Archive for May, 2008

Stay For A While: Analyzing The Rhetoric of Blogs

May 3, 2008

           When I was in middle school, the class I dreaded most wasn’t algebra, or gym, it was computer applications. Computer applications meant an hour of mind-glazing lectures on the finer arts of spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations, and once we’d shown some semblance of Word proficiency, website publishing. This last was the worst; ages of writing html code on Notepad so that our site would be blue, instead of white. The really tech-savy managed to make their banners jiggle, but mine remained resolutely sedentary. Personal websites, I decided, were a realm into which I preferred not to enter. Countless others opted differently, though I wasn’t aware of this until quite recently. In fact, it took me until February of this year, while perusing through craigslist job advertisements,  to become cognizant of the phenomenon that is weblogging. Unsure of what a weblog was (an online diary?), I nonethless applied to several, and, two weeks later, I became the Undergrad for a blog called Guest of a Guest, dishing up New York culture and nightlife through a collegiate perspective. 

Writing for one blog turned me into a reader of many. Suddenly, blogs were everywhere, and I developed a fascination with a number of them. The unappealing, amateur blogs far numbered the high quality, interesting ones, and I wondered why, and what is was exactly that makes a blog good or bad. Are there specific credos, and can they be broken? How important is writing ability? What about images, or overall presentation? The answers are yes, and very, and to locate them, I rifled through hundreds of weblogs, and pinpointed a select few as being particularly rhetorically and/or visually noteworthy While these blogs vary dramatically in terms of substance and style, all are successful enough to have garnered loyal, and increasing audiences (many have also garnered their authors book deals).

First, however, we ought to start with some background.  Blogs, being such a recent phenomenon, have a fairly sprawling and diverse array of ancestor. In their genre analysis of weblogs, North Carolina State professors Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepard cite  the diary, the clipping service, the broadside, the anthology, the commonplace book, the ship’s log. We might see the blog as a complex rhetorical hybrid (or mongrel) with genetic imprints from all these prior genres.” To these, I’d like to add the personal essay, with its personalized views of actual events. The personal essay, along with the diary and the clipping service, are the heavyweights as far as genetic imprinting is concerned. I didn’t unearth a single blog that failed to contain traces of at least one of them. In a blog, it’s what you say, how you say it, and why it’s you doing the saying. 

           Blogs have only been around for fourteen years old, and the first five or so of these were rather incubated. Why, when the internet has existed for two decades, did it take so long for man to consider publishing his ideas on a personal webpage? The answer lies mostly in the rising appeal of the commoner. The nineteen-nineties was a decade in which the barricade between average Joe and celebrity Jane weakened. MTV’s Real World started a reality TV craze that has yet to fizzle. Memoirs such as Angela’s Ashes and The Kiss, written by nobodies and rife with incredibly personal experiences, dominated and continue to dominate the New York Times Bestseller list. As the line between star and citizen blurred, the citizen began to demand, and expect more. The career of a paparazzo became more and more lucrative –Stars, they’re just like us, and we want proof! And it wasn’t only the celebrities who suffered. If some nobodies could become somebodies, than were there really inherent differences between the two?

It is no coincidence that the flourishing of blogs coincided with the fall of traditional news media. As information portals multiplied (267 television channels!, satellite radio!!), audiences lost their loyalties to one particular organization. Decreasing audiences meant decreasing ad revenue, and, in desperation, many organizations started placing a heavier emphasis on breaking news and a lighter one on accuracy. Naturally, this resulted in a slew of embarrassing, credibility-eroding gaffes (CBS’ display of George W. Bush’s forged military documents, John McCain’s purported love affair) which left audiences wary and casting about for reliable sources. These they found in bloggers, for bloggers, unconstrained by finance-driven agendas, had the ability to read and watch many versions of the same story, and from these derive a truth. The blogger may be anonymous, but he is very much a person, and people, tired of reporters and journalists, welcomed lawyers, politics students, economics professors. The distribution of information, once reserved for the accredited elite, was now available to the average citizen. As Tom Hespos, president of Underscore Marketing, observes, “We’re seeing the electronic rise of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the ‘Marketplace of Ideas” where the blogging community determines which ideas and facts stand up to the test of widespread scrutiny.”

While the media watchdogs were responsible raising awareness and interest in the blogosphere, it wasn’t long before blogs with little or no political/media criticism began attracting followings. Disgruntled stay-at-home moms flocked to disgruntled stay-at-home mom blogs (Dooce) when they wanted to vent, or to Chocolate and Zucchini when they needed a gustatory, and romantically exotic escape, just as frustrated Capital-Hillers flocked to Wonkette, or Buzz Machine. The appeal of blogs over other forms of media is in no small part due to the friendliness of their authors, and the sense that, as readers, our own voices are valued. A blog’s core visitors are a community, interacting with each other and the blogger. Trust is established, and the readers reward this trust with feedback, tips, suggestions, and are able to see them come to fruition in a way that rarely occurs in traditional news media. A blog is the ultimate example of the democratization of the media (anyone can write), and also of power of community (anyone can respond).

The first person to use the internet as a personal forum was a 19 year-old Swarthmore freshman named Justin Hall. Hall’s blog (back before anyone knew what a blog was) Justin’s Links to the Underground, featured internet news, resources, and laws, for which he provided backgrounds and summaries. In 1997 Harvard professor David Winer started Scripting News, a blog about blogging and the internet. Until launched in 1999, the group of bloggers was limited to a small, HTML-parlaying group of techies, most of whom worked in the internet industry. Because Blogspot provided automatic HTML-coding, any net-equipped neophyte was free to set up shop. While there’s no denying the importance of the pre-Blogspot bloggers, it’s their less tech-savvy successors who are responsible for proliferation and staying power of blogs.

