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Why I am shrinking this blog

I told you in the previous post that, for the first time, I deleted a post (it no longer matters what the post was about) because I came to the conclusion that it was badly written by my standards.

Upon further reflection, that made me realize that I have to “shrink” this blog. Now I’ll explain what I meant by that. (And yes, I savor the irony that I will talking about a “shrinking” a blog in a 2,000-word blog post.)

I) What I consider “badly written”

I write so much that the mechanics — syntax, grammar, flow — are rarely bad anymore. But that’s not what writing is about.

Ultimately, words deserve to be spoken or written only if they communicate what the speaker or writer wants to communicate. And that very much includes not only the substance denoted but also the tone, voice and other bundles of connotation.

We all know that perfect control over the meaning(s) of words, especially written ones, is impossible. That is why Socrates refused ever to write, and always only spoke. Just think of our ongoing debate about the words (and punctuation) in a phrase written 219 years ago:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Did the writer intend that only “a Militia”, and “a well regulated” one at that, was to have the right to bear arms? Or that “the people”, collectively and individually, should have that right, although it might also be, you know, nice if a Militia were around? Who knows?

This conundrum — that writers lose control over their words as soon as they make contact with any audience — led people like Jacques Derrida to suggest that we stop even pretending that we can control meaning: Words mean whatever anybody wants them to mean, so get over it.

I don’t subscribe to that. A good writer should have some control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse. Naturally, horses sometimes go berserk, as do words. But that’s when it’s time to kill a blog post.

That the now-deleted post had to be dispatched became clear not when it led to vigorous debate (as many posts here on The Hannibal Blog do), but when the comments looked to me, the writer, as utter non-sequiturs. I looked at some of them and could only say: “Huh?” How did the commenter read this meaning into this post?

This is when I remembered my Second Secret to Good Writing, which is empathy. Don’t blame your audience. Re-examine your words.

My words had not just evoked an unintended response, but in a few individual cases the opposite of the response intended. That should not happen to a good writer.

And so I decided that the words had to die.

II) Why might this have happened?

1) The issue of quantity

Less than a month ago, I wondered whether there was “a Laffer Curve” of writing — in other words, a point beyond which increasing quantity (of words written) decreases quality.

I was pondering that question because, over the past couple of years, the number of words I produce, and am expected to produce, has inexorably been increasing.

When I started at The Economist in 1997, we were expected to write articles for the weekly (print) issue. And that was it. (Quite enough, I thought.)

I first recall internal discussions about “blogs” in 2006. I might have had something to do with that, because I wrote a Special Report in 2006 about “the new media.” In it, I said that all the new media (including blogs) would collectively transform society, which they clearly have done. But I never said that individual news organizations had to add blogs.

But blogs we began having, even at The Economist. For a while we didn’t really take them seriously. But now we do. And we have more and more of them. And we are expected to “feed” them. So, in addition to the articles we write, we write blog posts.

We also do podcasts, and those often take a surprisingly long time (the logistics, not the actual talk time). And we do video pieces. Those take even more time to set up.

To take this week as an example, I produced two articles, two blog posts and one podcast … in four days (because on Friday I allegedly started a holiday.)

Our heritage, our “print DNA”, means that we will always put the utmost effort into the print-issue articles. So that’s still where the research, fact-checking, deliberation, travel, background reading, interviewing goes. (And real-life logistics have an annoying habit of not aligning perfectly with The Economist’s Greenwich-mean-time deadlines.)

But that doesn’t actually leave all that much time to produce all that other stuff.

Then add a personal blog in support of a forthcoming book, such as The Hannibal Blog.

Yup, now this amounts to a lot of words. Some of those words will not be redacted, honed, polished, and stress-tested as much as they should be. This must mean, from time to time, that some words are less than optimal.

Conclusion: Don’t produce more, perhaps less.

2) The issue of audience expectations

I recall an internal discussion once where the theory was put forth that the web audience is sophisticated. In other words, readers of blogs (whether on The Economist’s web site or WordPress) know that the medium is more intimate, conversational, relaxed, aphoristic and subjective. Blogs are essentially personal diaries, except public and social.

