So as often happens with this blog, I get busy and other things occupy my attention. It’s all there in the title, folks.
What also happens is I store up a lot of things I want to talk about in this space, so I’m going to try and unload a lot of my mental warehouse over the course of this month.
The blog was a replacement for some static web pages I maintained at Swarthmore from about 1999 to 2002, which included a handful of essays, an early set of digital syllabi and an inexplicably popular set of restaurant reviews. It was also a replacement for my participation in several virtual communities, most notably Howard Rheingold‘s Brainstorms. I’d found those experiences to be life-changing in the way that they rewrote the structure of my intellectual networks and showed me how my writing and thinking could be enriched by exposure to unexpected voices and new circuits of conversation. At some point, I started to find the closed structure of those communities a bit stifling, however: I wanted to jump into a bigger digital public sphere and find even more “strange attractors”, as well as seek out other academics with similar interests in building a new transdepartmental space for reworking the substance and practice of scholarly life. I had Justin Hall’s example near at hand to inspire me (and occasionally warn me about what the physical and cultural challenges of a life lived online might entail.)
I came into blogging at a time when there were a few dominant voices like Instapundit, and the overall space was small enough to have a generalized sense of the whole cultural ecosystem (and your own place within it). I started around the same moment when many others were doing so. Some of those early participants are still plugging away at blogs, others have moved on to other kinds of digital (and analog) writing: blogs grew, platforms metamorphosed and absorbed or superceded some of their cousins and cognates, and then slowly receded or were domesticated within larger publishing spaces. But one of the bad things about the drive for the next new thing is the quickness with which we assume that a new form of digital expression always overthrows its parents, like Zeus tossing Cronos into Tartarus. AOL is still there, LiveJournal is still around–and blogging as a synonym for short-form writing published digitally still has a significant place in the world of scholarship and in wider public reading and conversations.
I resolved at the beginning to write about what interested me at the moment, to live up (or down) to my title. To write as long or as short as I wished (usually the former: John Holbo and I often seemed a decade ago to be in a contest for digital long-windedness). The voice I consciously crafted might be called “remotely personal” and “conversationally formal”. I rarely wanted to talk as directly about my feelings or life as some early academic bloggers, especially many female bloggers, did, but neither did I want to be as formal and third-person as the blogs most concerned with scholarly reputation were. I wanted to write as I thought, to compose on the fly, but not to sound too sloppy or immediate. I wanted to be judicious, fair, to build bridges, to be mindful that I was speaking in a public space, under my own name and from within my own institution.
I achieved those goals, I think. (And there is an example of this prose styling: qualifying modifiers designed to soften claims, express uncertainty, hedge.) At some cost. The voice I crafted here was less urgent, more stilted, and considerably less humorous than I think I am in everyday conversation. When I wanted to be glib, cruel, polemical, or simplistic, I found it harder to satisfy those impulses here. Only I probably remember just how many times I’ve repeated certain claims at Easily Distracted, but my readers do remember my tonal and intellectual commitments and have been quick to call me out when I’ve strayed from the path I laid out for myself. That’s a great gift from my readers, a respectful sign of attention that I don’t fully deserve. I’m often haunted by something that a very angry Brainstorms participant said to me just before he was banned from the community (he had parting words for many): that I constantly strive to position myself as smarter than other people, but that I somehow want them to like me for it anyway. It stung because there’s some truth to it, and because I know that attitude limits not just how well I can connect to a room, a community, my society but also my capacity for understanding everything I want to know. The cliche that the older one gets, the more you know how much you do not know is repeated so often because it is true.
And yet, perhaps because that’s how I feel, I can’t give up speaking about all the things that my distracted attention falls upon. Over time, I’ve diffused my speech out into more spaces. Twitter has been good for me: I don’t know why I avoided it as long as I did. Facebook is not so good for me, I think: I like being in touch but I’m so driven to start discussions, debate or disagree, in ways that I think are inappropriate to its emergent culture. Flickr and now 500px have been really interesting communities for me to explore, though 500px’s lack of any space for words and its minimalist infrastructure is driving me nuts. I keep a very small number of lightly pseudonymous investments going–Yelp reviews (still talking about restaurants) and a virtual community here and there, though I’m very turned off by virtual worlds these days, enough that I’m going to write a book (I hope) about that reaction.
Blogging still works for me. In the next month, I’m hoping to demonstrate a couple of new features or interests at this blog. I hope, for however long, whomever you are to be reading this, that it will continue to work for you too. I don’t publish to maximize attention or make ad revenue, but it would seem far less satisfying if this was little more than a private notebook sent adrift into an indifferent future.