  Since its inception, the blog’s precise definition has been much squabbled over. That people have had difficulties distinguishing blogs from websites is understandable, for a blog is a website, though a website is not necessarily a blog. A blog is a website run by a single individual or a group that focuses on a particular aspect or aspects that the author is passionate about. Unlike other websites, whose content can remain static for months, the blog is designed to be frequently updated, and the updates are listed in reverse chronological order. Also unlike other websites, blogs are two-way dialogues, formatted so that readers can easily respond.

In 2004, Merriam-Webster added “blog” to their compendium, and awarded it the prestigious honor of being “Word of the Year.” The etymology of the word is typical of the lifting, mashing, and chopping so prevalent in blogging language. Originally there were web logs, until Jørn Barger removed the space in 1997.  In 1999 Peter Merholz put it back in, but this time between the “we” and the “blog.” Soon the “we” was dropped altogether. The choice of “log” is an apt one; like their ancestors, blogs consist of short entries, or posts. 

 Posts aside, today’s blogs bare little resemblance to their 3D forbearers. While there are still a few out there that consist of a white screen punctuated by black and blue Times New Roman, the majority employ various combinations of colors, columns, graphics, and fonts, often accompanied with custom banners, interactive features, and photos. Typically, a blog will consist of three columns, two narrow ones running down the sides, and a wide one containing the posts in the center. Surfing through a few dozen blogs reveals certain formatting similarities between some and different ones between others, depending on which blog host (WordPress, Blogger, MoveableType, TypePad), the blogger is using ( WordPress and MoveableType, which are installed onto your server, have more advanced options like categories and integrated searches that hosted blog software like Blogger and Typepad do not. Serrver-based blog software gives the blogger much more editorial input, but also requires technical know-how that hosted blog software services do not. Those who can utilize the former are wise to do so, as customized site and urls give off airs of professionalism and established reader bases. Given the choice between and, the reader is more apt to go for the former. Readers, especially first-timers, tend to give the blog a very short window in which to entrance them, and appearance speaks first, if not loudest. 

What is also instantly noticeable in (and integral to) a blog’s format? Right away readers should see frequent, and relatively short posts. They should be able to scroll down at least 5 posts’ worth before the page ends. The voice can vary, but the tense ought to be present. These factors are so important because blogs feed on real-time and the lack of barrier between producer and consumer.

The importance of the role closeness plays in blogging’s success cannot be overstated. Successful blogs have built up reliable communities; who’s reading, and how many, are in some ways as important as what’s being read. Many parts of a blog reflect the importance of community: the blogroll, which lists all the blogs a blogger reads, the comments section, and the links, which can be embedded or listed at the bottom of the post. All of these elements, particularly the ability to comment, emphasize the interactive and personal sides of blogs, the closeness of the blogger to his readers, and his readers to one another. Often readers respond to others’ comments, as well as to the post. Sometimes readers’ comments include links to relevant material. Smart bloggers don’t underestimate the role of their readers, and keeping an open format can result in juicy tips as well as support and feedback. Comments also increase a post’s chance of being viewed, and many bloggers comment on their own work under aliases (the media gossip blog Gawker recently came under fire when it was discovered that almost all of its comments were written by interns). 

All posts come with a time stamp, and not merely for technical reasons. Knowing the exact hour, minute, and second of a post’s birth “provides a sense of immediacy,” of nearly real time communication. The time stamp further erodes the wall between blogger and reader, as trail-blazing blogger Meg Hourihan notes: “If I visited your site at 4:02 p.m. and see you just updated at 3:55 p.m., it’s as if our packets crossed in the ether. You, the author, and I, the reader, were ‘there’ at the same time –and this can create a powerful connection between us.”

The prevalence of links is one of the most visually distinctive features of blogs. Unlike journalists, bloggers are happy to credit others, for links often increase their own readership as well as that of their source’s. The better writers become masters at embedding links, often using a just a word or phrase that readers will have to click on in order to determine its origin. Blogging about the current American Airlines debacle, Jeff Jarvis (Buzz Machine) writes “The airlines never see themselves as our advocates, friends, servers; no, they are our “prison wardens and enemies as they fight down legislation that mandates they should give us the crudest amenities a prisoner would get: clean water, air, and a toilet.” In addition to links, bloggers also use trackbacks, which enable them to notify other bloggers when discussing or mentioning their posts.

The warning against judging books by their covers does not apply to blogs. Blogs are really a form of visual media, and as such must take pains with their appearances. The most appealing blogs are fairly uncluttered; what ads they have are squeezed into one sidebar. Dark fonts against light backgrounds seem much more professional and easier to read than their inverse. Posts shouldn’t be overloaded with embedded links, or too many videos. People read blogs in no small part for their brevity, and having to sit through multiple minute podcasts or click on three links in one sentence will take longer than the 5 minutes they’re willing to allot. Color is good; it adds personality and levity, but it should be sprinkled, not spackled. A graphic title and catchphrase, preferably located before the newest post, also add a sense of reputability. Polished blogs signify large readership, for what is the point of the polishing if few will see it?

