Scott McLemee’s column today looks at some very interesting anthropological research on the Iranian blogosphere. Alireza Doostdar writes about a controversy in the Farsi-speaking blogosphere over whether or not blogging leads to increased vulgarity – sloppy language, bad grammar and intellectual overreaching. According to Doostdar, there was quite a vituperative argument between a small group of intellectuals, who deplored bloggers’ bad writing, and various bloggers, some of whom accepted the criticism and promised to do better, others of whom challenged the authority of the intellectuals by making deliberate grammatical mistakes and issuing their own polemics. This is interesting in itself – but perhaps even more interesting as a contrast to what’s happening in the English speaking blogosphere. I understand that there is a strong and lively classical tradition in Farsi, which there isn’t in English – most modern English literature is written in (or otherwise appeals to) the demotic. Thus, in one sense, it’s unsurprising that there hasn’t been the same sort of argument as there was in Iran. Instead, we’ve had the ongoing debates over the relationship between blogging and journalism.
Nevertheless, it strikes me that English language political blogging is still an emphatically vulgar activity – it demands a straightforward, relatively direct writing style that readers can easily understand. There’s a set of unwritten rules of rhetoric among blogs, which tend to militate against jargon and indirect argument. CT is a bit of an outlier in this regard – we do occasionally have quite technical posts or lengthy and discursive ones – but we’re still far closer in writing style to, say, Kevin Drum, than to the average academic journal article.
While expert knowledge provides clear advantages, it doesn’t preserve the expert from the frequent necessity of having to muck in with her commenters in order to get her point across. This has its disadvantages, as witnessed by the ever recurring statistically illiterate nonsense about the Lancet. Still, in general, it’s a good thing. Blogging is vulgar in the original meaning of the word – it’s ‘of the crowd,’ and bloggers who try to keep their readers at a distance are likely to find themselves without any. I suspect that this is why some blogs that one might have expected to have a substantial impact in the blogosphere, such as the Becker-Posner blog, have been relative failures. They try to play by a different set of rules. The Becker-Posner blog has interesting arguments, but it’s rather reminiscent of those German academic seminars where the senior professors talk exclusively to each other, and the junior people are supposed to be edified by the conversation. There’s not much of a sense of open dialogue to it – and open, democratic, sometimes demagogic dialogue is what the blogosphere is about (and, for all its faults, should be about).