The online world of the bloggers and how you can connect, communicate, publish your thoughts or diaries and ‘spy’ on the famous.
Blogs – an ugly word, but now unavoidable – were born with the internet. As soon as people started to use the technology that would link computers, they started leaving messages. In the 1980s, these were “pinned” on virtual “bulletin boards”. Then, in the early 1990s, online diaries appeared, personal journals to be seen by the entire online world. As internet use spread, people were dazzled by their power to connect and communicate. But they didn’t just want to stare at pages. They wanted, above all, to make their mark on the explosively expanding world of cyberspace. So, in the mid-1990s, the online diary became the web log, or blog.
Blogs let you jot down what you think, feel or know and, at the speed of light, publish it to the world. They now cover everything from quantum theory to politics to low-life celebrity gossip and intimate personal confessions. They can be vast publications written by teams of writers, or fragmented jottings from a student pad. They are the most successful, addictive, potent and radical application of all the new technologies and applications spawned by the personal computer.
The total number of blogs is thought to be approaching 200m, 73m of them in China. I can see no reason why there shouldn’t be hundreds of millions more, because, you see, blogging is like smoking or gambling – hard to give up. Ever since I started blogging (March 15, 2006), I’ve been trying to stop. It’s not that it’s time-consuming – I’m a casual blogger. Nor do I feel intimidated by the brutal worldwide abuse from other bloggers that every blogger of any prominence inevitably attracts. I don’t even feel it’s much of a burden: if I don’t want to post, I don’t post, and on a couple of occasions I’ve handed over my blog to others.
No, the reason I keep wanting to quit is the intimacy and exposure of the blogscape. (“Blogosphere” is the name everybody else uses, but I’ve invented my own, slightly better word.) I am, because of my blog, “out there” in a way that, three years ago, I would have found inconceivable, terrifying. I still do. I am also, thanks to Thought Experiments (the title of my blog), exposed to the tribulations of an enormous extended family of commenters, linkers, gypsies, tramps, thieves and, worst of all, intellectuals. Being a nuclear type myself, this is traumatic.
I sent a guy in LA out to buy a book in the middle of the night; he liked it. Commenters e-mail me their visions and problems. Some flirt, some try to get me to go down the pub, some send me their writing for approval. Chinese people ask me about English usage, Americans ask me if I know Bill Nighy, Australians ask me about the afterlife. Everybody wants to know what I eat and why, inmates of Folsom Prison weep and rage at me because of my loathing of tattoos, Darwinians become entirely irrational in my (virtual) presence. And, a week or two ago, a regular commenter on my blog killed himself.
So the blogscape is not for the faint-hearted. Start blogging and you will initially be lulled into a false sense of security by the ease with which you just knock out a few paragraphs and click Publish Post. At once, there it is, out there for all to see. Remember, I do mean “all”. There’s a shocking disconnect between one fact – you sitting at your computer – and the next – what you just wrote being instantly visible to the entire world. Try to think of it as like stepping out of the toilet to find yourself standing on the centre spot at Wembley on cup-final day.
Yet the disconnect is the point. Blogging, says the supreme blogger and Sunday Times contributor Andrew Sullivan, “is the spontaneous expression of instant thought”. In addition, as Matt Drudge, one of the originators of the form, puts it: “A blog is a broadcast, not a publication.” The true value of blogs is the combination of that initial, unconsidered improvisation, done on the spur of the mood and the moment, and its ensuing broadcast to the largest audience ever created – about 1.5 billion internet users.
There is an important distinction to be made here between wayward solo bloggers, like me, and the more or less “official” blogs that appear on newspaper and magazine sites or on a giant blog aggregator such as Huffington Post. The latter are closer to – often coextensive with – traditional journalism. They tend to involve large staffs and to stick tightly to the news schedule, and they are required to fit into certain categories, usually politics, and not, like me, to wander randomly from technology to metaphysics to politics to the iniquity of all breakfast cereals (except porridge). For these official bloggers, the vertiginous sense of the disconnect between Wembley and the toilet has faded, to be replaced by something like normal publication. It’s the respectable end of the business. It’s blogging, captain, but not as we know it.
