Editorial vs. Coffee House Blogging

Photo of the Hawelka Cafe on a Quiet Thursday Morning,” 

Photograph taken by “KF” (Vienna, 2 Feb 2006).
Image Source: Wikimeda

There have been many responses to last week’s post, “Requiem For The Strategy Sphere.”  Ryan Evans, Brett Friedman, Adam Elkus, Kelsey Atherton, Andrew Exum, and Mark Safranski all participated in long tweet streams discussing the piece. I have collected all of these conversations under one Storify stream for those that might have missed them. You can read it here.

I would like to elaborate on one idea brought up in Mark Safranski’s response stream. From their beginning blogs have had two basic models to follow: opposite-the-editorial pages of late 20th century newspapers and the Viennesse coffee houses of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Many posts here at the Stage follow the op-ed model. This style of writing is formal. It designed to present a tightly argued opinion or perspective, and this position is presented as a done deal, not a work in progress. This is a broadcast style. The flow of information is intended to go one way: from writer to reader. Readers may find some way to reply to pieces they particularly enjoyed or despised–publishing a polished rebuttal is probably the fastest way to do this–but interaction is not the main purpose. This model is at least as old as the 17th century pamphleteers, and is perhaps older than that. What the internet did to this ancient art was remove the gatekeepers that separated writers from readers. Now, at least in theory, anyone can write an op-ed that will be read across the world. 

The coffee house style is informal. It is sometimes quick and “off the cuff” but it does not need to be. More important is the intent of the writer and his or her relationship with the readers. Coffee house bloggers brainstorm on the page. They play around with ideas. They are unafraid to say “I have been thinking about a bunch of things, and today I am just going to throw them all out there. You all need to tell me if any of these ideas work.”  This style succeeds only if there is constant interaction between the writer and the readers. Information flows both ways. At its best this style of writing prompts the same kind of insights and breakthroughs that face-to-face discussion does. The difference is that internet “face-to-face” discussions can be had with just about anyone from just about anywhere. In olden times you could only participate in the Vienna coffee house culture if you lived in Vienna. The internet has freed this model from geography.

These are types on a spectrum. Paul Krugman’s or Ross Douthat’s blogs for the New York Times lie very close to the pure op-ed ideal; web forums are of the coffee house mold. Both are useful. Most publishing platforms and blogs lie somewhere between the two extremes.

The current Strategy Sphere is better at publishing op-eds than building coffee houses. War on the Rocks is probably the center hub of current NatSec writing, and it is an excellent example of what an op-ed style publication can be. Analysts and defense minded intellectuals who would have had to compete to get their work published in The Atlantic or The New York Times now have a place to write where they know their views will be read and assessed by thousands of others in the NatSec community. There was no space like this before War on the Rocks was created in early 2013 (though several other publications have begun to compete with it since then), and the Strategy Sphere is better for it. 

Harder to find in the current landscape are the coffee houses. As I described in the “Requiem” post, these were once central to the online strategy community. In that post I wrote why I thought the old ones fell apart, but said little about whether or not new ones could be created. I don’t think social media has doomed this style of writing to obsolescence. There are several blogging communities–the policy economics bloggers, the ‘rationalist’ community, and fandoms of many TV shows and fictional series, for example–that have only grown as the web around them changed. It is quite possible to have a vibrant blogging community in 2015. The deeper question is whether or not this is desirable. The answer to that depends on how useful you think public brainstorming and free wheeling discussion really is. I have heard many people say that these environments are key to creating breakthroughs in theory and practice. I have not seen much empirical evidence to support this claim, but it seems intuitively true. If it is true then the current online space for  discussing matters of war, diplomacy, and strategic thought is missing something critical for  its future health.

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On the question of whether communities matter, have you tried looking into the history of science and their models of how and when progress occurs? One of the working models which underlies my doctoral dissertation is that research progresses only when a variety of scholars work on a problem and talk to each other about their work. So most writing on the Achaemenid army today looks a lot like the best writing before the Second World War, because Achaemenid Army Studies has been a topic which researchers addressed in passing as a diversion from their main interests. Very few have presented the arguments and assumptions of different earlier scholars and then explained in writing where their own view fits in.


I would not phrase the question as 'do communities matter" so much as "what kind of interaction in communities matter? Is communication through formal essays, op-eds, and research papers enough, or is an environment of informal exchange key to advances?

Maybe I will send a note to blog-friend Anton Howes and ask him if he has any insight on this. He has spent some time researching similar questions.

You know, I had never imagined that opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines could be an attempt to participate in a conversation! They so rarely provide verifiable evidence let alone engage with specific other thinkers, and limits of space make it hard to make a serious case for anything. So I will have to think about that possibility.

The key thing seems to be a community which requires that members engage with each other's strongest arguments, rather than just pushing their own views in isolation.