I am one of the print writers who was dragged to the internet kicking and screaming. Now, a couple of months after I started blogging on The Huffington Post, you won't hear a peep from me, except perhaps a contented sigh, a coo of satisfaction. What changed this squawking, blogger-mocking crow into a grinning little dove of the blogosphere? Well, to put it in a word -- it is you the reader.
A writer needs readers like a squirrel needs acorns. I am not just talking about some hypothetical, abstract and unseen reader out there. Print writers have got lots of those. Print writers take it on faith that they have got an audience, because they receive an occasional royalty check, or a polite and appreciative note, now and again, from someone who purports to have actually read what they have written.
Don't get me wrong, all that is great. These occasional crumbs fallen from the world beyond the writer's workroom are what keep us hacking away at our lonely keyboards when we would rather be, hey, taking out the trash, or sunning ourselves at the beach, or what have you. But in back of the writer's mind there lurks a doubt. Is this endless and laborious stringing together of words for no one in particular in the privacy of your own study a sensible way to spend one's day? Is it even sane?
These qualms get further magnified when the type of writing that you are doing is somewhat suspect to start with -- as for example writing poetry, which is how I've spent countless hours over the last couple of years.
The delights of composing poems are many, and this is not the place to go into them. But the point I want to make here is that you write a poem in a vacuum. It is an intensely private act. You may not even publish it. And even if you do manage to bring the poem out in a small literary magazine, or limited edition chapbook, unless your name is Billy Collins, there won't be hordes of people out there waiting to read it. Let's face it, even your girlfriend may not understand the poem. Even you may not understand it, but that is another matter.
A blog is different. Granted, there may not be hordes impatient for your latest post either. On the other hand, you may have developed a small and attentive following, or if you are fortunate enough to be published on a great site like The Huffington Post, there will usually be a fair number of strangers out there willing to give your screed a minute or two of their precious time.
Moreover, if what you have got to say is judged valuable and compelling, that audience may expand exponentially through tweets, Facebook shares and the post being picked up by other sites. Each blog, you soon discover, has a life of its own. Some die in utero and get little or no reactions, whereas others go viral, linger for weeks in cyberspace, or end up in the strangest places, maybe even getting you interviewed on Irish radio, as my recent post on Padre Pio's Stigmata wounds, for example, did.
All this is gratifying, but the point is not just that your words as a blogger have an audience -- print writers also have an audience. What is unique about a blog is that the readership is so visceral and indeed frequently in your face. They give you a piece of their mind as you have given them a piece of yours. They tell you in the comment string why they either love or hate what you have written. They correct you, when you have erred, they expand on your points, they cite facts that you may have ignored, they call you on your prejudices, laud your wisdom, accuse you of angling for a book deal -- you name it.
And all of this happens, in some cases, just hours after you have finished writing. Unless you have slaved for years on a book, as I have, and seen it come out still more years after you have finished and largely forgotten about it, you will not know what a radical departure blogging is for a long-haul writer like myself.
But again, it is not just the speed of publication, or even the ubiquity of the responses that sets blogging apart. It is being part of a larger conversation. An article in print lives and dies on the page, often soon after it comes out. A blog is a different kind of animal. It is the opening of a conversation. As writers, we have a tendency to take our own ideas as finished end products. We may think that we are Moses handing down the Ten Commandments from some taintless mountaintop of vision. Fortunately, blogging quickly disabuses us of all such notions!
For one thing, the form of the blog does not lend itself to making authoritative pronouncements so much as floating trial balloons of ideas and jotting down some spontaneous reflections. Which is not to say that a blog post should not be thoughtful, factually accurate, focused and well crafted. But the point of a blog is to provoke thought, not to spell out some definitive and exhaustive theory of all and everything.
In this respect, blogs are very postmodern -- or Zen, if you prefer. A good blog shows you thinking on your feet. It is not a closed system of thought, it is not the final, settled Truth of the matter. It does not even believe in final Truths, it believes in a process of thinking things out together on the big issues which confront us.
I read someone else's blog, I respond to it by writing my own blog in which I place a hyperlink back to the original text, which in turn has got hyperlinks to the blogs which inspired it. Somebody else writes a response to my ideas with links back to mine and to still other sources of fact and opinion elsewhere on the net. And the wheel rolls on, each of us helping to expand, finesse, complement and challenge the other's views. But with nobody holding the ultimate key to the kingdom -- that is the point.
In the blogosphere, there are no reigning authorities, as there are in the hierarchical world of media punditry. There is just you and me and some folks down the block (or on the other side of the world) trying to figure things out together. In a world dominated by huge multinational media conglomerates, this vertical and democratic model of information sharing gives me hope!