anxieties of influence

Ezra Klein’s response to the current books-that-most-influenced-me meme is interesting: He says that in such conversations, “I always feel like a fraud.” Though he lists some books, he continues,

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues. . . .Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would’ve spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn’t exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I’ve also spent more time reading those. But I can’t deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I’ve had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren’t even that close.

Klein is making an important distinction here: most of us can name the books that most influenced our intellectual development, but it can be a little harder to assess all of the forces that shaped us and figure out which ones are the most important.To say that a magazine, or a set of magazines, or even a series of blogs are the chief instruments of your intellectual formation is not — or should not be — a shameful confession. A lot depends on the quality of your reading. If you read an intelligent and active blogger over the course of a year, say, you are likely to be reading more than a book’s worth of that person’s words; and while you won’t be getting the benefit of tracing a single argument through lengthy development — something relatively few books offer anyway — if you are an attentive reader you will learn a great deal about how that person’s mind works, how that mind encounters and assesses the many provocations that any smart person faces in a year. That kind of reading can be a useful intellectual education . . . in some fields.But not in all. In my field, literary studies, I would say that you could (theoretically) get an education in criticism by reading smart blogs, but you can only get an education in literature by reading literature. And that means learning to reckon not just with short works — lyric poems, essays, short stories — but with great big things: novels, plays, epics. In literature the book-length work is central and irreplaceable.

the enemy of thought? really?

About three years ago I wrote an essay in which I claimed that “Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Well, don’t I feel foolish now, with a blog of my own and a presence on another most excellent one?No, actually. Well, I mean, yes, I do feel foolish, but not because of that statement. I still think I was right. The problem, as I said then, is the “architecture” of blogs, which is strangely invariant across the blogosphere. Everywhere you look, the post at the top of the page is the most recent; and almost everywhere you look, on blogs that enable comments, the comment at the top is the oldest. What this means is that time is the only criterion by which contributions to blogs are organized. The experience of reading blogs, and writing them too, is dominated by novelty rather than quality. On a news-focused blog, that makes sense; on an ideas-focused blog, not so much.One of the few exceptions to this rule is the famous karma-based moderation system on Slashdot, and even it is a partial exception. You still have to look at comments in chronological order — which makes sense, after all, since some comments respond to earlier ones — but at least you get to filter out comments the moderators have “modded down.” This is by no means a perfect system: as has been pointed out for many years, not all moderators are well-qualified to make their judgments, and they tend to display a herd mentality. (Not incidentally, the same problems affect editors of Wikipedia, which is why there’s an ongoing push from within the WikiWorld for more control over the editing process.) Moreover, the karma system doesn’t do anything to allow readers to rank and evaluate posts or authors. Slashdot has a Hall of Fame that allows you to see the most-visited and most-commented-upon posts, but those aren’t categories of quality — and that makes sense on Slashdot, which is primarily a (geeky) news blog. Digg and reddit also run what amounts to popularity contests. Not what I have in mind.I would like to see experiments with different versions of the karma system. For instance, what if, in addition to evaluating comments, readers evaluated posts? You may have noticed that you already have the ability to evaluate articles here on Culture11, according to a five-star rating system (though few people use the system, presumably because it’s not all that familiar to them). What if the same possibility were extended to blog posts? And what if when you visited a blog you had a choice between ordering the posts chronologically and ordering them by ranking?One consequence of ordering posts by ranking — at least if the ranking is from high to low! — might be the continuation of interesting conversations that now tend to peter out because of the pressure of novelty, the attention demanded by today’s Brand New Post. No doubt, many comment threads go on far beyond their proper lifespan, unnaturally extended by spleen and bile (usually from one or two commenters who just can’t let something go). But there are many other posts that deserve more attention than they get. On group blogs, especially on days when the bloggers are unusually active, some really worthwhile thoughts can be shoved down the page so fast that many readers never see them, or else are distracted from them by more recent events. If the best posts were more readily available, they would surely get more play, more comment, more attention.Such an architectural change would be helpful to bloggers as well as their readers. You can tell something about a post if it prompts many comments, but (as I suggested earlier in my remarks on Digg and reddit) you can’t tell much about its intellectual quality. Any blogger with half a brain knows how to write a post that will get people agitated enough to comment. But sometimes people can find a post really interesting and helpful without commenting on it. A rating system would help in such cases.More recommendations for the architectural renovation of the blogosphere are welcome!