A grumpy friend of mine once described social media as “having a conversation with oneself, but with the dubious expectation that others will join in.” The same week I came across the following quote: “books are the medium through which we commune with the dead.” It struck me that the blog, as a literary medium to express ideas, sits somewhere in between. Yes, it’s mostly a public conversation with myself, exploring topics that are of little interest to others. But it is also a way for me to leave my own intellectual watermark, one that may or may not persist forever in the digital ether.
Last September I realized that in a few months this blog would turn ten years old, and so I began a project to commemorate its anniversary. Each day for the following three months I would dedicate 30 minutes to reading, editing, and organizing the 1,000+ posts that have accumulated over the past decade. It was a dispiriting exercise.
I began with the first hundred or so posts from December 2003 until June 2004. Had you observed me reading through these posts, you would have witnessed alternating expressions of incredulity and deep embarrassment. What compelled me to publicly share so much of my neurotically energetic inner monologue? Why was I so desperate for attention, readers, comments? Why did I make so many banal and poorly worded observations as if they were grand, new ideas? My loyalty to the historical record and my deep sense of personal embarrassment battled with each other as I was tempted to delete each and every post. (And delete many I did.)
Ira Glass once observed that the only thing worse than looking back on your former creative work with a sense of embarrassment is looking back and realizing that you are no longer able to create at the same calibre. I repeated this to myself, hoping it would reduce my sense of shame.
From September until New Years Day I was able to read about 300 of the more than 1,000 posts I’ve published. I simply didn’t have the time to read the rest, which begs the question: How much time over the past decade have I spent on this blog? I don’t mean just researching and writing, which take a significant amount of time, but also organizing the content, responding to comments and messages, tweaking the design, upgrading the software on the server. What could I have accomplished with that time had I dedicated it to some other pursuit — say, painting or studying a musical instrument or simply spending more time with family and friends? What have I accomplished, if anything, by dedicating thousands of hours over the past decade to this humble little website when I don’t even have the time or, really, the inclination to review its content myself?
It’s easy to deride the blog as a medium of creative work. The very lack of editorial gatekeeper leaves the blog without an authoritative stamp of cultural currency. We have all read a blog post at some point that was more meaningful than what we routinely read in the New Yorker, but as a collection of many posts, it is still “just a blog.” By my own judgement, this thing, this collection of more than 1,000 different posts over the past decade is far from a creative accomplishment. Often, the only thing holding the individual texts together is myself.
Jackson Pollock famously said that the point of painting isn’t the resulting work but the process itself. That’s what I would say, too, if I sold canvases of paint droppings for tens of thousands of dollars. But his larger point applies to how I’ve come to reconcile the enormous amount of time I’ve invested in this blog. (Granted, I’ve also spent an enormous amount of time sleeping and I’m less compelled to reconcile that investment.)
I used to think that I wrote in order to influence — that my goal was to influence others by sharing my ideas and observations. I had thought that I aspired to be a “thought leader,” and this was my toolbox. In fact, I realize now, I write in order to learn. By organizing my ideas into a narrative, I am able to apply what I learn to my own life. Just as often, once I put my thoughts into paragraphs, I realize that they are contradictory or illogical.
For some reason, that narrative structure only takes place when I know that I am writing for a public audience.
On Total Noise
I imagine that most bloggers, like me, grew up reading long form essays in magazines with a sense of appreciation and envy. The blog — as a technology and cultural norm — opened up the possibility of becoming an essayist to everyone, ultimately contributing to what David Foster Wallace dubbed “Total Noise.” The incredible amount of access we now have to information and ideas has led to:
a rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
This then is the greatest paradox and contradiction of blogging. While it enables me to hopefully create wisdom from ideas by applying them to my own life, it also compels me to add to the Total Noise that limits our ability to make sense of the world around us.
We only live life once, and so we are likely to justify our decisions whether or not we’d make them again given a second chance. If I were forced to re-live the past ten years, I would probably spend slightly less time blogging, and more time reading and exploring. Still, I look back over the past decade of blogging with a sense of satisfaction — not for what I have created, but for who it has helped me become.