December 7th, 2007


All tomorrow's posts belong to Japanese ghosts

I spent an hour or so yesterday reading bits of Click Opera into a tape recorder for an NPR show that'll air sometime around Christmas. The Morning Edition show is running a feature on a book called Ultimate Blogs -- masterworks from the wild web, due from Vintage in early February, in which "former New York Times reporter and critic Sarah Boxer travels through the blogosphere (roughly 71 million blogs) and finds some masterpieces along the way". So be warned -- you are now officially reading a "masterwork", which takes its place alongside other masterblogs made by, for instance, "an 18-year old woman in Singapore who likes pink a lot" and "an illustrator who draws a tiny saga of a rodent and a ball of crap".

Click Opera is an unusual blog, and not just because, as I explained to NPR, it's a daily blast of "pajamahadeen kulturkritik". It's mainly unusual -- and getting more so -- because it's not in Japanese. According to an interesting article in the Washington Post, the dominant language of world blogging is now Japanese, with 37% of all blogs being in Japanese and only 28% in English. And, the way the article describes things, Click Opera is the complete opposite of the typical Japanese blog.

"Blogging in Japan," says journalist Blaine Harden, "is a far tamer beast than in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Japan's conformist culture has embraced a technology that Americans often use for abrasive self-promotion and refashioned it as a soothingly nonconfrontational medium for getting along. Bloggers here shy away from politics and barbed language. They rarely trumpet their expertise. While Americans blog to stand out, the Japanese do it to fit in, blogging about small stuff: cats and flowers, bicycles and breakfast, gadgets and TV stars. Compared with Americans, they write at less length, they write anonymously, and they write a whole lot more often."

Cornelius' cousin, Technorati board member Joichi Ito, is drafted in to tell us that "in Japan, it is not socially acceptable to pursue fame". Instead, as Cornelius did, people blog about what they ate for lunch, or about the growth and development of their pet or child. They often do it anonymously, and their entries get zero comments. A food blogger tells the Post that she would never say anything negative about a restaurant she visits, no matter how bad the food was. "There is a part of me that feels sorry for the restaurant, if it were to lose business because of what I write," she said. "I don't want to influence the diners... Because my blog may be read by people I don't know, I am cautious about revealing my inner thoughts". A father recording his son's growth does so without once revealing his face (the Post reveals it, though, in the video that accompanies the article).

So let's get this straight: the majority of the world's blogs are in Japanese. They're written by people who don't reveal their names or their inner thoughts because they don't know who's reading and don't want to give offense. They don't show faces and don't get comments. Their tone is neutral, humble, self-effacing. "Karaoke for shy people" is how the Post describes this posting style, but to me it sounds positively ghostly. The blogosphere is haunted.

But the newspaper thinks that breast-beating lecture-style blogging -- the kind that got me into the Vintage book of "blog masterworks" -- is on the way out; Joichi Ito predicts that "in the United States, as mobile phones and wireless networks improve, blogging will, in effect, become more Japanese. That means constant connection to one's blogging device while writing shorter but more frequent blog postings. It also means less chest thumping about wicked politicians, less trumpeting of one's expertise and more chatty postings about cats, kids and lunch."

This is one of those sobering moments when I realize that the world may Japanize without me. I think Ito is right -- people in the West are already blogging in the bland, brief, phatic, ghostly way the Post describes as characteristically Japanese. I get Google Blogs Alerts daily to see what people are saying about me. Some of it is about me, the rest is references to the Greek god, the cafe in Puccini's opera La Boheme, the Mardi Gras chapter. And then there's some British person blogging under the name Momus. This person's posts are short and frequent -- and amazingly trivial. Recent headlines on Momus' blog: "I got a cold!" and "I put the computer on my head for ten seconds" and "Burnt the beef stew" and "The hair in my nose is getting longer!"

These hold-the-front-page revelations receive zero comments, but seem to serve some sort of therapeutic purpose for their author, who seems to have adopted the persona of the god of criticism without any intention to criticize anything beyond his or her own nasal hygiene. When I first started getting these alerts it crossed my mind that this other Momus might be some sort of spoof, some trolling mockery of my high-flown style. But if the Post is right, this is how all blogs will one day read -- or go unread. Blogging will become the sport of ghosts, a sort of inaudible karaoke for people too shy to sing.

"The diary habit runs so deep in Japan," explains Ito, "that it transformed the craft of blogging from an American-style lecture to a Japanese-style personal narrative." Enjoy the hectoring, lecturing and bragging while it lasts, then -- all tomorrow's posts (according to the Post, anyway) belong to shy, modest Japanese ghosts.