Anglophobia and conformity in the blogosphere

By Phoebe Maltz

American political bloggers have a thing for “rather.” Not Dan Rather, but “rather” as in “very.” In spoken American English, I have yet to hear someone say, “I’m rather bored,” or “this is rather cool,” at least in a way that didn’t come across as pompous or forced. But a quick search for the word “rather,” used for emphasis rather than comparison, reveals that Blogger X is “rather Y,” etc. Go to your favorite political blog and try to imagine a person reading it in an American accent and then in an English one, and just see which seems more appropriate.

Insertion of English flair to otherwise all-American—often pro-American—blogs adds an air of dignity and sophistication. Or does it? Do musings on weekend activities seem more academic, more substantial, if he who’s musing sounds English?

Still, it’s not quite that bloggers sound “English,” although that’s certainly part of it. There’s just this general sense that all blogging has to sound as if it’s excerpted from a serious journal. There’s an infinite variety of writing styles that fall somewhere between the academic and a mopey junior high schooler’s journal-writing. Not sounding like you’re writing an academic paper doesn’t have to mean sounding like you’re whining about a falling-out with your significant other. Nor, for that matter, does whining about a falling-out with your significant other sound any more interesting if that falling-out was “rather humiliating” for you.

It’s easy when writing a blog to slip into what could be described as blogger-talk, a vernacular that would seem absurd anywhere else. If you spend enough time following the links, flipping among seemingly interchangeable political and personal commentary, you will slowly absorb and emulate the writing style. But resist temptation! Resisting blogger-talk may at first feel like dumbing down your blog, but might, in time, actually make your blog (and, by association, you) seem more intelligent.

Unlike writing a novel, an activity that works best if the writer has read many other novels, writing a blog is probably done best by those who don’t spend too much time reading other blogs. Instead of writing about what other bloggers have already written about, in the same tone, people writing blogs should try to find new material, not necessarily doing original reporting (though there can be a fine line between a blogger’s day-to-day observations and a journalist’s human-interest story), but at least picking news stories to comment on that haven’t already been analyzed by Drezner or Volokh, and by writing in a more natural, less affected, style.

While writing about topics everyone else is covering may seem like a good way to get hits, or at least trackbacks (evidence on other blogs that you’ve linked to them), writing about something others haven’t covered is a way to get people interested in what you have to say, which is, after all, the point of having one of these silly things in the first place.

Both my column and my blog claim to answer the question: “What Would Phoebe Do?” Therefore, I will offer a checklist for bloggers to go over each time they post, so as to avoid the common mistakes that can turn an otherwise decent blog into a sedative:

1) Do not try to sound like any nationality other than the one that comes most naturally to you. If you’re American but happen to “feel” English while blogging, go with it; if not, don’t.

2) Do not cover subjects that have been blogged about at great lengths elsewhere unless, a) you have an original, and I mean original, take on the matter, or b) the subject is so large—the 2004 election, for example—that it was no one person’s “original” idea to cover it on a blog.

3) The popularity of big-shot bloggers is not necessarily attributable to their particular writing style or their selection of topics; don’t assume that, to get more hits, you need to mimic that other blog. As narcissistic as bloggers are, they do not just want to read watered-down versions of their own writing.

4) While spending too much time reading blogs is discouraged, you should check out, a spinoff of a certain Maroon column. I hear both the blog and the column are rather informative.