Sep 192003

What goes around comes around. Carleton College, which tossed me unceremoniously twenty years ago, now wants to cash in on my international fame by interviewing me about blogging for their alumni magazine. Fine. I can afford to be magnanimous about these things. Here’s the Q&A.

1. I notice that your archives go back to June 2002. When did you begin reading blogs? Whom do you read? When did it occur to you to start your own? Did you model yourself on anyone in particular?

I began reading blogs three or four months before I started mine. It occurred to me immediately that I might be able to do that too; the lag was sheer sloth. At the time I was also making a scant living designing websites, and I thought setting up my own web server would be a useful exercise. I still run the whole enterprise, if that is the word, from a Linux server in my living room.

The people I read are the ones on my blogroll, which is more a convenience than an honor roll. Some are famous bloggers, some not. Bloggers who deserve a wider readership include Evan Kirchhoff of 101-280, Tom of Agenda Bender, JW of Forager23, and Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn. Like all bloggers, I have a particular weakness for people who read me.

2. Has anything about blogging surprised you? For instance, were there certain assumptions you made before you started—about audience, say, or time commitment—that turned out not to be true?

I was pleasantly surprised, and still am, by the number of highly intelligent and knowledgeable people in the world I’d never heard of. Many of the best bloggers are well-known in their fields — Eugene Volokh in law, Chris Bertram in philosophy, Dan Drezner and Jacob Levy in political science — but who, before blogs, knew of Steven Den Beste, Megan McArdle, or Colby Cosh? Of course most of blogging, like most of anything, is white noise. There are several million blogs in the world, of which maybe a couple thousand are worth reading. That’s still about eighteen hundred more than I’m ever likely to get to.

I’ve also been impressed by how far out of their way even famous bloggers go to make themselves accessible. I can personally testify that Eugene Volokh and Andrew Sullivan answer their email, pretty promptly. I wrote a piece recently taking Terry Teachout, a deservedly famous critic, to task, not very politely either, and he replied, in detail, on his blog. Before blogs talking to Teachout in this unmediated way was basically impossible. I’d have had to write a letter to the editor at Commentary or The New Criterion or wherever and hope for the best. If you write something worth reading, it will be read, and by the people you want to read it. That just amazes me.

3. On average, how much time do you devote to blogging? Do you find it rewarding?

I am embarrassed to admit the amount of time I devote to blogging, considering my paltry output. I find writing absurdly difficult.

I probably spend ten or fifteen hours a week actually sitting at the computer and writing, but at least twice that to thinking about what I’m going to say. Once you catch the bug everything becomes grist for the blogmill. At dinner I will often orate about something or other, and my girlfriend will listen for a while and say, “I think I just heard tomorrow’s post.” And so she has. This habit makes me unacceptable in polite company. Fortunately all my friends are impolite.

4. Do you have any thoughts on how blogging, as a form, might come to influence the outside world (i.e. the non-online world)? For instance, some bloggers have given themselves credit for bringing down a) Trent Lott, b) Howell Raines, c) various flawed academics. Jeff Jarvis is busy encouraging the rise of blogs in Iran. Some Congressman once read James Lileks on the House floor to underscore a point he was making. My editors are particularly interested in how the rise of blogs might influence established a) media, b) politics, c) academia, d) digital culture—and so on. What do you hear from others and what are your own opinions?

Whither blogs? I have no idea. What Mickey Kaus calls blogger triumphalism, the orgy of self-congratulation that ensued at the fall of Trent Lott and Howell Raines, sets off my bullshit detector. I know from reefer logs that by far the most loyal audience for blogs is bloggers. Still, other influential people read them too, and Michael Bellisiles, to take a famous example, would have gotten away with very sloppy work if bloggers hadn’t caught him out. In fact he did get away with it, for years. Mainstream journalists are lazy enough to piggyback happily on research that a blogger does for free. They often don’t credit that research, but that’s another story.

Blogs are a sort of Zeitgeist-accelerator. You find out what everyone is thinking, and thinking about, except right now instead of next week or next month. They also radicalize the discourse, partly because having comparatively radical opinions is what inspires many people to blog in the first place, and partly because there’s a lot you can say on a blog that you can’t say on The New York Times op-ed page.

All of this pertains strictly to the polibloggers. Belletristic bloggers like me have no hope of influencing the world. We don’t try, really.

I wish Jeff Jarvis all the luck in the world in his quest to free Iran through blogging, but I suspect the rise of blogging in Iran stems from the mullahs beginning to lose control of the country, not the converse. The Congressional speech that quoted James Lileks had, I am sure, as profound an effect on policy as any other Congressional speech.

More important, some genius will eventually figure out how to make money from blogs. If you happen to run into him, please give him my phone number.

5. Tell me about your life outside of blogging. You live in New York, I see. What do you do for work? For fun? When did you graduate from Carleton, and do you ever correspond with other Carls online?

I was thrown out of Carleton in 1982, my junior year. This was due entirely to my inadequacies as a student and is no reflection on the school, which is perfectly fine as liberal arts colleges go, although so left-wing that it made my teeth hurt. Or maybe that was the weather. Memory blurs.

I maintain no connections from school, virtually or otherwise, because I find the term “Carl” indescribably embarrassing. The last time I spoke to a Carleton alumnus, so far as I know, was about five years ago, when I had dinner with a friend of mine from school. He had become a partner at McKinsey, the management consultants, and grown rich, sleek, and dull.

By trade I write computer software. For fun I play games. It used to be pool — the one activity in which I distinguished myself at Carleton, where I was the straight pool champion two years running — now it is bridge. Recently I captained a team that defeated a world championship team from Poland in an online match, which was a pretty big thrill. That should give you some idea of what a thrilling life I lead. I live in Chelsea with my long-time girlfriend and an old, surly cat with a pronounced overbite.

(Update: Agenda Bender comments.)

  6 Responses to “Your Host”

  1. You suspect that Iranians are starting to blog as a result of the mullahs losing control, but don’t believe that the ability to blog, and read blogs, is contributing to said loss of control? Come on, dude…it’s chicken-and-egg, but more important, it’s an example of technology making it easier for people to communicate, which in turn makes it harder for repressive rulers to control discourse…in the New Yorker recently, John Lee Anderson wrote a typically great piece, this one about North Korea, in which he noted that one of the jobs of border guard in North Korea, when they search those few people who ever come into North Korea, is to rewire radios and TVs brought into the country to make sure they can only play the government station.

  2. If you think "Carl" Is embarrassing, how about "Ole"?

    This evening I will be a stone’s throw away from your almost alma mater visiting on old professor who works on the other side of the cannon river.

    What fond memories I have of Carleton. The last time I was on campus I ran around the rugby field naked after a game on an early spring day. It was not until that specific moment did I regret (and then only briefly) going to a college in Minnesota.

  3. Michael: You’re making my point. Why don’t the mullahs simply shut down the Internet? Because they’re afraid to. Iranians aren’t utterly cowed as the North Koreans are.

    Carl: I’d take Ole over Carl any day.

  4. Straight pool? The only people I’ve ever seen play that are my wife and myself, which means I’ve never seen anyone play it with great talent. (Except, of course, Mosconi in The Hustler.) How many balls have you run in a single stretch?

  5. 81 playing for money, although I’ve run over 100 in practice a few times.

  6. "Zeitgeist accelerator…"

    Pithy phrase. I like it.

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