If Joe Blogs, Why Can’t I?

So I’ve got this new website. I had one ten years ago set up by interdisciplinary artist Chris Dooks, but I never found the time to do anything with it. This Mark II version is being launched thanks to the efforts of my creative partner Dini Power and the multi-talented Jim Byrne. This is the first blog I’ve ever posted on my own website. When it comes to blogging I’m a debutant, a fresher, a newbie, a novice, a virgin. I’m a relative newcomer to social media as a whole. I’m not part of the Twittersphere, though I am on Facebook, and I post quite regularly so I’m not that shy. I do publish online but mostly as an academic. And I did a podcast recently, but for someone else’s site. A blog is a different matter though. I have written a few literary “blogs” for the Scottish Book Trust, but proof that I never really got the hang of the required brevity of the format came when one of my posts was flagged as a “Long Read”.

Blogs, as short essays, belong to the same family as letters, opinion pieces, reviews, previews, features and flash fiction. I may be longwinded at times but I like the short form a lot – the chance to put in my tuppence worth without worrying about footnotes always feels liberating. I did some journalism, mainly reviewing, in the Nineties and Noughties and I’ve written programme notes for plays by Irvine Welsh and Muriel Spark. But maybe it’s time for me to become part of the Blogosphere, “the cultural or intellectual environment in which blogs are written and read; blogs, their writers, and readers collectively, esp. considered as a distinct online network”.

I’m blagging my references to blogging here from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one of my favourite research tools and the go-to place or starting-point for all my journeys into language, including much of what follows. I’ve always been interested in the history of words, where they come from, what they do. From an early age I was obsessed with adventures in etymology. As a form the blog is now twenty years old. It has been around since 1999 and began life as “A frequently updated website, typically run by a single person and consisting of personal observations arranged in chronological order, excerpts from other sources, hyperlinks to other sites, etc.; an online journal or diary”. It’s over forty years since I kept a diary, but diaries tend to be daily whereas a blog can be weekly, or better still monthly. To blog is of course “to run a Web log”. Or, as another source says “To blog is to be part of a community of smart, tech-savvy people who want to be on the forefront of a new literary undertaking”. One definition doing the rounds when the blog first took off was that “weblog” meant “wee-blog”. Whether that means “wee” as in piss or petite I’m really not sure. Both, probably. Another source observed that “Blogs … contain daily musings about news, dating, marriage, divorce, children, politics in the Middle East …. or millions of other things or nothing at all”. The default blog is probably “nothing at all”.

One of the most interesting early references to blogging is to be found in The Washington Post from 17 May 2001, where it’s reported that “Journalist Jim Romenesko’s clearinghouse for media gossip … showed how a personal blog could go pro when the Poynter Institute hired him … to blog full time.” Since then there have been many more examples of blogs becoming books or leading to jobs. A fair few novels and memoirs have started off as blogs. Bloggers have replaced traditional journalism to some extent, and blogging has come to be seen as a culture in its own right: “The Web has long been home to tens of thousands of different cultures, but there hasn’t been a culture for the Web; not until bloggers came along”. On 6 July 2001 The Economist reported: “Blogging … has in the past couple of years exploded from a cultish techie activity into a cottage industry churning out increasingly compelling content”.

The response is not all positive, of course. The first hint that the Blogosphere might foster “fake news” appeared in the New Statesman on 19 April 2004: “The bad habits of the blogosphere are corrupting the world of print discourse”. That’s one point of view – that of a privately-owned press eager to hold onto its readership. Corporate journalism was soon forced to sit up and take notice of the ways in which social media was stealing its thunder. A report in The Daily Telegraph on 14 March 2008 proved prophetic: “When Iranians vote in today’s parliamentary election, millions will have been influenced by lively debate in the only domain their regime struggles to control: the internet and blogosphere”. Today that same blogosphere is affecting how people vote elsewhere, as other regimes struggle to control it. From the Arab Spring to the Scottish Independence Referendum the blogosphere – and social media more generally – plays a vital role in agitating, educating and informing, as well as confusing, infuriating and misinforming. What I like about the idea of blogging is that it can be influential but nobody is going to take it as gospel; it’s a kind of thinking aloud, thinking on the hoof, contributing to discussion. It’s never going to be the last word. And in that spirit, here endeth my first blog.