Friday, December 30, 2005

Closing thoughts on the holiday

I recently received this from a friend. I think it's worth passing on. Good-bye to 2005, and welcome to 2006.

A poem by thePolish poet, Wislawa Szymborska (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh), printed in The New Yorker on 12/5/05, entitled “A Note”:

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand, rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble on a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;

and to keep on not knowing
something important.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Rolled over by The Family Stone

(Don't read this if you want to see the movie -- I don't want to spoil the ending).

It's the usual crazy Christmas around here, so I thought it would be nice to see something light on Saturday night. The commercials for The Family Stone looked funny and it got decent reviews, so I dragged my reluctant husband (he wanted to see King Kong )to the movies.

The movie is billed a Sarah Jessica Parker comedy. It ain't. The storyline seems to be about the uptight brother in a big family bringing his even more uptight girlfriend home at Christmas to meet the kinfolk. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. This is only funny if you enjoy laughing at other people's misery and discomfort.

The real storyline is that the family matriarch, played by the awesome Diane Keaton, is dying of cancer and this will be her last Christmas. The reason that this kinda sucked for us is because my mother-in-law Anita died from cancer on January 16, 2004. We spend the 2003 holidays, two years ago, taking care of her, saying good-bye to her, and dealing with the emotional trauma of watching someone we loved slip away. The pain was so gut-wrenching I won't even try to describe it here, although unfortunately too many of you reading this have been through that.

This movie reached out and whapped us upside the head. Instantly, we were back to Christmas 2003, when we flew from Anita's bedside in Florida on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with my parents, then flew right back with our children so they could say good-bye to their grandmother. After Anita's death, my whole life shifted. At first it was completely off-kilter, but later, after it righted itself, I found myself in a better place. I kept thinking, "You're not supposed to miss your mother-in-law this much." You know, nasty mother-in-law jokes, mother-daughter-in-law tension, etc. But I loved Anita and I still miss her. The movie reminded me once again that my husband's grief was more vast than mine. I lost a dear friend, a loving relative, a support system, and a cheerleader. He lost his mom. The two don't compare.

I really admire the human race. Most of us, given the age-time continuum of life, will lose our parents and all that involves. And yet, we endure. We go to work, we go out with friends, we play with our kids, we live on. But most of us will have this hole in our hearts from losing a parent. After Anita died, I would find myself looking at others, and thinking, "His mom is dead." "I think her mom died last year." "How old is he, I wonder if his parents are alive?" I wonder if they're walking around with that base grief.

In the final scene of the movie, the entire clan is gathering a year later, major issues resolved, at the homestead for a post-Mom Christmas. There's a Christmas tree, a brave Dad, and decorations, but somehow the whole house seems bleak and empty. I thought of my father-in-law's dirty bathroom and fridge full of ketchup and mustard. I had to take deep, shuttering breaths to keep from crying, because I was afraid that if I started, I would start wailing and be unable to stop for a while. My husband was muttering in his deadpan way, "I hate you. I could be in Kong right now."

Maybe we need them, these transcendent painful moments. Maybe every once in a while, we need something sharp and pointy to unexpectedly jab at that hole in our hearts that stops us up short and takes our breath away. Maybe there is some cosmic message to appreciate the fragility of life. But it still sucked.

I can't say that I didn't like the movie. I am annoyed with the commercials which portrayed it as a funny little holiday comedy, ha ha. But it was a good movie. I've been thinking of Anita all day.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Patti, You Promised

This is addictive. I am going to keep blogging. Right now I am busy grading 50 final papers and putting together grades by the end of the week, but I have many things to say, it turns out.

To my blogging class, all I can say is "thank you": for listening, reading, laughing, and being the interesting, stimulating group of people that you are. Especially you, Prof. Colin, for leading us on this intellectual and occasionally spiritual journey.

Those of you that are interested, stay tuned. I'll look at yours if you look at mine. You know what I mean.

