Personal bests

Veteran blogger and writer-about-blogging
Rebecca Blood posted a thoughtful response yesterday following up on my report from the CyberSalon on elitism and blogging. But I confess it left me a little puzzled, because, though she said I “had it wrong,” I’m not sure exactly what she thought I got wrong, since I agree with about three-quarters of what she has to say, and none of what she says seems to contradict what I wrote.

Blood describes a premise that is certainly not mine — in fact, it matches pretty closely the Andrew Keen “Don’t waste my time with your mediocre blogs” position: “The unspoken premise underlying this argument is that books and articles are published commercially because they represent the best writing that is available.” Then she goes on to say, no, really, professional publishing is about “printing books and articles they can sell, nothing more, nothing less.”

Well, sort of. This is part of the picture, I think, but the full picture is a little more complex: Most publications and many publishers have some kind of division of labor between the editorial side and the business side, and the business people are more focused on the selling side of things, while the editorial people tend to concentrate on…editing. Editing means selection, usually according to the tradition of the paper or magazine or house. And that tradition makes assumptions about who the readers are and what they want and expect from the editors. The editors know that if the readers are happy with their choices they’ll keep coming back, and the business will thrive, so there is certainly a business substrate to the whole activity.

Most editors wouldn’t be so imprudent as to claim that they are publishing “the best” anything; usually, they’ll talk about trying to publish “the best” that they can find for their particular readers. The most effective editors have an accurate sense of who those readers are and what they want. Bad editors live in a dream-world; they think they’re serving their readers, but they run in horror from actual contact with actual readers.

So I’d say Blood’s description is oversimplified, incomplete, but not fundamentally wrong. She goes on to write: “Blogs are threatening to a certain type of writer not because they allow mediocre writing to flourish — the commercial market already does that. They are threatening because they unequivocally demonstrate that commercial publishing does not necessarily represent the best writing that is available.”

I think I agree, mostly: it’s great to see how new talent can crawl out of the woodwork on its own today without always having to wait patiently on some gatekeeper’s transom for years, and if that makes some of said gatekeepers uncomfortable, all the better. But I do hear in Blood’s passage a touch of the same absolutism that made Keen’s comments at the CyberSalon so irritating — only inverted. Keen sees mediocrity flourishing in the blogosphere; Blood sees mediocrity flourishing in the professional media.

Well, you know, mediocrity flourishes everywhere! So sayeth Sturgeon’s Law: 90 percent of everything is crud. Further complicating matters, your view of which 10 percent isn’t crud is likely to be different from mine, or Keen’s, or Blood’s. All “bests,” in the end, are subjective. Outside of sports and other scored pursuits, “best” is just another word for “my favorite.”

So the real challenge is to find ways of helping each of us find our way to a higher percentage of the stuff each of us thinks isn’t cruddy. And that’s where I side with Blood and the blogosphere: any new media structure that enables more voices to be heard and found deserves our embrace, because it increases the size of the pool in which we fish for our personal supply of non-crud.

I don’t share Keen’s confidence that we’re already doing such a fantastic job of wheat-from-chaff separating that we can afford to shut our minds to the “anarchy” of the Web. That’s smug and delusional. And I don’t expect to find “bests” — just more “aha”s and “uh-huh”s and “ohhh”s and “wow”s. And that’s more than good enough.

More CyberSalon stuff: Audio from the evening is now posted over at Keen’s AfterTV site.

And Dave Winer posts his thoughts on the event: It doesn’t have to be adversarial between bloggers and pro journalists, he says; in fact, “it mustn’t be adversarial, between us, because we already have a mutual adversary, the Executive Branch of the U.S. government, who would, if they could, completely disempower the press, and control the flow of information to the populace.”

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