So, leaving those official types to one side, what is it that keeps me and all those millions of others blogging? The answer is those very things that make me want to stop – intimacy and exposure. They are, in fact, the same thing. Once you are exposed in this way, intimacy tends to follow. The blogger is able to show important aspects of himself to the world in a way that was hitherto unimaginable. Blogging is a novel form of being.
Yet from the most intimate to the most functional, the important thing about blogs is connection. This is what lies at the heart of the intimacy/exposure nexus. It takes time to get the hang of this. The way to get your blog going is to use connectivity. Link to other blogs and place comments. They’ll come back to you. Once they do, a few will stay. You will acquire regulars. You’ll get to know them. If they stay away for a while, you’ll miss them. You’ll feel, if you’re a sucker like me, somehow responsible for and to them. This is weird, I know, but then good things start to happen. I reviewed a couple of books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. One was a collection of John Ashbery’s poems. This resulted in my resuming my own connection with that great artist. Connections pile upon connections.
I inspired two commenters to start their own blogs – the physicist Gordon McCabe (mccabism.blogspot.com) and the ineffable Nige (nigeness.blogspot.com). In finest familial style, the former turned on me rather savagely over Darwinism. I was at one with King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!” One discovers unexpected soul mates. I found Patrick Kurp via a mutual love of the novelist Ford Madox Ford. And then – very naughty, this – I arranged a few small raids on Jeffrey Archer’s blog (jeffreyarchers.blogspot.com). My commenters went over there and posted comments saying how great he was. Sorry, Jeff, it’s my child within.
Throughout, I was accumulating this faithful band of commenters, most of them bloggers themselves. I would name a few, but those I missed out would get all tetchy, so I’d better not. The striking thing about this little community is how, over time, we got to know each other in surprising detail. We trend, bend and blend together. I can do irony on the blog in ways I would never get away with in this organ, and I can assume quite a high level of knowledge. This latter is hugely helped by the world-changing technology of the hyperlink – I don’t have to quote an article, I can just link to it. We are, thus, all instantly informed about the same things.
This, combined with the relief involved in getting something instantly off my chest, is what keeps me blogging. I want to quit, I really do. I dream of going cold turkey, I even once posted my resignation. But someone somewhere always says something stupid or funny, Lord Jeff emits another post or I am stunned by some unexpected fragment of beauty and truth – and, once more, I am lost in the limitless land of fancy now known, to me, anyway, as the blogscape.
THE 100 BEST BLOGS, PART ONE
Based in Britain, Norman Geras offers an indispensable window on the world, culling items from newspapers and blogs from around the globe so you get a regular focus on what’s caught his eye, as well as his intellectual, humane comments on what he’s found.
The blog of a high-grade Washington policy wonk, this works well as a hub – providing links to good articles elsewhere – but also as the thoughts and brief essays of a very smart man. A superb way into the mind of America.
Andrew Sullivan’s blog, like Wilkinson’s, is both a hub and a personal testament. The assumption is that you are on the journey with Sullivan, that you read him every day, as indeed millions do.
Part of Slate magazine, Mickey Kaus’s blog is a good stop for witty and non-PC politics.
Informed comment from Steve Clemons, of the New America Foundation, on DC politics and US foreign policy.
A feisty, left-leaning American news and comment blog that promises it will be “drilling behind the headlines”. Anything is game, but it naturally has its bead on the new American administration’s performance to date.
An extraordinary blog maintained by the staff of the British Embassy in Harare. It must be unique in the annals of British diplomacy – embassy officials saying what they really think (and describing the perils of going to a Zimbabwean toilet while they’re at it).
The ultimate in “snarky” (that untranslatable American word that blends “sarcastic” and “cheeky”) celebrity gossip. This is the blog that broke Christian Bale’s berserk rant and had the most up-to-the-minute coverage of Heath Ledger’s death. No celeb can hide.
