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Blogs and the Master Narrative

Jay Rosen has blogged at length about the "master narrative" in journalism — the story that controls how we tell, and understand, all the other stories in a particular realm.

As I was writing Say Everything, I thought about that phrase and realized that, in the big tale of the rise of blogging, there are really two master narratives vying for our attention — two patterns of thinking into which most discussions of blogs fall.

In one, heroic rebels take on a rotting establishment. They stake out new freedoms, develop new tools, and form new communities. They "crash the gates" (the title of one blog manifesto) and retire the gatekeepers.

In master narrative number two, moronic upstarts dismantle the values of our culture and replace them with triviality and self-absorption.In master narrative number two, moronic upstarts dismantle the values of our culture and replace them with triviality and self-absorption. These bloggers provide instant gratification for themselves and leave everyone else overwhelmed and adrift.

Each of these pictures, of course, contains some partial truth. It is remarkable how far many bloggers, flush with enthusiasm for their newfound freedom, are willing to go in making outsize claims for blogging's transformative influence. And it never ceases to make me chuckle when I see curmudgeonly defenders of the old order, livid at the new blogging norm, raining thunderbolts of disdain down upon it — often from the perches of their own blogs.

I think I'd probably be having an easier time of explaining Say Everything to the world if I'd have simply pulled either of these stances off the shelf and donned it, ready-made. Or I could have pitted them against each other and emerged from the straw-man smackdown with some sort of happy-medium conclusion.

Instead, I tried to weld together an entirely new master narrative. This version of the tale tells how the pioneers of blogging took control of their own stories and evolved a new form of writing that was native to the Web. Then, even as this thing they'd created spread to become a mass phenomenon, they found that it had slipped from their grasp, and they could not realize all of their own ambitions for it.

It's a more complex storyline. Doesn't lend itself to the quickie summary. I'm not going to sell the screenplay, I think. On the other hand, unlike the prefab master narratives, it fits the stories and research I gathered. Perhaps that makes it more of a servant narrative: It serves the stories rather than dictating their shape.

÷ ÷ ÷

Scott Rosenberg is a cofounder of Salon.com, where he long served as managing editor, and is the author of Dreaming in Code.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen... Used Trade Paper $6.95

Scott Rosenberg is the author of Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters

One Response to "Blogs and the Master Narrative"

    Bart Preecs August 4th, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Scott, I think you underestimate the strength of the master narrative you're proposing.

    An inventor/creator (or group) labors to bring forth something new in the world, only to find the creation taking on a life of its own?

    Sounds familiar to me . . . thinking about the early days of radio or even the telegraph, the most innovative creators were seldom the ones who ended up profiting the most. I'll bet there's some examples from mythology that might fit . . . don't give up on that screenplay just yet!

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