Yesterday, Scott Greenfield quoted a Wired article by Paul Boutin that said, in part:
Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.
Scott reacted with a call to arms,
Boutin is right about the forces that are undermining the blogosphere. I’ve seen them coming and have warned others…and tried to fight them myself. But Boutin is wrong that the game is over and the blogosphere is dead. To borrow from Monty Python, we’re not dead yet. But if those of us who inhabit a real blogosphere, the one that Boutin calls a “freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought,” don’t put up a real fight against the “tsunami of paid bilge,” it will eventually drown us.
Fight it on your own blawg. Don’t let the scum get the upper hand out of inertia or some misguided egalitarian belief that even scum should have free rein…The blawgosphere has room for people who have something worthwhile to say, but when it fills up with folks who think it’s just free and easy marketing, it will suffocate under the weight of thousands of murdered words.
I’m with Scott Greenfield here. This is not the end of quality blogging (or blawging if you prefer). In fact, I think Scott overstates the threat. I don’t think the growth of free and easy marketing sites will hurt the core of quality blogging.
I say that with some confidence because, in a very different context, I’ve seen all this before.
The modern history of science fiction literature begins in 1977, with the release of the movie Star Wars. It may be hard for some of you younger folks to believe, but before Star Wars there was no such thing as a big-budget science fiction blockbuster. Science fiction movies were poorly produced crap about space monsters, and they weren’t profitable because they were popular, they were profitable because they were cheap to make.
(Not that some good ones didn’t sneak through—Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Andromeda Strain, Day the Earth Stood Still—but when most people thought science fiction, they didn’t think 2001: A Space Odyssey, they thought Godzilla and Attack of the Mushroom People.)
In contrast, pre-Star Wars written science fiction was a literature of ideas—science ideas, engineering ideas, philosophical ideas—and fans loved to discuss those ideas. I remember heated arguments about Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and thoughtful discussions of Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (a short story still discussed in science fiction circles more than 50 years after its publication).
Star Wars changed everything: Suddenly every movie studio wanted to churn out a few science fiction movies to cash in. Book publishers were paying attention too: Every manuscript in the pile that had a spacecraft in it was suddely given a green light. The science fiction sections at bookstores swelled to three or four or five times their previous size.
A lot of old-time science fiction fans took it badly. Suddenly, all these great ideas were being swallowed up in, well, crap: Hundreds of books about evil space empires, friendly furry creatures, and spacecraft that defied the laws of physics. It was all shallow and sensationalist tales of adventure, and the good stuff fans had been reading for years was gone.
This was both unfair and wrong. It was unfair because a lot of people clearly wanted to read the new stuff. They simply had different tastes. What science fiction’s traditional fan base regarded as shallow crap, they regarded as highly entertaining escapism that was well worth their time and money.
(I get into this argument with people about movies. I don’t particularly want a movie that makes me think. I think for a living. I think when I’m blogging. I think when I’m reading blogs. If I want to think some more, I’ll buy a book. When I go to a movie, I just want to watch stuff blow up.)
Similarly, I suspect that a lot of the people who search for “DUI” are looking for one of the hundreds of lightweight DUI blogs by DUI lawyers, preferably one written by a lawyer in their home town that will tell them what they need to do next about the trouble they got in last night. A treatise on the flaws of DUI law by Scott or Mark or Jon (or me) wouldn’t do them much good.
The assertion that all the good science fiction had been replaced by crap was wrong. The good stuff was hidden among all the other books, but it was still there on the shelves. It was just more work to find it. The search costs had gone up.
To help with the search, science fiction magazines expanded their review sections, and over the next few years more science fiction magazines were launched. Geeks had access to Usenet, with newsgroups like rec.arts.sf. Nowadays we have online reviews, Amazon recommendations, bloggers, social networking…and plenty of good science fiction, by whatever your definition.
This is certainly true of the blogosphere—er, blawgosphere—as well. The good bloggers will not “suffocate under the weight of thousands of murdered words” they’ll be just fine in there. Readers will just have to work a little harder to dig them up.
They’ll have plenty of technology to help, including other fans who take it upon themselves to find and catalog the good stuff. It’s only oversimplifying a little bit to say that readers looking for good blogging will be able to find it because a multi-billion dollar company named Google wants it that way.