Is a blog a letter?

Is a blog a letter? 

Is a blog a letter? More particularly, are the blogs which appear weekly on the WWW website, such as this one, to be seen as letters? Sometimes a rather mysterious ‘I’ or ‘we’ appears in them, and on a few occasions there have been mentions of an unspecified ‘you’, the implied readers of these pieces. However, more often they take the form of ‘news from nowhere’, as rather abstracted arguments or discussions or statements. Thinking about this question, I conclude that they are – if they are letters, which I’m not entirely convinced of – most akin to the ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns that appear in print or online newspapers than ‘ordinary letters’, and they have both letter-like and also unletter-like characteristics.

To pursue the analogy, these blogs are both written to a specific person – in a literal sense this happens to be Emilia Sereva, WWW RA-Extraordinaire (aka the Editor) – and also have another wider intended audience which is unknown and so cannot be named – it consists of shadowy readers of an undifferentiated kind (aka anyone reading this). And whether this is specified or mentioned or not, these blogs have a writer and this person can be identified both in a literal and corporeal sense, and also in a more figurative and fancy one (author-function and all that). Also like ‘Letters to the Editor’, no response to a blog from readers is presumed and in many cases it is not sought either. A brief period of making a response mode available on the WWW website in fact produced responses from just three friends and colleagues, and so it was abandoned. Pleasurable though these responses were to receive, they were more private than public ones, whereas what we were hoping for was something more like the to-ing and fro-ing of debate that sometimes although infrequently occurs in ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns.

The question begged here is whether ‘Letters to the Editor’ are indeed letters, or whether, although the word is used, and the structure of the convention of what a letter is has been deployed, in fact something of the spirit or essence of what is meant by epistolarity or ‘letterness’ is actually absent from them. Succinctly, if one of the criteria is that letters or other epistolary exchanges are at basis dialogical and emergent, then neither ‘Letters to the Editor’ nor blogs have this characteristic apart from very atypically. These are actually both short set-pieces of writing, and are a statement formulated in epistolary terms, rather than something that is communicative in the exchange sense. Like a book or an academic article, when there is response, this tends to be divorced in time and space and is of a more diffuse and general kind, rather than being a direct to the specific point response ‘to the person’.

A footnote here: in younger days I made such direct responses to things written by two people of the social science grandee kind. These were different occasions and made some years apart to very different people, but their reactions were similar. This was of a startled, panicky and unwelcoming kind that left me left me in no doubt that I had behaved inappropriately, whereas in my terms I had simply replied in person to points that they had advanced in writing. I take the lack of responses that resulted when a response mode to WWW blogs was provided to indicate something similar: that its readers by and large do not see these blogs is having dialogical characteristics or think response is required other than of a general and diffuse kind.

To return to the question, then. If ‘Letters to the Editor’ are to be seen as letters, this is of a denuded kind that lacks some of the key elements of what epistolarity consists in. These are communications between people removed from each other in space and time, but they are a one-away form of expression of a set-piece kind. They are not responsive or dialogical and nor are they emergent in character.

But is the analogy of a blog with a ‘Letter to the Editor’ a satisfactory one for considering whether blogs are helpfully seen as letters or not? And do the different technologies perhaps make a difference? Blogs are by and large intended to be communicative in a much wider sense than ‘Letters to an Editor’. It is largely my own blogs that lumber on for paragraph after paragraph after… Those written by other people tend to be shorter and snappier, and are coupled with other more immediately dialogical communicative means such as Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, I resist these latter because of their dialogical qualities, for dialogical exchanges take more time and are much more intrusive into a workload than one-off statements published in a weekly rhythm, because regulated at the behest of anyone who wants to answer back!

I conclude – so you the reader reading this please take note! – that blogs have a great capacity to become very letter-like when coupled with these related technologies. My preference in consequence will remain a blog as I engage with blogging, for writing a blog of this kind is akin to writing an essay, something that ever since reading the Essays: Moral, Political and Literary by David Hume as an undergraduate I’ve found interesting as a form and have lamented present-time publishers’ reluctance to publish such.

Last updated: 4 February 2016


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