Famed for her spats with fellow celebs, Lily Allen recently claimed she has never regretted anything she has written on her MySpace page. And why should she, when it includes such gems as the truth behind her feud with Elton (she wasn’t that drunk, really, and they were just joking around, apparently) and the real reason the scurrilous blogger Perez Hilton hates her (because she’s friends with Sam Ronson). Plunges the Z list to whole new depths.
While still on the American talkshow The View, Rosie O’Donnell’s tirades on subjects such as “radical Christianity” and Bush’s foreign policies often got shouted down by her more conservative co-hosts. Not so on her blog, where her streams of consciousness on current affairs flow unedited. Witness her birthday poem to Joni Mitchell, demanding that she “let her little light shine on science, and shine on fertile farmland”, and her almost-haiku on Sarah Palin: “Women who hunt in high heels / gives one pause.” Charmingly bonkers.
Known as quite the philosopher, pop star and herbal-tea entrepreneur, Moby shares his musings on everything from the early days of hip-hop to unusual road signs spotted around New York. Exactly what you’d expect from the mind of one of pop’s most wounded and vulnerable ecowarriors, it’s the online equivalent of a heated debate over a cup of camomile.
Ever wondered what goes on in the brain of the heirhead – and alleged superbusinesswoman – Paris Hilton? This is a captivating ride through her round-the-world trips, peppered with insights on what it’s like to host a reality search for a new BFF (best friend forever) live on TV, and the death-defying feats it takes to launch the Paris Hilton Fall Footwear Collection. Perfect for anyone who needs proof that, in the current climate, you can’t make any money from selling old rope.
The Hobnobs of hip style blogs – you can’t stop munching. Witty and smart, while posing as artlessly breathless, the two women behind this blog have such a good time rifling through the dressing-up box of pop culture that you do too. They offer insights, downloads, Photoshopping. A recent highlight: grafting the heads of musicians in skeleton costumes onto fluffy kittens to find the scariest (winner: Drums of Death).
The scourge of all fashion faux pas, this American blog is like a burst of Mexican beer on an overheated day: distinctive and sharp. Being “fugly” is the greatest sin, and no celeb’s wardrobe is safe. Don’t think this sartorial eye of Mordor is trained only on Hollywood: it has helpers around the globe, seeking out the tragic and inept in celebrity dressing and posting what they find.
Scott Schuman began his blog nearly four years ago, simply snapping his favourite styles on the backs of real people on the New York streets. Thanks to his rigorous, classic aesthetic and eye for a picture, his blog is a fashion phenomenon: even Karl Lagerfeld has undergone his forensic gaze. Carine Roitfeld, the editor of Vogue Paris, now wants to work with him. That’s even cooler than Anna Wintour, by the way.
What do cyclists in Copenhagen look like? Not at all like the ones in Britain. Protective clothing extends more to thick tweeds and nice scarves than sci-fi helmets and all things Lycra. This blogger posts regular photos of them, but also casts the net wide, snapping people on bicycles wherever they look cool or colourful, from Madrid to London. It’s enough to make you get on your bike.
Enter the world of a Savile Row bespoke tailor, who posts regularly about his company and how the individual cutters are faring, showing samples of their handiwork. Chummy but focused: a calm place in a troubled world.
asuitablewardrobe.dynend.com Will Boehlke, a San Francisco-based traditional men’s clothing enthusiast, muses daily on such vital matters as whether paisley ties go with tweed. Could the paddock coat make a comeback? And what’s the best way to knot a scarf? Knowledgeable and surprising.
A formidable literary blog by Patrick Kurp, from Washington state, Anecdotal Evidence is forceful, sensitive and highly personal. “Maintaining a literary blog,” Kurp says, “is like keeping a big band on the road during the waning days of swing music. The audience is ageing and no longer guaranteed.”
A Commonplace Blog is another literary blog, this time from Texas. It’s a suave, informative discussion of reading in the broadest sense. DG Myers is an academic, and he grapples with literary and philosophical ideas more than Kurp.
