I imagine an aging monk, hands gnarled, body bent from years of copying sacred texts. His world is one of libraries, manuscripts and quills — until the day he sees a page by Gutenberg. He cannot fathom the work’s significance.
Still, a thought penetrates like ink: in the mechanical world ahead, anyone might be able to read. Anyone might become a scribe. In a flash like revelation, he sees a future in which letters fly everywhere, filling the air like gnats.
It took less than 550 years for the once erudite world of publishing to move from Gutenberg’s Bible to blogs. In Arkansas, publishing zipped in less than 200 years from the hand press that produced the first Arkansas Gazette to the computer in a Hillcrest living room that displays Colter McCorkindale’s personal journal.
Unlike the Gazette, which survived a long time but is gone, McCorkindale’s publication persists in the on-line public arena, where it is available on-line day and night, free to anyone who might want to read it. Traffic to McCorkindale’s blog is not heavy, though one could find it through a variety of routes. One would be to Google “plaid guitar, arkansas.” That would lead to www.pointedstick.net/colter/guitars/index.shtml, where McCorkindale has posted photos of his 16 guitars, among which is a green plaid Yamaha.
Why would anyone Google the words “plaid guitar” in combination with “Arkansas”?
Ah. That is the beauty of weblogs, or blogs — words still so new that they confound even the dictionaries in most computers. Blogs’ appeal is their almost limitless flexibility. They can become influential on-line forces, keeping a healthy check on other news sources, as when bloggers successfully challenged CBS News and helped usher Dan Rather into retirement. Or they can be more modest on-line presences — quiet, self-introductions sent forth to see who, if anyone, responds.
To McCorkindale, who began blogging while he was a student at Hendrix College, “It’s a message-in-a-bottle kind of thing, like your own little SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] Project. It’s something you think is worth doing, whether or not anyone responds.”
That casually social approach is not, of course, the motive force behind blogs such as the one maintained by this paper, or by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, or by the thousands of other media, corporate, political or governmental groups who want to reach as wide an audience as possible.
But if those professional blogs could be compared to the printing press that William Woodruff carted into the Arkansas frontier, the more personal blogs, like McCorkindale’s, resemble the diaries kept in settlers’ cupboards. The few journals that have survived from that era offer insights into humble lives that never attracted a newspaper’s attention.
But will the discovery of McCorkindale’s plaid guitar ever excite an archivist? Even now, how many people care to see snapshots he posts on his blog of gigs his band Superflux has played? What of his photos of urban decay, his view of “things falling apart”? Is anyone interested in his “Two-Bit Opinion #10,” titled “Why Arkansas is Screwed Up”?
The fact is that most personal bloggers attract few readers, even in the present. It’s a realization that McCorkindale says a friend of his “is kind of struggling” with right now.
But for McCorkindale, unlike professional bloggers, audience size is not an issue. “It’s really about personal amusement,” he says. Paraphrasing Frank Zappa, he adds: “It’s kind of an artistic pursuit. I do it because I like it, and if other people like it, that’s gravy.”
Like many bloggers, McCorkindale created his blog as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends without the bother of writing a lot of e-mails. Anyone who wants to see what he’s been up to can simply click onto his blog.
McCorkindale works as a website designer. For his job alone, he spends eight hours a day in front of a computer. Because “anything can be addictive,” he limits his blogging to his lunch hour, and so far, he’s resisted upgrading the 56K modem on his computer at home. Sitting cross-legged in front of that computer, he notes wryly, “You have to have a life in the first place, in order to blog about it.”
If some search engine of the future were able to screen untold millions of blogs for the simple, four-letter word “feel,” it might create a psychological profile of bloggers here at the turn of the century. They are overwhelmingly young — high-school- and college-aged, mainly, with numbers dropping off sharply after age 30 — and many have opened their lives on blogs as the pages of personal books.
Free blog sites such as LiveJournal, Blogger, and Xanga have become a kind of commons. There, Arkansans, along with people around the world, are publishing reports on the events of their own lives, their reactions to news, their views on art, their thoughts on politics, education and medicine, and, often, their dreams and despairs. As Blogger.com notes: “Your blog is whatever you want it to be… there are no real rules.”
