Breaking With Tradition

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As a journalist who’d never blogged—who’d never published directly on the Internet and preferred to put his words on paper, where they couldn’t be erased by power surges or turned into ampersands by computer worms—I knew in my heart that the future was passing me by. I also believed that I could catch up later, the way I had with TiVo and instant messaging. But then, just recently, the future dawned —before I was prepared for it, as usual. The writer Andrew Sullivan, whose work I admired but who I barely knew, called to ask me if I could spare five days to “guest blog” on his influential website, Andrew Sullivan.com. I confessed to him that I didn’t know how to blog. He asked me if I knew how to write an e-mail. I said that I did and he told me that in that case I also knew how to blog.

Except that I didn’t know, I soon found out. There are unwritten rules to blogging, which I learned by breaking every nearly every one of them.

1. DON”T SLEEP

In order to reach Andrew’s East Coast readers at dawn, before they set out on their commutes, I posted the my first blog entry at 4 a.m. I’m rarely conscious at that hour, and I wasn’t conscious that Monday morning, either, even though I was writing at top speed about terrorism and other big topics. My fogginess didn’t bother me, however, because I’d been told to write simply and conversationally.

2. KEEP THINGS SHORT BUT KEEP THEM COMING

I sent off my blog entry and went about my day, returning to my laptop at 3 p.m. to learn that my new electronic audience was larger, better informed, and more communicative than I’d ever imagined. I also discovered, by reading through scores of messages sent to the website’s e-mail address, that most of this audience disliked me. The most common charge against me was desertion. Good bloggers kept blogging all day long, I was bluntly informed by people whose cryptic screen names didn’t reveal whether they were male or female, old or young, from America or Jupiter. The faceless humanoids were also mad at me for using the meaningless phrase “I could care less” when I should have written “I couldn’t care less.” Finally, there was the problem of my sentences. They were too long for a blog. My paragraphs, too. What’s more, the ideas they expressed were idiotic.

3. STAY ENGAGED

I spent a large part of my second day of blogging addressing people’s reactions to my first day. The interactive spiral had begun. I corrected my English, clarified my ideas, shortened my sentences, and posted new chunks of writing every three hours or so, reading through countless e-mails in the intervals and responding to them both directly and on the website. Compared to the inertia of writing the old way— with plenty of time to meet one’s deadlines, precious little awareness of one’s readers, and no easy way to offer second thoughts after one’s first thoughts reached the page—the momentum of this new process was exhilarating.

4. DON”T THINK, JUST TYPE

I didn’t eat that day and barely stood up. The following morning I read through what I’d written but I couldn’t remember writing it. Nor, upon deep reflection, did I agree with it. But who had time for deep reflection? I hadn’t blogged yet and it was 7 a.m., which meant that the commuters two time zones east of me had reached their offices already and were about to go online. The rotation of the earth and the rhythmic movements of the masses didn’t matter when I wrote for magazines, but I was working at the speed of light now, even if I wasn’t thinking at it. Knowing that an empty website would prompt a hundred nasty e-mails, I blazed through a blog entry about the state of journalism, repeating arguments that I’d made at dinner parties and illustrating them with stories that I’d rehearsed in barrooms. I finished the piece in twenty minutes, a record, and twenty minutes later, via e-mail, a producer from C-SPAN asked me if I’d be free to talk about it on the air that Friday.

5. FIGHT BACK IF NECESSARY

If three days of high-speed semi-conscious blogging could turn me into a serious TV pundit, perhaps I had a knack for this thing after all and perhaps the derisive e-mailers were wrong about me. Maybe abusing innocent bloggers was the Internet-era equivalent of torturing small animals—a way for people who were seething anyway to vent their wrath without fear of retribution. I pondered the matter for a few minutes and decided to address it on the website, with special attention to the who’d accused me of being a racist right-wing gun-nut merely because I’d mentioned in a blog that I resided in Montana.

6. QUIT WHILE YOU'RE BEHIND

Since bloggers burn through their material pretty quickly, they can’t afford to waste a single thought, especially one that’s backed by strong emotion. My rebuke to the Montana-bashers expanded into an essay on “geo-bigotry,” or prejudice based on region. I considered it the best blog entry I wrote that week, mostly because it arose spontaneously out of an interaction with my audience that could only have happened on the Internet. Interactivity is exhausting, though, and after two more days at my computer I decided that the future could go ahead without me. I lay down on the sofa and turned on the TiVo to catch up on all the bad TV I’d missed that week. I’d blogged myself into a coma.