While most blogs share the aforementioned characteristics, their subject matter plays a large role in further specialization. There are, of course blogs dealing with just about anything under the sun, or past it, but the majority fall into 9 genres: the news aggregator, the media/current affairs analyst, the tech-junkie, the celebrity gossip-hound, the fashionista, the epicurean, the traveler, the outsider, and the diarist. Aggregators have basic layouts and limit widgets to video and audio hosts. Techie sites, as per their subject, generally have more complex software and cutting-edge widgets like streaming webcams, scrolling news bars, and site-specific dictionaries. The media/current affairs analysis blogs have simpler layouts and fewer colors than do their frothy kin, and while photographs and videos may be used, they are rarely the object of criticism the way journalists or politicians are. Celebrity and fashion blogs rely on images, whether original or pilfered, and their creators make use of artsy fonts and multiple side bars -polls, quizzes, games. Outsider blogs have plain appearances, plenty of videos, pictures, quotes, and links. Food blogs, both cooking and restaurant-related, and travel blogs also rely on images, but the text is usually plain, although these blogs have more elaborate backgrounds than all but the diarists’, many of whom seem to chuck hues and cutesy fonts and pictures pell mell in hopes of covering up dearths of content and ability. 

Not every successful blogger is a wordsmith, but nearly all have a knack for bloggy rhetoric. Sarah Boxer, who is the web critic for the New York Times, spent a year trawling the blogosphere, and her definition of “bloggy writing” is spot on:

It is conversational and reckless, composed on the fly for anonymous intimates. It is public and private, grand and niggling, smart-assed and dumb-assed..[Bloggers] often begin midthought or mid-rant, in medias craze. They use their own trademark words…loose-lipped and foul-mouthed…they love run-ons and acronyms (Boxer, Sarah. Ultimate Blogs, xiv).

Bloggers often take creative liberties with language, deliberately misspelling or cropping words -the is”teh,” probably is “probs,” and turning organizations and people into abbreviations that occasionally (G.Dubs, LiLo) become almost as common as their roots. Present tense is always used, generally in the first person, though there are a few that use both first and second, or third person plural ( Voices range from amiable to angry but they are almost uniformly intimate and informal. The blogger does not want to appear superior to or cut off from his readers.

Who the blogger is, and what motivates him to blog play instrumental rhetorical roles. A blog can serve as a “writing prod, trash can, diary, pulpit, drawing pad, padded room” (Boxer, xv). In my blogosphere forays, I found genre to be perhaps the biggest influence on rhetoric (much bigger than it is on appearance). Naturally, the blogs with the most serious tones were ones with serious subjects, but this is not to say that all blogs with serious subjects had serious tones. In fact science was the only genre for whom the majority of blogs lacked levity, and even here I found exceptions. Political and media blogs are generally cynical and as witty as possible; they are also very thoughtful. Leisure and lifestyle blogs can use diction as complex as their peers’, but while ruefulness and self-deprecation run rampant, cynicism does not. Sarcasm is occasionally employed, particularly if the blog has a criticism component. A rather recent tonical development is that of snark. Snark is a combination of sarcasm, snideness, and (often unmerited) ennui. Gossip and outsider blogs are full of snark, and owe a substantial amount of their success to it, but lately bloggers have taken to using it to disguise sub-par posts.

Bloggy writing did not accompany the birth of blogs. Early blogs were less egocentric than their successors  (they were also less popular). Bloggers can be anonymous, but they oughtn’t be entirely absent. In its current incarnation, Justin’s Homepage divulges far more about Justin than it did ten, or even five years prior, when his posts read like unedited op-eds. In an early 1994 post on cyberporn regulations, Hall discusses various cases and excerpts from the San Francisco Examiner, but the only time an inkling of voice comes through is in the slightly irreverent title, “Postal Worker in Tennessee Nabs Himself some California Sex Fiends”.  In a post two years later on the pirating case United States v. David M. LaMacchia, Justin does toss in a “basically,” and “throw his ass in jail,” and refers to the Department of Justice as the “DoJ,” but his voice is still less than memorable. Harvard professor David Winer’s blog Scripting News was created three years after Hall’s, but is even less personal than his predecessors, merely listing headlines that interested him, or telling readers to “Check this out. Amazing!” without indicting what “this” is.

We start to see a few more signs of individual style in Sam Drudge’s still pivotal scope-buster, The Drudge Report. Like Scripting News, The Drudge Report, which became a full-fledged site in 1997, is a primarily a collection of links, a “ludicrous combination of gossip, political intrigue and extreme weather reports” (Ana Marie Cox, “Matt Drudge,” However, the Drudge Report also breaks stories, summarized in tabloid style:

The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top NEWSWEEK suits hours before publication. A young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life, the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House. She was a frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president’s sexual preference. Reports of the relationship spread in White House quarters and she was moved to a job at the Pentagon, where she worked until last month. 