And Patty, don't forget that you encouraged me to keep going!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part VII): Closing thoughts on Nileblog

I started out this class with some reservations. I couldn't imagine why I'd want to "blog," whatever that was, but it was a required course. I was pretty nervous about writing a blog; I think that I realized that in the course of doing so, I would probably reveal more about myself than I cared to. Plus, there was this hot-shot local celeb as a prof, and a bunch of very smart fellow students who were probably way ahead of me on this whole blogging thing. So I was intimidated. When I look back at those first few posts, I feel my nervousness. I'd say the rhetoric of Nileblog in the beginning was "tight-assed," but I'm not sure that Aristole would approve. I was trying to engage in logical, intellectual discussion of blogging without giving too much of myself away. I was aiming for logos, with a side order of ethos, hey, I KNOW what I'm talking about. Between the cracks, though, I see the tenativeness, the pathos.

I start to waver pretty early on. In this post, I throw in the towel and decide I suck at blogging. Immediately Brett and Marc come to my rescue with their comments. I knew Brett from the previous semester, but I had no idea who T.G.T. was. It was nice to get encouragement, though. Maybe blogging isn't so bad. I start to loosen up.

I try to get a food thing going, but it fails miserably. Can you feel the pathos? Let's create a community, let me help, okay, let me be "Mom."

But I'm still trying to make some serious, scholarly posts. I find this difficult, and skip a week. I would find it easier to discuss these blogs if I were submitting weekly papers; I know how to do academic discourse. What is difficult is trying to say something intelligent and unique without sounding pompous. I already feel the pull of the blogging aesthetic, the spur-of-the-moment, informal writing that works best. It's hard for me to meld that with the requirement to seriously discuss these blogs. Plus I keep worrying that I'm going to offend the bloggers I'm writing about, which further inhibits me.

Sometime in October, I start to understand the medium more. I'm pretty interested by the interaction between the MSM and blogging over the Harriet Miers debacle. My writing becomes more authoritative (ethos), as I realize that there is no "right" answer and no one else is really ahead of us too much in study this stuff.

Then we hit November, and I think I finally let my guard down. I'm not the only one. A lot of us are revealing more about ourselves than before. Part of it is because it just seems to happen in blogging. A larger part of it, though, is that I'm starting to think of the class not as a bunch of fellow students, but as a group of people whom I want to know and sort of trust. Interestingly, this feeling of trust is being created in a completely open environment which anyone can read. Fortunately, not too many other people do. I end up messily confessing my "angst" on Thanksgiving (how embarrassing) and guess what -- nobody makes fun of me! (At least not to my face). Pathos, pathos, pathos.

After that, I still try to relate my blog to the assignments, but I start venturing off more. Nileblog becomes much more about my connections with the class, and discussions within the context of that community. Interestingly, once I let go of some of my reservations, I think I got more clarity on the blogging issues. Once I STOPPED trying to avoid the pathos, the logos and ethos appeals were also much stonger. I think. This leads me to conclude that blogging is a medium that works best when the writer is NOT constrained to avoid the informal, intimate language of blogging. Trying to be too academic, too authorative, too reserved, too emotionally distant from the subject matter, a la James Wolcott, doesn't work as well. There is no ethos or logos without pathos in the blogdom.

So here we are.

"I am a part of all that I have met." -- Alfred Tennyson

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rhetoric of Blogging (Part VI): Once more, with feeling

Let's talk about comments. To me, the overriding rhetorical appeal of blogging is the possibility or actuality of COMMENTS. Call me a wuss. Call me a wimp. But I write in fear, in dread, in hope of generating comments. I contacted each of the blogs that I wrote about, and emailed back and forth with all but Daily Kos. I wrote each post with the desire to be clear, balanced, and genuine with my analysis. However, there was a little voice in my head as I typed saying, "What will happen when they read this? Will they like it? Will they agree? Will they get mad? Will I hurt their feelings?"

I feel the emotional pull. Maybe it's that I have an overriding desire to have people like me, I don't know. But mostly, I don't want to make anyone feel BAD. I don't want to hurt their feelings. So I try to say things correctly -- but nicely. So tell me THAT doesn't affect my writing...

