On Blogging

Reading both Andrew’s comments on the Atlantic’s site re-design and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am reminded again of the importance of creating something personal with new media, that blogging is not journalism exactly, and that bloggers themselves are more rightly the “brand” in question than the publications they write for (though, in all honesty, there is and should be a mix – Coates and the Atlantic are in some sense a dual-brand, neither one the same without the other.  Same goes for all the Atlantic bloggers.)  As Andrew notes,

[A] blog is inherently a live process and conversation and anyone who actually understands blogging’s intimate relationship to its readership – and the critical importance of conversation to the endeavor – would never have dreamed of turning it into a series of headlines. That’s what worries me deeply. Not the inevitable transitional glitches but the philosophy behind it.

I think this cuts to the heart of the matter, and cuts directly to why so many people – myself included – really dislike the re-design at the Atlantic.  It’s not the aesthetic that I find so bothersome – and indeed, I don’t notice much of a change at all at Andrew’s digs – but the transformation of the other blogs into essentially archives, subsumed into the larger “channels” and thus stripped, to some degree, of their personalities.  Since the draw of these ‘voices’ has always been one of the Atlantic online’s strongest features, I find this disappointing to say the least – but like Andrew notes, it is the philosophy behind it that is most troubling.  This passage from Coates is worth reading also:

For my part, you have to understand that, to a large extent, whatever beautiful things have happened here, over the past two years, were, essentially, a fortunate mistake. What you’ve gotten is me hopping online and rather carelessly deciding to be myself, to talk to you, as much as possible, in the same way I talk to the people I know. And then basically curating the comments, banning people, deleting, and coaxing until there was a comments section that I, personally, loved reading.

It wasn’t market-tested. When I first got here, we didn’t even really have a web editor, and none of us expected this to grow into what became. We didn’t discuss whether it would be a good idea to have a post about Barry Sanders, next to a post about the Real Housewives of Atlanta, next to a series about the Civil War. We didn’t discuss commenting policy. We just kinda liked each other (me and my editors here) and decided to try something.

In short, none of this was intentional. It was all intuitive. And it’s fucked up, but it’s only as I’m writing this that I’m actually getting that that really is the point, and a big part of the draw. I kind of knew that, but it’s only in the absence of a coherent thing that I’m really seeing that.

This unintentional process is important.  There is something spontaneous and personal about blogging that is a serious if intangible change from traditional journalism. It is also, I think, the most important thing about a successful blogger – this ability for readers to connect and empathize with them. Similarly the community created around a blogger or a project is vitally important.  Jaybird has likened our own humble digs to a bar where we can all sit around and talk politics and culture and whatever over beers.  I have adopted this analogy in how I think about The League.  Indeed, I have come to think of The League as more than just a site, more than just a cadre of writers, but as a community unto itself, with all our commenters as part of the larger project.  The place would not be the same without the many commenters who liven up the threads – from Jaybird to Bob Cheeks to Michael Drew to North to greginak and so on and so forth – the list is too long to name you all. 

One of my great struggles writing elsewhere has been the lack of this relationship.  (New technical limitations have limited my own ability to respond to comments here in a timely fashion, but I do read each and every one.)  Indeed, though I am paid to write at True/Slant, I find myself devoting more time and energy to my writing here – and not just because it is a project that I helped start and continue to help shape, but because of this ongoing conversation we have gotten ourselves into – I can only frequent so many bars, I suppose, and this is my bar of choice.  (I know there is some crossover between commenters here and at True/Slant, but to be honest the comment system there is somewhat inhospitable.  And I dislike, perhaps, being just one of several hundred writers, whereas here I feel like I am part of a team, or at least a band of misfits…)  There is something organic about it that I enjoy.  I can anticipate who will be sitting where and drinking what, and who will storm out angry and who will chuckle at the antics and so forth.   And part of this is the site design, how we have worked to make the comments an integral part of this site, how we have kept the site fairly clean and ad-free, and so forth.  Perhaps it is also human nature to seek out communities (and bars) which we feel comfortable in. 

However, one of our original intentions with this site was to create a place where sustained, internal dialogue between writers, commenters, and guest-writers could be nurtured and grow into something rather unlike anything else on the interwebs.  I think, to some degree, in our push to increase traffic, to link to (and be linked by in return) Really Important Bloggers, we have let that part of our mission fall to the wayside.  I know others here have expressed a similar sense that this is the case.  Whether this has been an inevitable side-effect to creating a successful site, or to simply running out of things to talk to each other about is hard to say.  For my own part, I know that I focused a great deal on increasing traffic, on making the site as good as possible – and I admit to feeling a bit of a rush when I’d pick up a link from the Dish or get a good response from Larison or other bloggers who I had read and admired.

