According to the Word Detective (who is the person I trust for things like this), the word “soapbox” means a box that soap comes in. Pretty basic, right? You can read about it for yourself, but if you want the executive precis, here it is: Back in the 19th century, soap apparently used to come in boxes—real wooden boxes—and they were incredibly useful for putting things in, or sitting on (in much the same way milk crates would come to be used in later years). Or, if you wanted to hang out in the park and regale people with your penetrating political commentary, they were handy to stand on. ’Cause, you know, you deserved a podium just as much as those crumbums in charge of the government, even if you had to make one yourself. So the word “soapbox” came to be synonymous with crazy ranting in London’s Hyde Park, or New York’s Central Park, or what have you.
Or on college campuses.
Now, every college in America (and perhaps in other countries too, for all I know) is constitutionally required to have a “quad,” meaning a large open area where the females can lie out in the sun with the excuse of working on their tans and the males can throw frisbees and footballs to each other with the excuse of getting exercise and all of them can go about the real business of admiring each other. (Just as every college is required to have a pub called the “Rathskeller” which everyone calls “the Rat.” But I suppose that’s a topic for another time.) But the point is that the quad, like a large city park, is a perfect place for the crazies to set up. And they do: when I made my second university tour (1989-1992), I was actually a little surprised to find them still at it, as they had been, presumably continuously, for the past hundred years. I specifically remember cultivating that single-minded focus on the spot of ground just in front of my feet, ever so careful not to raise my eyes for fear that it might encourage one of the ranters just off the path to either side. It’s a studious ignoring of those who are all but impossible to ignore by their very nature, and it came in very handy when weaving through the legions of homeless on the streets of DC many years later. Sounds sort of cold, in retrospect, but you really didn’t want to meet the gaze of one of those folks. They would pounce on you, espousing their pet cause, telling you how very important it was to solicit your signature for their petition, or your money for their non-profit organization, or (even worse) your presence for the rally they were planning next Sunday. No, I can’t say that I have a high opinion of soapboxes, either literal or figurative.
So, when someone tried to explain to me what a “weblog” was a few years ago, I was completely confounded. “You mean,” I asked, “people will just write about whatever they like, and put it out there, and then people will read it? How is this useful? I’m already being overwhelmed with useless information as it is; now we want to make it easy for even more people I don’t care about to tell me things I don’t need to hear?” My mental image was very firmly rooted in multitudes of political activists ranting in rows on the great Quad of the Internet. And, to add insult to injury, I would actually have to expend effort to read these! Why would I go online and spend mental energy reading things I could just listen to for free on any college campus in the country? Surely, I thought, this was a fad. Give it time, I said to myself confidently. This too shall pass.
Ah, but, as I am so often, I was wrong. “Blogs” (as the term was shortened to) did not go away. They blossomed ... nay, exploded. Today just about everyone has a blog where they can spew forth reams of pointless information, exhortations, musings, insights, and other things that no one actually wants to hear about (and, if you can’t manage to string together enough coherent sentences for that, you can always tweet instead). And people all over the world actually read them. I have many theories on why this is, and they’re probably all wrong too. I think that perhaps it’s like that morbid curiosity that forces us to slow down when we see an accident on the highway: we dare not look, and yet we must. Or sometimes I think that, every once in a great while, perhaps once in a million blog posts, we find something ... something actually informative, or interesting, or just amusing. Does it make having to wade through the rest of the muck worthwhile? Probably not. But, again, perhaps it’s just a human instinct. Kind of like how you always have to stop and look at the crap in antique stores, because even though you know 99.9% of the time it’s just junk, that one time, that one time in a thousand, you find something priceless ...
Or perhaps it’s just that humans are herd animals, and, if everyone is reading blogs, then we must read them too, and, if everyone is writing blogs, then by God where do I sign up? Or perhaps it appeals to our natural sense of injustice: no longer will the media be controlled by rich old white men; now we can all have a voice! Or perhaps too many of us are simply bored, although I can easily imagine hundreds of better things we could be doing with our time. Or perhaps it is all of these things. Or perhaps none.
But it’s definitely something. In a world where blogs have more readers than newspapers and CNN feels compelled to read blogs on the air, it seems pointless to cling to a vain hope that this is a passing fad. Our president has apparently likened the blogosphere to people “shouting at each other across the void,” but whether his opinion on the phenomenon is positive or negative is not nearly so important as the fact that he has one at all. Hula hoops, this ain’t.
But, personally, I still have my doubts. Have I ever read a blog post that was worthwhile? Sure. I’ve found cool stuff at flea markets too. But the vast majority of them are pretty much exactly what I feared. They’re echo chambers, they’re the rantings of religious crazies (although “religion” in this case is less likely to mean Jesus vs Mohammed than Windows vs Macintosh), they’re windows into the lives of people I neither know nor likely will ever know, they’re pointless mishmashes of nonsensical observations and supposedly pithy pearls of wisdom, they’re badly written, well written, plain-spoken, lyrically poetic, completely unreviewed, professionally edited, obviously run through a spell checker and nothing else (confusing “it’s” for “its” is always a dead giveaway on that one), one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure collections of words that too often mean nothing. I didn’t want to hear what you had to say on the quad at George Mason University in 1991, and I certainly don’t want to waste my time reading it now.
So you should really not bother reading blogs. They suck. Sure, sometimes you’re going to find something good in there, if you look long enough, but then that would be true of digging through the goop at the bottom of sewer pipes too, and you don’t spend your time doing that, do you? You’re far more often going to read something that you agree with, but do you really need to wade waist deep in blogs for that? Just go hang out with your friends, or, if you absolutely must do it electronically, Facebook should suffice. (You know that if you’re a staunch liberal, you’ve already hidden all your conservative friends’ posts on your wall, and vice versa. Just to make sure you can stay friends with them as opposed to punching them in the face next time you see them in person.) I mean, realistically, what are the chances that you’re actually going to miss that one-in-a-million blog posting anyway? As soon as it happens, all of your friends with too much time on their hands are going to send you a link to it anyway. They sent you that really funny list of things you can say about your political party but not about your girlfriend, right? (That one just slays me.) So you should be covered.
And do I imagine that somehow I’m exempt from this piece of advice? That is, am I hypocritically telling you to stop reading all blogs except for this one? Certainly not. You shouldn’t read this one either. Just take this post: I’ve rambled on for nearly 1,500 words and I haven’t really told you anything you didn’t already know. And, by the mere fact that you’ve read this far, you’re obviously not inclined to take my advice in any event. So why bother? Is there any point to this blog thing at all?
I suppose we’ll find out next week.