Wednesday, February 04, 2004

A blogger by any other name 

Oh, the plight of anonymous blogs. At Gothamist, they start preaching that anonymity is simply wrong, wrong, wrong; at Salon, they act like they've hit on something cool when, in fact, they miss the boat by a few yards and try to be cute in coining a "term" that won't stick. I mean, AnonyBlogs? Like, that's so dotcom.

Anyway, Lizzie asked Our Girl in Chicago for her opinion on the matter, since she's a) pseudonymous, or anonymous, or whatever you want to call it and b) a mighty fine blogger. OGIC delivers with a response that echoes something I've been mulling over a while:

I like the anonymously written blogs I read, and in many cases the anonymity of the blogger contributes to the effect. I appreciate the sheer variety of voices, styles, and approaches of the blogs I visit every day, and for those bloggers who are anonymous to identify themselves would be a step in the direction of flattening things out?perish the thought.

What's struck me about the whole anonymity debate is that it's assumed that blogs should always adhere to journalistic integrity, and so by being anonymous, they can dish it out but not take it in return, so to speak. However, the more I read (and become addicted to) blogs, the more I believe that it has less in common with journalism and more in common with fiction writing, even if they never actually write something "fictional". And, considering my own slant here, I see some parallels to how mystery and suspense fiction is constructed. Surprising? Not necessarily.

First, the best blogs have to get to the point quickly to hook the reader. They can do this with a killer subject line that makes you laugh right away, or link to a news item with the highlighted portion emphasizing the most absurd part of the story, or better, constructing a funny paragraph with the highlighted portion linking to the item in question.

Second, the best blogs know how to construct their content to keep reading. Just when you think they've put up a fantastic post--oh wait! Here's another one. Just when you think that earlier post couldn't get more thoughtful, provoking, or controversial, they are back with another one. Blogs know how to move quickly, efficiently, and keep the reader strung along.

Third, the characters. Much as the form has come along way from Teenage Girl Syndrome and the all-too-personal LiveJournal-type blogs, over time, we come to care about who we're reading. Personal details get slipped in, or there's a cast of dozens who get blogrolled all the time. A community is fostered, and our hero/heroine has a wacky/supportive/caustic supporting cast to keep things interesting. Or, at the very least, to link to on a frequent basis.

Fourth, setting. My own favorites--just check the right-hand link for them--are very much a slave to their current habitat, be it the unique obsessiveness of New York or a whole host of others: Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Baltimore, Portland, Detroit, and so on and so forth. Even when they aren't necessarily trying, the sense of place comes through. I may spend an inordinate time talking about my NYC and London days, but I live in Ottawa now, and it can't help but bleed through in what topics I choose on occasion.

And that leads into item five: topics, or plot. Some blogs are all over the place; others stick to a chosen topic and never deviate. But the topics aren't interesting if they don't have a compelling character relating them, and not just anyone can talk about a topic at hand. Kind of like how character and plot are so intertwined.

Which leads to the most important thing that makes blogs, certainly the best ones, as compelling as they are: voice. OGIC mentioned it in the above quote, but for me, it is absolutely critical. If the blog voice doesn't grab me, I may not stick with it. But if it does--I will pay attention and keep to it. And so too when I read books, or critique or review them, ultimately, the book lives and dies by its voice. It has to have a solid structure, or at least a reasonably consistent one, and have the foundations in place, but after that, it's about the unique stamp of the author. Same with blogs. The structure may be imposed by the software used or general writing skill, but it's only a starting point; after that, it's all up to the blogger to communicate as effectively as he or she can. That's why "patois" blogs like Whatevs and So Sayeth the Peabs have become so popular to the point of inventing a new form of dialect. They take their topics of choice (entertainment/media and politics, respectively) and completely mess about with it using their own unique, hyper-kinetic voices. It's funny, exhausting, and damn near original. It may not be to everyone's tastes, but there is no denying their voices in this blogging culture. Which, of course, is well on its way to bleeding into mainstream popular culture as well.

And the point about voice is that it's almost independent of the actual person behind it. Plenty of novels, great ones certainly, were written anonymously or with a nom de plume. Does it change their importance or their entertainment factor? Not a chance. Jane Austen was still Jane Austen when she was published simply as "A Lady," or the Bronte Sisters when they were published with masculine pseudonyms. And there are plenty more examples along those lines. But if TMFTML, Atrios, OGIC, or any of your favorite anonymous bloggers suddenly "came out", it might change things briefly, but only briefly. In the end, it's the way they tell a story--the way they blog--that is the most important thing of all.

In the end, every book, and every blog, tells a story. And how the story unfolds is what keeps us hooked, keeps us compelled to the very last page--or when the blogger decides to hang it up.

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