Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Why I Blog,” in the new Atlantic, is a valuable meditation on the act of blogging from one of the key figures in the story of the rise of the political blogosphere. (It echoes a lot of what Sullivan wrote in a blogger “manifesto” back in 2002 — now available, as far as I can tell, only on the Internet Archive.)
It’s not surprising to find Sullivan focusing on the provisional, in-the-moment nature of a blogger’s work: of all the prominent political bloggers, he has charted the most extended voyage of partisan transformation, from a belligerent supporter of President Bush post 9-11 through disillusionment with the botched Iraq war and its accompanying moral failures to a current pro-Obama stance.
Sullivan describes blogging as “writing out loud,” a form that “exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before”:
It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.
I think it’s important to say that Sullivan offers blanket declarations about the nature of blogging that really ought to be understood as descriptions of his particular mode of blogging. The picture of blogging Sullivan paints is very much one from the perspective of a writer trained as a print journalist. Nothing wrong with that; I’m in the same boat. But blogging is, as Sullivan says, an enterprise of the individual, and individual experiences are all over the map — many, almost certainly the majority, very different from his, yet no less valid.
Another point Sullivan makes is that bloggers are actually more accountable than their conventional-journalism colleagues, not less — because “there is nothing more conducive to professionalism than being publicly humiliated for sloppiness” in the give-and-take of email or comments or linked-back posts.
So permit me to point out one sloppy error in “Why I Blog” — Sullivan’s description of Slate as “the first magazine published exclusively on the Web.” Sullivan also wrote for Salon, and he pairs Salon and Slate later in the piece, so I’d guess the error was careless rather than malicious. Still, let the record show that Salon published its first issue, “exclusively on the Web,” a full eight months before Slate — Nov. 1995 as opposed to mid-1996. (Here’s a piece I wrote back then making fun of some of what Slate editor Michael Kinsley had to say about the Web, which he plainly didn’t understand.) And Salon wasn’t the first, either, anyway. Steven Johnson and Stefanie Syman were publishing Feed for about six months before us. Hotwired, for that matter, launched a full year earlier than Salon. All were professional online-only “magazines” that paid their writers and sold ads. No doubt there were others I’m forgetting.
This really is the sort of mistake that fact-checkers are paid to prevent — trivial in one sense, but self-perpetuating in another, because the next time some fact-checker wants to know who published the first online magazine, they’ll cite this Atlantic piece as an authority.
As Sullivan puts it:
Unlike newspapers, which would eventually publish corrections in a box of printed spinach far from the original error, bloggers had to walk the walk of self-correction in the same space and in the same format as the original screwup.
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