Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web?

When we bloggers refer to one another’s posts, we usually default to writing in the third person. I suspect this is because writing publicly incentivizes accessibility for the broadest possible audience. Whatever the reason may be, the third person voice is the ‘genre tradition’ of blogging. We tend to write sentences like this:

In a recent blog post, Riley writes that…

Although I am obviously responding or reacting to Riley’s post, I am not formally writing to Riley. Instead, I am prioritizing my address to the nameless, faceless recipients of the internet who might also read this post, not Riley. I am now writing about my interlocutor, which is an awkward way to carry on a conversation.

I have been thinking about the nature of correspondence, and pondering the value of intentionally writing and framing ‘reply’ blog posts in the second person and first person:

Hi Riley. Your blog post makes me think…

This perspective feels much more like a conversation than a commentary. While there is nothing wrong with commentary, I suspect the usual, detected third person POV will always sound more like an editorial than an exchange. Of course, there is nothing wrong with editorials, either. The question is, do I personally want to be more of a reporter or more of a conversationalist in this space?

I have been thinking about ways that I might contribute to making the open web a more inviting, social environment. In turn, I am wondering if a subtle shift in pronouns might make the independent blogging world inherently look a little less lonely? After all, when you are writing in the second person, you are intrinsically writing in the context of some relationship.

Another reason I find the idea of ‘blogging in the second person’ compelling is that I have a nostalgic — if not anachronistic — fascination with letter writing. We all know that the estates of the rich and famous often release the correspondence of iconic leaders and visionaries for publication. These become crucial primary sources for historians. But the letters of the elite and well-known are a mere tip of the iceberg: for generation after generation, written correspondence was the sole and de facto platform for sharing ideas, discussing politics, and expressing emotions across distances.

What we forget today — in the world of archive-it-and-forget-it email — is that personal correspondence has historically embodied much more than a temporal mental exchange. Letters’ dependence on physical media endowed them with staying power: when you discover the chest of old correspondence in your grandparent’s attic, you realize that letters can live long beyond their original delivery date. A message can be a letter, or an epistle, or an archival record. Once you entrust the message to the postal service and it’s final recipient, it goes on to have a life you no longer control and might have long term value you cannot imagine.

My point is that there is — or, perhaps more accurately, could be — a stronger parallel between blogging and traditional letter writing than apparent at first blush. Like letters, blogs can be shared beyond original recipients. They can be cited. Repurposed. I am curious to experiment blending the two: I want to try using blogging as a proxy for letter writing, and correspondence as a model for blogging.

If the cross-pollination of ideas is at the heart of ‘small b blogging‘ — an attitude towards writing online that isn’t obsessed with the scale of the audience — I wonder if emphasizing the pronouns of direct correspondence might bring the emphasis back to the exchange of thought.

For now, I’m leaving this post here as a theoretical point of reference. As I occasionally address other bloggers in the second person, I want to have a ‘linkable explanation’ for what I am trying to do and why. If I write a post directly ‘to’ you, the above paragraphs are here to clarify my underlying logic. Please feel free to respond in kind: using our blogs as vehicles for open correspondence has the potential, I hope, to foster a critically needed atmosphere of dialogue.

24 Replies to “Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web?”

  1. Hi James,
    I very much agree with what you’ve written — I think another factor may be that many bloggers mimic styles of writing with which they’re familiar, e.g. newspaper-style journalism.
    You’re post also reminds me of one of my favorite Virginia Woolf quotes:

    Of all forms of literature, however, the essay is the one which least calls for the use of long words. The principle which controls it is simply that it should give pleasure; the desire which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive pleasure. Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.

    — Virginia Woolf, The Modern Essay
    Do you think blogs are a bit like essays as Woolf has described them?

  2. In reply to: Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web? – James Shelley
    James, you’re absolutely right.
    A guiding principle of the indieweb is to write on your own site and it gets pushed to where it’s needed; we have the distinction between the types of webmention to control this: straight mention, like, reply, etc. The impact is obviously limited by the support for webmentions (or lack thereof) but the intention is that replies or comments are “your own” as much as original posts.
    As you said, hitting publish is about sharing – sharing ones words or even oneself – it is, therefore, predicated on some kind of audience even if that is just an audience of one.
    The problem we can face (at least I can) is defining that audience when we write: it’s another distinction between ‘big B blogging’ (open audience) and ‘small b blogging’ (restricted audience.)
    Over the years I think bloggers have gotten used to acting like the news sites – I’ve historically written like a journalist rather than a person and have been trying to rein that in over the past couple of years.
    It’s like there’s a psychological shift required in writing for a small b audience when knowing that it is visible by more. Maybe it’s a reluctance to exclude some readers, as though they’re overhearing a private conversation and shouldn’t really be paying attention. As you say: “writing publicly incentivizes accessibility for the broadest possible audience.”
    So, maybe this is where the indieweb approach comes into play and has a double impact. Not only does the type of mention dictate how a “response” is treated on the target site but it gives a visual indicator on your own site for the wider audience to better understand the scope of a post, e.g. “In reply to:”
    The indieweb is a frame of mind as well as a technological approach. I need to get better at this, at being more informal and conversational when the situation calls for it.

  3. Replied to Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web? by James Shelley (jamesshelley.com) @jamesshelley Thank you for your post. I’m going to try to respond to you in the second person, as you suggested in your article. Let me say, it feels very strange and very informal. 😶
    Here’s a couple of thoughts (in no particular order):

    – comments are usually in 2nd person, whereas reply to blog posts are usually 3rd person (I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section/micro.blog reply, but doing this in my own CMS is strange)

    – love the idea of blog posts being like letters to each other

    – would posts in the 2nd person restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder? I’d feel rude butting in on someone else’s conversation.
    I’ll need to think more about this.

  4. I absolutely agree with you. I really enjoyed your thoughts and analysis. For me, I do both. The question I ask is, am I responding to the person who wrote the post or am I talking to other people ABOUT the post. Imagine the difference between a Twitter Quote Tweet and a reply. One uses the other’s words for context of your thoughts and the other is writing thoughts back to the author. I use 2nd person or 3rd person based on the expected audience of my post, regardless of the fact that it is available for anyone to read.

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