A mainly literary blog, this time from Frank Wilson in Philadelphia. It’s basically a hub, providing links to items of interests. Wilson is opinionated, passionate and generous. Many bloglines intersect here.
James Wolcott’s blog on the Vanity Fair site provides high-dandy prose for the East Coast smart set. “Let us part the beaded curtains of time…” It all comes from another age – just what we need now.
Morsels from several hands about the latest in the books world, with handy hyperlinks. In a recent amusing item, the writer instructively experimented with reading a section from Charlotte Roche’s X-rated Wetlands alongside one from Shmuley Boteach’s The Kosher Sutra, a sage guide to reviving your sex life from a seasoned counsellor. As she put it, she had to stop before she got the bends.
A nicely snippy blog about the design of book covers: the ones that made it and the ones that shouldn’t have. One juicy item recently lined up all the covers for new editions of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, “Now a Major Motion Picture”, noting that “most of them are pretty horrible”.
Seventy years to the day after he wrote them, George Orwell’s diary entries are reproduced here in sequence each day, word for word, starting in 1938 and running until 1942. A more rounded version of the writer emerges, a man who was concerned not just with politics and the world order, but with how many eggs his chickens had laid.
Hypnotically awful, as in: “We dined around a magnificent oak table in their private room, with its beautiful Jacobean oak pannelling (sic); the food was sumptuous, the wine delicious and the company scintillating. Sitting next to me was a man who had recently lost $75m with Lehmann (sic) Brothers, and on the other side, a man who sold Dutch paintings, so it was an evening of learning.”
Having bored a host of interviewers with her macrobiotic credentials, Gwyneth Paltrow has styled herself as the detoxified Martha Stewart. Her all-encompassing lifestyle site places tips on how you, too, can accelerate your bowel eliminations beside her treatise on creating the perfect family gathering, which includes getting everyone to rummage through your cupboards to help you donate to the local food bank, should you happen to be wondering.
Provided you don’t lose the will to live while reading, Paul Daniels’s jottings (and holiday snaps) about his colourful life are a must. A sample: “Yes, folks, we are home again after an overnight flight from Barbados. Debbie’s Mam and Dad met us at Gatwick, which was amazing because it was still nighttime at 0630hrs.”
Two good philosophy blogs make the point that this is a subject made for bloggery.
Philosophy is arguing, and arguing is what bloggers and their readers do best – or at least a lot, in an obsessive-compulsive sort of way. Both are highly recommended if you fancy stepping out into an intellectual blizzard with, occasionally, real snow.
A tough-minded take on economics and politics from Chris Dillow, this is very much a blogger’s blog. It gets quoted everywhere, and rightly so. Why did bankers pay each other so much? “Traders must be bribed not to plunder the firm. If you don’t pay them millions, they’ll sell the banks’ assets cheaply to rival firms, for which they then go and work.”
Bryan Appleyard recommends this offering from, admittedly, his “oldest and best friend”. But he is unabashed: “This is a great blog, a spin-off from my own – Nige for a while was my co-blogger. Relaxed, warm and fabulously well read, he never ceases to amaze.”
A true omnivore, Nige can contemplate Ruskin one minute, stoats the next. An endlessly stimulating daily companion.
A blog that brilliantly suggested a Buddhist bus in response to the atheist and Christian advertising signs now stuck on traffic jams around the country. The Madhyamaka bus would bear the slogan: “Neither an entity nor a nonentity moves in any of the three ways. So motion, bus and route are nonexistent.” That settles that.
Dave Trott was not only a brilliant advertising copywriter, but a great team leader. He now shares his thoughts about how you do advertising and run departments. His ideas are equally applicable to writing a novel, making a film, launching a product, managing a football team, instituting life changes and any activity you can imagine. Genius.
Richard Madeley’s prose is touched with comic genius, expertly weaving a path between mildly fruity vulgarity and brilliantly controlled farce: see his entry of February 1, which manages to meld Judy playing the trombone and the effects of a faulty spa bath on one’s privates. Who knew the man had such talent?
