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Unsound Bytes

I'm not a fan of blogs. Don't misunderstand: blogs can be great. Any medium has a range of quality; just as there are great books and awful books, there are good blogs and bad blogs. With blogs, however, "bad" seems to dominate. This is no doubt partially due to the low entrance threshold: anyone can have a blog, and for the most part there is scarcely any fact-checking or editing.

Yet there is another reason blogs are difficult to read, and it is essentially a structural defect: A blog is a train of thought, derailed by a web of interruptions.

Most blog entries are divided between bland pablum and opinionated nonsense: they are filled with unfounded assertions and poorly-reasoned sermons, crowded with links chosen to pander to like-minded trolls.

That paragraph above? That's the problem. That's the structural defect: if you want to know what I think qualifies as "bland pablum," "opinionated nonsense," "unfounded assertions," or a "poorly-reasoned sermon" pandering to "like-minded trolls," you have to click on the links. You have to stop thinking about what I've written, stop parsing the logic of my claim, and go read something somewhere else. Will it be readily apparent why I consider a particular article to be poorly reasoned? Maybe yes, maybe no. If I want you to be certain that you will understand my argument, I need to be articulate and precise. I need to identify, item by item, every point which supports my contention.

It is possible to write an excellent blog, but to do so, the writer must understand the medium's limitations. It's like building a house in the middle of a swamp: it can be done, but it can't be done the same way one would build a house on the Iowa plain.

Too many writers think that the link is all they need. Hypertext is a brilliant invention, but it isn't a substitute for explanation. Links enhance explanations... but most bloggers (good lord, what a grotesque-sounding word) seem to think that they can replace explanations. Why, again, am I clicking on this? What is it supposed to demonstrate?

How many times have I seen a one-line blog entry saying simply, "Have a look at this. Click here for more. Or here."

Over the years, I've written many articles that could, in a broad sense, be described as blog entries. (This article, for example.) But I've tried to be mindful of the medium's limitations, and to be aware that I'm building a house in a swamp. With anything I write, my test for value is simple: Would it make sense on a piece of paper? If you had nowhere to click, would you still understand what I was saying?

For many years, commentators have decried television's focus on "sound bites." The sound bite represented the dumbing-down of news: reduce the story to a ten-second blurb. The debate over the deficit? We've got that summed up in this one-line quip. The controversy over the limits of presidential powers? Don't worry, we're allocating ten seconds to that, too. Many years ago, the movie Robocop brilliantly spoofed the trend: it featured news updates with the cheery slogan, "Give us sixty seconds, and we'll give you the world!" Sixty seconds: plenty of time to cover everything, right? And yet as bad as sound bites are, the blog has brought us something even worse: the unsound byte. You're only one click away from all the dubious, unverified, unproofread, opinionated nonsense you'll ever need.

Bruce Sharp, June 8, 2006