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Archive for July 28th, 2008

Something has always bothered me about so-called celebrity bloggers, but I’ve never been quite able to identify it. I’ve vaguely thought that a lot of fuss was being made over very little, but never troubled to clarify the impression. The other day, though, I made a mental connection that explained why I was unimpressed.

When I was a university instructor, I did more than my share of first-year composition. When you’re new and being hired by the semester, that’s the price of clinging to the edges of academia. But the point is that, in most semesters, I would encounter students who had passed high school simply by completing every assignments. A few had even got scholarships because they had completed every assignment at exhaustive length. Often, some of these students would do poorly on their first few assignments – and, when they did, they couldn’t understand why. My explanation that, at university, you got marks for what you accomplished rather than what you attempted might have been talking in tongues for all the sense it made to them. How could they not pass? They had done the assignment, hadn’t they?

Too many celebrity bloggers, I concluded, were like these students. To a surprising degree, what they are known for is not for writing about interesting topics, or for insightful comments, or even for pithy turns of phrase, but for blogging and nothing else.

I remember that, at one networking event, the organizer announced that a celebrity blogger would be live-blogging the event. Immediately, everyone applauded, while the blogger looked around modestly. The blogger didn’t participate much in the event, being hunched over the keyboard of a laptop all evening, so naturally I expected some clear and concise reporting, if not the original insights along the lines of Joseph Addison’s or George Orwell’s.

What I found the next morning was an unfiltered stream of consciousness, perhaps of interest to the blogger’s friends, but no more intrinsically interesting than a conversation overheard on the bus. Authentic it might be, but also a well-bred bore, with little except basic literacy to recommend it.

The blogger, I realize now, was famous for blogging – not blogging well, but simply blogging. And, like the high school kids whose world view I used to detonate, to the blogger and their audience, that was supposed to be enough.

This impression was confirmed by a recent local blogathon, in which a number of these celebrity bloggers posted an entry every half hour for twenty-four hours, each trying to raise money for a favorite charity.

As a fund-raising idea, the blogathon seems futile and full of self-importance. Most people simply aren’t that interested in blogs. In every case where I could find figures, the amount of money raised was less than my average charity donation (and I’m far from wealthy).

But what matters here is how the effort was regarded. The organizer referred to participating in the blogathon as a “sacrifice” — mostly of time and sleep — when really it was nothing of the sort. It’s not a sacrifice when you get something in return, and, in my view, the sense of excitement and importance participants obviously received removed any sense of sacrifice from their efforts. And while such efforts are interesting when someone as accomplished as the American fantasist Harlan Ellison does them as a calculated bit of grandstanding (he has, for example, written in the window of a book store), I couldn’t help noticing that, in the case of the blogathon, what mattered in the blogathon was producing the requisite number of entries, not the quality of the entries.

Is anyone surprised that, except for an entry from a blogger who specialized in humor and one or two others, the entries were almost entirely void of interest for anyone except perhaps the bloggers and their immediate friends? Despite the popularity of personal journalism these days, it takes an expert to write a personal essay that interests acquaintances or strangers, and these didn’t. As Attila the Stockbroker used to say, it would take a mentally subnormal yak to care about most of the blogathon entries.

But that didn’t matter. What the blogathon participants care about was that, like my composition students, the fact that they had completed the assignments.

I don’t mean to insult celebrity bloggers by this observation. I’m friendly with one or two local ones, and, away from their obsession, some of them are interesting enough people. If they or their friends get pleasure from such entries, who am I to say that they shouldn’t? But I do mean to say that what they are doing is played by relaxed rules, and that I’m not interested imitating them.

For me, playing by real world rules is the only way worth playing. That doesn’t necessarily mean being paid for your writing (although it’s true that few reactions suggest that you are writing to at least a minimal standard than having someone buy the right to publish you). But unless my concern is catch the interest of others with every trick I can muster and risking failure, then I’m no better than a high school student expecting to be rewarded just for trying.

That’s fine for practice. But high school was a long time ago, and I prefer to operate by real world rules. If the rise of failure is greater (and I’m the first to admit that I’ve failed many times), then so is the chance of a truly satisfying success (and I’ve had a few of those, although far fewer than my ego likes to admit). In the end, what matters to me is not how much I write, but the reception it gets from readers.

Otherwise, in my own estimation, I am no better than those owners of one-person companies who call themselves CEOs – self-aggrandizing, lacking self-perspective, and more than slightly pathetic.

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