People create blogs rather than websites because, besides being free, basic blogs are easy to create and maintain, and they can be highly interactive. Whereas websites mainly put out information, blogs can take it in too. Like the best and most ordinary human communication, they thrive on give and take.
They also allow people to connect through links relating to specific interests. Hence, Arkies who are keen on tattooing can find each other and exchange patterns as easily as can knitters. People who attended Arkansas Governor’s School can find each other and chat. Blogs have been established for residents of towns scattered across the state.
But it’s the revelatory minutiae of countless individual lives that is simultaneously the most numbing and fascinating aspect of blogs. Take this, for example, posted recently on LiveJournal, by a kid who wrote that he had recently checked into Rivendell, a psychiatric hospital in Benton:
“i’m taking xxx Geodon, Effexor and Trazedon… looking at side effects of all three, Effexor apparently has the ability to make the user hostile and angry, so all the anger and hostile-ness I’ve been feeling comes from that, but apparently, if this side effect is present, it’s a bad thing… apparently i’m supposed to stop taking the medicine if this happens. it then goes on to warn that suddenly stopping the medicine can lead to a rapid plummet into depression. what is a boy to do?”
Forgive me — but the range of material, about and from Arkansas alone, almost bloggles the mind. One site quotes the poet John Gould Fletcher about Arkansas’s role in the Civil War. Another describes, day by day, a loved one’s wait for a heart transplant — and the grief that descended when death came before the needed heart. Many Arkansas soldiers have blogged records of their time in Iraq; at least one displays his medals. A genealogist extols the helpfulness of a particular 1911 census at the Arkansas History Commission. And an instructor in instructional design at Arkansas Tech University describes his attempts to encourage colleagues to start weblogs of their own.
“They said they had a lot of ‘human’ things on their plate and didn’t have time for the ‘technology’ things right now,” Scott Adams wrote. He continued:
“I understand that, I really do. We all have full plates. But, here’s the deal. This (blogging) is neither human only or technology only. It is human technology. Once you understand that distinction, the purpose of blogging is much clearer.”
For people like academicians, Adams wrote, who otherwise “sit alone or with one or two colleagues in universities around the nation,” blogs serve as “great tools for communication.”
A disproportionate number of personal blogs do, in fact, emanate from the vicinity of university campuses. Students who have played on computers since infancy blog as though the act is an extension of thinking. Others regard blogging as a integral part of their social lives.
For example, a fellow named Andrew Moroz, who says that that is his real name and that he’s a graduate student at Princeton, also says that he has never visited Arkansas. Yet his blog, http://www.princeton.edu/~amoroz/2005/02/arkansas.html, asks the question, “Ever wonder what people from Arkansas are like?” and links it to a video clip, http://www.princeton.edu/\u126 ~amoroz/arkansas.wmv.
Asked by e-mail what prompted the entry, Moroz replied that the clip “reveals an example of what contributes to the stereotypical portrayal of Arkansas as backward.” He added that he also found the clip “uproarious.”
Anyone who does sees the clip is welcome to respond to Moroz via the blog. At this writing, no one had. But that potential for interactivity, cloaked in anonymity if the writer wants, is what has made blogging such a powerful phenomenon. People have a lot to say, and blogs provide a free — and safe — way for them to do it.
Matilda Frumpleheimer admits that that is not her name, though she says — and I believe — that she’s an Arkie. Matilda’s co-writers (or are they alter-egos?) at http://www.matildaintherock.blogspot.com/, carry on about politics, especially the Arkansas kind, such as this about Asa Hutchinson’s candidacy for governor:
“I wonder if Asa will only talk to groups of loyal supporters like the President, Vice President, and the others pushing the White House agenda. Like them, Asa could say it was for security reasons and, since he was second in command of Homeland Security, who could question him on it? If he does let a couple of nonbelievers into the fold and up to a mic, I hope one of them will ask how the Dept. of Homeland Security could possibly spend $500,000 on an awards banquet while he was running it.”
When asked if they’d mind identifying themselves, Matilda declined.“We are honored to be thought of,” she wrote, “but must remain behind our MooMoos. Our bosses might not enjoy the publicity.”
