When Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, recently expressed a worry that his country was becoming a nation of bloggers, he found himself in trouble with those sensitive souls who write about, and for, the new media. Jobs had been making the uncontroversial point that a healthy mainstream press benefits a free society, but the more extreme zealots of online communication, who are not lacking in self-importance, saw his remarks as a betrayal of the great internet revolution.
Yet it is not the quantity of online weblogs which perhaps poses the biggest question so much as what this peculiar and new form of writing is doing to the way we communicate with one another. The blog is a seductive form, which leads its practitioners into the murky, liminal territory between what is private and what is public. It feels – and, in a sense, is – personal; no commissions have been made, no restrictions imposed, no money earned. It an opportunity to lay out one’s own experiences and feelings and place them, unmediated, before a global public.
This instant diarising and opinionating can no longer seriously be held to be subversive or underground; the most successful blogs are as much part of the mainstream as any column in the so-called deadwood media and, when affiliated to newspapers or magazines, are subject to the normal journalistic rules and protocols. All the same, the effect of writing in this private/public form is pretty much the same wherever it appears. There has recently been something of a row in America over a blog written by a New York Times reporter, Corey Kilgannon, about his neighbour, the jazz pianist and composer Hank Jones, who had just died at the age of 91.
Something of a fan, Kilgannon spoke to Jones’s landlord, who offered to show him the dead man’s room. It was locked and so, together, the two men broke into it and had a look round. According to the blog, the room revealed that the much-loved jazzman, who had been Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist and who had played with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and others, led a hermitic, eccentric existence which was at odds with his public image.
When this view of Hank Jones was posted online, those who him knew him rather better, including members of his family, objected. Not only was Kilgannon’s version partial and, they said, inaccurate, but to invade the privacy of someone so soon after his death would have been unthinkable in, say, the printed pages of The New York Times.
Invading privacy is what the internet does. Even though Kilgannon’s blog was affiliated to a newspaper, and his article was edited, the approach to its subject, the mood of the piece, reflected a different kind of writing – faster, more personal, less considered. It was, as the journalist’s editor put it, “a snapshot”. In such small ways does the internet change the way we look at the world and interact with one another. Anyone with an online presence, whether it is on Facebook or in a blog, will soon be inventing an alternative version of the self, a public persona. Self-marketing – my pictures, my thoughts, my life – are part of the deal.
It takes an iron will to resist this process. As an occasional blogger, I find myself writing on my website of moments which are too trivial or personal to be part of a newspaper column, yet somehow seem worth recording. These reflections have an in-built bias towards the boastful.
There is a danger of what the Americans call “over-sharing”. Over the past few days, I have found myself wondering whether the strange business of open garden days was worth writing about. Why do we want display our little plot of land to others? Could these occasions be less about horticulture than very normal human desires: the guests are curious and the hosts are showing off.
I hesitated. How strange it was that I was seriously considering writing in a public forum about pulling nettles and impressing the neighbours. On the other hand, where better to write about covert self-advertisement than online in a blog?
Independent, Tuesday, 8 June 2010