How Jonah Lehrer should blog
For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.
Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.
While I’m sympathetic to Levin’s point here, I think his prescription is entirely wrong. The problem with Jonah Lehrer, like the problem with Zach Kouwe, is not that he was humbled by the insatiable demands of Blog. Instead, it’s that he made a category error, and tried to use a regular blog as a vehicle for the kind of writing that should not be done in blog format. Lehrer shouldn’t shut down Frontal Cortex; he should simply change it to become a real blog. And if he does that, he’s likely to find that blogs in fact are wonderful tools for generating ideas, rather than being places where your precious store of ideas gets used up in record-quick time.
If you look at the post which started the whole controversy, you’ll find a honed and self-contained 1,100-word meditation on science and intuition. It’s basically a mini-New Yorker article, and in that it’s very similar to all the other blog posts which Lehrer has written for TNY. Which is to say, none of them are very bloggish. There’s a formula to them, too: start with a news hook. Declare that it’s indicative of a deeper, broader phenomenon. Talk about some scientists who have studied that phenomenon, and what those scientists have found. Tie it all up with a neat conclusion.
Given that formula, it’s a bit easier to understand why Lehrer felt driven to self-plagiarism. The art of blogging is basically the art of glossing the news: finding something out there on the internet, and then saying something interesting about it. Lehrer has a collection of interesting-things-to-say, and at any given point it’s quite easy to apply one of those things to something going on somewhere. And if you’ve already said that thing in the best way that you can, it’s a bit silly to say it a worse way just for the sake of not repeating yourself.
But there’s an easy way out of this problem: break the formula, which isn’t very bloggish in the first place. For one thing, Lehrer’s posts seem designed to make you not want to click on his links — he’s not sharing his excitement at finding something new, so much as delivering a seminar on ideas he’s had for some time, and which he feels confident expounding upon.
So here, then, are some ideas for how Lehrer’s blog might become much better.
Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.
Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.
Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.
Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.
As the editors of the American Chemical Society write, self-plagiarising is fraud, because it is “an intentional attempt to deceive a reader by implying that new information is being presented”. A blogger should never feel the need to do that, because blogging is not at heart about delivering new information, so much as it is about finding and linking and connecting and conversing. Once you internalize that, self-plagiarism becomes a non-issue.