Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gatekeepers and publishing

This weekend, I co-presented a workshop with Assistant Professor Judith Anderson at Columbus State Community College's annual creative writing conference, this one titled "Genres and Generations." Our workshop dealt with the opportunities Web 2.0 has opened to artists, and how writers can use blogs and social networking to attract and build an audience for their printed work.

During an afternoon panel discussion on creative nonfiction, someone in the audience raised a question about blogging as a form of the essay. The panelists answered that bloggers were, essentially, narcissists, a waste of bandwidth and of time. This judgment drew sharp objections from the floor, including several from participants in our morning workshop. They countered the stereotype, arguing that many bloggers are intensely aware of and involved with the world around them, linked in a network of communications with others who were often passionately committed to issues, interests and causes.

The keynote speaker for the conference had been Walter Mosley, who on Friday night read from his book This Year You Write Your Novel. Mosley encouraged the audience to invest the time and effort in attempting to write their own stories. One audience member asked Saturday's panel how Mosley's injunction squared with their condemnation of earnest bloggers who are dedicated to writing. The response was that bloggers are certainly permitted to write, but they're wrong to publish.

Publishing, the panelists agreed, requires gatekeepers, to minimize the dangers that unmonitored publishing might pose to society and to individuals. The discussion then switched to the topic of fraudulent material that had been posted on Wikipedia. (Never mind that Wikipedia isn't a blog. All hypertext is equally suspect.)

The panel was composed of people whose wit and judgment I hold immense respect for, but I must disagree with them on this point. I believe they view the Internet simply as simply a different delivery method for the printed word, rather than as an entirely new medium. But the two are different. Print, as McLuhan pointed out decades ago, is mechanical and explosive. It fragments the audience into individual, specialized readers. Hypertext is electric and implosive. It tends toward a tribal structure of deep involvement, a breakdown of barriers.

Print-oriented academics, I believe, see the blog as a private journal (including all the form's associations with paper, ink and handwriting) that has been posted online merely for the sake of the writer’s vanity. A small percentage may, in fact, be that.

The true blog, though, begins as unmediated electronic text, posted as a statement in an ongoing conversation. It's not a matter of isolated words designed to be contemplated in tranquility. It's a voice speaking in a village, in a chorus or babble of other voices. As long as the social structure of the village is healthy, the service of a gatekeeper, deciding who may or may not speak, is not required.

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