Readers, goes the theory, do not expect a blog post to be balanced, polished and fact-checked. They can discriminate between a blog post and an article.

Not only that, but they like to have that less formal window into the writer’s soul, they like hearing about what happened to him on the way to this-or-that, what he was thinking when so-and-so said something-or-other. It’s like knowing somebody by email and then seeing a handwritten note from him: the handwriting, with its imperfections, says something. Or like meeting a public figure and getting a peek behind the scenes.

Well, that’s the theory. The reality is that audiences get confused. Many readers/listeners/viewers merely see the brand, and do not discriminate among media. The brand could be The Economist or, at micro scale, The Hannibal Blog. But what if the human beings behind the brands straddle their boundaries? When is the writer allowed to speak personally, and when is he expected to be a journalist upholding a 160-year-old brand?

This is not a new issue. Correspondents of The Economist have always gone to dinner parties (OK, rarely) and often moderate panels at conferences, for example. When we’re chatting with our table neighbor, are we allowed to kid around and speak our minds? How about when we’re on a podium?

Blogging (and all its descendants, such as tweeting) is a genie that is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. I’m simply flagging a new tension. And a new need to make explicit to audiences what they should expect in which context.

Here on The Hannibal Blog, by the way, you get me, just me, my quirky, personal musings, which represent nothing else.

Conclusion: Don’t assume that readers let you speak “off-the-record”, be circumspect. If in doubt, say less.

3) The issue of scope

You may have heard people described as coconuts or oranges. Coconuts mix everything together inside, oranges come in neat sections.

Well, most people are coconuts, especially at The Economist. We have many interests, strange hobbies, and what’s interesting is what you get when you mix it all up. One of my favorite colleagues is simultaneously a connoisseur in the subjects of sailing tall boats, all matters Mongolian, Tango and bird watching, and that is only the beginning of a long list.

Should he stick to his beat in writing articles? Should he have a blog for each interest? On The Economist’s web site or on his own? Is it alright if he mixes it all together, the way it is mixed in his own soul?

In my case, for example, I started this blog about two years ago, intending to make it purely about the book I was writing. This was naive. I soon realized that the process of publishing a book takes a lot longer than the writing of it (and I now expect the book to be out next year). So what do you do in the mean time?

I was advised not to publish excerpts, because that would give the book away. So I began blogging about other stuff. All those other interests. Pretty soon, that included the whole dang coconut, even The Economist.

And again, it’s possible that some of you got confused.

I now face the interesting development that The Economist is constantly, almost every week, making available to me new “coconut straws”. Just one example: This summer we started yet another blog, called Johnson. It is about Language. I have not contributed to it yet, but it so happens that Language is one the big threads on The Hannibal Blog. Obviously, I have to rethink that. My future language posts should probably go to Johnson, not The Hannibal Blog.

Conclusion: Reduce this blog’s scope; become an orange; write about fewer and better defined topics. No politics.

4) The issue of fear

When you write you make yourself vulnerable. When you write on a personal blog you are even more vulnerable. Who knows what weirdos show up alongside the intended audience? Who knows who does what with your words?

That can lead to fear, and fear leads to the worst writing. And bad writing, for a writer, equals failure.

The most important prerequisite for being a good writer is therefore an ability to overcome fear and find courage. You must say something interesting, which invariably means that somebody somewhere could take offense (even when the topic might at first blush seem innocuous — no topic stays innocuous if it gets a large enough audience.) And you must say it clearly, which is to say simply and thus strongly.

This gets into one of the big topics in my book, the tension between tactics and strategy. Writing well (ie, with courage and risk) about many topics is like a country fighting a war on many fronts. You will eventually lose. Writing more timidly or carefully about all these topics is like fighting less fiercely on all those fronts. You will — again — eventually lose. So you must choose your topics (your fronts) strategically.

Conclusion: Again, write about fewer topics in each medium, such as this blog.

