Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Identification and participation

When I was starting college, the person who would become my favorite blogger wrote an email. I'm using the word "email" in this sentence not in the singular, but to describe a medium, like "magazine," "newspaper," or "blog." He wrote an email regularly and sent it to a selected list of acquaintances. He didn't really know any of us all that well at the time, but he was (and is) a good writer, with a mind that worked in interesting and unexpected ways, and the group of us was small enough that we could respond and start a reasonable conversation. Some of us participated more than others, and some of us just enjoyed getting something fun to read delivered to us every so often.

It both was and wasn't a nascent blog, and it was the first sign that this was going to be a person I was going to be able to talk into taking writing seriously as a thing in itself and not just something he did for fun in between the other things that he did. He's still one of the most interesting people I read, but there are a lot of things he writes about that I wouldn't be interested in coming from anyone else, and only a part of it is his skill as a thinker and writer. Part of it is that he and I have an ongoing conversation, so I've been built up as a reader. I know the context and the thought processes. Often (but not always) I know specifically what prompted his interest in a seemingly random subject.

In the sense that our conversations allow me to participate in his thinking and writing, his posts are written for me in a way that makes me feel almost like they've been addressed and delivered directly, like the old emails.

I realized this morning that I hadn't checked my RSS feed in a week, and what's more, I didn't really want to read most of what was waiting for me. Now the cranky generalist in me would try to conclude that most of the web is uninteresting and fails to direct itself usefully to specific audiences (in this case, me), but it seems terribly problematic to blame the web for my dissatisfaction with my own selections for my RSS feed.

The real lesson from all this may be that the sort of communication available through the web troubles the idea of identification as a member of a particular group or community without active participation. I have memories of having been fed an argument as a student that there was a certain civic responsibility involved in reading a newspaper. That argument, as I recall, went something like this: living in Lansing, I should be interested in the Lansing newspaper, and reading the local newspaper was itself a form of participation in the community. By reading the newspaper, I became an informed citizen and being an informed citizen was itself a way of interacting with the community. This was, in its own way a sort of social contract between the newspapers and its readers.

This argument was easier to make when the vast majority of a newspaper provided local coverage and was written in a way that seemed to speak to a particular community. I would argue that increasing reliance upon wire services invalidated that argument in the mind of many readers. While the use of cheap national wire services over expensive local reporters has been in large part necessitated by the rise of 24-hour televised national news in the early 80s, which allowed individuals to identify primarily as "participants" in national instead of local events, and the ability of the web to enable individuals to identify as more and more specific subgroups, the result has been disastrous for the newspaper industry.

But perhaps just as important was the decline in classified advertising, which not only cut revenues, but eliminated many readers' most direct interaction with both the newspaper and with the wider community facilitated by the newspaper. Readers used the newspaper to find a car, a job, or a place to live; to sell unwanted but valuable items; and both directly and indirectly to meet people. This may have been far more important to many readers than the news itself. The classifieds were the way in which the newspaper was for you. Identification through participation. In this way the old media may actually be not all that different than the new media. The civic responsibility/social contract argument was not only invalidated, it was largely fatuous to begin with. It failed to describe the way in which many readers interacted with their newspaper and used the newspaper to interact with their community.

I'm finding myself uninterested in a number of conversations because I'm not involved in the issues under discussion. This doesn't mean that the discussions are bad. It means that I need to find discussions of subjects that I engage more actively.

The second realization that I want to read more emails and fewer blog posts, but that's another problem that a blog post isn't going to solve.

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