that wouldn’t quite do the trick either. And of course one good reason for keeping it as a blog post is that people can read and contribute to the comment thread.

Which forms of writing seem definitive and which don’t? For example, when I publish an article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, it seems real. If I publish in a more obscure journal, not so much. If I publish something in the New York Times or Slate, it gets many more readers, but it still seems temporary, or unfinished, in the same way as a blog post.

For the other direction, I think of published book reviews as definitive, but others don’t. One of my favorite books by Alfred Kazin is a collection published in 1959, mostly of book reviews. They vary in quality, but that’s fine, as it’s also interesting to see some of his misguided (in my view) and off-the-cuff thoughts. I love old book reviews. So a few years ago when I encountered Kazin’s son, I asked if there was any interest in publishing Alfred’s unpublished book reviews, or at least supplying an online repository. The son said no, and what struck me was not just that there are no plans to publish a hypothetical book that would maybe sell a couple hundred copies (I have no idea) but that he didn’t even seem to be sad about this, that his dad’s words would remain uncollected. But I guess that makes sense if you take the perspective that the book reviews were mostly just practice work and it was the completed books and longer essays that were real.

There’s also the question of how important it is to have “closure.” It feels important to me to have some aspect of a project wrapped up and done, that’s for sure. But in many settings I think the feeling of closure is a bad thing. Closure can be counterproductive to the research enterprise. Think of all the examples of junk science I’ve discussed on the blog over the years. Just about every one of these examples is associated with a published research paper that is seriously, perhaps hopelessly, flawed, but for which the authors and journal editors go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging error. They seem to value closure too much: the paper is published and it seems unfair to them for outsiders to go and criticize, to re-litigate the publication decision, as it were. My impression is that these authors and editors have an attitude similar to that of a baseball team that won a game, and then a careful view of the videotape made it clear that someone missed a tag at second base in the fifth inning. The game’s already over, it doesn’t get replayed! Science is different (at least I think it should be) in that it’s about getting closer to the truth, not about winning or losing. Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression, but the point about closure is relevant, I think, to discussions of different forms of writing.

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