14 September 2009


Book Review: Say Everything

Say EverythingIt's a bit weird reading Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg's book about the history of blogging. I've read lots of tech books, but this one involves many people I know, directly or indirectly, and an industry I've been part of since its relatively early days. I've corresponded with many of the book's characters, linked back and forth with them, even met a few in person from time to time. And I directly experienced and participated in many of the changes Rosenberg writes about.

The history the book tells, mostly in the first couple of hundred pages, feels right. He doesn't try to find The First Blogger, but he outlines how the threads came together to create the first blogs, and where things went after that. Then Rosenberg turns to analysis and commentary, which is also good. I never found myself thinking, Hey, that's not right! or You forgot the most important part!—and according to Rosenberg, that was the feeling about mainstream reporting that got people like Dave Winer blogging to begin with.

Rosenberg's last book came out only last year, in 2008, so much of what's in Say Everything is remarkably current. He covers why blogging is likely to survive newer phenomena like Facebook and Twitter. And he doesn't hold back in his scorn for the largely old-fashioned thinking of his former newspaper colleagues (he used to work at the San Francisco Examiner before helping found Salon).

But then I hit page 317, where he writes:

...bloggers attend to philosophical discourse as well as pop-cultural ephemera; they document private traumas as well as public controversies. They have sought faith and spurned it, chronicled awful illnesses and mourned unimaginable losses. [My emphasis - D.]

That caused a bit of a pang. After all, that's what I've been doing here for the past few years. It hit close to home. Next, page 357:

For some wide population of bloggers, there is ample reason to keep writing about a troubled marriage or a cancer diagnosis or a death in the family, regardless of how many ethical dilemmas must be traversed, or how trivial or amateurish their labours are judged. [Again, my emphasis - D.]

Okay, sure, there are lots of cancer bloggers out there. I'm just projecting my own experience onto Rosenberg's writing, right? Except, several hundred pages earlier, Rosenberg had written about an infamous blogger dustup between Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer at the Gnomedex 2007 conference in Seattle.

The same conference where, via video link, I gave a presentation, about which Rosenberg wrote on his blog:

Derek K. Miller is a longtime Canadian blogger [who'd] been slated to give a talk at Gnomedex, but he’s still recovering from an operation, so making the trip to Seattle wasn’t in the cards. Instead, he spoke to the conference from his bed via a video link, and talked about what it’s been like to tell the story of his cancer experience in public and in real time. Despite the usual video-conferencing hiccups (a few stuttering images and such), it was an electrifying talk.

Later that month, he mentioned me in an article in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. When he refers to people blogging about a cancer diagnosis, he doesn't just mean people like me, he means me. Thus I don't think I can be objective about this book. I think it's a good one. I think it tells an honest and comprehensive story about where blogging came from and why it's important. Yet I'm too close to the story—even if not by name, I'm in the story—to evaluate it dispassionately.

Then again, as Rosenberg writes, one of blogging's strengths is in not being objective. In declaring your interests and conflicts and forging ahead with your opinion and analysis anyway, and interacting online with other people who have other opinions.

So, then: Say Everything is a good book. You should read it—after all, not only does it talk about a lot of people I know, I'm in it too!

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Derek, thanks so much for the thoughtful review.

And yeah, I very much had you in mind -- not exclusively, sure, but prominently! -- in thinking about blogs that have chronicled cancer experiences movingly, as you continue to do.

Sorry to further compromise your objectivity :-) As you say, objectivity is overrated, anyway...
I'm mentioned in passing in the book, but I had the same reaction you did, Derek; this is my milieu. I'm somewhere around a B+ list blogger (and proud of it), but the medium in which I swim is the same as hoi polloi and the digerati.
That's part of blogging's whole appeal, isn't it? I'm not going to be part of the crowd in a book about the Washington Beltway, or Hollywood, or international espionage. But anyone can be part of the Web, and make a contribution.