It seems to have been a bicoastal weekend for real-world discussions of the bloggernacle. John Dehlin gave a great talk on blogs at the Seattle Sunstone Symposium (pod cast here), and I gave a brief presentation to Naomi Frandsen’s “Saturday Night Discussion Group” (a name that carries all sorts of unfortunate disco connotations for me.) Lacking the technical sophistication do a podcast, here is a shortened version of what I said:
First, I gave a very abbreviated history of the bloggernacle and the rise of blogs more generally. The eyes of many in the audience began to gloss over at this point, so I started to throw in abusive statements about Steve Evans. This helped a bit, but not enough, so I shifted topics. I started talking about the range of discussions that occur in the bloggernacle from the silly to the sublime, as well as showing examples of the different blogs (I had an internet connection and projector attached to Naomi’s computer) with some discussion about their purported differences. This seemed to go over a little better, particularly once I managed to find ways of patronizing the Mormon Democrats in the room and highlighting the evils of deer. The abuse of Mormon Democrats seems to have worked better than the abuse of Steve Evans. In the future, of course, I will find ways of abusing Steve Evans qua Mormon Democrat, which I imagine ought to work really well.
Then I talked about what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the blogs. Blogs have a number of advantages. There are no real spatial or temporal limits on them. I explained how I began blogging at T&S while living in Little Rock, Arkansas in part as a way of trying to find a larger community of Mormon intellectuals than was available in Pulaski County. (Although I should point out that I really liked the people I knew — Mormon and Gentile — in Pulaski County.) The blogs are fast moving and entering the conversations are virtually costless. Also, to a large — albeit imperfect — extent the blogs have avoided the sorts of ideological polarizations that have defined some of the older alternative Mormon fora. There are down sides as well. Because the internet is an impersonal medium, people feel comfortable saying things (particularly abusive things about Steve Evans) on the blogs that they would never say to someone’s face. This creates the problem of toxic flame wars that create the danger of simply driving people off. I explained that at T&S we try to deal with this problem by monitoring the comments, nagging people, and booting the odd jerk off of the blog. In my view, a blog is not an open forum like a park. Rather, it is more like a cocktail party in which you want to invite lots of diverse people to get a conversation going, but where you always want to reserve the right to bounce drunken louts (or simply louts). The other problem with blogs is that ultimately they are not a good medium for serious thought. Like a good cocktail party, they can be a fun place to bounce around half-baked ideas, or discuss the serious thoughts of others. However, ultimately they cannot replace more traditional fora, like academic journals, where ideas can be rigorously and completely worked out.
I ended by talking about the future of blogs. As it happens, I really have no idea what the future of blogs will be. It may be that they will go the way of the internet discussion list or the newsgroup. They may emerge as a permanent medium. I tend to be skeptical about internet and blogging triumphalism. I could be wrong; however, so if the blogging-inspired revolution does come, I hope that posting on T&S will keep me from being put against the wall with other faithless internet-skeptics. Still, it may be that in five years there will be some new medium that has entirely replaced the blogs. Blogs do provide a nice intermediate level between something like a magazine or printed journal and a simple bulletin board or chat room. Having posts rather than simply an open mike channels things in a way that other media cannot, while at the same time achieving an openness that an article on a webpage (or even an actual piece of paper) does not. So maybe they will stick around. Or maybe not. I would diversify your portfolio.
Then there were questions, answers, and comments followed by (of course) refreshments, sugar and chocolate being the Mormon drugs of choice. Hopefully, some of the people who were there can explain the various ways in which I was totally wrong, completely boring, or otherwise utterly irrelevant.