III) Postscript

I want to end by giving a little shout-out to two bloggers who, in their very different ways, have explicitly or implicitly addressed some of the issues above.

1) “Phil”

First, there is “Phil”. I don’t know what his real name is and I don’t need to know. He has several blogs, indeed he seems to keep switching blogs and starting new ones, to my ongoing confusion. His current “main” blog seems to be here.

Phil once observed, either in a comment here or in a post on his own blog, a phenomenon: Time and again, Phil finds an interesting new blogger, a strong and idiosyncratic voice, and follows that voice. After a while, that blog becomes popular. And then, as its audience grows, the blog becomes … bad.

(Phil, if you can provide the URL to your observation, I would like to link to it.)

So I speculate: Perhaps Phil, by starting new blogs all the time, is conflicted as we all are about gaining an audience. An audience gathers, and he runs away to start a new one. Because he understands, as we all do, that audiences are a threat as a well as a blessing.

2) “Man of Roma”

The other blogger who deserves a shout-out here is Man of Roma. He is a bon vivant and connoisseur of classical wisdom. And this summer he did something very civilized: He simply left (his blog, that is) and enjoyed himself, knowing that the audience that matters, which includes me, will be there whenever he returns.

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51 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very thorough and clear explanation of what and why you are “shrinking” (I would say “re-focusing”) this blog. As I suspect I had something to do with your decision, I feel an obligation to offer a comment now. Otherwise, I would have simply nodded at the screen and moved on.

    Just don’t “shrink” it too much, ok?

    August 8, 2010
    • Not too much, I promise. Also, a blog that can be shrunk can also be expanded again at the appropriate time. ;)

      August 9, 2010
  2. Dear Andreas,

    I am (ir)responsible for the non-sequitur that was blinking in neon light. For that, I am sorry.

    Your post reminds me that over-commenting on a blog can also be a liability because, well, because we are all just humans who sometimes punch “submit” before we consider our words and how they might read to others.

    I am not safe behind an alias and need to think about that, as well.

    Thanks.

    August 8, 2010
    • That’s good advice for all of us, me included. The medium is so easy to use that I often emit words in the comment sections of other blogs faster than I can think them. But then they are eternal, as though contemplated for aeons.

      August 9, 2010
  3. I could have written Douglas’s comment.

    One thought regarding your decision to execute the unnamed post. It would be interesting to plot the number of “non sequitur” type comments against the degree of controversy associated with a post topic. My sense is that if a post plows new ground people read it more closely and respond more thoughtfully. If it is a polarizing topic du jour (e.g., gay marriage) people read quickly for evidence of whether the blogger ‘agrees’ with them and if not, the pontification apropos of nothing begins.

    August 8, 2010
    • That’s a very good insight, Thomas. Plotting or no plotting, I have certainly observed that IN MYSELF. When I read a “new ground” post, I am receptive, I concentrate, I learn, and THEN I evaluate.

      New-ground posts are also just more interesting. The MSM can take care of the hot-button topics du jour.

      Here’s to new-grounders.

      August 9, 2010
  4. Also not being safe behind an alias I do appreciate this post of yours. Touching many often not related things on my blog I guess I am neither coconut nor orange but a salad bowl where people can pick and chose what they like.
    Anyway my life does not depend on it and I have no brand to uphold…that must be quite a hassle.

    August 8, 2010
    • Salad bowl, orange, coconut: That reminds me that I should probably try to find out where that coconut-orange metaphor comes from. Am I the only one who keeps hearing it?

      August 9, 2010
  5. Darn, I missed all the confusion.

    August 8, 2010
    • Actually, I still had a chance to catch up. I just signed up for your Comments Feed, and even after you had nuked the whole post, all comments were still delivered into my reader. Fascinating. Anyhow, you asked me a question regarding my commentary, but now it sounds like you don’t want to hear about it anymore, so I’ll spare you my answer. I may complete my piece on the topic in question on my own blog one of these days or weeks—in fact, I started the draft months ago—depending on how long I can keep my broadband alive.