Either way, I wonder how the readers and commenters feel about this (not that the two groups, I hope, are mutually exclusive).  After just over a year, it’s incredible to see how far this blog has come.  We have gained and lost bloggers.  We are still (I hope, and believe) producing good, interesting, and relatively unique content.  We are still ad-free and entirely self-funded or funded by the generosity of the best damn commenters on the internet.  But have we lost some of that original vision?  Some of that original intent?  I would be interested to hear from both writers here and commenters on how, if at all, we could right the ship, reorient to bring back some of the conversational aspects of the original mission.  Make the site even better and more lasting.  We ditched the “series” function, but perhaps went too far in ditching the concept of series altogether.

In other words, this is a space to talk about blogging, this blog in particular, how it is doing things right and how it is doing things wrong, and so forth.  Thanks.

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41 thoughts on “On Blogging

  1. Speaking as an infrequent commenter, the dialogue in comments of this blog is right up there with Coates’ as the best in the web. There are few places where I will generally read all the comments and think “man, I don’t think I could have written that as well.” That makes for an intelligent, powerful, challenging community and website, which I generally learn a lot from. So no, I don’t think the community is faltering, especially compared to the majority of your peers around the web.

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      • If that’s the primary concern, two suggestions: there used to be audio posts of conversations between Gentlemen on a certain topic (I remember submitting a few questions for one a while back) that would be great to revive when brothers are going back and forth on a topic in posts or running along similar lines. If that is untenable, you could do an email dialogue and post the conversation. Either way, along with increased participation in the comments, there would be a much better feel of conversation among the main contributors.

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  2. Lord I hate the Atlantic redesign on poor Coates’ site. Even Mcardle is unreadable at the moment but the Atlantic has some pretty bright squirrels in their house. I’m hopeful they’ll unpack a paragraph or so from behind those links so the sites look at least a little like blogs again.

    As for the League I haven’t any complaints. You can’t have the site feel intimate and also have thirty bazillion readers/commenters. The two are somewhat mutually exclusive. But I think you lads (and ladies) have done a bang up job. And yes, the commentators are full of win (except that North fellow, what an over opinionated hack!)

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  3. I really have been disenchanted with my turn at Beliefnet for these reasons. The biggest problem is that the Moveable Type interface is so slow and clunky and unintuitive that comment maintenance (or really, any admin task at all) is a gigantic chore. The audience is much less organic – what few regular readers i have that I retained from my move, are drowned out by casual first timers and trolls and spam. Its been essentially impossible to construct a dynamic community and ive resigned myself to the thought that at COB I wont be able to really have one, not as long as I am on Beliefnet, anyway. (no better offers have been forthcoming or are likely, so I need to accept this).

    Conversely, at Talk Islam, we have essentially the ideal community. By adopting the policy of promoting pretty much every regular commentator to a front page contributor, we have built a really solid cadre of reader-writers and blurred the line between posts and comments. The layout shows comments and posts together so you see the debate all at once instead of hiding commentary away behind a click. The Twitter-esque style does mean that teh original posts tend to be less verbose, but the debates that follow are usually stellar.

    Still, its not a place where I can just write for its own sake like I used to at old COB. At my old incarnation, I would write what i felt like writing, and didnt bother worrying about who would read it or wouldn’t, about traffic (I never even had a site meter on COB then), or how it would be received. I just write what I wanted to, as a stream of thought rather than a structured essay (and this got me into trouble on occasion).

    Right now I feel somewhat adrift in blogging. I dont really have an outlet where I can write for myself, and still attract a vibrant community of debate. I think the League comes closer to that kind of ideal model and I frankly envy you folks for having been able to build what has eluded me.

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  4. Here’s my two cents: As to the value of the comments section here at The League – it’s superb in every way. I came to blogging from the chatboard world and the comment section here is better than any chatboard I was ever a member of. This is the only blog where I particpate in the comment threads. The commentors here routinely make me feel like an amateur among pros and I have been forced to reconsider my beliefs on numerous occassions because the counter-arguments were so damned hard to refute. And let’s hear it for an extremely high level of politeness and downright respect for other opinions!

    As for criticism, this is small but important. My first complaint is that there is no longer a real conversation between the writers with any regularity. All of you write thought-provoking and interesting stuff but it’s heading more in the direction of Moderate Voice or True/Slant with no high-level cohesion. I miss that.

    I also wish the writers were more involved in the comment threads. When they aren’t there is a bit of an aloofness that comes across (read my words but don’t expect me to defend them or participate in the conversation they spawn). Mark remains very good at staying engaged in the comments on his posts and I’ve noticed the new League members are doing a good job as well. Others need some work. My policy at my own blog (which admittedly has a lot less traffic) is that I respond to every comment directed at me or my writing specifically. I feel like it’s a show of respect for those who take the time to read my prose. If the conversation veers off into a dialogue between two commentors, my obligation is less-so but I still like to try and stay engaged.

