on the value of blogging

What value is there in blogging?

Well, I suppose that depends on who you are. Some people blog to make money on advertising, some people network with business contacts or publicize themselves, some people are looking to share photography, etc.

I am a graduate student in philosophy and education who hopes to make a career, not to mention a well-ordered and successful life, out of the clear-headed exploration of ideas. Preparing for this kind of career and life requires a great deal of practice in reading widely, thinking hard, and then saying something coherent, novel, plausible and interesting about what you’ve read.

It seems to me that blogging provides a good forum for practicing those skills. Of course, one could read and write privately, without publishing to the web or any other place. But I think that having some readers makes one more accountable for engaging in the reading/thinking/writing process. Knowing that one’s writing will be read provides extra incentive to get something written in the first place and, moreover, to write something coherent, novel, plausible and interesting. Comments from others can give you some idea whether you are fulfilling those objectives.

The main concern I have heard raised about blogging is that it is somehow related to being narcissistic. This is a potentially serious objection to the practice. Narcissism is what you would call a “thick” concept. That is, “narcissistic” has both descriptive and evaluative components. First, it describes that a person is rather self-absorbed or has an inflated sense of self-importance. Second, the term in its ordinary usage passes a negative judgment on this personal quality. Competent english speakers know that “narcissistic” has a negative connotation, with narcissism sometimes even elevated to the point of psychopathology.

This brings me to an important distinction frequently made in ethics. Some ethical theories focus on particular actions – whether they are right or wrong, morally permissible or impermissible, when considered alone. This would include standard act utilitarianism and Kantianism, if you happen to know anything about those. But, other ethical theories focus on the more general question of how to live, or what kind of person you should try to become. This includes Aristotelian virtue ethics, which I’m sure I will discuss again later.

So, take the case at hand – blogging. The act-focused ethical perspective would have us ask: is blogging morally obligatory? merely permissible? or even morally wrong? I think this question is kind of uninteresting. An ethical theory that held that blogging (in ordinary circumstances) is either obligatory or outright wrong would be suspect, in my opinion. Pretheoretically, it just seems obvious that blogging is morally permissible, that is, morally optional. You can either not blog, or blog, and be in the moral clear either way.

The more interesting question is – what place can blogging possibly have in living the kind of life that is good for a person? Or, what place can it have in becoming a better person? This is where the narcissism criticism gets some bite. If blogging does corrupt the quality of one’s life or the quality of one’s character, then, from the moral perspective, it should be avoided.

There are two available interpretations for the original objection.

The first is that one should not blog, because people who are already narcissistic tend to blog, and so one would be revealing a vice of character in doing so. I’m not sure what the evidence for this is. Surely there are some narcissistic people who blog, but with the huge amount of blogs that exist, there have to be counterexamples to the objector’s conjecture. And, even if it were true that people who are already narcissistic tend to blog, the solution to the problem would not necessarily be to refrain from blogging; the solution would be to work on one’s narcissism. The narcissism, after all, is the inherently bad thing, not blogging.

The second interpretation of the objection is that blogging makes people more narcissistic than they were before. This, I think, is the more plausible of the two interpretations. It’s easy to see why someone would make this objection. Personal blogs do often seem to focus on aspects of their author’s lives, even minutiae that are unlikely to be interesting to others, and sometimes contain self-aggrandizing content, dramatic plays for readers’ attention, and the like. But, the objection is overgeneralized. A mature blogger who has a healthy perspective on herself and her place on the internet, let alone in the world on the whole, needn’t fall into these unproductive and maybe even psychologically injurious blogging habits. In fact, getting feedback from readers on one’s thoughts and one’s work could just as easily be humbling as ego-inflating. I know that when I read the blogs of really smart people, I realize more than ever that I have a long way to go in my education, and I’m under no illusion that my blog will automatically be of equal or greater importance than theirs. But remember that every blog was once in its infancy. People learn best by doing and, as I observed before, blogs are a good opportunity to practice academic skills. It’s little wonder, then, that so many thoughtful people are giving it a try.  Some of them are probably narcissistic, but that’s preexisting. If their narcissism shows through in their blogs, then either thoughtful commenters will tear them to bits, or almost no one will read their blog.

Thus, I don’t see any compelling reasons to think there is any necessary connection between being or becoming narcissistic and blogging. As such, blogging can have a place in the kind of life that is balanced and good for a person. Beyond being morally permissible, blogging can have some value, particularly to those interested in sharing and developing ideas. It can be a good way of creating a program of reading, writing and discussing regularly, in a fairly low-stakes environment.

So, with all that said, I’m giving blogging another try. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

4 Comments

  • Wow, a truly socratic analysis :) Good stuff.

    I think that blogging can be very self absorbed, but I’ve actually found it to be a healthy outlet. In person I can get carried away when I want to get into a discussion about something I find interesting; some people don’t like it very much. On my blog, I can spell out my thoughts on any subject that I like, and no one has to deal with it unless they want to. I’ve always liked that about blogging.

  • That’s a really good point, Adam. Instead of feeling ridiculous for writing many (most?) of these posts to myself, I am going to pat myself on the back for working it out here instead of inflicting myself upon some innocent and uninterested bystander :-P

  • I discovered your blog through a friend’s facebook page and I am very glad I did. Most analytic philosophers (myself included) tend to compose very dry prose; having sacrificed style on the twin altars of clarity and precision. However, your writing, which combines a refreshing readability with a remarkable rigour, demonstrates that the such a sacrifice is unnecessary. Thanks for maintaining such a thoughtful and worthwhile blog!

  • Hi Avery – Thanks so much for the kind words! I am glad you find the blog worthwhile and look forward to having you as a reader. Sometimes posting becomes rather sporadic when life gets extra busy, but rest assured that I am never quite able to quit for good ;-)

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