      August 8, 2010
    • I look forward to reading about that topic on YOUR blog. I’m done with it on this one. ;)

      August 9, 2010
  6. Phil #

    I note that you also deleted your piece from “Democracy in America”.

    A pity, because I thought it good, and, more important, the Economist must have thought it good too, else it wouldn’t have allowed it to be posted (I’m assuming the Economist insists on certain minimum standards for its posted blogging pieces. True?)

    Happily, I still have your piece on my Google Reader. Hence it won’t completely be lost to posterity.

    Why I thought your piece good was that it told a little story, and don’t we all love stories? And, isn’t it the nature of a story that its writer tacitly invites its readers to interpret it anyway they want? Isn’t how a reader interprets a story a reflection on the reader, not on the story’s writer?

    What’s wrong with a little bit of ambiguity? Don’t thoughtful teachers want their students to emerge from the classroom confused?

    “……..the number of words I produce, and am expected to produce, has inexorably been increasing………”

    It would seem that the Economist is following the business Zeitgeist everywhere – to do more with less.

    You mentioned something I’d written about the possible deleterious effects of too large a readership on the quality of a blog. Perhaps you were thinking of *this piece here?* I’ve indicated the link only because you sort of asked me to. However, I would hope that neither you nor anyone else actually read the piece.

    You said of my blogs: “……He has several blogs, indeed he seems to keep switching blogs and starting new ones, to my ongoing confusion……..”

    Despite that it’s my nature to confuse, my blogging activities are much less confusing than you imply. The two or three (or is it four?) blogs I’ve had since 2004 when I began blogging, reflect the internal changes I’ve undergone in this time.

    Hence what I found interesting to write about six years ago, I now find no longer interesting because I’m now slightly different. Being so, I wanted to write in a different voice, so I chose the third person – an idea I got from the novelist, JM Coetzee.

    There were yet other reasons why I started new blogs, but they are unimportant.

    August 8, 2010
    • Actually, it wasn’t that post (which I also remember) but another. SolidGoldCreativity refers to it in the comments under the post to which you linked. It was a shorter, more aphoristic but very witty observation about blogs and audiences.

      I wish I could get my post out of Google Readers. Dang.

      I’m glad, of course, that you liked my little story, and I don’t actually mind ambiguity AS LONG AS IT’S INTENTIONAL. Which is to say: I, the writer, may decide to make something ambiguous. But if it’s unintended and negative, I don’t want it.

      I deleted the post from both websites because I felt that it distracted AND detracted from the serious reporting I did in the two pieces (the article and the podcast) that it was meant to accompany.

      August 9, 2010
  7. I’d like to take an opportunity to ask a question that is completely off-topic. When I leave an initial comment, I tick the Notify me of follow-up comments via email box. But, of late, I have been getting two copies of each comment. Anyone have any idea why? Other WordPress blogs do not do this.

    August 8, 2010
    • No clue. Personally, I wish everybody just used WordPress, because it’s better and makes all this stuff easier. I, for instance, sometimes CAN and sometimes CANNOT leave comments (with my WordPress identity) on Blogger blogs.

      August 9, 2010
    • Probably a plot by Google to take over. Clever of them to make it “spotty”, makes it more annoying than just disallowing non-Blogger identities.

      August 12, 2010
  8. Funny; I am often amazed how much work you do to reduce ambiguity in your writing, and yet, here you are, thinking you haven’t done enough. I agree with you that writing is about courage and vulnerability, and I would add, another thing: the manipulation of ambiguity, not necessarily its reduction or elimination (as you note, via Derrida, impossible anyway).

    You’ve also slightly misrepresented Derrida here. He doesn’t say control over language (disambiguation … not sure that’s a word?) is impossible tout court; he says there is always a “supplement” which escapes. Glad you’ve raised him in any event because he’s essential to any discussion of language despite the huge irritation/difficulty factor of his thinking.

    August 8, 2010
    • Actually, I’m amazed that I’ve only “slightly misrepresented” Derrida: It’s literally been since college, circa 1992, that I read the man.