Dr Theophilus Pudding’s World of Knowledge of the World is a random set of definitions, all fearless, all wrong. A sample: “George Michaels was born Giorgy Mikailastrakan in Armenia in 1850. His parents had been killed in a horrific but amusing factory accident before he was born, and he spent the early years of his life as an urchin, wandering about the sea floor feeding on molluscs and protecting himself with poisonous spines, both of which habits he still hasn’t shaken today.”
Here you can revisit the famous comic strip with its titular hero removed, which reveals “the existential angst of Mr Jon Arbuckle as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb”. Well, that’s what the blog’s creator, the Irishman Dan Walsh, says it is. It’s like Spot the Ball for the philosophically advanced.
This is subtitled “painfully polite and hilariously hostile notes from shared spaces the world over”. Full marks to a recent post showing a broken glass, a scrubbie and a mop, tastefully arranged on the floor of an art students’ shared flat by their long-suffering roommate. A note says: “This is art. A narrative piece called F*** You, I’m Fed Up, Clean Your S*** Up.”
This blog serves as a sort of Aunt Sally for the bile-filled, who can send it examples of “ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar” from items posted on the BBC’s Have Your Say site. The blog then has its say about the people having their say – in spades. Ouch.
Begun in the spirit of Lynne Trusses everywhere, fuming at the promiscuity of the apostrophe in public signs – and some of the places it turns up really are extraordinary, as in LADIE’S – the blog has now branched out into recording other areas of punctuational abuse, notably pointless quotation marks. Watch and “wonder”.
Iain Dale’s Diary is the brand leader in frank and fearless comment on politics today. “What can the electorate make of a Speaker who buggers off home before lunch on a Thursday and doesn’t return until mid-morning on Monday?”
Guido Fawkes (aka the Irishman Paul Staines) is your man for the latest Westminster gossip and barbed comment. Guido credits himself with triggering the fall and resignation of the work and pensions minister Peter Hain over his failure to declare campaign contributions, which would make him the first blogger to bring down a serving minister.
Everybody’s favourite Vulcan, John Redwood, hacks into the thickets surrounding today’s top issues: rather cerebral, but he’s good on the current economic crisis. And you get lovely pictures of him in a nice shirt and cardie.
You can tell John Prescott’s blog is authentic from entries like: “…what’s made me very angry is that is (sic) was entirely preventable and the result of a bank’s greed.” The Prezza has gone quiet since Christmas, but let’s hope he comes back soon; he’s been getting admiring reviews from other pol-bloggers.
The former transport minister’s blog has a feisty, cut-to-the-chase tone. Viz: “A committee of Lords (aka, the Great and the Good) has decided our civil liberties are threatened by CCTV cameras. Yawn.” We especially like the pic he has posted of himself dressed up as the devil, aged, oh, about 14.
Two gorgeous photoblogs. The first is part of the Le Monde site and runs exquisite pictures of daily life in China. The second is a more casual collection of snaps of Venice. Beautiful and consoling.
A Portland-based snappers’ site with a photoblog section. The Cover Songs item is great fun, with contemporary versions of classic photos.
Superlative photos from this leading photo agency, regularly updated. Check out Chris Maluszynski’s beautiful selection of close-ups of people in the crowd at the Obama inauguration.
“The rules are simple: I put the self-timer on ‘2 seconds’, push the button and try to get as far from the camera as I can.” That’s it. A regularly updated portfolio of shots of a Dutchman in streets, parks, basements, running away from you. A simple but moreish pleasure.
One of the most visited photoblogs in America and Britain comes from Jez Coulson, who posts regularly from his assignments around the globe. Sometimes his hectic itinerary is a thing to marvel at in itself. And the photos are lovely.
Contributors: Bryan Appleyard, Tony Allen Mills, Christopher Goodwin, Sarah Baxter, Louis Wise, Mark Edwards, Pip McCormac, Thierry Kelaart, Camilla Long, Roland White, Clive Davis, David Mills and Helen Hawkins