Then I get comments, and actually, that's great. I love the back and forth, because the informal nature just begs people to lower their guard and turn off their filter. You know how we are in cars? When someone cuts us off, we curse, we honk, we give them the finger. I venture that most of us would NEVER tell the old lady who wanders in front of us in the bank line to go f- herself, punctuated by the bird. And yet, from the protective bubble of our cars, we lose all our inhibitions and our manners. That's how I see blogging. We speak from the protective comfort of our chairs through a key board. We get to be freer, because no one can see us, no one can challenge us in person, and we don't have to watch the recipient react to our words. So we're more angry, more passionate, more loving, more emotive, more everything on a blog. So I brace myself for comments, but I'm delighted when they come. I'm not afraid of a challenge. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I like enlightened discourse. With comments, we can let 'em rip. So we go at it, usually with civility, but not with the usual discussion group disclaimers: "Don't take this personally, but..." "I hear you, and you make some good points, but..."

Once again we come back to the constraints of conversation and the joy of uninhibited writing. Somehow the blogdom has created a unique forum for communication because we have nearly instantaneous dialogue in a stream-of-consciousness format. It's compelling. It draws you in. It's happened to this class!

Not everyone may feel the pull of comments. Coffey claims she doesn't care, as does Marc. I say again, is that not caring, or is that rejecting? But for me, and for many of us, I think the comments are the unique feature, because of the way they foster the one-of-a-kind blog rhetoric, its unique pathos appeal. Without comments, I'm just another wolf baying at the moon. But then someone answers, and I answer back, and then we're talking about my stuff, and their stuff, and your stuff. And because of the way it all unfolds, in a less filtered, less edited, less defensive way (write-click-send-read-respond), I realize we're mostly alike in so many ways. Thanks for letting me in.

Update: I've got to add this from Glenn Reynolds' interview:

"Why is blogging important?

It's a conversation. It's self-expression (my wife started blogging recently and has found it really therapeutic). And it gives us practice at self-organizing spontaneously, which we're likely to need in the future."

It explains so much of what's happened in our class.

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part V): Daily Kos

I can't discuss engage in a serious discussion of blogging without taking a look at Daily Kos. I think dKos (Dkos?)has become the Big Brother of blogs, for many reasons.

First of all, it's extremely popular. As the site says, discussing its stats under "Warm Fuzzys":

The TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem
Daily Kos is the highest-trafficked weblog. Really, this is the most important metric.

Most Important 100 Blogs
Consistently ranks in the top 5 of all weblogs in link popularity (that is, links on other sites pointing to Daily Kos).

Top 100 Weblogs
Ranks number two of all weblogs in link popularity (different formula than Blogstreet uses). Top political blog of any ideological stripe

So lots of bloggers think highly of dKos, lots of blog rolls think it's important. Why? What the source of its power?

Again we go back to rhetoric. Rhetoric is about persuasion. What do so many bloggers/readers (are you a blogger if you only read?) think dKos has such authority, such believability?

First of all, consider its apparent purpose. Its tag line reads, "State of the Nation." So presumably this blog will provide commentary on current events in the U.S. And indeed it does. There is some pretty heavily political stuff on the site, which goes far beyond the "skimming the top of the waves" type of pieces you'd tend to find in the MSM. In a very recent post, for example, there is a link to the Courant's recent poll on a Leiberman-Weicker race, with indepth commentary.

It's not really State of the Nation so much as State of the Liberal Nation. If a quick review of the articles doesn't tip you off, you can read the info on the bio of its founder, Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, aka "Kos." In explaining the site's policies, he says,

"We desperately need to catch the Right in the Blogger Wars, and I am proud of each and every person who has the guts and initiative to start his or her own weblog. The progressive movement of the future will be built, in large part, on this digital foundation."

If I'm reading this correctly, this site thus is promulgated in part as a means of fomenting liberal discourse and political action.

