October 02, 2003

What is good about unedited?

Dave Winer's Bloggercon starts Friday morning. The Bloggercon Weblog has this statement (not a definition) about what a blog is:

Weblogs. The unedited voice of a person! Will easy and inexpensive publishing technology change the face of politics, business, journalism, the law, medicine, engineering and education? Is a revolution underway, or are weblogs just the latest Internet craze? We'll show how artists create new experiences and inspire with weblogs. New technology will be showcased at BloggerCon 2003. Educators are using blogs to help students express themselves and learn from each other.

Meanwhile questions linger. Are today's bloggers the modern-day Emersons and Thoreaus or Charlie Chaplin, PT Barnum or Erma Bombeck? Is blogspace a Second Superpower, a ride on the Cluetrain, the venue for the next election or is it even worse than it appears, just good enough to make a difference, or the revolution so many say it is?

I think these are great questions to address. I think it overstates the role of the tools that enable blogging generally, but not the importance of the inexpensive and easy publishing platform represented by blog clients and RSS syndication.

But I want to focus on just that first sentence: "The unedited voice of a person!" Dave has caused a stir on more than a couple occasions by saying that something isn't a blog if it is edited. And, reading this statement I finally realized why there is a controversy between "journalists" and bloggers about whether blogs are journalism, which I think they decided can be, but aren't necessarily journalism.

Editing is not the same as filtering, which is what publishers do. Publishers decide what they are going to put in print, distribute and market. They may accept all manner of writing as long as it finds an audience, and that is what we describe as the "voice" of the publication. In that sense, a blog can have a voice. The voice can be coherent or uneven or incoherent. But a great deal of editing goes into the establishment and preservation of that voice; when we talk about a "New Yorker story" or a "Lad magazine story" or a "Cosmo story" we have a good idea of what that means because the editors of the publications are working to select stories that fit into the voice of the publication. They may sometimes stretch the voice with a piece that is more or less daring (think of the way Esquire has morphed ceaselessly for the last 15 years, since it first went downhill), but basically the content of the magazine is carefully filtered to deliver what readers have come to expect from the publication--marketing told them to expect it or tradition has led them to expect.

So, does Dave Winer mean "unedited," which would mean to publish without first correcting, revising and adapting the material or an "uncut" first draft? I think he means "unfiltered," not "unedited," since the Bloggercon statement goes on to ask if bloggers are "modern-day Emersons and Thoreaus or Charlie Chaplin, PT Barnum or Erma Bombeck," each of whom relied on their own editing and the editing of friends or professionals to prepare their work for publication.

When Dave says "unedited" and journalists hear that, they think "unsourced," "unprofessional" and "unreliable" because the content has not been rigorously edited, as Emerson, Thoreau, Chaplin, Barnum and Bombeck all demanded of themselves or their work before it appeared in publication.

Unfiltered, on the other hand, means that every would-be writer has a voice that can be heard without the intervention of a publisher -- they become their own publishers. Out of the myriad voices may come some great stuff, but I'd think that great stuff would be the result of extensive editing, preparation and consideration.

So, as I consider how to use blog technology in business, I should not be thinking the product cannot be edited if it will have a unique value in the market. I should think about editing, if a coherent voice is what I am aiming to provide--I might even make a little money doing it, but there is an urgency in blogging that many people expect as a characteristic of a blog. So, I might use blog tools and not call the result a blog; I'd probably be better off calling it something else, because then people will say the product is "like a blog, but [different/worse/better/informative/thought-provoking]" and will explain how it is interesting in the comments section of the site.

Blogs are a lot of things, but not the be all and end all of publishing history. Indeed, they are just the beginning.

Posted by Mitch Ratcliffe at October 2, 2003 09:47 PM | TrackBack

Random thoughts, here, as I read your post.

I write, and my writing (when not on my weblog) goes through editors before it is published. Good editors ensure that my writing can be read and understood. This is not the same thing as "dumbing down." I also edit the work of other people. If I don't understand something the writer has said, I ask them about it and we figure out together how to say it so a reader has a chance of understanding what the writer intended to say.

Of course, my writing is technical. What I edit is mostly technical. In both cases, it isn't essays. It isn't high literary endeavor. Editing technical writing is different from editing essays (Emerson, et al.), and it is different from editing high lit (James Joyce, to take an extreme example). A good editor knows whether the work at hand is a tech manual or poetry and handles the work appropriately. Jackie Onassis is said to have been a good editor, and I think that's because she could tell the difference and because she communicated with her authors.

I think Dave Winer has had some bad experiences with editing. Especially where what was being edited was his comments to an interviewer. Being misquoted is one of the aggravations of being a public figure. Just ask any politician.

But Dave is mainly talking about writing a weblog, where it's understood that a writer is on his or her own. Editing isn't especially relevant in a medium where writers are prepared to take the risk of being misunderstood, and where the writer can easily and independently RE-write and RE-publish thoughts that didn't come across as intended. Or the writer can choose not to re-write and re-publish. The writer can also choose to blame the readers for not understanding. (The last choice is the writer's privilege, of course. The empty garret can get very lonely, though.)

I agree with your distinction between "editing" and "filtering", but I don't think that's what Dave is complaining about.

Posted by: Bill Brandon at October 3, 2003 08:22 AM

Agreed, Bill, I think Dave has had bad experiences with editors and, I know, even worse expereinces with reporters.

However, what Dave is arguing over amounts to angels on the head of a pin, because he's trying to define a media cosmology rather than letting it develop.

By the way, as an editor, which I do every day, too, I think the help writers need and want is significant to their development as writers. Tech writing isn't necessarily literate, but it still has to engage and be accurate, which is hard to do consistently. The idea of the self-sufficient writer in the garret is very much what Dave aspires to, when most writers exist in and draw simply from experience in society; we need all kinds of writers and writing!

Posted by: Mitch Ratcliffe at October 3, 2003 09:24 AM
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