Drudge is one of the current media’s most controversial figures, responsible for breaking not only the Monica Lewinsky affair, but the identity of Bob Dole’s running mate, Prince Harry’s Afghanistan deployment, a photo of presidential candidate Barak Obama in Somali Tribal dress, Bill Clinton’s preported (and later rescinded) love child…if it’s salacious and slightly plausible, Drudge will link it. Unconstrained by mainstream reporting credos (fact checking, source naming, prudence) the Drudge Report comes off as a current affairs bulletin board as channeled by the National Enquirer: “Is that really a naked woman in Dick Cheney’s sunglasses?…AP: No!“, or “Wal-Mart worker goes wild, throws chickens at customers.” Politicians fear Drudge, and rightly so. Drudge’s disapproval of Al Gore, John Kerry, and John Edwards resulted in Drudge Report features on Gore’s Buddhist Temple visit, the Swift Boat Veteran’s Kerry ad, and Edwards’ penchant for $400 haircuts. Drudge Report has a simple, but striking visual format: a lead story with photo, followed by three columns of links, described in sensationalist terms. Drudge is careful, with so many links, not to put up too many images; those he does post are all but guaranteed massive hits. Conventional journalists loathe Drudge, but they are reluctant to castigate him, for fear of ruining future linkage-opportunities. After the New York Press ridiculed Drudge’s methodology, Drudge stopped linking them. Their hits dropped by a third.

  A notable exception to the bare-bones blogging style of the late 90’s is Bob Somerby’s still-running press-bashing political blog the Daily Howler, which Somerby started in 1998. Somerby, who is also a stand-up comic, has a penchant for Latin phrases and erudite references, and his howls, while discussing serious subjects, employ blatant irony in their antiquated narration and use of the royal we. Most posts read like stories; take, for example, a post on pundits’ relationship with Larry Flynt:

Phew! The pundits really were in a tight spot. By some process they couldn’t quite seem to explain, they were under control of the Vile!

Another deals with pundit reaction to Washington Post reporter David Broder’s piece on Senator Livingston:

Some of the analysts were audibly sniffling as our public reading of Broder’s column concluded. Some stared darkly off into space, determined to avoid meeting eyes. And the blood was really beginning to boil, as they considered the example that Livingston set, and his selfless decision to leave the House–and the contrast it drew with Vile Clinton.

There is nothing remotely journalistic about them. Somerby is one of the minority of bloggers who’ve nail the intriguing and apropos title requirement -according to the site, a howler is “a stupid and ridiculous logical blunder,” as well as “one who howls” -conjuring up an image of those shrieking envelops in the Harry Potter series. The tag line, caveat lector, translates to “let the reader beware.” Titles that raise questions are always a boon. While the Howler is bereft of images, Somerby is clever on the font front. His title is in olde english, accompanied by a wolf graphic, indicating (accurately) that this is an educated and witty blog. His posts have bolded, larger headlines, followed by links to trackbacks and the author’s own related posts, the date of the post, and then the post itself. Right away the reader is reminded that this is current analysis, written by someone who, if not an expert, is knowledgeable enough to have already discussed pertinent affairs. Somerby is also one of the few bloggers to employ a site-specific search engine, which is not only helpful to readers, but also hints at a fairly deep body of work. 

In his popular Daily Dish, former New Republic editor and gay rights advocate Andrew Sullivan discusses current events, and his opinions regarding them are critical, cynical, and always well explained. Of a 2001 San Francisco Health Department study alleging a sharp increase in HIV among gay men, Sullivan writes “I have to say I’m unconvinced…You’d be statistically right if you declared a tripling in HIV rates from such numbers. But you’d also be really silly to draw such a conclusion from a total of 12 cases.” The Dish is loaded with deftly embedded links and excerpts, and each post is separated with a light blue line and a explanatory headline (“The Other Pill,” “Clingy“) and a bolded timestamp. These stamps are key, for Sullivan’s posts are often short, but he usually writes upwards of twenty per day. Excerpts form a substantial portion of Sullivan’s blog, and he makes sure to distinguish between them and his own commentary by putting them in front of a gray background, while keeping his own thoughts on a white one. Sullivan’s banner makes it clear that this is an author-driven blog; his name precedes the title, and takes a larger font. His tag line is an Orwell quote, “TO SEE WHAT IS IN FRONT OF ONE’S NOSE NEEDS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE,” letting potential readers know that they’ll be partaking in views of a disgruntled idealist. 

And what of the raging realists? In 2003 Nick Denton founded Gawker Media, and, via his nide and gossipy editor Elizabeth Spiers, snark. Gawker was, and somewhat still is “a blog about being a writer in New York, with all the competition, envy, and self-hate that goes along with the insecurity of that position.” It’s modus operandi is skewering:

         Tina Brown, urban dating rituals, Conde Nastiness, movie grosses, Hamptons gauche, real estate porn, Harvey Weinstein, fantasy skyscrapers, downwardly mobile i-bankers, Eurotrash, extreme sport social climbing, pomp, circumstance, and other matters of weighty import.

Year to year, Gawker’s voice (even though it now has many, many actual voices) has remained mocking. Its writers tend to refer to past posts, often their own, and have no compunctions expressing personal opinions, so long as they are cruel and cutting. Post titles are often ironic exclamations or interrogations: “Walking yourself out of the subway: Awesome?”, “Songsmith has “Reason to Believe” in Obama!“. Quotes, which are used frequently, are always sneered at, though some sneering is more implicit than others. Gawker rarely breaks stories, instead choosing to skewer the telling, the subject, or both, of others’. One of its favorite punching bags is Time Out New York columnist and Star Editor at large Julia Allison. In the average week Allison is labeled “a woman who pretends to be a Star Magazine Journalist,” a “talking head and unrepentant fame-seeker,” and a “self-promting media personality.” Gawker does break the occasional item as well, thanks to its substantial disciples. Readers/ratters will send in IMs, emails, cellphone pictures, all of which are checked for adequate snark quotient, and quickly posted.