The clear authorial voice is Kos. He posts his picture on the site, gives you a bit of his background, and uses the first person in describing the blog's mission and policies. There is no doubt that Kos is The Man at dKos. This lends itself to a blog with a strong ethos or authoritative appeal. Kos limits links, requires registration of commentors and allow them in only after a waiting period (wish our gun control laws were as effective), and tells his readers what to do if they want to get linked:

So how does a site get listed? Be noticed. Make a stir. Don't regurgitate the contents of a news story, but provide perspective or additional insight. Be clever, funny, original. Get away from the default templates. Get away from Blogspot. Create your own identity. Your own domain. Have attitude. Be self-confident.

Kos is also the author of many of the articles on the blog. He writes about politics and current events, but also doesn't hestitate to promote his upcoming book. More than once.

So the primary rhetorical message of this site is that it's Kos's world. He knows how to create liberal press, he knows how to foster progressive dialogue, and he is an authority on the state of the nation. It's his sandbox and if you want to play it, he's the boss.

Understand that I am not commenting on whether or not he is qualified to be an authority on any of these issues. I'm not, and my opinion really isn't relevant to this analysis. The opinion of dKos is the one that matters here, and the blog is set up to reflect Kos as the benevolent despot.

I also see an underlying emotional appeal to this site, however, Much of it reads like you're coming into a conversation in the middle. There's also the comment feature, which is regulated by Kos, as well as the rating of comments by other readers. Kos directs us how to use the rating system:

Many users believe that the rating system is intented to be an opportunity to express agreement or disagreement with a post, or with the poster themself. This is not accurate; ratings are intended to help elevate those posters that consistently make clear, good arguments and points, regardless of content, and to prevent trolls from invading the message board. Downrating commenters on the basis of agreement or disagreement with their arguments leads to a monolithic forum, free of new ideas and input.

It's human nature to want to belong, to be a part of something. It's also human nature to a certain extent to want to be exclusionary, to be a part of something good and special. You may be the biggest geek in the pond, but you can still be cool on dKos if you're a part of the club. You can also have the fun of smashing other would-be members by giving them negative ratings. You can walk the walk and talk the talk on the blog if you just follow the rules -- and the conversation.

Hence its popularity: a strong, confident leader who doesn't seem to equivocate much on the proper way to do things, a blog with a righteous mission, plus a club atmosphere that lets you join and at the same time, try to keep others out. What could be more appealing to us disenfranchised, rutterless liberals?

Okay, I just have to make one comment: I find the whole thing a little creepy. Mr. Kos is probably a great guy, but I don't know him. I appreciate the need to moderate comments to keep things from degenerating to the "that's just stupid, stupid" level that we see on most blogs. However, I feel censored and a bit manipulated when I read this blog. The articles are often edgy, but they are heavily skewed to the left. Isn't there occasionally room for debate? I also don't like the pressure to be funny and original, and who cares if I'm on blogspot? Plus I can't help wondering: what is Kos leaving OFF this blog?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part IV): Coffee Rhetoric Rhetoric

A quick review of rhetoric appeals: ethical, logical, emotional. There seems to be no doubt that our friend T.'s blog is has a primarily emotional appeal. Let's look at the tag line: The ravings and digital photo diary of a moody, chronically single, and impatient young woman. The description of the author are emotion based words, like moody, chronically, and impatient. She's painting a picture of herself that seems to disclaim any responsiblity, like an anti-ethos. "Okay, this is who I am, so don't expect me to be sensible," is what I read from this.

When I first started reading this blog, I would have thought that's all it was. There's a lot of "I got drunk, I'm hung over," "I got hit on by a loser, now I'm going to get drunk" type of writing. Granted, it's well-written and often funny, but why write this stuff? I'm not denigrating the content or the format, I'm asking seriously, why?

