Over the last few weeks I have noticed a feeling of unsettledness and mild disorientation as I begin my morning ritual of coffee and a trip through my news reader/aggregator. At last count, I have over 130 subscriptions to various blogs and news sites, some of which are (incredibly) updated 3-4 times daily. I have no idea if this is a “normal” amount of information for the technologically-savvy to wade through on a daily basis in our brave new cyber-world, but the sheer volume of words I make some attempt, however minimal, to regularly keep up with is proving increasingly unwieldy.
To be fair, each of these blogs/sites was added for a reason—I respect and admire most of the writers I keep track of and genuinely am (or at least was, at one point) interested in what they have to say. But increasingly, interest in or attention to the jumbled mass of information that I have selected as worthy of arriving via the ether are rare commodities. So many words, such a steady and undifferentiated stream of commentary from so diverse a collection of voices about so many subjects—heaven, hell, earthquakes, church leadership, politics, current events, theology, philosophy, popular culture… The advent of blogging and social media has given everyone a voice, and boy has “everyone” seized the opportunity!
Of course, if everyone has a voice then, increasingly, nobody’s is worth listening to. Or at least a lot fewer. I am keenly aware of this as a blogger. My voice is just one in an ocean of voices only too eager to share their views with the world.
It’s been just over four years since I ventured into the blogosphere, and probably not a bad time to take stock of the whole enterprise. It’s certainly been interesting and rewarding to see this blog grow and to interact with a lot of interesting people from diverse perspectives. I have enjoyed the challenges of writing regularly and having to reconsider my views in light of the insights and questions of others.
But there are negatives to blogging as well. Probably the most unsettling tendency encouraged by the world of blogging and social media is the perceived need to always have something to say. A quick glance at the calendar on my sidebar shows that I haven’t posted anything for a few days—a virtual eternity of silence in the online world! Surely I have to correct this deficiency! What will people think if I go too long without posting anything? Will they—gasp!—go somewhere else? Will my subscribers search for greener cyber-pastures? Will my inactivity result in my being cast (virtually) into the dustbin of the blogosphere? The ego is a fragile thing, to be sure, and nothing exposes this like regular time in the world of blogging.
Last week, I came across an article by John Dyer called “Not Many of You Should Presume to be Bloggers” via Christianity Today that touched on a few of these issues. After citing a number of biblical passages that talked about the wisdom of restraint and silence, Dyer has this to say about the “opposing value system of social media”:
Yet Facebook and Twitter do not encourage this kind of self-restraint. In fact, they encourage an opposing value system. Social media relentlessly asks us to publish our personal opinions on anything and everything that happens. There is no time for reflection in prayer, no place for discussion with other flesh and blood image bearers, and no incentive to remain silent.
No incentive to remain silent, indeed. I think that Dyer has his finger on something when he says that the denizens of the social media/blogging world increasingly feel that if they don’t publish, they don’t exist.
I suppose I have managed to justify my ongoing contribution to the increasingly noisy and cluttered blogosphere by seeing myself as less of an “expert” on the topics I write about than as a fellow pilgrim interested in creating a space for reflection and conversation. In that sense, my stated goals haven’t changed much since my first post four years ago. It would be great if this space fostered wonderfully and singularly deep and provocative conversations, but in my more rational moments I know that this blog isn’t remotely as unique as I would like to think. At the end of the day, it’s just one more blog.
And that’s OK. As tempting as it is (and is becoming) to evaluate one’s success by inane measures such as “tweets,” “shares,” “likes,” “stumbles” or whatever other designators are permeating our increasingly porous lexicons (I assume “Facebook” has become a verb by now?), I realize that these words are not how genuine value is determined. I realize that words like “friendship,” “encouragement,” “dialogue,” and “understanding” are bigger, stronger, and more life-giving words and that these words, too, find their place, however rarely, in the cacophony of noise that is the online world.
The honesty, clarity and brevity with which you reveal your opinions, has always touched me. (Though one COULD say I was in a state of denial for some time. :))
I know your not fishing for compliments here but this post gives me the opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude for your writing. Thank you, Ryan. Your work here has helped make my faith deeper and wider and I will always be grateful.