Whereas in its infancy Gawker may have been content driven, it is now comment driven. Denton, who originally scoffed at the inanity of the commenters, changed his mind to the extent that comments share near equal and sometimes greater face time that their posts. The comments, Denton wrote in a comment of his own, “reintroduce an element of anarchy, which was in danger of being otherwise lost, as the site became more professional.” Gawker’s “unpaid vigilantes” respond first to the post, and then to the post’s response, to the responses to the response, and so on until the final threads have very little in common with their origins. Denton, who originally scoffed at the inanity of the commenters, changed his mind to the extent that comments share near equal and sometimes greater face time that their posts.

The site’s layout is fairly simple: medium-sized black headlines followed by short posts, most of which have thumbnail images or video uploads. What stands out is the sheer volume of posts per page. Denton understands the lure of the scroll down; by keeping posts short and to-the-point, he is able to fit dozens on one page. Longer posts are split, the into followed by “more after the jump.” Denton also gives the comments section its own, fairly wide sidebar, and next to the comments, the number of hits the post has garnered. The emphasis on comments, and the fact that readers must be approved in order to respond, gives Gawker an insider, clubby feel. The left-hand sidebar lists all the other blogs in the Gawker empire, Defamer (Hollywood), Consumerist (economy), Deadspin (sports), io9(science fiction), Gizmodo (gadgets), Jalopnik (Automobiles), Jezebel (female-targeted industries), Valleywag (Silicon Valley gossip), Lifehacker (life hacks and software), Kotaku (video games) and Fleshbot (porn), as well as each’s featured headline. This not only makes it easy for the bored/curious reader to navigate, but also helps solidify Gawker Media’s considerable web presence.

Gawker has, especially of late, come under fire for its one trick irony pony, but it’s an irony that attracts 11 million monthly viewers and has spawned countless imitations and spin-offs. One of the more successful of the latter is the interactive travel site Gridskipper.  Gridskipper‘s “where to” maps are notable not only for their eclectic and occasionally racy content (readers can learn where to buy crack in Berlin and happy endings in New York), but also for their insidery, smart-alek tone. Describing the NYC watering hole 26 Bar in a post on media drinking hangouts, Gridskipper writes that “as one former PR Week staffer put it, this bar’s only redeeming feature is being right across the street from PR Week.” Potential Paris-bounders in search of a sauna mixte are informed that that’s not eucalyptus you’re smelling at the newly refurbished l’Ambigue. It is, according to the website, the subtle perfume of eroticism floating permanently in the air.’ On certain theme nights, it may also be the smell of a sweet buffet.” Each post is accompanied by an interactive, small scale map with each location labeled; clicking on one pulls up a photograph and description. Gridskipper succeeds because of its interesting and unexpected itineraries, because of its easily navigable format, and because of its deliciously sarcastic but informative tone.

Blogs with less serious subject matter need not be snarky or even sarcastic to achieve major success. The food blog Chocolate and Zucchini, started by an English-speaking French software programmer named Clotilde Dusoulier upon her return to Paris from San Francisco, achieved enough lasting popularity to spawn two cookbooks and constant public appearances and interviews for its twenty-something author. Some of the blog’s popularity is owed to its subject -who wouldn’t want to experience Parisian food-market expeditions and the ensuing recipes? Professional quality, hyper-pigmented photos of the results and their origins are just further icing to the content cake. However, what really makes Chocolate and Zucchini stand out is Clotilde’s knack for whimsy and personification. Her posts are stories, and peppered with emotions, but they are stories entirely pertinent to food. A pastry shop is overflowing with Clotilde’s favorites, but, as she has six other pastry shops on her to-do list, “the Voice of Reason said ‘Thou shalt limit thyself to three items.’ So I got a box of eight macarons (“Hah!” I said to the Voice of reason)…”

What’s amazing is that in addition to having no writing background, Clotilde is writing in a language she didn’t learn until high school.  Perhaps, though, it’s this lack of formal instruction that keeps her blog so friendly and playful. How can we not love someone who, one rainy August,  purchases an antique cast-iron pot and decides to make some osso buco “to show the unseasonal temperatures I held them no grudges.” Chocolate and Zucchini is a prime example of blogging as a gateway to more lucrative and established media -Dusoulier has authored two best-selling cookbooks and is a frequent guest on lifestyle-themed talk shows. 

That Dusoulier has had prior webpage experience shows; in addition to an impeccable home page, Clotilde also maintains blogs about her cookbooks, a forum where readers can discourse on all things gustatory, and a moblog (mobile blog) of images and thoughts she has while out and about. Her posts are bursting with embedded photographs of ingredients, works in progress, related recipes, and by embedding rather than including them, Clotilde keeps her main page uncluttered and her readers rapt.

Chocolate and Zucchini is one blog for which photographs play important, but subservient parts to text; in The Sartorialist’s realm, the photographs render the text (even though it’s well composed) superfluous. The Sartorialist is the blog of Scott Shuman, who formerly ran the mens’ showroom at Bergdorf Goodman, and it is comprised entirely of snapshots of chic commoners. Shuman endeavors to “shoot style in a way that…most designers hunted for inspiration. Rarely do they look at the whole outfit as a yes or no but they try and look for the abstract concepts of color, proportion, pattern mixing or mixed genres.” He is, by many esteemed accounts (French Vogue’s Carine Roitfeld has used him for editorials), emminently successful. His snapshots are beautiful, and entirely unposed, a rumpled elder in a tweed greatcoat and walking cap serene against a bench in Hyde Park, or an Italian teenage girl in a navy bubble dress, running after a taxi. The text he has, usually expressing his admiration with his subject’s elan, is thoughtful, and it helps make Shuman more than a camera, but the site would doubtless be as successful without it. 