      (Does ANYbody read Derrida AFTER college? He seems to get uninteresting as soon as real life begins and the keg parties fall silent.)

      Anyway: “Manipulation of ambiguity”. I like that. Rings true.

      August 9, 2010
    • Yeah, in his language there is a huge supplement which escapes.

      August 9, 2010
    • Phil #

      Solid Gold wrote of Derrida:

      “…..he’s essential to any discussion of language despite the huge irritation/difficulty factor of his thinking……”

      Since I’ve never read Derrida, although I’d heard of him (I had thought, though, that he was a painter), I felt I should look him up in Wiki.

      I’ve just done so, and noted what Michel Foucault said of him, that he practised obscurantisme terroriste, which is that Derrida “…….writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

      I have to take Foucault at his word. But I’ve come across many other people who practise obscurantisme terroriste. It’s a wonderful way for a fool to appear profound.

      August 11, 2010
  9. spi #

    A shrinking is never bad as long as it isn’t too drastic. One problem with blogging is you can always get drive by commentators who don’t know the author or the feel of the blog. I guess that just makes the case for making the words one writes even clearer. You can’t expect everyone to invest in a given blog.

    August 8, 2010
    • Good point: Don’t assume familiarity. It’s the internet, after all.

      I won’t shrink too drastically. I’ll try to work out a balance, so I’ll tweak the dials for a while to see where it lies….

      August 9, 2010
  10. An extensive apology for shrinking.

    August 8, 2010
  11. Peter Practice #

    If shrink is the opposite of bloat and either one must be chosen, then I’d go for the former. However, I would come back to the concept of “empathy” in your post. On a terminology front, “empathy” and “soul” rarely appear in the same sentence. Use “psyche” or “mind” instead and you should be fine.

    Empathy, your “Second Secret to Good Writing” in this case also relates to the defection rate of your readers, perhaps less to the evolution of selected commentors’ / co-bloggers’ identities. With your personality being part of the Hannibal blog, you tacitly enter into some relationship with your “sophisticated” web audience. Communication gives them the buzz and they expect ex-kluth-ivity. Expectations are being set. Promote two and the rest will feel set back.

    While we need not argue about the pecuniary interests of the weekly magazine, oops, newspaper, and its implied objective of attracting a large crowd of prospective buyers, this is not so clear for Hannibal. Or is it? Your scope, like a coconut, is perfectly fine.

    PP actually likes your coconut coctail a lot and sees no problem if the odd guest laces your party drinks with unexpected ingredients. Diversity matters and once you restrict yourself, even juicy oranges may become stale after a while. Perhaps you reconsider conclusion II-3, but not the “no politics” part.

    Regards, PP, your shrink today.

    August 9, 2010
    • What a witty analysis, PP.

      Interesting point about “defection rate” vs “ex-kluth-ivity” with a few commenters. The subscriber numbers (in Reader, eg) seem to go up (suggesting positive net subscriptions), but the number of commenters is very stable, suggesting that most readers are either passive or intimidated, suspecting a familiarity among commenters that rarely exists.

      “Promote two and the rest will feel set back.”

      Something I’ve pondered. With no conclusion…

      August 9, 2010
  12. No politics? I think that’s a pity.

    August 9, 2010
    • Well, I may reconsider that one.

      Perhaps I should have said, no “hot-button” issues that I should be covering in The Economist instead.

      Political SCIENCE, as a branch of philosophy and the world of ideas, will certainly show up.

      Which reminds me: I never did that thread on Alexander Hamilton that I once mentioned. Gotta get back to that. Great man…

      August 9, 2010
  13. I go away for a while and look: the book’s done (congrats!), you’re shrinking the blog. . .

    Though I have not seen the post in question, I’ll say I much appreciate the diversity of your writing, and just as much appreciate that you always have significant threads uniting seemingly-disparate topics. Of late it seems to me so many websites degenerate into “the go to place for x.” (Similarly, as Thomas says above, if the topic itself is controversial, people skim it for whether or not they agree so they can easily categorize you.)