I asked T. and here's what she said: As far as why I started the blog... simply put, I wanted to be writing on a semi-consistent basis. I had
hit a pretty rough writing patch where I wasn't able
to produce anything. I felt as if my creative juices
had dried up. Blogging allows me to keep up the momentum in terms of

So it started as a place to put her stuff. However, she could have just written all this in a diary. Somehow, however, knowing that there were potential readers out there kept pressure on her to produce. I think she enjoys the audience. Don't all of us would-be writers ultimately hope to appeal to somebody? I think T. likes putting her life on the internet to draw us in. She writes with a strongly emotionally appealing style. Consder the following from an October post:

"I've said in previous posts that with maturity comes a sense of clarity. With clarity comes relief. This sense of relief comes from not having to impress (or pacify) anybody for any reason of frivolity.
I feel comfortable in my own skin and with the decisions I choose to make, in maintaining my sanity. This includes surrounding myself with significant other people."

This is a young woman trying to come to grips with herself, and writing about it. She also tries to makes sense of the crazy events in her life. She is also very amusing. Finally, there are times, especially with some of her pictures, that I think she is posing, creating a very coy image. (There's one that unintentionally looks like a bondage thing that's a bit disturbing). Perhaps her primarily goal is to create an emotional connection with herself, as she says. But even though T. says that she doesn't write for her readers, I don't think this is true:

"I don't blog to appease the reading masses. I do it to appease myself. It's
cathartic and it allows me to do what I enjoy most...write.

People are definitely welcome to post comments and
offer their feedback on my blogs, but comments don't
have any direct effect on my writing style and what I
decide to blog about."

I think this CAN'T be true, for anybody. First of all, once we read comments, we internalize them in some way. I guess the most hardened of us could say, "I don't give a damn about what anyone says or thinks about me," and mean it. As Bora commented, it's human nature to gravitate towards like thinkers. If T. posts a hilarious piece on, oh, getting hit on while on the bus, and lots of people comment and say that is so funny, write more, we're going to tend to write more. Conversely, if commenters says, "That was offensive, you suck," we are as writers probably going to withhold that part of our writing -- perhaps because our feelings are hurt, but also perhaps because we feel our readers don't deserve to see that part of us, they don't deserve to know our thoughts if they don't appreciate them. Or perhaps we grit our teeth and say, "to hell with them," and keep pecking away at the keyboard, but we'll still affected -- and how can that not manifest itself somewhere in our writing?

Finally, although T.'s blog has strong emotional appeal, there is also an element of logic and authority in places. For example, in her post about the movie Rize, she tells us she's a film buff (authority), and then gives a convincing description of why it's a great movie (logic). So once again, we see a melding of rhetorical appeals, even in a primarily pathos-type website.

One small aside: I told T. that I thought her name might be a pseudonym in case we were a bunch of web-crazed maniacs (thereby, I'm sure, convincing her that we ARE), but she assured me no, that's her name, but her dates always ask, "So what's REALLY on your birth certificate?"

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part III) - Flu Wiki

I still don't know if it's a blog, but I'm fascinated by Flu Wiki. We talk about Utopian endeavours; this seems to be one in its purest form. On my blog, I suggested that the site has an agenda, which was to motivate people to care/do something about the bird flu. This prompted a response from Melanie, one of the creators, who said, "The Flu Wiki is an attempt to be a site which simply posts the best information we have. It takes no political point of view, but wishes to give the power of information into the hands of communities to do what they must to deal with avian flu." We had a polite back and forth about Flu Wiki via email, and she stated that their only goal was dissemination of information.

I think Flu Wiki has appeal on all rhetorical levels. It has ethical appeal because it presents itself as an informational site. If you look at it, it looks very serious, appropriately so because it's dealing with a life-or-death issue. It also provides information in a formal manner, with lots of links to national and international governmental and health organization sites. So there's a "we know what we're talking about" authoritative rhetoric to the site. Indeed, that was one of the purposes of the site, according to Melanie: "Flu Wiki is considered an authoritative source by the professionals."

There is also logos, logic appeal here. If you want to learn about the flu, here's info. If you want to learn how to contact your government, here's the address. If you want to help, here's some phone numbers. Lots of logical explanation of information.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that there is also an emotional appeal to the message. In this current environment, we can't have a flu discussion without at least unconsciously thinking, "Oh no, are we all gonna die?!!" Consider this quote from the site:

"Once the virus spreads easily from human to human and becomes a pandemic (many disease experts say when, not if), we will be confronting a worldwide public health emergency with hundreds of millions of people infected."

