On a recent Monday, the front page of the communal blog MetaFilter served up deftly annotated links to news and notes on the upcoming Supreme Court nomination hearings, the Vatican’s rejection of intelligent design, the early history of mountain biking, kitschy tiki-era L.A. bars and restaurants, the aesthetic glory of old, blank audiocassettes, the death of author John Knowles, the U.S. incendiary bombing of Falluja, and the hamster wheel as alternative energy source. Among other topics. Not that a near-manic variety of interests is anything unusual in a blog, of course. What’s unusual about MetaFilter, rather, is that its thousands of contributors manage to make all those parts add up to a whole. Smart, avid, leanly written, and likably lefty, the posts and comments that frame the links somehow cohere into a recognizable sensibility rather than just more evidence of imminent worldwide information meltdown.
You’d think this would be an easier trick to pull off. After all, the high-toned generalist magazines—The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly—have been at it for over a century, and there’s no shortage of bloggers who’ve been absorbing their elegantly balanced worldview for decades. Nonetheless it’s a reliable rule of thumb that if a blog isn’t a scattershot case of attention deficit disorder, then it’s a single-issue exercise in obsessive compulsion. And while some might argue that only heroic editorial effort can overcome the tendency of blogs—especially collaborative ones—to go to one extreme or the other, MetaFilter shows otherwise. Look under the hood, and you’ll find that a few simple tweaks—tight limits on the frequency of posts, for instance, and an active but light-handed pruning of redundant items—account for much of its success. The rest is bottomless, unquenchable curiosity about the world, but that’s the easy part, right?