It is necessarily impossible to write an unbiased blog post on this subject, but: I want to combine here an exhortation and a prediction. The two are related, because my exhortation will only be persuasive insofar as my prediction is actually true.
So here goes: I think everybody should blog. Really. Why? Fundamentally, because I think ideas are fun and important, and the public and written exchange of them is the only way to make them useful. To be super philosophically reductive about this: In order to make our society a better place we need truth. We need ethically true ideas of what constitutes ‘a better place’ and technically true ideas about how we can get there. We become better ethicists by learning from the experiences of others, inhabiting others’ perspectives, and bringing conflicting ideas together in the hopes of forging some sort of synthesis — this requires people to be willing to share their experiences and attitudes and to subject their own ideas to criticism. And we get the technical expertise necessary to move our society toward that ethical goal by relying on the distributed expertise of lots of individuals who hold knowledge local to their particular industry/workplace, station in life, geography, etc.
Blogs, microblogs, social media, etc., can help us figure out what the world should be like, and how we can make it that way, by radically speeding up the processes through which conflicting perspectives are brought together and synthesized and distributed local knowledge is aggregated and disseminated. We should properly think of the world wide web as a terrific machine for the collective social discovery of truth. And the more inputs we put into that machine, the more truth we’ll get, and the world will be better for it.
Does this sound like a misty-eyed description of the blogosphere? Definitely. Are there a lot of incredibly dumb blog posts out there? Definitely. But there are also a lot of really smart criticisms of those very dumb blog posts, which are all available to the curious and truth-seeking mind. And given that the truth is, almost by definition, more reasonable and defensible than untruth, the more curious and truth-seeking minds get online, the more should truth prevail and become generally known. Are people very often imperfectly curious or truth-seeking? Definitely. People can be aggressive and obnoxious, particularly when it comes to politics. But my sense is that angry politicking gets pretty exhausting pretty quick, to just about everyone. I can’t imagine that a world in which everybody blogs we will have an online world of Olbermanns and O’Reillys, because the vast majority of people would get really tired of that really quick, and get accordingly interested in sharing reasonable sentiments and contributing what they actually know.
This is why I urge my friends to blog. When a friend of mine has some brilliant idea, I want that idea to be public, available to anyone who might punch a few related terms into a search engine, very simply because I want the world to have access to more truth. I also have a much more basic hedonistic reason for wanting people to blog. I get a kick out of ideas and their exchange, and I think others do as well, and this is part of what it means to be human and all of that romantic notional stuff. Probably the most awesome thing about college, to my mind, is the opportunity to spend four years sharply exchanging ideas and experiences with our fellows in order to gain a broadened perspective on the world and oneself. And thanks to the blogosphere, there’s no reason we need to completely leave that awesome thing behind. I, today, get to keep up with the sharp conversations my smartest friends are having in D.C. through their blogging and I feel better for it.
So why don’t more people blog? My conversations suggest that people today are deeply worried about their digital paper trails. They’re worried about how their writing, especially (but not exclusively) political writing, could be used against them in their futures. Even my friends who are preparing for academic careers, careers in which intellectual freedom is ostensibly sacrosanct, often choose to make their blogs private over these fears. My view is that this is unfortunate and unnecessary. My prediction is that society will (and my normative claim is that it definitely should) evolve to become more intellectually and ideologically tolerant. Why? Very simply, we are all now exposed to a glut of information about the people around us, and as we get more and more saturated in this information, we’ll grow more and more inoculated to it.
I see this already happening. My generation is still, we may forget, relatively new to social media — I started Facebook in my senior year of high school, three quarters of the way through my life. And yet we use social media completely different than our parents. Some of my friends’ parents, for example, will ponder, weeks later, about slightly off or gauche or questionably intended Facebook posts that their friends have made. My generation does not dwell on posts to such an extent because we cannot remember them — we see hundreds of them every day and the individual posts quickly fade from consciousness. We have so much information about each other that we treat this information as cheap, because it is — in higher supply than it is in demand. And as information about others gets cheaper and cheaper, we’re going to fret over it less and less. We are all going to slowly learn to simply put up with the fact that co-workers, new hires, neighbors, etc., may have or have once had different political views than ours, or eccentric views about art, or a tendency to use metaphors we would not use, or whatever.
In two decades nobody worth talking to is going to care that you had an opinion about financial transaction taxes or a play you recently saw. If you wrote something racist or misogynist or otherwise extraordinarily cruel and dumb, they may still care — and rightly so. So if you’re not such an extraordinarily cruel and dumb person, I would urge you to write down and publicly post your interesting and smart and helpful thoughts in humility and good faith and with a sincere interest in getting at the truth. Inevitably, we’re all going to need to become the kinds of people who will not hold such posts against each other.
Could my prediction be wrong? Maybe. I think in particular that if our politics continues to become more and more polarized, judicial candidates could have their every tweet from age 13 scrutinized in future Senate confirmations. My sense is that as we do this we’ll be selecting for judges who were, from an early age, less intellectually curious and interesting, which, as a general rule, means less intelligent. That will be bad for our democracy. My only reply to this is that it’s probably not worth sacrificing a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, and contributions to our public intellectual life, for a seat on the bench. But more broadly, I think my normative claim here is more important than my ethical claim: If you’re in doubt that we are in fact moving toward a future of greater intellectual tolerance, then you should try to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And that, in practice, means being part of the group of people who are willing to make contributions to public intellectual life, trusting that they will be received in good faith, and not part of the group of people who enable intellectual blackmailers.