the prehistory of blogs
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.