A Message in a Virtual Bottle

Yesterday I got a notification from WordPress—a “trophy,” actually—commemorating my sixth anniversary as a blogger. Apparently I registered my blog with them on 23 April 2008 (Shakespeare’s birthday, serendipitously enough), though I didn’t make my first actual post until a month later. At the time, we were preparing to move to Greg’s family’s farm, three hundred miles from the area where we’d lived for twenty years. I started the blog mainly as an online journal of our lives on the farm; I figured it would be a nice record of events and might also be of interest to any friends who wanted to keep up with us. Over time my focus shifted from accounts of our doings on the farm to personal essays about the Bible, literature, movies, and other topics. My early posts, in which I narrated the events of the day and explained plans for construction, fencing, livestock, and whatnot, look very odd to me now.

Online publishing is an innovation comparable in the sheer scale of its effects to the printing press. Before Gutenberg’s invention, written materials were usually reproduced by hand. In the Western world this was done mostly by monks, whose exacting standards of craftsmanship and artistry made the process even more time-intensive than if they’d just slapped the words down on the vellum and called it good.

monk scriptorium 2

The operator of a printing press could make multiple copies of a work in less time than a scribe could make one. Suddenly printed materials were easier to produce and cheaper to obtain than ever before. The age of mass communication had begun, bringing a huge increase in literacy rates, facilitating the free circulation of ideas, and ending the educational monopoly of the elite.

printing press

Online publishing has changed the game just as dramatically by expanding the medium from the physical to the virtual. Today’s traditional books, magazines, and newspapers aren’t laboriously handcrafted by conscientious monks, but they’re still physical products made with finite resources, so whoever’s footing the bill to produce them is motivated to be selective. Online publishing, on the other hand, is free to anyone who has internet access. It doesn’t use paper or take up space, and it can be distributed instantly all around the globe.

Like any innovation that gives people more freedom, this one has had good and bad consequences. The limitations of traditional publishing act as screening agents. If I have a physical book or a column in a newspaper, you can assume that some quasi-legitimate somebody considers me a decent writer. Even if my book is self-published, you can at least reason that I’m dedicated and serious enough about my writing to make some financial outlay. With online publishing we have no such assurance. Any yahoo with a modicum of computer skills can now put written work of any quality out there for public consumption. A lot of it is just awful. Some is decent, but lacks the polish that a standard editorial process would have provided. And some is truly good. Traditional publishing venues are often hidebound, top-heavy conglomerates, and it can be next to impossible for works with quirky formats or niche appeal to find a place with them. Online publishing provides a work-around that enables the plucky underdog to bypass a stupid system, and I’m always in favor of that.

So starting a blog easy—but writing is still something of a risk. The time, effort, and self-respect I venture in writing could be spent instead on productive activities with tangible results, or on recreation or rest. Right now I could be baking muffins, or watching Firefly, or napping, rather than tapping out words on a keyboard and looking up images for monks and printing presses.

Stephen King once said that writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub—a huge, time-consuming, inherently lonely task. Blogging is more like tossing out a message in a bottle every so often into a vast and indifferent sea. Once I hit “Publish” and the post goes up, I have no particular reason to suppose that anyone will ever read it or care. It’s kind of a hubristic act, when you think about it. Nobody asked for my blog; nobody has to read it.

message in bottle

When someone does read it, I feel I’ve been given a gift. Someone out there on another shore has picked up the bottle and read the message inside. Often this person is a stranger from another country. My blog’s stats page is both fascinating and mystifying. Why is the post I wrote comparing my children to orangutans so enduringly popular? Why the sudden spike in interest on my extremely lengthy posts about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing? I don’t know. But I’m grateful to every reader who has gifted me with time and attention—to you, right now. You could be doing something else too, but here you are. Thank you.

One comment on “A Message in a Virtual Bottle

  1. Jim McNeely says:

    It’s all true. I particularly like the comparison of blogging to tossing messages into a vast ocean. You just don’t know what will get read. Electronic publishing really is a quantum change, but we don’t have really good tools for vetting what is quality and what is not. It is actually creating a market where there is far more profit in providing services for would-be writers than for readers. There will always be space for truly great stuff, and some publicity and savvy marketing probably doesn’t hurt. Always love your posts.

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