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  5. As an occasional commenter and guest author, I have to say that I haven’t really noticed a decline in quality, per se. The thoughts expressed are still excellent, and I can only dream that my own blog will be nearly as good as this one.

    There doesn’t seem to be, perhaps, quite the same degree of cohesion that the League once had. You Gents all seemed to have an interest in commenting on each other’s threads, and there seemed to be more back-and-forth. One got a sense of all of you through this ongoing interaction. This is similar to what Mike at the Big Stick is saying, I think. You don’t seem quite so involved with each other as you used to.

    Still, I also agree with above comments that the community here is of incredibly high quality, similar to the crew at Ta-Nehisi’s place and The Plank at its best.

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  6. I first went online in 1995 at a poetry site that was like a message board, and then drifted to other sites as the sophistication of interaction grew, then from poetry, I ventured to Philosophy sites, then blogs became available and I started both a poetry blog and a business blog. What I have liked about the whole experience is the interaction among commenters. I started a political blog a little over a year ago and it’s my private place to enjoy writing, not much interaction, but I really like places like the League which are community blogs. The League has done a good job of creating a personality and avoiding commercialism — there’s a place for commercialism and a place for unhampered communication. I felt at one time the League was drifting into Democrat partisanship, but it’s remained objective and diverse for the most part. I like the fact that the writers participate in the converstations. The best poetry site I was at on the old message boards was one where there was plenty of interaction, arguments, critiques, philosophical discussions and, most importantly, biting, brave, and somtimes weird, humor. The community blog forum is a much better forum for interaction and converstation — I hope places like the League survive, innovate and thrive, and never lose their personalities.

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  7. Dan and Mike:

    I think you’re both on to something about the conversational element of things, and it’s something that I know we’d like to get back to a lot more. On the issue of participation in threads by post-authors, I think it important to note that there are technological limitations that have sprouted up that vastly inhibit the ability of two Gents to participate as much as they would like in the comments threads. I know that’s a bit vague, but hopefully you can do the math.

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  8. Hell, I’m here to stamp out communism wherever I find it!!! Ok, I’m kidding (..a little). Actually, I’m an old dude and not familiar with you snarky kids when I started ‘commenting’ with the intention of provoking response. However, over the ensuing months I’ve read your comments and your blogs and they continue to impress me, not only with your wit, by dare I say it, yes…your erudition and occasional wisdom.
    I’m impressed because you guys do your research though sometimes I bitch about and question your sources. However, as a result of your work I’ve gotten a broader perspective on the issues though I remain ardently a Rightest, perhaps even more so, simply because I love my fellow man.
    So, you kids are brilliant interlocutors though often wrong (…Freddie, are you there); captured by the gods of immanence yet, sometimes yearning for the transcendental (don’t worry kids, it’ll come).!

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  9. Erik, I think your post is timely and dead-on. My first couple of weeks here have been an incredible ride (thanks, above all, to the responses from my fellow writers and all you commenters), but I’ve been searching for a way to make my posts part of an intra-League conversation. A few days ago I looked back at the first couple of weeks of posts here on the League, and the level of interaction between all of you was incredible.

    My plan at this point is simply to make an even greater effort to carefully read, research (if necessary, but hopefully not!) and respond to all of you. But goodness, you all write so much! — slow down and give a guy a chance, will you?

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  10. Good post Erik. I often wonder why certain blogs end up with good comment sections and others don’t. Communities are difficult to knowingly create. TNC has a great community. Matt Y has a crappy comments section filled with trolls. Crooked Timber often has great discussions.

    It is much better to have the bloggers particpate in the discussions. On many blogs that is often the only reason to read the comments.

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  11. Of course, I love it here and I love all y’all. If the comments ever suck, I’m pretty sure that it’s my fault and if the comments are ever awesome (as they usually are) I’m pretty sure it’s because of everybody else.

    Y’all are the bomb diggity. I don’t say that enough.

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  12. You’ve still got the sense of community that makes this a unique place in the ‘sphere. It really helps that the contributors comment on each other’s posts, write posts in response to one another, and carry an ongoing conservsation over several posts. You may have several tables set up in this bar (and multiple conversations at each table), but you can tell that people are moving from table to table.

    BTW, what happened to the side list of contributors?

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  13. I’ve not been very good at connecting my little posts to the larger conversation. But I’m tending increasingly to think that we’re all blogging about the same topic here. Much of the discussion about the relative impoverishment of the current political discourse seems, to me, to be fundamentally about culture instead of politics. I think we’re all bemoaning a certain cultural inability or unwillingness to talk seriously together about things that matter. So, I’ve been seeing the site as a place for slow, patient thinking about human life, which I hope would ultimately produce a better political culture. But, of course, I’m a newbie and I might well be part of the problem. I don’t know.

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