The same cannot be said for The Sartorialist‘s polar opposite, Go Fug Yourself. The warped brainchild of former reality-television writers Heather Cox and Jessica Morgan, Go Fug Yourself relies on the collective pop-culture and fashion acumen  and talent for on-point skewering of its authors, not its pilfered paparazzi photos. Go Fug Yourself is devoted to the sartorial choices of celebrities, and is chock full of imaginary dialogues and monologues, slang-du-jour, and clever acronyms (Vogue’s editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley, is referred to as “A.L.T.”). The site ranks among today’s most trafficked and rhetorically influential blogs, and is responsible for a now commonplace adjective: fugly (a slurring of frightfully ugly). Want to wear an eponymous tee-shirt? Not unless “the general public is willing to believe that you can spell ‘self-deprecating.’ ” When Miss Hilton showed up at the premier for her movie The Hottie and the Nottie in a Barbiesque pink ball gown, the fuggers pondered “Is it possible that Paris Hilton cracked her head in the bathroom while back-combing her hair and when she came to, instead of, say inventing the flux capacitor, found herself under the mistaken impression that her new movie, The Hottie and the Nottie, was going to be awarded the Palme d’Or, or perhaps was on the receiving end of honors from Kennedy Center?”

Go Fug Yourself is one blog that relies on photograph commentary; the immensely popular and kooky I Can Has Cheezburger,  birthplace of the lolcat, is another. Lolcats, whose prefix derives from the AIM favorite “lol,” or “laugh out loud,” are image macros of cats with captions in “kitty pigdin,” a “silly, invented hybrid of Internet shorthand and baby-talk.” Cats are “kittehs,” my is “mai” or “mah,” humans are “hoomans.” Think Ali G minus the obsenity and plus hordes of critters. “Hoo turn off mah bubblez,” wonders a kitten ensconced in a dollhouse bathtub. “I tells you sekrit…k?” whispers a baby polar bear to its mama. The site’s inspiration was a picture of a fat gray cat with the caption “I can has a cheezburger?” that founder Eric Nakagawa stumbled across on the internet. Nakawaga and a friend, known only as “tofuburger,” created  website that first consisted of just the original picture, and quickly spiraled into the thousands in existence today. What makes cheezeburger so successful is the site’s interactive, community aspect. There’s a software for making your own lolcat, either from provided images or personal ones, and, once submitted, visitors rate the lolcat from one to five cheeseburgers. The images with the highest ratings are posted.

Sites like Go Fug Yourself and I Can Haz Cheezburger are rare; most bloggers use photographs in a supporting role, and if they don’t, as with The Sartorialist,  the text is either inconsequential  or unneeded. Pioneer Woman, which is a rustic spin on the “mom” blog, devotes equal time to text and image, and succeeds in having each enhance the other. Pioneer Woman is Ree, a Los Angelo writing ” about my decade long transition from spoiled city girl to domestic country wife. I post frequent audio clips of my children mispronouncing simple words and of me doing Ethel Merman impersonations. I also share delightful audio clips of different styles of burps as well as photos of my son picking his nose. I’ve been known to record phone conversations with my retarded brother, Mike. Please don’t be offended; I’m a Middle Child. And I’m just keepin’ it real.”

Ree may keep it reasonably real, but technology-wise, this ain’t no backwoods blog. Ree’s photography skills are impressive enough that readers have demanded (and received) tutorials, and on her recipe posts, nearly every instruction is accompanied by a high resolution picture of the result. Like Clotilde, Ree manages to incorporate cooking know-how with personal anecdotes; unlike Clotilde, her site has other foci. Pictures and stories involving her children and husband, “Marlboro Man,” feature heavily, as do installments of Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, Ree’s “Green-Acres-meets-Fatal-Attraction, city-meets-country love story,” and plenty of updates on her daily pioneer activites. 

Ree’s language is deliberately hokey; she drops her g’s, them becomes ’em, and she loves her some hillbilly expressions (“now stir the dadgum mess together,” she commands in her risotto how-to). She’s also educated, though, and her always charming posts often contain adjectives like “prosaic” alongside “shore as shootin“.  Ree is very communicative with her readers, addressing them constantly, asking for suggestions regarding the remodeling of her ranch, providing a weekly poll and frequent contests. “Please don’t hate me,” she emplores, and though she’s only asking because the following dessert is devoid of nutritional value, there’s a marked need to be liked here. Bloggers, as a whole, want to be liked, or at least followed, for a blog without a following is rather pointless.

If a blogger is really lucky (and, usually, talented), he’ll amass a following large enough to attract editors and advertisers. For these chosen, a passion becomes a full-time, lucrative job. Two years ago, Rolf Potts was an unhappy 27 year old lawyer when he made a decision to take off on a worldwide backpacking bonanza. He recorded his adventures on his blog, Vagablogging, and gradually a grassroots gathering multiplied. Potts has a wildly successful guidebook, Vagabonding, a website,, and a constant demand for articles and stories from highly respected travel magazines and anthologies. It isn’t just Potts’ travels that earned him such glory; his blog is very respectful of and directed towards its readers. Potts is a fountain of advice and queries and introspective anecdotes. He instructs readers in the arts and money-making possibilities of travel blogging, he interviews other travel writers, he takes beautiful pictures. His posts are filled with fascinating and little known facets of foreign cultures, and they are never pompous or mocking. He uses the experience is the best teacher credo as a way to deliver tips and how-to’s. Of homesickness, Rolf writes:

Homesickness takes a different turn when you have lived in many places; you tend to miss family rather than a place. Your mum’s home cooked food, your parent’s couch (it radiates love, nothing can happen to you on their couch!), your brother’s alarm clock that would ring an excruciating heavy-metal song at odd hours, friends calling you for birthdays or wedding-parties, etc, etc. It has always surprised me how good memories can get you really down sometimes. 

