The Shelf Life (Half-Life?) of Blog Posts

In a piece on the role (or not) of public intellectuals, Russell Jacoby raises some questions about blogging that I’ve wondered about too:

On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or “archived”), has anyone ever looked at last year’s blogs?

“Rapidly produced,” he concludes, blog posts are “just as rapidly forgotten.” Jacoby is interested in how blogging has affected “the quality or content of intellectual discussions.” I’m interested in that too, but for now I’d just like to pick up on the issue of the status of past posts. For instance, as I familiarized myself with academic and literary blogs that looked interesting to me, I often found myself trailing through archives sometimes three or four years old. Some of the discussions–the most ‘occasional’ ones–obviously had become outdated, but others, including discussions of books, retain their currency just fine. But do they really? Well, not in practice, of course. Especially with the backwards chronology blogs impose, with newest always first, they do seem designed to keep us moving on. I’m also not aware of an easy way to locate material in blog archives unless the blogger has a particularly thorough index or set of labels or categories. Especially when discussions link back and forth across different blogs, the process of following older threads is extremely laborious. I guess I’m basically wondering about a couple of things: first, is there some “netiquette” principle that governs when a post ‘expires’ and ought not to be commented on any more? and second, does the perhaps fleeting nature of the attention any given blog post can have, as it is relentlessly shuttled down and down into the archives, add an extra dimension of futility to writing in this form?

Meanwhile, on the subject of public intellectuals, there’s much discussion at The Valve about Stanley Fish, who is busy actually being one, for better and for worse, with his own blog at the New York Times. The enormous chains of comments on his recent posts on ‘the uses of the humanities’ (the first one reached around 500 comments, I believe, while the second one is up to 244 as I write this) suggests the rapidly diminishing returns at this extreme end of the commenting scale. A recent comment thread at the Valve raised questions about the importance of commenting for measuring the success or value of blogging; I’ve noted a couple of times the generally low level of discussion on literary topics and, in a more general way, felt that without active back-and-forth blogging is not as worthwhile or rewarding as I’d initially hoped it would be. But, as blogging skeptics have often noted, the greater the quantity, typically the lower the quality of the discussion. I have only scanned the replies to Fish. In general, they seemed to stand up well to the threads over at the Guardian blog, which degenerate pretty quickly. But even so, who can process so many replies or synthesize them in any kind of meaningful way? (I recommend reading the Valve comments instead; there are “just” about 80 of them, including a number of extremely thoughtful and illuminating ones.)

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