Sunday, May 15, 2005

Blogging, as in Slogging

NYT reports "YOU should have a blog." Apparently I push my opinions on my friends rather aggressively, because I often hear this remark. Last week, I had my chance. My wife and I agreed to be "guest bloggers" - the online equivalent of what David Brenner used to do for Johnny Carson - for Dan Drezner, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who runs a popular libertarian-conservative blog, How hard could blogging be? You roll out of bed, turn on your computer, scan the headlines, think up some clever analysis while brushing your teeth, type it onto your site and you're off.

But as I discovered, blogging is no longer for amateurs or the faint of heart. Blogging - if it's done well - has evolved into an all-consuming art. Last Sunday, after a cup of coffee, I made my first offering, a smart critique, I thought, of an article about liberal politics in The New York Review of Books by Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" I checked back a while later. There were, I think, three responses. Later, another post generated eight replies. Another, two. A couple got zero. I checked the responses to Dan's posts. He seemed to average about 50. Sure, my wife, Suzanne, had been blogging for weeks on her own site,, but still how was she getting 12, 19, even 34 replies? I started to worry. It wasn't just my ego. I didn't want to send Dan's robust traffic numbers into a downward plunge.

As I thought about what else to opine about, I started to see that blogging wasn't as easy as it looked. Who were these people, blogging on other sites, who so confidently tossed about obscure minutiae relating to North Korea's nuclear program or President Bush's proposed revisions to Social Security benefits? Where did they find the time? (To say nothing of the readers.) Serious bloggers, I realized, aggressively report a pet issue, updating their sites throughout the day. They scavenge the Internet for every shard of information on a hot topic, like John R. Bolton's chances of becoming ambassador to the United Nations or Tom DeLay's ethical troubles. Since I wasn't going to make myself expert on these subjects anytime soon, I decided to write about what I knew, history.

On Tuesday, I posted a link to a piece I'd written for the online magazine Slate, faulting President Bush for his remarks criticizing the 1945 Yalta agreement, in which he said that Europe was unjustly carved up by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. This time I got a lot of responses - abusive ones. Sample: "Anyone who thinks its 'ugly' to point out what was done to millions of people at Yalta is a moral cretin." I posted again to clarify my point - that the Yalta agreement wasn't what consigned Eastern Europe to Soviet oppression. But I wasn't looking forward to the next fusillade of invective. I did have sympathy for the audience. They expected their usual diet of conservative commentary. Instead, they got a liberal foreign policy expert (Suzanne) and a liberal historian linking to Arts & Letters Daily ( and the History News Network (

One Dreznerite vilified me for linking to a piece by the liberal journalist Joe Conason ("Why on earth would you think that gutter-dwelling hack would have any credibility on this blog?"). At one point, Dan took time out from real surfing in Hawaii to post a note informing readers that he had two liberals subbing for him. He must have been watching the train wreck on his beloved blog with horror. I posted an item thanking readers for their indulgence.

"Could you please stop with these silly remarks about how you 'liberals' have to deal with Dan's 'conservative' readers?" came the reply. "I'm liberal, and I regularly read Dan's blog." As I checked other sites for ideas, I now realized that I didn't need only new information. I needed a gimmick - a motif or a running joke that would keep the blog rolling all week. All of a sudden, I was reading other blogs, not for what they had to say, but for how they said it.

The best bloggers develop hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases that they put into wider circulation. Creating your own idiosyncratic set of villains to skewer and theories to promote - while keeping readers interested - requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece. I'd always enjoyed, for example, but I had taken for granted the way my friend Mickey Kaus paced his entries and mixed his news topics (Social Security) with personal obsessions (Jonathan Klein, the CNN honcho). I knew I wasn't going to master the art in my few remaining days. And the vicious replies were wearing me down. I've gotten nasty responses to my articles before, but blogging is somehow more personal.

When Dan Drezner guest-blogged at the Washington Monthly site, one reader wished bodily harm on his family members. I found the blood lust jarring - especially when it started arriving in bulk, daily. (Suzanne cheerfully said, "Oh, just ignore them!" and kept posting thousand-word items by night.) It's not that the readers were dim. Some forced me to refine or clarify my arguments. But the responses certainly got reductive, very quickly. And for all the individuality that blogs are supposed to offer, there was an amazing amount of groupthink - since some of them were getting their talking points from ... other blogs.

By the end of the week, with other deadlines looming and my patience exhausted, I began to post less and less. There was a piece for Slate due, a book chapter to finish, my baby boy, Leo, to entertain and a piece to write for the Week in Review. I wasn't the only newcomer to blogging last week. On the ballyhooed "Huffington Post," Gary Hart, Walter Cronkite and David Mamet dipped their toes in the blogosphere as well. I don't know how they'll fare, but I doubt that celebrity will attract readers for long. To succeed in blogging you need to understand it's a craft, with its own tricks of the trade. You need a thick skin. And you must put your life on hold to feed an electronic black hole. What else did I learn by sitting in for Dan Drezner? That I'm not cut out for blogging.

Ann Althouse blogged A history prof -- David Greenberg -- tries his hand at blogging -- guest-blogging on a well-established site -- and then dashes off a NYT Week in Review piece about how surprised he was that it was kind of hard. Well, at least he slams The Huffington Post on his way down. The comparison to HuffPo is apt. Like the HuffPo bloggers, Greenberg didn't really give any thought to how to blog well. I'll just find an article, opine something, then see if I get a lot of comments. Not as many comments as Dan Drezner? Waaaahhhh. This is too hard. I have a wife, a job, a baby. Those successful bloggers must be losers. He admits it's hard but only hard in a way that's not really worth doing. Let me go back to my taut, sculpted writing and leave the blogosphere to those less fussy writers who do shtick. NYT message in publishing Greenberg's pathetic -- not taut! -- whine: Shun the bloggers! Stay here with us, where work is edited -- sculpted! Lamely, the NYT attempt to link to Dan Drezner's blog doesn't go to the blog. And Greenberg's attempt to link to his wife's blog is taking us nowhere too.

Jan Haugland blogged I was a bit confused when I read Daniel Drezner's excellent blog some days ago, certainly not recognizing the tone, wit and viewpoints I had come to appreciate. The explanation was that Dan had taken a blog hiatius, and outsourced the blog to David Greenberg and his wife Suzanne Nossel. Not to say anything negative about the couple, but it certainly wasn't the kind of blog I like reading. David Greenberg retells his ordeal being thrown to the blogosphere wolves. He now has quite a bit of respect for bloggers. All-consuming is right, even for those of us not doing it that well.

Pejman Yousefzadeh blogged David Greenberg appears stunned to find out that there is research that goes on in the Blogosphere. Here is the post in question. The "cretin" remark is nowhere to be found--perhaps it was deleted for being abusive (if so, I can fully understand and accept the reasons why). But take a look at the other comments. Were they all "abusive"? Were they even close? Greenberg's melodrama is a bit much, methinks.

James Joyner blogged I was going to Fisk David Greenberg's insipid, condescending NYT op-ed explaining why he's not cut out for the blogging game but Pejman Yousefzadeh beat me to it.

David should have spent some time reading other blogs before he dove into the deep end of the pool.

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