Here Comes the Blog Flood

The power of the history of the Internet? So much feels disposable about the Internet, and blogs haven’t helped. Postings more than a few days old feel like ancient history, and yet at the same time they sit there, a snapshot of a point of view the author can barely remember ever having. Comments added by anyone stumbling along more than a few hours or days later look like stragglers, people who turned up on the wrong day for a party and could do little more than leave their calling card.

But here was a site that struck me differently. It’s just a collection of comments on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (one of his best numbers). It’s not a blog, or a web page past its expiry date, although it should be the latter: It was set up in 1994 by a German programmer called Brigitte Jellinek. The last comment attached to the page on Flood is less than a month ago. The first was in February 1996. Amazing, really; more than a decade of simple, sometimes moving thoughts on one timeless song. As Ms Jellinek herself observes on the homepage:

In December 1994 I set up this page to give people on the Web the chance to share what P[eter] G[abriel’]s songs mean to them. I didn’t expect much – from my previous experience with guestbooks I was prepared for idle chit chat and childish remarks. Well, you all proved me wrong. Every time I read some of the comments I am amazed about the quality of the contributions.

There can’t be that many sites from 1994 still so active, so alive (and someone taking such effort to preserve one). Credit to Ms. Jellinek.

Perhaps some blogs have this timelessness too, but the reverse chronological nature of blogs, their emphasis on a log, a journal, and time, perhaps work against this. Posts are time sensitive, more transient, and stumblers on an old post are likely to see their voices lost in the relentless forward march. That’s what makes the Flood page so remarkable — about a song that was originally performed in 1977, if I’m not mistaken — in that the comments may span more than a decade, and yet all share the same address, the same timelessness. A lesson, perhaps, for the design and future of blogs.

Old Journalists and New Facts

It’s not hard to see that old-style print media and journalists are still torn over what, exactly, the Age of Blogging means for them. For Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, it’s part of a our culture’s newfound “enshrinement of subjectivity” — a fancy way of saying we don’t really care whether something’s right or not, so long as it’s about us and our feelings. She might be right about the general trend in society, but I fear she’s unfair, if not a little subjective, herself, about the role of blogging and the Internet in the case she mentions: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”.

Kakutani’s scathing look at the controversy surrounding the failed fiction-turned-successful memoir – When nonfiction means facts with a flourish in today’s International Herald Tribune — says

“A Million Little Pieces,” which became the second-highest-selling book of 2005 in America (behind only “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), clearly did not sell because of its literary merits. Its narrative feels willfully melodramatic and contrived, and is rendered in prose so self-important and mannered as to make the likes of Robert James Waller (“The Bridges of Madison County”) and John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) seem like masters of subtlety.

She sees the book as riding the crest of two 1990s waves — memoirs and recovery-movement reminiscences — which in turn also coincided with

culture’s enshrinement of subjectivity – “moi” as a modus operandi for processing the world. Cable news is now peopled with commentators who serve up opinion and interpretation instead of news, just as the Internet is awash in bloggers who trade in gossip and speculation instead of fact. For many of these people, it’s not about being accurate or fair. It’s about being entertaining, snarky or provocative – something that’s decidedly easier and less time-consuming to do than old fashioned investigative reporting or hard-nosed research.

This is where I think she glosses over the role of the Internet. For sure, the world of blogging and the Web is full of tripe — self-indulgent whining, where ‘feeling’ is more important than ‘knowing’ — and a place where razor-tongued opinion counts more than well-informed reason. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Frey unmasked, not by a mainstream news publication, but on a web site called The Smoking Gun, as she herself acknowledges? (The Smoking Gun is owned by Court TV, a cable network, that uses ‘material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide’.)

The truth is that the Internet reflects real life, meaning that there’s both great and awful sitting side by side. We people who spend time there know this already; we’ve taught ourselves to quite quickly — 50 milliseconds, to be precise — judge the merits of a website. It wasn’t exactly a blogger that unmasked Frey, but if this tawdry little affair is to be remembered, it should include acknowledgement that, despite being atop of the NYT non-fiction bestseller list for 15 weeks, it was an obscure web site, not a broadsheet journalist, who thought to dig into the truth behind the story.