Factual? Seems so. Authoritative? Yes. Emotional? Yes! How can you not read that and feel a sense of panic or fear?

I think that's what Flu Wiki is all about: providing authoritative information that is useful to all kinds of groups on the flu, and yes, to motivate people to do something about it, to push their governments to take action. Just the fact that Flu Wiki is not a part of Wikipedia, for example, is a message that the bird flu issue is too important and too big to bury in a general purpose site.

Flu Wiki also helps define the power of blogging rhetoric. Melanie wrote that the site was started as "a small site for practitioners, professionals and the kind of flu nuts that gather on the flu threads." Now it's taken off and being moved to a larger server. It's become Melanie's full-time job (as part of a larger organization), and she went to a flu conference last month to discover she and her co-founder were "famous." As she says, "This is a very strange and unexpected story."

I have been concluding that blogging is less about info transmission, and more about interhuman connection building. Now I'm re-thinking that. Bird flu is definitely a hot meme right now, with good reason. Everyone is talking about it (and hopefully some people are actually DOING something about it). Did Flu Wiki start the meme? Probably not, but it has definitely helped spread the meme and increase the power and authority of its message. As Melanie says, it's taken off like crazy and "the response from the Web has been astounding." So Melanie and company started talking, and eventually, a lot of people started listening. An persuasive example of the ability of blogging to impact important issues.

Update: Melanie responded to my comments on the power of blogging: "Your essential insight about community is correct: I have a dear friend who is an anthropologist who's job is very similar to the new one I'm starting next month. I showed her blogs for the first time a year ago. She came back to me a few weeks later and remarked, 'This platform is the most powerful tool for community building since the development of literacy.' Not the printing press, literacy itself."

Also, as another example of the spreading meme, she writes, " 15 minutes of fame from Flu Wiki has been that I give a lot of interviews to the press. The most recent will be in USAToday and National Journal this Thursday."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Lodge Are We

Someone at the last class (Joe, my dear friend and ex-husband?) said that no one goes bowling any more, no one belongs to the Elks Club. Agreed. We are all so busy with our "main" lives that we don't carve out that escape-from-reality place like our forefathers (and mothers) did. I guess we don't value it as we should.

Well, you guys are my lodge, my bowling team, my Starlight Lodge (that's was a women's club in the Catskills). Once a week, I get to just hang and talk with an interesting group of people. What I do for a living, how my kids are, what my husband's name is, whether I can pay the mortgage, all not relevant. It's a sanctuary of sorts, and the closeness is a product of blogging and sharing our thoughts with each other. But I thought it was just me, or just a couple of us mushy, emotive types. Then I listened to Eric's blog...

Anyone for one last post-class gathering Thursday night?

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part II)

Rhetoric analysis can be approached in many ways, but for my purposes, I'm going to examine (1) the type of appeal; (2) the author or apparent author; (3) the recipient audience; (4) the medium chosen to deliver the message.

For a more in-depth review of rhetoric, Wikipedia has an excellent entry. Note that although Colin may express skepticism about some aspects of rhetorical theory, Marshal McLuhan was first and foremost a rhetorician. Consider this quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"After studying the persuasive strategies involved in such an array of items in popular culture, McLuhan shifted the focus of his rhetorical analysis and began to consider how communication media themselves impact on us as persuasive, in a manner of speaking. In other words, the communication media as such embody and carry a persuasive dimension. McLuhan uses hyperbole to express this insight when he says 'the medium is the message.'"

When discussing a blog, we must therefore consider (1) the apparent purpose of blog (i.e., to the extent the blog identifies its mission); (2) the primary authorial voice; (3) the audience, which may include an "apparent" audience (for example, Dems on a Democratic website) and the actual audience (anyone who wants to log on); and (4) the blog as a medium of communication and how that affects the message.