Personally, I don’t read anywhere near the amount of blog material that I used to. There’s a lot of mass marketing and preaching to the choir going on out there. And to be honest, while I still think all attempts to formulate a right Christian understanding lack a certain credibility without, at the very least, an awareness and basic understanding of Catholic dogma, even I’m tired of hearing me squawk about it.
I’m pretty much monogamous these days….you ma girl. 😉
Thank you, Paul.
I think your “preaching to the choir” comment points to a genuine problem in the blogging world—because there is so much out there, we tend to read either, a) what we are already disposed to agree with; or b) what we know that we disagree with and are getting ready to rebut! Ironically, the ubiquity of ideas and opinions tends to narrow, rather than broaden, our view.
Yes, I would agree wholeheartedly with your observation here. It is true, I think, that egocentric impulses have generally been inflamed by the communication opportunities that technology has provided. I for one have had too many Peter Finch, from the movie “Network” moments of “being mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore!”. Hopefully, as time passes, this impulse wanes and the desire for something deeper, something, as you say, “broadening our view” takes place.
I see blogging as a radical democratization of publishing. Time was to be published in religion you had to be part of the nobility — an established author, a scholar (with PhD), or a tall-steeple pastor. But with self-publishing in the form of blogging, that changed. Now completely unimportant and insignificant people (like me!) can publish. This is way cool. I have a very small circle of readers, and in my less vain moments that is enough. Yes, reticence is a virtue, which is why it is good to let a blog go silent at times, a sabbath from speaking. It is also valuable to fast from ingesting information for a time. Clears the spirit.
You, Ryan, write exceedingly well, and you should continue.
Thank you for the kind words, Chris. I like the ideas of a “sabbath from speaking” and a “fast from ingesting information.” I think there are pros and cons to the democratization of publishing that is the blogging world, but I think the disciplines you’ve highlighted are worth adopting no matter where we come out on that issue.
In response to both posts I am reminded of some good ol Alexis de Tocqueville.
“By and large the literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected or actually despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.”
It is from Democracy in America. Ryan, I think you are one of the better bloggers out there but I wonder if his words speak even more truth about blogging especially when it is considered as the ” radical democratization of publishing.” Is this always a good thing?
Wow, that’s a pretty sobering quote. Hard to believe it was written in 1835! I think the quote very ably (prophetically?) illustrates the downside of the democratization of publishing—everything he identifies is true in spades of the blogging world. I obviously think there is potential for blogging (or else I wouldn’t still be doing it) but boy, that quote sure hits the nail on the head…
Accurate or not, I tend to think the body of American literature would stack up fairly well against any of Tocque’s preferred readings.
Welcome to what the real world looks like Alexis.
Considering further I tend to disagree with Ally’s thesis. I think in of itself, writing requires a level of erudition that will safeguard it’s outcomes. So much so that I think the more democratic the process, the more great work will be produced.
If he was talking about the proliferation of reality television, I think he would be spot on.
That may be true… I see little evidence of it, to be honest—one hardly rushes to the blogosphere in search of “great work”—but I’m open to correction. Even if it is true, I think that one thing the democratization of publishing has led to is the necessity of sifting through a lot more garbage to find what is good. The cream has a lot farther to go to get to the top in the age of the internet
Yes,without a doubt the cream has further to go. Still I think it important for us to remember that blogs don’t purport to be works of great fiction or depth. They stand mostly as opinions and editorials and the related discussions that follow. Within their context, I see them as a significant improvement on standard newspapers formats.
For me interacting through blogs has given me an opportunity to write again. And in so doing, through the process, my ability to communicate with greater precision and in greater detail has improved.
As for going to the internet to read, my three sources of opinion and information are, in no particular order, the Catholic Register, the National Post and Rumblings.
For me, you matter.
Wow, that’s some pretty select company. 🙂 I’m honoured.
I think you’re right, the key is to appreciate blogs from within their (limited) context. As you say, at their best they can serve as a vehicle for people to refine both the content and the manner of their communication.
