Part of the measure of the success of any media, is how much active reader or audience response it can generate. Newspapers routinely feel vindicated in their hunt for audience share if the stories and events they report stimulate a reaction--any kind of reaction. It's almost always better to be controversial, than correct, because in the end, without readers (and clients, or customers) any business, especially a media business, isn't going to survive. And survival is what business is about. The internet is a business--make no mistake about that--though it may not appear superficially always to be about product and delivery.
The internet is a new universe of communication, but it's quickly being structured as a competition for attention. The big question is: How can it be organized in such a way that it can be exploited. Advertisers have so far been frustrated in their attempts to figure out ways to draw people's attention, to force them to pay attention. Users surfing the web don't even need a clicker to change channels, or mute the commercials. The nervously shifting screen windows of the internet browsers seem much too protean to be easily controlled.
There have been a number of proposals to "regulate" the internet through controlled access schemes, and the government would like to figure out how to levy taxes on all kinds of online activity. So far, this hasn't happened, though these struggles continue. People have been predicting big changes. It seems likely that the hands-off policy won't last forever. Eventually, the freedom we've all enjoyed on the internet is going to be curtailed, in the interests of capital.
Privately maintained blog account sites like those functioning inside Google are free. But it seems likely that eventually, some kind of access fee is going to be charged for the privilege of broadcasting content online. When that occurs, there's going to be a big shakedown, eliminating the majority of participants in the blogosphere (and its followers). The vast majority of participants in the online game has been composed of youth; the demographic has been weighted towards kids. Going forward, that's likely to change. Even sooner than that, it seems likely that the new hand-held, telephonic technological devices will obsolete "classic" blogging and surfing activity. Eventually, there will probably be several platforms all operating simultaneously, each flavor designed to fill the needs of specific users and audiences. The "old" internet system now in place, will probably be regarded as stodgy and "slow"--still stuck in the print media groove. Increasing "efficiency" will probably push extended (dense) content aside for the blips and snips of short-hand messaging, and people will stop carrying screens around like the umbrellas and satchels of yesteryear.
In the meantime, blogging is still with us, but undergoing transformations. The notion of posting something that other people might want to read, and talk about, is one aspect of the first wave of internet usage. Bloggers like Ron Silliman saw an immediate opportunity to reach a huge new audience, one weighted towards youth; like any smart entrepreneur, he reasoned that the internet could be an effective way to steer and influence public opinion about literature, specifically poetry. By associating himself with a fresh, new medium, one comprised mostly of younger users (readers), he could manipulate opinion. He could compete openly with the "official centers" of literary power--the publishing, editorial and academic spheres of control--which used to guide and direct literary taste and reward. Being controversial had a strategic value in promoting readership--he could generate publicity and interest and discussion about literary issues he wanted to affect.
The School of Quietude theory (or argument) was a clever device, intended to provoke the centers of literary power. Silliman knew that his side of this debate would not be joined by anyone gullible enough to be drawn into open combat. And anyone naive enough to do that, would be easy prey in debate. What Silliman wanted was attention, and the School of Quietude campaign accomplished that handily. Those who already agreed that post-Modern writing was better, wouldn't need convincing--they'd visit because they just liked hearing confirmation. Those who disagreed would just be incensed and frustrated, that someone like Silliman could inspire so much of the literary public's attention towards issues they considered peripheral or damaging to their vision/version of literature. Silliman thought the time had come to change people's minds, and he and his cohorts in the Language School stood to benefit from a favorable view of his version of the descent of taste over the last half century of writing and critical summation. Internet blogging would be a powerful tool in re-writing the literary history of the last 50 years, perhaps more powerful than all the traditional literary-critical text produced during that time frame.
Initially, the Comment Stream (box) was one device to measure the kind and amount of response blogs were generating. But it soon became apparent that raw comment comprised only a tiny percentage of the total number of invisible "visitors" (or readers) of any given site; and it was also apparent that the demographic (profile) that group of interactive participants couldn't be used to interpolate the character of the audience as a whole. Basically, Silliman would never have needed--or would have had much use for--an interactive audience to further his agenda. Recognized writers and critics didn't usually make public statements, and the establishment figures mostly belonged to the old system of taste and power, anyway, and they were either not hip to the internet sphere, or they disdained it as a trivial expression of the new media revolution. Either way, the kinds of people posting responses to blog content didn't represent an identifiable audience that mattered. Smart readers figured that out immediately, and kept silent.
