I’m currently writing about the prehistory of blogs, and Nicholas Lemann’s article in the New Yorker last week (see also Steven Johnson’s reminder about the non has a summary of how pamphleteers a couple of centuries ago in many ways mirror blogs in their effect on mainstream media. Lemann refers extensively to a book on pamphleteers and politics in Stuart Britain by Mark Knights, and writes:

These voices entered a public conversation that had been narrowly restricted, mainly to holders of official positions in church and state. They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

As media, Knights points out, both pamphlets and periodicals were radically transformative in their capabilities. Pamphlets were a mass medium with a short lead timeócheap, transportable, and easily accessible to people of all classes and political inclinations. They were, as Knights puts it, ìcapable of assuming different forms (letters, dialogues, essays, refutations, vindications, and so on)î and, he adds, were ìideally suited to making a public statement at a particular moment.î Periodicals were, by the standards of the day, ìa sort of interactive entertainment,î because of the invention of letters to the editor and because publications were constantly responding to their readers and to one another.

Then as now, the new media in their fresh youth produced a distinctive, hot-tempered rhetorical style. Knights writes, ìPolemical print . . . challenged conventional notions of how rhetoric worked and was a medium that facilitated slander, polemic, and satire. It delighted in mocking or even abusive criticism, in part because of the conventions of anonymity.î But one of Knightsís most useful observations is that this was a self-limiting phenomenon. Each side in what Knights understands, properly, as the media front in a merciless political struggle between Whigs and Tories soon began accusing the other of trafficking in lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, and special pleading, and presenting itself as the avatar of the public interest, civil discourse, and epistemologically derived truth. Knights sees this genteeler style of expression as just another political tactic, but it nonetheless drove print publication toward a more reasoned, less inflamed rhetorical stance, which went along with a partial settling down of British politics from hot war between the parties to cold. (Full-dress British newspapers, like the Times and the Guardian, did not emerge until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, well into this calmer period and long after Knights ends his story.) At least in part, Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience.

Other items in the prehistory of blogs include Alexandre Dumas’ personal newspaper, Thomas Edison’s diaries and art criticism in pamphlets and zines.

10 thoughts on “the prehistory of blogs

  1. Mark Bernstein

    Don’t forget sermons and religious lessons.

  2. Daisy

    I’m with Berlin Johnson on this one too, especially since I attended BloggerCon back in 2004 and heard a lot of the same stuff then. I think I blogged a similar sentiment here: http://dpignett.blog.usf.edu/2006/07/05/some-connections-ive-been-making
    The history project you’re working on sounds great though! And for a list of bloggers doing so for the rebuilding of New Orleans, check this out: http://thinknola.com/wiki/Rising_Tide_Conference#New_Orleans_Bloggers

  3. collin

    It might make sense to add commonplace books to your list of precursors, too. My “history of the book” is pretty weak, but I want to suggest that commonplace books rose in popularity as the materials (blank books) became more available.

  4. Chadie

    Thats very interesting, and put the blogs in a historical view.
    Thats why blogs really can have influence.

  5. 4wl2

    sounds like another round of “digital sublime”. I am in line with Mark Poster (What’s the matter with the Internet) on the issue of internet study, which desearves its unique methodology.

  6. logtar

    Wow, there was a time when there was no blogs… it should have been the time with those pesky albums

  7. Gustav

    Ett tips: svenska dagstidningar p 1700-talet hade ofta ett innehÂll som kom frÂn l‰sekretsen; sedan fˆljde en professionaliseringsprocess under 1800-talet d f‰rre rˆster kom till tals. Det ‰r, tror jag man kan s‰ga, en av teserna i Patrik Lundell, Pressen i provinsen (Lund, 2002). http://websok.libris.kb.se/websearch/showrecord?nr=6&searchId=22843&bibId=8814678

    Man skulle allts kunna se det som ett slags dialektisk process, d‰r framv‰xten av mer participatoriska mediaformer de senaste 5-10 Âren ‰r ett rˆrelse Ât andra hÂllet, efter en period av professionalisering (och d‰rmed utest‰ngande). Om man ‰r lagd Ât makrohistoria …


  8. Jill

    Thanks for all these ideas – this is interesting work, if rather a huge area!

  9. Francois Lachance

    Jill, your taxonomy seems to privilege stand-alone products. do you suppose that the prehistory of blogging would benefit from a consideration of the call and response structure of serial publication? I am thinking for example of morning and evening papers. Putting the emphasis on blogging as a relation between (between time points; between the space of the writng and the off-stage space; between the intertextual bits that float about in the discursive universe of the blogsphere.) Raises the question of what is a blog. For me it is the serial nature that is a governing characteristic along with an ability to shuffle the entries (i.e. navigate an archive): blog as store and sequence.

  10. […] Jill Walker’s post titled “the prehistory of blogs,” which includes a bunch of different and potentially interesting links, especially if I ever decide that I actually do want to write a book about blogging (but it’s still interesting for teaching and stuff even if I don’t). […]

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