Bora Z., who comments frequently as "Coturnix," was kind enough to answer some questions for me about his blogging. He has many blogs. He said that he started blogging mostly to have a safe place to store things in case his computer crashed. Then lots of people started responding, and in his words, "I got validation from other people who I trust." I asked him why he was so interested in our class, and his response was that we were "newbies" who were expressly reacting to and writing about what we were seeing. "This was a unique opportunity to actually see expressed the first thoughts and feeling of people freshly introduced to the medium."

His comments on our class actually support what Colin has been preaching, which that we, at this moment, know more about blogging than most bloggers, new or old:

"It was very interesting to me to see how many people here strongly disliked the political discourse on blogs, hated Kos and Wolcott, loved Coffee and Andrew Sullivan, and had mixed feelings about Vlogs. That is definitely NOT how old bloggers see them. It is refreshing and thought-provoking. Makes me think what I am doing with my blogs and why. How are they perceived. How am I perceived."

So let's dissect one of his blogs. We were first introduced to Bora through Science and Politics. The tag line for the blog (is that what it's called? I guess it is now.) is Red-State Serbian Jewish atheist liberal PhD student with Thesis-writing block and severe blogorrhea trying to understand US politics by making strange connections between science, religion, brain, language and sex.

So the apparent purpose is to help a grad student understand American politics. The real purpose seems to be to help its author connect, foster communities, and as he candidly states, obtain validation. The latest posts are on movies, a favorite blog carnival, and a link to a blogging article. So its actual purpose is not politics.

The authorial voice is Bora, as affected by comments (more on comments in another post). The audience is...anyone who listens? There doesn't seem to be a particular audience prescribed by this blog. Now the fun part, really, is the way in which the blog affects his communications. Almost every entry asks for a response: what do you think? What do you like? What type of blogger are you? Do you want to host a carnival next weekend?

What type of message is this? Not ethical that I see, as Bora doesn't hold himself out as an expert on anything; in fact, his tag line starts out by telling us that he's looking for answers, and then he continually seeks to draw his readers in to answer questions. There may be some logical appeal to his writings, as he calls his blog "Science and Politics," which is a pretty heavy this-is-serious-stuff title. He also links to various articles on blogging and carnivals, so there is some informational items on his blog.

Mostly, however, it seems to have pathos, emotional appeal. In his recent post about movies he talks about the ones he likes: "Don't ask! Even I have no idea what is it about these particular movies that makes me watch them again and again...." Then he asks, "So, what movies do you watch again and again? Can you say why?" All this is emotional rhetoric -- let's talk, let's be friends, you should read this because it's interesting, because I'M interesting. As he says, it's validation, the human need for connection and approval. Because he's blogging, this medium allows him to ask for and receive validation, in the form of comments.

Here's the fascinating and frightening thing about blogging. I am examining the subject as he's sitting in the room. It's hard to remain detached when I picture Bora looking over my shoulder as I'm writing. So I think we're all heavily affected by this medium. I know McLuhan was using hyperbole when he said the medium is the message, but in this case, it can't help but skew the content of the message.

I think some in our class (mean old Marc, our favorite beloved curmudgeon) would scoff at a need for validation as a weakness, as seeking validation from strangers as silliness. I don't agree. I think hopefully we don't need blog-approval to keep functioning in happy, healthy lives. But any time we put ourselves out there in a blog, we know others are going to potentially read and comment on US, on our words. To say we don't care is not to be indifferent, I don't think, but to be rejecting of any messages, good or bad, that come in. It's a decision not to consider the potential response. I don't think it means we don't all need validation in our lives. Or maybe Marc just has a thicker skin than I do, entirely possible.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part I)

As everyone in our blogging class know, Chris, Brett, and I took a class on the theory and practice of rhetoric last spring. Once you look at communication through the rhetoric looking glass, it's hard to go back.

The term "rhetoric" has become a perjorative term in many ways, used to describe speech that seen as shallow or insincere. To say "That's just a bunch of rhetoric" is not a compliment.