As to why they write, Edna, another voice on the blog, sent this: “Writing is fun. Poking at pompous asses with a sharp pointy stick is also amusing, providing the owners of said asses cannot turn around and womp you upside the head. Blogging gives me the opportunity to have fun without the physical danger.”
Social creatures look for ways to share and interact. Blogs let people do that. And, as Edna noted, if folks can speak and be heard in public without risking getting womped upside the head, they’re on to something powerful.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project has reported that 27 percent of online adults in the United States read blogs, and that 7 percent write them. That number is growing, as non-geeks learn how easy it is to establish a blog, and as they seize upon blogs’ infinite uses. One woman posts a daily photo of herself, to record her aging process. Some blogs evolve into autobiographies. Others become collaborative spaces, where co-workers hash out ideas. All, though, are experiments in expression, whether public or personal, funny or serious, low-brow or literary-minded.
“In a sense,” said Matthew Reed, a 30-year-old bank teller in Little Rock, “blogging is exhibitionism without the risk … I get to lay my thoughts and ideas out there, but I don’t risk embarrassment, as I’m alone when I do it. I don’t have to sit there and fidget nervously while you read it, or wince if you laugh in the wrong place, or wither away when I see your embarrassment. And if you leave a mean-spirited comment behind, well, you’re just a name on a screen, aren’t you?”
Reed, who holds a degree in philosophy and is pursuing another in computer science, is the husband of Jennifer Barnett Reed, a writer for this paper. He admits harboring “prior” aspirations of becoming a professional writer, and thinks of the essays he posts on his blog, http://middleclasstoolshed.blogspot.com, as what writer David Mamet called “shared secrets.”
“When I tell you a story about my misadventures in self-improvement or the virtues of a good wood fire or hearing my grandmother’s voice years after she died, when I’m describing how I reacted and what I felt, I’m pretty sure that there are others out there who read it and think, ‘I’ve known that as well.’ ”
To Reed, “These shared secrets are proof that there really is no such thing as the mundane” and that “this life we take for granted” is “packed with magic and meaning and beauty.”
By contrast, Christopher Allbritton, a 1993 UALR graduate, left the life we take for granted to gather material for his blog. In the fall of 2002, Allbritton, who had majored in journalism and written for several print publications, broke new ground in reporting by raising money via his Web site to fund a month of freelance reporting from Iraq. While most reporters for established media were “embedded” with military units, Allbritton traveled on his own, “with no back-up and no bullet-proof vest,” as he puts it, and sent articles on the war back to his subscribers via a laptop and satellite phone. (See http://www.back-to-iraq.com/.)
Allbritton now writes for Time magazine. To the surprise of some, he has also kept up his weblog, though he expects to end that soon. “It’s becoming a bit of a pain,” he explained in response to an e-mailed question. “The magazine hasn’t asked me to stop or anything, and in fact, they’ve been quite cool about the whole thing. But I’m tired of serving two masters and something’s got to give.”
Like the monk I imagined, traditional media, as it is now being called, is finding itself a bit rattled by the inventiveness and inquisitiveness — not to mention the sheer number — of bloggers. But, for the moment, at least, the truth is that most blogs threaten big media about as much as a shopping list threatens the status of Shakespeare. They are written for personal motives — generally a desire to share — and aspire to little more than to reach a few other humans.
Colter McCorkindale lists all the CDs, tapes and vinyl records he owns, in alphabetical order. It’s a vast collection. He writes: “An eclectic selection, I like to think — Marsalis next to Marilyn Manson, Miles Davis next to Death, White Zombie and Barry White…but that’s me.”
And that is the wonder of blogs. This sphere without physical boundaries is composed of virtually nothing but niches — niches in which people can gather.
McCorkindale smiles as he observes, “If you’re a person like myself — highly peculiar — I guess it makes it possible to meet other highly peculiar people.”
I imagine the monk at his window, reflecting on Gutenberg’s Bible. Has anyone else in the world, he wonders, harbored such thoughts as he? Of course, the monk cannot possibly find out. He does not even know the word “Google.”