Friday, October 11, 2013

Going Deep in Digital Culture

Creative Commons image by Citron
One obstacle that bloggers who wish to engage in focused, serious work must confront is the perception that blogging is less substantial, more superficial, than other types of writing and study. That stereotype is possibly fueled both by how readers consume blogs and how writers create them – readers may read many posts at a glance, with accusations of having a short attention span, and writers may work without an editor, with less gatekeeping than traditional publication. But blogging need not be for the dabbler alone: scholars and professionals too may use new media to do concentrated work in their field, finding in Web 2.0 the tools for complexity and depth.

To this end, Melville’s Moby Dick is illustrative. The novel has perplexed decades of readers – it wasn’t popular until after Melville’s death, and it doesn’t easily fit into any genre. It’s a heavy book – heavy with symbolism and with pages. But on an important level, Moby Dick is not as unwieldy as that would suggest. While it is true that much of the novel’s power can derive from symbolism, and readers may set sail off the novel’s shores on a tireless quest to harpoon for themselves The Meaning, the book’s straightforward meaning merits serious examination as well. When we take it at its face value, we see a novel that is “about” whaling, to an encyclopedic degree, and a narrative that is informed by actual events. When we consider the significance of the literal components of the novel, it becomes an example of, rather than a symbol for, the type of profound commitment and thoroughness to a subject that twenty-first-century bloggers may employ.

Those who read Moby Dick for its adventure narrative may struggle impatiently with the many diversions the text makes into some new facet of whaling. Chapter 9, “The Sermon,” although a continuation of Ishmael’s narrative, takes the time to record a lengthy discourse on the Biblical story of Jonah, allowing readers to consider what scripture has to say about whales, (and it includes, for good measure, the singing of a hymn that has the phrase “the ribs and terrors in the whale, arched over me in a dismal gloom”) (36). Such a lengthy record of the sermon stands out when we read other chapters that begin, “Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket” (55). Here we get an idea what Melville thinks is more important: bald explorations of whaling, even more than narrative.

Chapter 14, “Nantucket” describes the people who seem have whaling in their bones. Chapter 25 is a “postscript” to point out that kingly coronation uses holy oil from sperm whales. Chapter 85, “The Fountain,” describes the anatomy of a sperm whale at great length. The Etymology and Extracts at the beginning of the text are exhaustive compilations of what must have been pain-staking research to find dozens of quotations about whales throughout literature, which Melville of course created without the assistance of a search algorithm, making highly doubtful that their inclusion amounts merely to gimmick. But no chapter is more demonstrative of Melville’s “book about whaling” than chapter 32, “Cetology,” or, the study of whales. “It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you,” Ishmael says. “Yet it is no easy task” (116). For the narrative-thirsty reader, who, after all, just finally met the character of Ahab after a much drawn-out buildup, such an encyclopedic pit stop may seem almost cruel. But reading the novel as a highly descriptive series of standalone images – not only as symbolic – allows readers to appreciate Melville's accomplishment in becoming deeply invested, rather than superficially interested, in a particular subject.

Bloggers, too, might be interested in tackling a single subject, their posts much like Melville’s chapters: generally short, frequent, and covering a wide array of aspects of the subject. In fact, digital platforms provide their own tools for depth. Connections between interested parties across the gamut from amateur to other scholars can be invaluable for focused considerations of thoughts. A comments section of a blog can fuel the efficacy of the marketplace of ideas, holding writers accountable for what they write. If a blogger treats a subject carelessly or without considering all sides, his or her reputation may take a hit when commenters fact check, the wisdom of the collective serving as its own kind of peer review. Because it is harder for bad ideas to survive in an environment where many people will see something wrong and correct it, bloggers have an incentive to be thorough. Of course, smart bloggers will welcome thoughtful feedback and criticism – an open approach is a highly valued ethic of the medium.

In blogging terms, going deep in a particular subject may be described as niche blogging. Countless blogs exist on the subject of knitting, poetry, parenting, politics, and every specific component of those that one can imagine. Social media allow for like-minded people to find each other, and for bloggers to find their unique audience of people as passionate as they are about their particular niche. People sometimes ask me, because I created a news podcast about Pixar Animation Studios, “is there really that much to talk about Pixar?” I am not offended by their question, because most people would probably wonder the same thing – but for my niche, the reality is there are always more subjects than I can ever cover in a single week.

Of course, in thinking about how blogs can provide a platform for in-depth study of subjects, I do not mean to disregard the valuable side of dabbling that blogging can facilitate. In the digital ocean, it’s okay to try it all – boogie boarding, surfing, fishing, water skiing – before picking a single whale to chase. And many successful blogs are built with different goals altogether – TED, for example, is not devoted to a single topic, but is a searchable database of hundreds of speeches from experts on a variety of topics. That is valuable in a different way, too. But just as Moby Dick stands as a testament to the human ability to commit to a single subject for more than a few minutes, blogs can, if one so chooses, be a great way to dive deep – as long as community-minded creators can budget their attention in the vast sea of widgets and embeds at their fingertips.