Occasioned by this post over at Mumblety-Peg (especially the comment that blogging is a poor medium for expressing ideas), and encouraged by the many dozens of pages I’ve been reading in 18th-century literary and aesthetic culture (for a paper I should be writing now instead of this), a few thoughts on blogging as a continuation of 18th-century periodicals. With the caveat that I am nowhere near an expert on 18th-century periodicals.
The 18th-century really saw the beginning of what we now call magazines, in the form of journals published periodically by the members of various literary circles. The most well-remembered periodicals of the day are Joseph Addison and Richard Steele‘s The Spectator, Samuel Johnson‘s The Rambler, and Steele’s The Tatler, but there were many, many others–often by a group of friends, but sometimes by individuals. These periodicals concerned themselves with contemporary politics, culture, literature, and personalities, and took the various forms of essays, opinion pieces, reviews, satires, and personal narratives. And many of the essays were published anonymously or pseudonymously. In fact, a good bit of scholarly work in this area has been done simply trying to ascertain who wrote various anonymous reviews in these periodicals.
The periodicals at this time also introduced the now-ubiquitous “letter to the editor,” giving anyone and everyone the chance to respond to the published essays. Later issues might respond back to letters to the editor–in fact, sometimes the letters were actually written pseudonymously by the publication’s authors! In addition to this direct conversation with readers, the periodicals were in constant conversation with each other, publishing essays that responded to essays in other, often opposing periodicals. Sometimes individuals used periodicals to carry on debates in an open-letter format.
I would submit, along with many academics specializing in 18th-century literature, that blogging today is not qualitatively different than the 18th-century periodical culture. You have nearly personal publishing by individuals or small groups. You have readers with the ability to respond, either directly via comments or indirectly via trackbacks to their own blogs, and writers (usually) willing to return responses. You have interaction between different publishers/writers. You have coverage of any topic under the sun. You have the possibility for anonymity/pseudonymity. The difference between blogs and 18th-century periodicals seems to me to be almost entirely quantitative rather than qualitative–the barrier of entry is much lower, which does lower the signal to noise ratio, I’ll certainly grant you that. But though blogging’s open-access, open-ended format may encourage bad behavior and low-quality self-expression, it doesn’t necessarily mean that blogging can’t be an extremely useful tool when these very same qualities are used well.
Just think, the Joseph Addison of the 21st century could be blogging right now, and 200 years from now, academics will be placing his (or her!) blog alongside The Spectator in the periodical canon.
Note: A lot of this post (okay, most of this post) is based on a post made by the psuedonymous academic of BitchPhD; it’s basically a reprinting of a paper she presented at the MLA Conference this year, specifically about the connections between pseudonymity in the 18th-century periodicals and in blogging.
See also: John Holbo’s posting about his MLA paper from the same panel. A draft .pdf of his paper “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine” (an ambitious and exciting view of what academic blogging could be) is here.