I began commenting on Silliman's blog-site half a decade ago, and I did so because I was interested in the issues he was discussing, and thought I could provide a slightly different point of view about areas of interest. Taking at random a sample of how this began, check out Silliman's Blog as cached here:
On this date, following a presentation Ron posted regarding the editing of anthologies, there occurred a useful discussion involving about a dozen commentators, addressing issues evolving from, or related to, Ron's initial history and opinion. This healthy give-and-take among interested parties resulted in a fine-tuning and augmentation of the assumptions and facts Ron initially presented; the commentary actually served a useful purpose as a kind of round-table in which participants could enter freely and interact, contribute, and disagree.
In due course, I could see that there were a number of areas of disagreement between Ron's version of literary history (especially over the last 50 years or so), and my own. As a cardinal rule, I've always believed that a healthy disagreement is more vital and ethically pure, than a comfortable consensus. When people agree about something too much, they become too much alike, and have nothing useful to discuss. Difference creates friction, and the sparks that fly off the glancing swords are more interesting than mere diplomatic encounters.
There were also instances over that period during which people almost literally fought with each other inside comment boxes. I'll plead guilty to having been a willing participant in some of these fights, but it was usually when someone else had aimed a flame-thrower in my direction, inciting my ire and indignant retort. Many of these attacks originated from "anonymous" identities. (Parenthetically, I've never been able to understand the kind of pleasure or delight some people seem to derive from anonymous attacks; not knowing who your opponent-aggressor is, makes reasoning with such ghosts very difficult.)
But as I noted above, Silliman's purpose in his blog campaign was not to mount just another literary discussion chat-site, but to present a coherent, partisan position, a platform from which to attack attitudes and presumptions he thought deserved to be challenged. I frequently agreed with Silliman's attacks, but there were times when I disagreed. I never felt the least reluctance to say exactly what was on my mind. If I thought Ron was wrong, I said so. If I thought he had gone overboard to praise third-rate work, I said so. If he chose to promote the work of someone for purely political reasons, I called him on that, arguing, in effect, that liking bad work for the right reason, was worse than acknowledging good work for the wrong reasons. In Ron's case, the "wrong reasons" would include giving aid and comfort to the enemy, even if the enemy was a very talented (and innocently non-partisan) writer.
Did I--and other commentators--post too much in Silliman's Comment Stream? Did we overstay our welcome? There's no doubt that we did. But in my case, it was primarily because I misunderstood the essential nature not only of the blogging phenomenon, but of Silliman's real purpose in conducting it. I've always been a "letters-to-the-editor" kind of guy. My heroes as a teenager were Mencken, Dwight Macdonald, and Charles McCabe. The rough-and-tumble, occasionally rude, frequently hard-boiled, approach to editorializing had always appealed to me, and blogging seemed the perfect opportunity to practice it. You can get into a good deal of trouble in life by speaking your mind, especially if you tend to be unconventional in your beliefs and opinions. I've always believed that speaking my mind is an exercise of my democratic rights and freedoms, even when doing so may be potentially damaging to my reputation. Now, in my early sixties, I don't imagine there's much harm in anyone knowing what I actually think about things. The worst they can do is disagree.
Silliman closed down his Comment Box because its usefulness--its value to his agenda--had outlived itself. Anyone who was going to comment openly there about his School of Quietude (and related bullets) had by now done so. And the blogosphere may have morphed into irrelevance. As a form of propaganda, blogging had a certain life expectancy. But it's dying. Certainly comment boxes are getting old. Maybe it's like the big box video stores--Netflix is busily putting them out of business. But right behind Netflix is the downloadable software business.
Back in the early years of the 20th Century, Ezra would put on his "poet's outfit" complete with big broad-brimmed hat, and walk about London, visiting literary big-wigs and potential patrons, advocating the cause of New Art. He must have been a picturesque figure, and people probably thought of him as a nut, though a well-informed one. What will they say about Silliman, a hundred years from now?
End of Part III