Reading this conversation from my background as a literature student, I think the past is being seen through rose coloured glasses here. The early English novels were mostly smut [ie Moll Flanders and Tom Jones- that of course is my opinion 🙂 but I did have to grind my way through them. While I love Victor Hugo not many people actually have read him and by modern standards the older writers were pretty wordy 🙂 ]. With the invention of the printing press the same hue and cry went out about the glut and low quality of writing. Aristocrats are always a little indignant when we commoners presume to have ideas.
In the end what we read of the literature of previous generations has been ruthlessly vetted by history.
All this to say, let’s not be too quick to dismiss the current genres. Blogging is the printing press of our time. Keep going for quality of discourse and don’t worry about the rest. Well done, Ryan!
I concur with James, and especially with two beautiful sentences:
1. Aristocrats are always a little indignant when we commoners presume to have ideas.
We plebes drive them crazy with our presumptuousness. Always have. I am fighting a political battle related to conservation in which the aristocrats have one view and the plebes another. They act as if we plebes are stupid. They are indignant that we don’t defer to their profound wisdom. We don’t trust their judgment about what is sufficient to preserve a large tract of land. They appear to despise us.
2. In the end what we read of the literature of previous generations has been ruthlessly vetted by history.
So eloquently stated.
I didn’t post this quote with the idea that literature produced under aristocracies or other forms of non-democratic government is lesser in content or form. What I think Tocqueville is highlighting here is that with everyone having a voice and being able to create literature it results in a lot of junk. This idea came across in Ryan’s initial post and comment replies. There is some staggering stats out there somewhere on how many blogs exist in cyberspace.
James I completely agree with you, especially “In the end what we read of the literature of previous generations has been ruthlessly vetted by history.” However, the question becomes, with so much garbage out there how many great ideas will be lost simply because the filtering process is unable to cope with the amount of content that is created everyday.
An example of my point might be that there is a lot of human junk orbiting Earth. What if, one day, a small capsule carrying some members from another intelligent life decided to stop by for a few quick orbits… would any of our sensors and scanners be able to pick them out from all the junk we have thrown up there?
Re: space junk- that’s a great metaphor but I suspect that the % of junk to quality doesn’t change appreciably with the rise in volume. Most genius will never be recognized. I just finished an amazingly good book called “The Rise and Fall of Alexandria.” To the point of this discussion, the volume of ancient writings that survived the collapse of that library culture is massive. All we have left is a tiny fraction of that treasure. From what we know and what survives however, I think it is safe to say, it included a huge amount of junk. Are we better off for only having so little to sort through?
I know you aren’t implying this, Tyler. If there is an argument it would be with my claim that the ratio hasn’t changed substantially.
On the other hand, I used to enjoy photography until digital cameras came along. Now we have a glut of pictures and I take mostly boring, functional pictures. Maybe I actually agree with Tocqueville. If you go on too long it you disagree with your opening premise 🙂
Nothing like rereading what one writes.
The sentence- “the volume of ancient writings that survived the collapse of that library culture is massive” should have said that- only tiny fraction of the vast Alexandrian libraries survived. Wow, what an misstatement!
I suppose that it proves the point that some of us should write less and edit more 🙂
James, fortunately reading minds make adjustments for such accidents. I imagine everyone assumed that is what you meant. I have often wished wordpress allowed commenters to fix their typos.
Hahaha I like your example of photography James. There has been a few people I’ve encountered who shared similar sentiments and have actually gone back to using film. Maybe this is a solution for you as well?
On to the point, even if the volume increase and the ratio stays the same, well that can be problematic in itself. However, I don’t want to be seen as an anti-democrat! And obviously support the democratization of literature for the reasons you very clearly stated. Only that, will all popular ideas, one must look at with skeptical eye.
@Ken: It would be nice it that feature would be implemented.
I think we’re actually singing from the same hymn book [using a metaphor from my context 🙂 ], Tyler.
As for skepticism- that is my philosophical religion.
Yeah, it’s hard to imagine Montaigne or Victor Hugo writing ’10 Things To Do With Your Toenail Clippings,’ or some such blog post. Come to think of it, I’ll avoid that topic too.
Ha! Yes, that is hard to imagine… But then Montaigne and Hugo never enjoyed the lofty and refined pleasures of being “tweeted” either… :).