Potts’ voice is close and casual, at times playful but never mean. Readers migrate to his site because it’s a prime example of fantasy realization, and also because it’s useful. Blogs whose purpose goes beyond entertainment must be informative.

While most blogs have a specific subject umbrella, there are a few whose draw is their randomness, combined, of course, with their authors’ presentation skills. David Friedman’s blog Ironic Sans is a stream-of-conscious compendium of the “ideas for photos, gadgets, and other projects” that are constantly popping into Friedman’s head. Friedman divides these ideas into rough categories, among them 60 second films, ad proposals, games, photography, lists, and animated Manhattan. Some of his ideas, like his prepixilated clothing for reality shows, and his Orange Clockwork –“Viddy well this malenky clock which you can hang in your domy for just a little pretty polly,” now have material versions that readers can buy from the site. Most of them are slightly ridiculous, which leaves Freidman free to discuss them in a conversational, affable manner. Though his ideas may be ironic, his tone is irony-free. Here’s an excerpt from a post on the Wikroll- a seemingly random link that in fact leads to a pertinent Wikipedia article.

 For example, let’s say I write a blog post about macaroni which prompts discussion in the comments about the origins of macaroni and the best tasting brand of macaroni. Then someone leaves this comment:“Hey, everyone. I really like that Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You UP” so I thought I’d post a link to the video on YouTube so everyone can watch it. Click here to check it out: http//            “Did you click on the link? Snap! You’ve been Wikroll’d!”

The link is, in fact, a wikipedia article on macaroni. 

Freidman is a professional photographer and graphic artist, skills he makes much use of on Ironic Sans. Nearly all of his ideas have photographic models; clearly Freidman knows his photoshop. His post on custom islands (a spin-off of Dubai’s The World), includes a very credible looking Isle of Lucy and Compass Isle (for the practical joker, as it appears upside down viewed from space) that do not actually exist. The site’s very appearance is unique; it looks like a sketch book full of pen and ink line drawings, and the lines between posts and the quotation marks look hand drawn. 

Graphics needn’t be creative providing their accompaniments are. After Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter proclaimed irony dead, New Yorker David Rees started an online political comic strip to prove him wrong. Get Your War on consists of a dozen stock office-life clip-art scenes featuring multi-ethnic characters leaning across each other’s cubicles, speaking on the phone, staring at computer screens. The multi-ethnic characters are bitter, cynical, petty, and fearful; in other words, they are the average modern American, sans filter. Certainly, Get Your War On is not politically correct, or sensitive, and its dialogue enfolds in “an absurd hip-hop brio” –think The Office meets Yo Mama!.

“Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!”

Operation: Enduring Our Freedom is the the motherfucking house!”

“Yes! Operation: Enduring Our Freedom to Bomb the Living Fuck Out Of You is in the house!!!”

Because (in its original incarnation at least; now it’s syndicated in Rolling Stone) GYWO is a blog, Rees doesn’t have the restrictions a cartoonist for a traditional media outlet would. He doesn’t need to be safe. Characters’ conversations are used to directly and indirectly roast the actions and words of the current administration and to lampoon its credulous subscribers. In one, a little boy, distressed over a newscast from Afghanistan showing a limbless and bloody boy, wonders “Didn’t he get the dollar I sent him?” 

The use of clip-art rather than organic images doesn’t (for the most part) stem from laziness. Generic images won’t detract from dialogue the way fancier ones will, and they also suit the strip’s quotidian nature. Skewering cubical culture has been popular for some time (Office Space, The Office, And Now We Come to an End), but rarely it is combined with state-of-the-nation lambasting. The humor in Office Space is timeless, while that of Get Your War On is time-relevant.

The number of bloggers who walk away with book deals is ever-increasing, but what of books that become blogs? Or rather, books about a blog, written in the bloggiest of forms? Gossip Girl, Cecily Von Zeisgar’s series devoted to the lives and styles of New York’s young elite, is one of the most successful series in history. Much of this stems from fascination, and perhaps a bit of disgust with what seems to the average citizen to be a hyperbolically extravagant and glamorous lifestyle, but it’s the way this information is delivered that makes the books stand out. Gossip Girl is an anonymous high schooler who (presumably) attends the same curriculars and extra-curriculars as a group of socialistitas and masters of the universe in-training. She posts her observations, and classmate sightings on her blog, She also responds to readers’ questions and dishes out pearls of platinum-plated wisdom. Her posts are littered with references to Manhattan and Brooklyn landmarks, of-the-moment clubs, up-and-coming designers, indie rockers, and (gasp!) actual literature, and her tone is arch, conspiratorial, and slightly omniscient.

B,K, and L all in 3 Guys eating fries and hot chocolates with big fat Intermix bags under the table. Don’t those girls have anywhere else to go? And we thought they were always out boozing it up and partying down. So disappointing. I did see B slip a few splashes of brandy into her hot chocolate, though. Good girl. Also saw that same wigged girl going into the STD clinic downtown. If that is S, she’s definitely got a bad case of the nasties. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I frequent the neighborhood of the STD clinic – I get my hair cut at a very trendy salon across the street.

