Blogs, voices and mental images

June 29th, 2004 § 2 comments

The Cluetrain Manifesto states that people recognize each other as such from the sound of their voices. How true… Some things are so obvious, yet we tend not to think about them until they are so apparent that it becomes hard to ignore them.

I’ve been reading blogs for more than two years, and blogging for a little less than that. From the beginning, some things about blogs were instantly clear; others, however, I only came to understand when specific events brought them into focus. For example, that blogs are more like e-mail and instant messaging was evident from day one. Whether they allow comments, pingbacks, trackbacks or not, they generally exist in the context of larger conversations. What is said of art, that it’s a commentary on other art, it’s true of blogs. That’s obvious when you think about them as an exchange of information, but the inevitable comparison with normal sites and the fact that they can be used in a variety of contexts can hide it.

Nothing of what I’m talking about is new. Since the first blogs came into being, people inquired into their natures — and still are. The analysis of the blogging phenomenon is continuous among the practitioners, in an attempt, most likely, to understand their own motivations. Consciousness about the process, which is as apparent in blogging as in other writing activities, requires it. A short time ago, one of those aspects of blogging drew my attention in such a way that I was surprised to realize I never had thought about it. I’m sure that this aspect has already been analyzed before, but right now I can’t remember a recent discussion about the subject in the blogs I read.

Three things led me to think about that aspect: the change in MovableType’s licensing model, the end of Weblogs.com, and a picture posted in one of the blogs I read.

In the case of the first two things mentioned above, it was more the reaction to them that got me thinking about blogging. Following those reactions, observing how people responded in different degrees, varying with their proximity to or participation in the events themselves — when they often spoke just to say something that would call attention to them — showed me how the voice of a blog has relationship whatsoever with the mental image we create of their writer or writers. Amusingly enough, when I heard the real, spoken voice of some of those bloggers, that discrepancy was even more fascinating.

That became even clearer when I saw the picture of herself that a blogger had posted. In that instant, it occurred to me how my interpretation of that blogger’s voice was clouded by the mental image I had of her. My perception about what she wrote was colored by my own prejudices and assumptions about who was writing, based on unreliable information I had gathered in the months I had spent reading her blog. That information was made of sentence fragments, assumed relationships, and demographic data I had collected without taking into account that it lacked the larger context in which it should have been interpreted. It was automatic, but flawed nonetheless.

Then, yesterday, when I was reading another of the blogs I follow daily, it pointed to an article criticizing the recent best-seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves. After a scathing review of the book, the article’s author wrote about the differences between the spoken and the written voice. In its closing paragraphs, in fact, the article became an analysis of those differences. Reading it, I was better able to understand what I was thinking about blogs.

The distinction between a spoken and a written voice, as the article shows, is that the former is a somatic function, comprised of much more than the simple articulation of a thought; as a result, it’s spontaneous and fluid. The written voice, on the other hand, lacks that spontaneity, although, in the end, it’s intent is to convey that very fluidity.

It struck me that blogs are a delicate balance between those two voices. It’s impossible to them to complete map the spoken voice, because they can’t express the subjacent information required by it; conversely, they are more than simply the written voice, since their nature allows for spontaneity. Those two facts are seen in the miscomprehensions caused by erroneous understandings so present in the blogosphere. The lack of context opens the way for such problems.

And there is also the question of editing. As the article above also shows, writing is something that implies a refinement process, a conscious attempt to concentrate ideas in connected blocks that maximize comprehension but also lack the free and unconscious flow of the spoken voice. Blogs often go through that editing process — more than often, intentionally, since it’s a written medium — which moves them a little farther from the spoken voice.

(On a related note, a problem indirectly connected to the one described above, happens in this very blog. Since I’m not a native English speaker, I have a lot of trouble to communicate certain concepts in the way I want when writing here. That serves to further mask my natural voice, no matter how well I may come to write in English in the future.)

Thus, the voice we perceive in blogs bears almost no relation to the real voice of those who write them in the sense above, because of series of automatic processes that happen when the spoken is converted into the written, including, among other things, our own imperfect assessment of their writers.

It’s not a problem to be solved, but a natural consequence of the way we relate to each other. Blogs are conversations, recognizably human, but they lack the granularity we associate with face-to-face interactions. That understanding, to which I was late to come, caused me to see blogs in a different light. It has happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again.

§ 2 Responses to Blogs, voices and mental images"

  • Bjoern says:

    Not that this is a blog phenomena – ever meet the journalist that wrote that amazing article in the newspaper? *g* Communication has lot’s of faces, and that’s good.

    Anyway, on that native english thing: I totally understand what you mean, I’m having these troubles as well.

  • Ronaldo says:

    Hi, Bjoern–

    Thanks for your comment. I guess I was thinking more about the way blogs are sometimes treated as being exact equivalent of the spoken voice, without realizing there’s a blogger “persona” intervening. But I agree it happens in other media as as well.

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