Friday, April 29, 2005

Does Blogging, Unlike Conventional Journalism, Invite Engagement and Active Thinking?

Ann Althouse has an interesting post on how blogging, as opposed to conventional journalism and media generally, encourages active engagement, not passivity. It's thought-provoking stuff and I recommend reading it.

Here's the comment that I left on her site:
I understand your point, I think. I find it increasingly difficult to set aside the time to watch a movie, especially when I could be more productive. And that only refers to watching one at home because I haven't been to a theater since the Christmas day a few years back when my family and I went to see the forgettable 'Cold Mountain.'

Years ago in 'Rolling Stone,' Ralph Gleason did a column on Bob Dylan. He focused on Dylan's lyrics, rich enough to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories in his hearers and vague enough to invite such responses from us. Gleason concluded that Dylan was the practitioner of a "democratic art," allowing the listener to move beyond passive consumption to a kind of dialog with the artist.

That's high-fallutin' stuff, but it rings true to me and I think that blogging, with its immediacy and lack of middle people, allows for that as well.

Blogging is, or can be, dialogical. In that sense, it isn't passive, as most other forms of art or communication are.

On the other hand, ultimately, all media are passive. After all, reading a blog isn't like a brisk walk or time spent on the elliptical trainer. We can rifle through the millions of "channels" on the web--or, more likely, revisit the same blog haunts day after day--with the same disengagement that we bring to our TV remotes. (I heard the other day that the average person will change channels on their remote 350,000 times in an average lifetime. I don't know who studies these things, but there you go.)

If we define a lack of passivity as having and exercising options, doing so in the more rapid style that the internet makes possible, you're probably right.

But in a way, and this will seem like cyber-heresy, I think that we lost something when cable, satellite, DVDs and VCRs, iPods, the Internet, and all the rest came down the techno-pike. In the old days when there were three major TV networks and the fledgling PBS, if your set was equipped for it, there were more shared experiences. Revolted or not, Mom and Dad sat semi-patiently through the scream-punctured performances of the Beatles on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' knowing full well that Topo Giggio, Victor Borge, Russian circus bears, or the guy who spun the plates on sticks would be on next. Broad-casting was more than a technical term, it meant presenting omnibus and block programming to a broad audience. If we were to watch TV, we generally were exposed to lots of different things and who knows, might actually have our horizons expanded.

Blogging, at least in the sense of reading blogs, is not usually like that. Unless a blog-reader is an extraordinarily voracious net-cruiser like Glenn Reynolds, my guess is that most of us settle in to reading just the sites that please us or worse, the ones with which we usually agree. Under those conditions, blog consumption becomes a bit like listening to the narrowcasting offered by local and satellite radio these days. You don't have to suffer through anything new or different. And that, it seems to me, is the worst kind of passivity.

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