Gossip Girl is the ultimate insider blog that doesn’t exist (although does, but it’s more of a promo site than an actual blog). The blogger has personality and spice; she’s self-referential and self-loving, but all in good fun. She values her readers and gives them opportunity for feedback. There are no photos, but important people and places are bolded. Gossip Girl capitalizes on our voyeuristic tendencies, our need for fantasies, and also, our need to feel somewhat connected, and somewhat anchored in a reality, even if it’s not our own.

Before this semester, blogging certainly wasn’t one of my own realities. Apart from research, I rarely ventured beyond the New York Times online; I little knowledge of the millions of opinions, images, and personalities at my fingertips, and absolutely no idea that my own could be one of them.

When I landed the blogging job, I wasn’t given any primers or tips. “Write about you,” I was told. “Write about your weekends, what concerts you’ve been to, which bars are freshmen magnets….” Fine, I thought, but how? Writing, especially non-fiction, has always come easy to me, but I quickly found that my style and methods were not as well-suited for the electronic world as they were for the paper one. A good blogger is quick and cursory. Personal flavor is important, but content is king. I am a slow writer; I fret over adjective choice and spend hours searching for unnecessary references and quotes. Titles take me ages. My first posts were all of 200 words a piece, and each word was agonized over. I didn’t know how much of me ought to be woven in, or how close I was to my character. I had to use the royal we, which made me feel pretentious and silly, and I was often heavy-handed with snark and cynicism. Post topics were (still are, actually) a constant source of anxiety. I wasn’t sure of my blog’s readership’s demographics in the beginning, and learning that the majority of them are well-connected yuppies and socialites didn’t exactly make my job easier. It’s tricky to write insider’s guides for insiders, especially when you’re more of an outsider. In Promiscuous Fictions, Tyler Curtain discusses how not posting enough, or not getting many hits, is a constant source of worry for the blogger.

Anxiety may be the primary emotion associated with giving accounts of blogging, and perhaps of blogging itself. Do I update enough? Why don’t I write? Who is reading me? Why aren’t there more? What do they think about what I say? Have I said enough about enough…”

Original material is always good, though it makes scant appearance in the rehash-mad blogosphere. In general, I try to make my presentation original, more in depth than its generator. On our blog, we bolden certain words, to make them stand out to readers and search engines. Our titles are large, the first letter of each word capitalized. Immediately after the title, we put an image, always. We have two sidebars: the one on the left includes a tip box, a thumbnail of the featured interview, a list of recent posts, and our blogroll, while the one on the right includes an embedded masthead and a list of the most recent comments. We have our blog name in a banner at the top, followed by five buttons: home, about, galleries, interviews, and tips.  It’s a wordpress blog, but we have our own URL, I think that the reason our blog has flourished has more to do with its professional appearance, interactive features, and exclusive photos than with our content. You could, for the most part, find articles similar to ours on other blogs or online media outlets, but perhaps they wouldn’t be as enjoyable to read, or be as authoritatively presented. 

What’s interesting about our blog is its emphasis on pseudonyms and fake characters. My boss says that people are drawn to mystery, but we are a social blog. We throw parties and go to events, and we tell people that we write for guest of a guest, or we know someone who writes for guest of a guest, but we don’t say who we are, and our “editors” (all, in fact, my boss) are never identified. Mystery, I think, has limited shelf life in the blogging world, for its harder to readers to form trusting relationships with a persona than with the person behind it. Diverse content, though it might seem like a positive, also can up a blog’s expiration date, because readers usually go to one site for one thing, or one branch of things. If a blog’s focus is too narrow, it probably won’t be more than a flash in the pan, but niche blogs have the greatest probability of lasting. I don’t know if our blog has what it takes to last; we have the writing style down, but we lack direction. True, there are a few blogs out there, like Ironic Sans, that have broad lenses, but there’s always a method, however tenuous, to the seeming madness. If Guest of a Guest is to survive, we need to find a method.

Blogs have now been around long enough to escape label as a passing trend. Today’s world is one of specialization, and of suspicion, of choice, and of cynicism. It’s a world whose people both feel entitled to know and yearn to know anything about anything or body. It’s a world of instant gratification; we want news pre-parsed by someone we’ve grown to trust -someone, and not a faceless organization. It’s also a world of open communication, or we’d like it to be. It is, as such, a world eminently hospitable to the growth of blogs, so long as they are they right ones.

The contents of these right ones is not set in stone; the blogosphere is a place of exceptions, of rule-flouting. What shouldn’t be flouted falls mainly in the rhetorical domain. Personality, wit, honesty, and affability, these, far more than nifty widgets or breaking news, are the keys to building a readership. Writing ability too, is vital. Bloggers can have a flair for disregarding conventional grammar rules, but they can’t be sloppy. Voice, be it quirky, cynical, bemused, must be felt; as readers, we need to believe in the blogger. In a blog it’s what you say, but mostly it’s how you say it.





Works Referenced


  • Lovink, Gert. Uncanny Networks: Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligensia.

MIT Press. Cambridge, MA. 2002

  • Boxer, Sarah. Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. Knopf, New York. 2008
  • Cooper, Steven. Watching the Watchdog

Marquette Books. Spokane, WA. 2006


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May 1, 2008

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