    Specialization is valuable, and perhaps necessary to some extent and for some purposes, but there is a great need for and pleasure in synthesis. I suppose a writer will enjoy that even if publishing across different mediums and places, but I think some readers enjoy having threads woven through different topics.

    I’m not saying what you have said above is incompatible with this, but perhaps the above can be done in proper measure, neither too specific nor too far-flung. In fact you said this: “write about fewer and better defined topics.” I suppose I’m just saying I didn’t think you were too far-flung.

    As for deleting posts, I deleted several in the past two weeks; I felt so grateful I was able to do so. Imagine the situation of a director, for example, whose bad movie is out there for ever. Bergman considered “The Serpent’s Egg” an “embarrassing failure” but had to let it stay out there. Worse though: imagine a piece, as you said, bringing about the opposite of what you want.

    Oh, and yes, bring on the Hamilton!

    August 9, 2010
    • That feels good, Nick. You brought out a nuance that I like.

      “Uniting seemingly disparate topics”, as you put it, is certainly something I try, and will continue to try, to do. But you can still find focus within that.

      In fact, that approach almost automatically leads you to “look between the cracks”, where you are likely to find the subjects that, as Thomas put it, break new ground.

      Hamilton coming up soonish.

      August 10, 2010
  14. Jeff #

    Your reasons for shrinking the blog are understandable, yet it is unfortunate. It’s good to have empathy for the audience, but what if the audience is at a completely different level of understanding? Is the burden on the writer to help the audience reach the same level? A mathematician wouldn’t be expected to explain his theories to a person who never took high school geometry. Perhaps then the problem is not so much the author, but the audience. If this is the case, then removing comments might be a better solution. But this eliminates one of the reasons I suspect you and the Economist have blogs in the first place: occasionally there will be a good comment that improves the author’s understanding. How to balance the two is a difficult conundrum indeed.

    August 9, 2010
    • That’s a profound topic, Jeff. “Is the burden on the writer to help the audience reach the same level?”

      I wouldn’t have put it that way, because somebody somewhere might get the idea that the questioner condescends toward part of the audience (keyword: “elitism in American culture”), but what you’re of course getting at is that a writer cannot CHOOSE his audience and yes has an audience in mind.

      Socrates insisted on choosing his audience, but that required him not to write at all, only to speak.

      So, to answer your question, yes, I suppose I do think that writers have that burden. Or at least I would like, as a writer with lots of learning left to do, to accept the challenge.

      August 10, 2010
  15. Jim just emailed me the link to this blog post by Tommaso Dorigo, a Fermilab physicist. It addresses some of the same tensions I talked about above.

    August 10, 2010
  16. Perhaps you weren’t misunderstood at all. Instead, perhaps you felt understood in a way you simply didn’t want to be understood. Big difference.

    Your massive reaction of taking the unprecedented step of deleting your whole entry and publishing a lengthy explanation as opposed to simply posting a few hundred words of “setting the record straight” leads me to at least consider my theory as viable.

    Just a theory.

    August 10, 2010
    • Happy theorizing, Cyberquill.

      I might have added that a certain amount of serendipity was also involved: I have been thinking about “shrinking” the blog for a few months, and this little incident was perhaps no more than the catalyst for me to make my thinking explicit.

      August 11, 2010
  17. Peter Practice #

    Let’s not forget these:

    I)
    Consider the ratio of readers vs commenters. There is probably a large, yet invisible crowd of dark energy, who reads but does not comment. Visible only through Master Cactus’ RSS subscription stats. Obviously, there are entry barriers into the business of blogging. We’ll come to that later.

    II)
    Jeff mentioned removing comments vs deletion of the entire post, perhaps not a bad idea.

    http://andreaskluth.org/2010/08/08/why-i-am-shrinking-this-blog/#comment-7914

    III)
    a) After reflecting a bit about what I found an interesting concept in the first place, methinks the coconut-orange dualism misses the point. True, the orange comes in “neat sections”. Yet the content is the same in each. Is that what you call “disparate topics”?

