Will Wilkinson worries about the death of the old-school blog that was part of the “gift economy”:
There’s nothing wrong with blogging for money, but the terms of social exchange are queered a little by the cash nexus. A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer. The real return, though, is in the conclusions people draw about you based on what you have said, about what what you have said says about you, about what it means relative to what you used to say. People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world. We all lost something when the first-gen blogs and bloggers got bought up. Or, at any rate, those bloggers lost something. I’m proud of us all, but there’s also something ruinous about our success, such as it is. We left the garden behind. A guy’s got to eat. I mostly stopped blogging for myself because I thought I couldn’t afford to give it away. But I miss the personal gift economy of the original blogosphere, I miss the self it helped me make, and I want at least a little of it back.
I completely understand what he’s getting at – but I want to complicate the picture a little bit.
I started blogging in 2002, hanging out my own shingle on blogspot. I did it primarily as a belated response to the trauma of 9-11: I had been emailing news items to a variety of friends and family with an obsessiveness that nearly deserved a DSM number, and one of them finally told me I should stop emailing him and start a blog if I felt compelled to tell everyone what I thought. So, against my wife’s explicit instructions, I did.
And I loved it, right from the get-go. The thrill of instant response to what I said was a perfect fit for my latent writerly ambitions for recognition and my Wall Streeter’s inherent attention deficits. I would write, I would press “publish,” and someone out there would respond.
But that response wasn’t merely gratifying or instructive; it shaped what I wrote, shaped the persona (a better word than “self”) that I was developing on-line. My style, my subject matter, my politics, my sense of who I was and was meant to be evolved in part based on what got positive reinforcement and what didn’t, even though I wasn’t being paid anything at all. A gift economy is still an economy, and there’s nothing particularly pure about non-commercial social discourse. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” – so said Sam Johnson, but in fact the truer statement is that no man but a blockhead ever tried to earn money by writing. When it comes to money, Willy Sutton had a much better understanding. So all of us writers, whatever our medium, write out of some other compulsion than to earn a living. And to the extent that that compulsion has something to do with having readers, we have to watch the progress of our addiction, how it is changing us.
Some of us do have to earn a living, of course, and that can, indeed, shape the way we write. But that’s not something unique to blogging. It applies to screenwriters and print journalists and lyricists. I have no doubt that it applies to poets, who surely want to write poetry that will be understood and appreciated by the those few, disturbed individuals who make their lives reading contemporary poetry. After all, if they don’t get published, how likely are they to get that teaching gig that actually pays the bills? Anyway, there’s a reason Franz Kafka and Wallace Stevens didn’t quit their day jobs.
The struggle for anybody who actually cares about the quality of what they do is to keep an eye on something other than the immediate reception of the piece, whatever the work is, keep an eye on the object itself. Or, rather, to develop the confidence that you actually know what makes the object itself beautiful and true. The confidence to know that you are Orson Welles and not Ed Wood, to pick two artists who emphatically did it their own way.
The same is true, on a microscopic scale, for blogging. If all you’re doing is hanging out, you’re probably not writing anything very worth reading. If all you’re doing is chasing click bait, or following the news cycle, you’re probably not writing anything very worth reading. And that’s the fundamental question: do you want to write anything worth reading?
I’m quite sure Will Wilkinson does. Why else would he be pursuing an MFA in writing? Surely not because he wants to teach.