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The captioners

Or, The Use And Uselessness Of The Liveblog

Once, long ago and in a fairly different life, I waited outside Mass Hall on a cold February day for Larry Summers to give his farewell speech. I was there to liveblog it for Dem Apples (which was also in a fairly different life then—blockquotes and exclamation points accounting for a smaller fraction of its mass). It was not much of a speech, and even less of a liveblog, but it somehow caught the spirit of a time in which YouTube was a novelty and newspapers still regularly used the phrase “blog—which is short for ‘web log.'” Andrew Golis wrote of the spectacle Cambridge Common1: “For so many reasons, we now officially live in bizarroland.”

Once, on Thursday (which I suppose was also a fairly different life) an umpty bajillion people decided to liveblog the Vice Presidential debate. Some laced their commentary with snark and cynicism. Some tried a hand at thoughtful analysis. Some were utterly, mind-bogglingly stupid.

But why? Why do we liveblog? At least in the Summers case I had the twin justifications of novelty and singularity on my side: blogging was still a shiny new bauble, and it was also the only way to get a live feed of the speech. You either read the liveblog or waited until the next morning to find out what had happened. I am not trying to claim that my liveblog was very good, but trying to show that contemporary liveblogs don’t even have those dubious excuses. In the case of the Vice Presidential debate, liveblogs had neither a monopoly on information nor a technofetishistic newness. I can’t think of many cases in which somebody would have access to a liveblog but not access to the actual stream of the debate. So why do we need somebody sitting in the underwear somewhere telling us what’s going on? It’s like going to a movie theater with a friend who, in addition to making bad commentary, also keeps you abreast with a running chronicle of the plot. “Look: now he’s getting into the car!” says your friend. (“Look: here is my fist going through your sternum,” you retort.)

What seems to unfold is an interface in which the liveblog is solely a device for the writer, where readers do not figure into the calculation and are not, in fact, presumed to exist at all. Liveblogging has become an occupational signifier for the professional blogging class, something that is done just because it is expected to be done. Salesmen go to trade shows. Manual workers wear old sweatshirts with holes in them. Bloggers liveblog. It is merely an attendant assumption of the job.

The content and cleverness of the actual items are thus of no consequence, since nobody reads them and nobody is expected to read them. To understand their particular style, it is important to understand the following premise: liveblogs are audienceless pieces of journalism. They are certainly not conveyors of information; this information can be obtained first-hand on your TV or by streaming video. They offer a better justification as pieces of humor, but this too is a dubious claim—why not wait to write better jokes just after the moment has concluded? Liveblogs take place on an inverted theater: thousands of opera-singers on stage with perhaps one person in the audience.

That, of course, is not of itself a reason not to liveblog. Lack of an audience certainly hasn’t stopped us from plugging away. But it is perhaps a reason not to read them.

1 Now deceased. Dickens’s goblin asks me: “What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?”

Update: The one debate liveblog worth reading.

Garrett Dash Nelson

October 5th, 2008 at 9:09 pm