    Paul’s salad bowl seems to be the more attractive offering (we’re back to the competition aspect).

    http://andreaskluth.org/2010/08/08/why-i-am-shrinking-this-blog/#comment-7889

    b)
    While we are at the topic: The newspaper competes for readers. So does Hannibal. But the commenters also engage in this sport: We compete for webspace (admittedly fairly easy), airtime, replies, attention, and quotations (not so easy, hence of greater boost – or validity of one’s theories as Sir Karl would have called it). We’re after instant gratification and, like in science, a large collection of cross-quotations leads to knighthood. Or whatever today’s web equivalent to that is. Cyberquill may be able to help with ideas.

    Or, at least, we’re after confirmation of own opinions, as suggested by Thomas. No altruism here and nothing you can plot, but still a fair point.

    http://andreaskluth.org/2010/08/08/why-i-am-shrinking-this-blog/#comment-7888

    PP’s conclusion: Blogging is serious business. ‘Unintended consequences’ (non-sequitur comments and the like) is another way of saying ‘undiscovered meaning’ in the post.

    Your controls.

    August 11, 2010
    • Well, you’re asking us to think a lot more deeply here. All very good points, but regarding II):

      I’m extremely hesitant to moderate comments beyond disallowing spam. If I allow one comment but not another, why would anybody trust the comment flow they see? After all, DISagreement (at a high level) is what I want, not agreement or flattery.

      August 11, 2010
    • I’m Viennese. We psycho-analyze everything. It’s something in the water over there.

      You see, your deleted post may be a perfectly on-point reflection of how you feel about the issue, and on some level you may have wanted to express yourself emotionally.

      Your fairly sophisticated intellect, however, tells you that, in reality, alas, this whole imbroglio is far more tangled and nuanced than you feel about it.

      Classic heart v. mind conflict.

      How am I doing so far?

      Oh, and don’t worry. There is no charge. For the time being, all my analyses are pro bono.

      August 11, 2010
    • Jeff #

      The print edition of the Economist moderates its comments which rarely agree or flatter. In fact, the comments are usually very witty, clever, and caustic.

      I was not in my earlier post suggesting that you moderate comments, but I do agree with Peter and think it could be a good option. What I was trying to emphasize was my sadness in hearing that you would censor yourself instead of the audience. I do not mean to flatter, but I think most of us are here because we are interested in what you have to say.

      August 11, 2010
    • @Jeff

      The print edition of the Economist moderates its comments which rarely agree or flatter. In fact, the comments are usually very witty, clever, and caustic.

      And how do you know the comments that failed the scrutiny of the moderator weren’t as witty, clever, or caustic… or maybe even more so?

      I sometimes get more of the comments than I do the article. And sometimes I am more entertained by them. I can always moderate them myself by scanning and ignoring the ones I dislike.

      August 12, 2010
    • Jeff #

      You’re right Douglas; there probably are many excellent comments that get the chop. But moderating comments saves the reader the trouble of scanning through non sequiturs and will instead address the issues the author had in mind. This might encourage more and even better debate, helping us reach the truth in a more direct way.

      On a blog, which is much more interactive than print, moderating may not be the best approach. I suppose it depends on what the author hopes to get out of writing.

      August 12, 2010
  18. “Socrates insisted on choosing his audience, but that required him not to write at all, only to speak. ”

    Within the begging bowl of my temporal residence to differentiate thus, between wanting and choosing and audience, resembles clarity.

    One is a merchant the other a gift.

    You have to be rich, in some sense, to bestow a gift.

    Socrates was rich; in a sense…

    August 11, 2010
  19. Ups. Typo

    to differentiate thus, between wanting and choosing an audience…

    August 11, 2010
  20. Peter Practice #

    Let’s not forget these:

    I)
    Consider the ratio of readers vs commenters. There is probably a large, yet invisible crowd of dark energy, who reads but does not comment. Visible only through Master Cactus’ RSS subscription stats. Obviously, there are entry barriers into the business of blogging. We’ll come to that later.

