Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Ephemeral Post: Posterity or Posthistory?

What will historians, literary critics, sociologists, etc. interested in the early 21st century read 200 years from now? Will they be reading blogs? Will they be able to read blogs? Are blogs too ephemeral to provide a lasting cultural record?

I’m sure there are some obsessed bloggers printing out every post, and some more tech-savvy ones backing up their blogs on CD. But what are Blogspot, Typepad, or other blog hosting services doing with all of that data? Are they backing it up for posterity sake? Will some intrepid 23rd-century historian stumble upon a cache of old servers in a warehouse and discover a trove of writing not read since it briefly flashed on a few monitors at the dawn of a new century?

At least with books, newspapers, diaries and letters a few survive for years, sometimes centuries, despite the fragile nature of the medium. There is at least something physical to hand down from one generation to next or to be stored in an attic or on a library shelf until someone discovers it.

Hopefully an astute editor is planning on publishing The Best American Blog Posts 2006 (something in vein of The Best American Essays 2004, of course, the sex blogs have beat everyone to the punch; why is that when it comes to the net, sex always seems to be leading the way?) This way there will be printed backup for the electronic backup.

Of course the value of blogs really isn’t the future, but what they provide now—a forum for debate, for discussing ideas, expressing opinions, etc. Did Orwell write because he thought all of his essays would be collected in one massive volume? Did Jefferson and Adams correspond so we could read their letters today? Though I’m sure visions of literary immortality lurk in the recesses of every writers’ mind (they are an underlying theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.”), blogs, like most writing, is about the present. Jefferson and Adams were exchanging personal information and hammering out political differences as they related to the young republic, not writing for historians. That’s what blogs are doing—though it will be shame if all of this writing is lost to the future.


At 8:19 AM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

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At 8:28 AM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Like most specimens of print "immortality", these blogs will achieve that only inadvertently. Gutenburg's press was a much surer ticket to the big "imm" than the photographic processes we have today...

At 2:14 AM, Blogger gaw3 said...

Don't worry, Google's saving everything.

Seriously, though, a great post, and I like the analogy with Pepys.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger nadezhda said...

I think you'll like this post at Test.

Quote: MIT Press have recently published New Media: 1740-1915, an excellent series of essays looking at the social effects of various 'new' media from history, from the status of zograscopes as 'virtual reality' in 18th C England, to the reception of early telephone systems in Amish communities.

One of the most interesting essays is Ellen Gruber Garvey's 'Scissorizing and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth Century Reading, Remaking and Recirculating', an account of the vernacular use of newspaper and magazine material in personal albums and collections. Garvey makes comparisons between the process of making scrapbooks and personal websites, but there is an even more striking comparison to weblogs.

Scrapbooks were a 'coping' strategy for old media at a time when distribution via railroads and cheap printing processes led to an overwhelming surplus of popular magazines and newspapers. Garvey describes them as "a new subcategory of media - the cheap, the disposable, and yet somehow tantalizingly valuable, if only their value could be seperated from their ephemerality". Scrapbooks were one just one strategy for indexing and archiving cuttings, including commercial clipping services, but scrapbooks represented a private, vernacular response to this information revolution. This remaking of popular media is clearly a precursor of the current blogging phenomenon, and Garvey's analysis of scrapbook making introduces some concepts that are useful in discussing blogging as part of our contemporary media culture.
And it continues, dealing particularly with some of the ephemera issues you raise.


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