The study of rhetoric has nothing to do with discerning artifice in speech. Rather, to quote James J. Murphy, it's the art or science of men and women communicating with other human beings. Aristole was the first philosopher to study and write about rhetoric. He viewed rhetoric as "the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." He described three main forms of rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is ethical appeal, based on the character of the speaker. A teacher's words may have ethical appeal, because he is in a position of authority.

Logos is logical appeal, appeal based on reason or logic. A manual on how to build something has logic appeal, as it tells you that if you do A+B+C, you will get D.

Pathos is emotional appeal. Communication based on pathos appeal to your emotion, such as an adverstisement with a woman in a bikini with her arm around a man with a beer. The unstated emotional appeal is that if you drink the beer, you will be attractive and sexy.

One of the principles of rhetoric is that all communication is a form of persuasion. This may cause skepticism at first: ALL communication is persuasive? What am I trying to do with my shopping list, persuade myself to buy groceries?

Those who study rhetoric take, I believe, a different view of persuasion. All communication may not seek to induce action in the recipient, to persuade the recipient to do something. However, I do believe that consciously or not, all communication does seek to induce some kind of reaction. When rhetoricians speak of the type of persuasive appeal, they are really talking about the type of reaction that is sought in the reader. When a teacher tells you to do your homework, you do because she has authorative or ethical appeal. When you make a shopping list, you are logically describing a need for groceries. And when the beer company puts on that beach bunny commercial, they hope you will feel sexy and appealing watching it, and hence buy the beer.

My question is, what is the rhetoric of blogging? The answer depends on the blog we're talking about. Most of the interesting ones, I think, are based on an emotional appeal, an ability to create an emotional connection with the reader. However, I plan to look at a number of different blogs and examine their rhetoric.

My Blogged Blogging Paper

I'm going to try this: blogging my final paper. It seems fitting, give that the class is about blogging, so why not try to give a paper on the topic all the benefits and drawbacks of the medium that is being studied?

The challenge is writing in enough depth to provide adequate analysis for a grad class, without just sticking a ten page paper up on my blog, which, let's be honest, no one will read. So I'm going to post a series of writing, which hopefully will be short enough to draw some comments (please!), but taken together, will provide some interesting analysis. So, let's go to the next post...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tiny Deaths

I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while yesterday at Starbucks. I was busy grading papers, and a business associate was waiting for him at a nearby table, so we just exchanged hi, how are you’s. Even if we had had more time, we would not have talked for more than a minute or two; we’re friendly but we’re not friends.

I’ve known him and his wife for years. I recently heard that they were getting divorced. That moment at the coffee shop was not the right time to tell him that I was sorry to hear about their breakup. I’m not sure when would be the right time; is there etiquette for expressing regret about the end of a marriage to someone who’s just one of those interesting people in the background of your life?

As he sat down, I heard him apologize to the person waiting for being late. He had the kids last night, he explained casually, and had to drive three different carpools this morning getting them to school. It struck me that while I was stuck in the awkwardness of seeing him for the first time since I learned of his divorce, he was comfortably settled in his new life, playing the role of the single dad.

I sat there at the next table for a few moments, mourning the death of his marriage as he cheerfully discussed business over coffee. I’m sure he’s already mourned, or maybe still is, but for now, he’s moved on. But we are surrounded these little losses every day, whether they belong to us or someone else. The intricacy of the interconnected web of relationships that form the fabric of our lives scares me almost as the fragility of those human relationships. When one of those strands shatters, it reverberates along the web like impulses along a nerve. Why was I so affected by an acquaintance’s divorce? Is it because this newly single parent with young kids is only a few years older than me, and it was too uncomfortable to imagine myself in his position? Or was I just feeling the residual loss that accompanies a divorce, a shard from that shattered relationship?

I have a sense that he probably wouldn’t want me to say anything to him about him and his wife. A divorce is not like a real death, where you send a card to express your condolences from a polite distance. So I guess I’ll just keep smiling when I see him, and asking how he’s doing without expecting an honest answer. Right now, though, I’m going to go drink a glass of wine with my husband, and watch TV on a tired Friday night. And hold hands.