    II)
    Jeff mentioned removing comments vs deletion of the entire post, perhaps not a bad idea.

    III)
    a) After reflecting a bit about what I found an interesting concept in the first place, methinks the coconut-orange dualism misses the point. True, the orange comes in “neat sections”. Yet the content is the same in each. Is that what you call “disparate topics”?

    Paul’s salad bowl seems to be the more attractive offering (we’re back to the competition aspect).

    b)
    While we are at the topic: The newspaper competes for readers. So does Hannibal. But the commenters also engage in this sport: We compete for webspace (admittedly fairly easy), airtime, replies, attention, and quotations (not so easy, hence of greater boost – or validity of one’s theories as Sir Karl would have called it). We’re after instant gratification and, like in science, a large collection of cross-quotations leads to knighthood. Or whatever today’s web equivalent to that is. Cyberquill may be able to help with ideas.

    Or, at least, we’re after confirmation of own opinions, as suggested by Thomas. No altruism here and nothing you can plot, but still a fair point.

    PP’s conclusion: Blogging is serious business. ‘Unintended consequences’ (non-sequitur comments and the like) is another way of saying ‘undiscovered meaning’ in the post.

    Your controls.

    August 11, 2010
  21. @Phil, there’s also terrorism by sneering. Andreas raised the topic of Derrida, I responded that he’s important to any discussion of language and I stand by that. When you’ve read his work or Foucault’s, happy to have a serious conversation with you.

    August 11, 2010
    • Phil #

      “……I responded that he’s important to any discussion of language and I stand by that…..”

      I don’t doubt that you stand by that.

      And when I said “…..I’ve come across many other people who practise obscurantisme terroriste. It’s a wonderful way for a fool to appear profound………”, I stand by that too.

      August 11, 2010
  22. Jim M. #

    So much has been written about how ambiguity distorts communication, it is easy to miss how ambiguity aids communication. As an example, compare the statement

    “Joe is on the equator”

    with

    “It is hot along the equator”.

    In the first case the ambiguity of “equator” appears harmful, as we cannot easily find Joe if all we know is that he is “on the equator”; in the second, the ambiguity of “equator” is clearly helpful, as without it, the general rule “It is hot along the equator” cannot even be stated. Moreover, for a law such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, its universality depends on it applying to all masses, everywhere, an even better use of ambiguity.

    So the question arises regarding, say, ancient Greek myths — a favorite Hannibal Blog topic: When interpreting myths are we saddled with Derrida-like ambiguity of the first type, which prevents us from “getting the message the author intended”? Or are we benefiting from ambiguity of the second type, where these myths are actually useful rules of thumb, of some general value? Or, better yet, are they universal laws, like Einstein’s, which are valid under all circumstances, anywhere? Whichever of these is the case, I hope I’ve made a case that managing ambiguity is not merely a matter of its reduction, but its proper exploitation.

    August 14, 2010
  23. Geraldine #

    Hi Andreas,
    There was fine storytelling in the piece discussed here. My imagination was fired: Where did the lone bike rider go? What shapes him? Did he wear a ragged vest with art? My guess is the workers made no eye contact. The observer was in the scene. All so vivid.

    It seeems to me storytellers strike more personal and emotional responses from their readers/listeners. There is a difference. No matter. Reduce, as you must, but please don’t whittle down the stories; when they come they’re in long-lasting colour.
    Geraldine

    August 16, 2010
    • Well, I’m of course very happy to “hear” you say this, Geraldine. I had indeed thought of it as a little story, no more, no less. My intent was the reaction you seem to have had.
      The “fallout”, such as it was, reminds us of the power of story, ie storytelling, as I’ve been exploring it on this blog.
      In any case, I won’t stop telling stories. Thanks for being here, Geraldine.

      August 16, 2010
  24. Thanks for mentioning me, although I hope ma paresse is not too contagious :-)

    August 18, 2010

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