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Shawn Bayern Headshot

Why I Don't Blog. (Yes, I Recognize the Irony of Posting This on a Blog.)

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A friend recently asked me why I don't write a blog with running commentary on law or politics, and after I got past the obvious and admittedly unfair answer ("I'm not a narcissistic self-promoter"), I came up with a different reason: as far as most readers of legal and political blogs are concerned, I doubt I have much to say.

Surely, I can't think that I have nothing to say in general. After all, I write constantly, and I talk constantly. My job, in fact, is to write and talk. What I mean is that I don't think I have much to say to a group of people who feel like they need up-to-the-minute information.

I don't even read the news often enough to process it as quickly as the stereotypical blog reader wants it. Why do I care what's happened over the last 5 minutes? I'm not planning the emergency response. If it's important enough, I can read about it in a few hours or even a few days. I don't need to be current. I feel compelled by social pressure to at least skim the news once a day, but if I followed my own instincts, reading the Sunday Times would be enough for me. It doesn't make someone ignorant or closed-minded to slow down and decide that he can wait a few days to hear about everything that's happened everywhere.

There's not nearly enough "news" worth reading to justify the amount of current-events commentary written and published online. This is true at a variety of levels, from broad political news to narrower financial news to the very narrow "personal real-time web" represented by Twitter. Most of us are not making decisions that rely on real-time data, and the constant flow of commentary is probably more harmful than helpful.

Mounting psychological research suggests that "internet addiction" is a harmful phenomenon; it may even appear in the next version of the DSM. Informally, my sense is that something deep in our psychology gives us a desire to look at constantly changing information, even when the information doesn't help us. Similarly, people like to acquire things. For some, watching a number rise when the number seems in some vague way to help them or reflect their progress -- whether it's the number of blog readers, Twitter followers, or (if you're a professor in the law or social sciences) SSRN downloads -- seems an unavoidable attraction.

I often wish people would realize very little that happens on the internet is novel or interesting. Nothing in blogs or on Twitter represents an interesting technological advance over Usenet or IRC, which both existed in pretty well-developed forms in the early nineties. Sure, more people are using them now, but that doesn't justify the fascination of journalists or the amount of time people spend typing and reading quick messages and first-impressions commentary. I don't think it's a bad thing to be connected; even in the nineties, I was puzzled when people asked me how many times a day I checked my email, comparing the question to "How many times a day do you wear your pants?" and pointing out that it was a continuous process. But we're probably now connected to too much of too little consequence. The problem isn't technology; it's what we're doing with it.

Another reason I'm lukewarm on the websites and styles of writing currently in vogue is that I simply don't want fame or even widespread passing readership. I'm amazed by the number of smart and productive people today who seem to think that their goal ought to be to seek minor celebrity. When I even begin to question this as a goal, which I don't adopt at all myself, I'm told I'm naive; marketing, networking, self-promotion, and careerism are all taken for granted as obviously good things that help everyone uniformly. This just isn't true. Selfish ambition isn't less slimy than it ever was; it's just that slimier people are read more commonly today, so we see it more frequently. The personal nature of blogs contributes to this too: it's no longer enough to be a productive journalist or writer; now, people feel like they have to "make a name for themselves," and by "name" they mean something like "blog," where they draw as much attention to themselves as possible rather than letting their work stand quietly on its own. Everything's a signal; nothing's substance.

As is usually the case for some reason, though, selfish goals like fame and prestige are often unproductive even on their own terms. Aside from the sliminess, most people seeking fame, readership, and influence don't have it even when they think they do; most minor celebrities aren't, in fact, celebrities at all. I see this commonly in the legal academy, where some professors are routinely called "famous" even though -- of course -- nobody outside a handful of other professors around the country has even heard of them. Becoming a law professor would be a pretty awful way to become famous, even if that's what you're driven to do. The same is true of many bloggers, people who jump at the chance to give any television interview, and others who seem obsessed with promoting themselves.

Google's relatively poor search results -- yes, I recognize that sounds counterintuitive, but consider the last time you independently evaluated how good Google's search results were compared to any other ways of finding information online -- have long reinforced the phenomenon of false fame. (As an aside, so has the number of results that Google reports for search terms. This number is so flawed that it may be accurate to say it has no basis in reality. To demonstrate this to yourself, run a search on any term that returns a moderate number of pages, like 62,000, and then scroll to the end of the results, where you'll almost always find that there are more like 284 results than 62,000. The numbers also often swing wildly throughout the day, as if various algorithms are competing to trumpet their different calculations.) Because Google prioritized pages that were linked to, blogs rose in prominence in Google's search results, even though they were in fact no more important than they ever were; they were being linked to just by other blogs. In turn, newspapers started covering them, and the apparent prominence, though still undeserved, became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anyhow, while I recognize that nobody other than my friends (and probably not even them) cares why I don't personally blog, I think my reasons say something about online culture that may be worth considering further. I feel like most people I know are trapped in a reinforcing cycle of constant news about nothing, constant competitiveness about nothing important, and not especially well-considered personal or professional goals. That's why I don't blog, or in fact read any blogs, regularly. Maybe you can join me, and we can go back to doing more interesting things.