Monday, July 03, 2006

My Epiphany about Blogs

It occurred to me, in a blinding flash, the other day. Okay, so maybe there wasn't actually a flash, but I had a thought, which for an M.A. student in her last week of classes (working furiously to get to the "All But Thesis" state) is a pretty amazing thing.

My thought was that blogs are not so much like online journals (to which they are so often compared) as they are like the kind of "open letters" sent in the eighteenth century (around Alexander Pope's day). Back then, when you sent a letter to someone else in the literate society, you knew there was a possibility that it could get published at some point or other, which meant that although it was a private expression, it was also open to public comment.

This description of the eighteenth-century trend is more than slightly oversimplifying the matter, but the point is that the openness and community orientation of blogs makes them different than just online journals. And the eighteenth century practice of printing letters--which were often followed with printed agreements and disagreements--is the closest thing I can think of to what a blog does in our society today.

Of course, there probably are blogs that authors treat like online journals. That is, I could see that blog authors could get easily lulled into thinking that a blog is a completely private journal or a letter to only a few friends (fine if you can avoid names, etc.--which means, again, recognizing the public dimension--but I believe recent errors along that sort of line have gotten some people into trouble with potential employers, etc.).

One fascinating experiment with the "online journal" concept is the guy who's throwing the nineteenth-century author Henry David Thoreau's journal entries up on the Web as blog entries. Then again, the fact that much of the material in Thoreau's journal was re-worked and then re-used in his lectures and in works such as Walden and The Maine Woods seems to show that Thoreau's journal wasn't necessarily a purely "private" journal either--he, too, seems to have had a public audience in mind for some of the material down the road. (I'm sure I'll be able to report much more precisely and authoritatively on this matter once I get further into my thesis research.)

The point is that public/private, even when it comes to personal journals and letters, has been a bit squishy longer than blogs have been around. The method--and some of its implications--may be new, but the concepts behind it aren't.


Brenda said...

thanks for the insight. it's affirming to know that my narcissistic desire to share the details of my life with other people has been shared by other generations :)

and it's a neat thought to see blogging as just a different form of something that people have always done - this is just accessible to a different range of people (and personalities - usually not parents, i've noticed :))

Jodie Boyer said...

Being a historian I always think about posterity even when I write in my paper journal. Under right conditions it could be a scholarly source. I wouldn't need to be famous just luck into being around a really important social transformation and then suddenly they would be a gold mine of info. However, it is daunting to know that kids in my precepts can google me and read my blogs.. or old friends....

Deborah Leiter said...

Those pesky old friends, eh, Jodie? Ah, just ignore anything you don't want to hear from me. :)

I've been thinking about the correspondence thing a bit lately with what we were discussing in my textual scholarship class--how with the switch from print letters to email, much history may be lost for upcoming historians... Not to mention drafts of documents that are erased. In some ways, this is a good thing (we wouldn't want to choke the world with paper), but in others, it's a definite loss...

Oh, and Brenda, I'm always glad to show you that your narcissistic desires are old as the hills. That's what I'm here for, right? :)