Sunday, May 22nd, 2005
Whenever members of the mainstream media ‘get’ blogging, I always feel a warm glow of satisfied surprise. I have nothing against the mainstream media (MSM) and I am not one who believes that there is no place for them in the blogosphere, nor do I believe that all journalists are inherently incapable of getting blogging. I know journalists who truly understand what blogs are, why they work, and how they work, so I have proof positive that it’s possible to both write for a broadsheet and write a blog and never have to compromise.
Whenever members of the MSM demonstrate that they don’t get blogging - which is more often than not - I feel a slight prick of disappointment: ‘Oh dear. Not again.’
No one will be surprised that the most recent cause of that disappointed feeling was the New York Times, or the New York ‘Behind The’ Times, as David Weinberger puts it in a recent post which makes a good companion piece to this one. (David reacts to a Boston Globe editorial which so very nearly gets it, but then falls at the last fence. Quelle surprise.)
The article that made me frown was David Greenberg’s article Blogging, as in Slogging (requires registration, try BugMeNot if you don’t fancy registering). Greenberg and his wife were guest bloggers for Dan Drezner for a week, and found that it’s harder work than they had previously imagined. Probably, Greenberg found it hard work because of the misconceptions he has about blogging - misconceptions which, whilst subtle, show through in his writing.
I’d like to address them, if I may. I don’t mean this to be a fisking, nor do I wish this to put this under the ‘blog fuckwittery’ category because my instincts tell me that it was lack of experience and understanding that caused the problem, not stupidity. Or maybe I’m just feeling generous today. Anyway, here we go.
My wife and I agreed to be “guest bloggers” - the online equivalent of what David Brenner used to do for Johnny Carson - for Dan Drezner, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who runs a popular libertarian-conservative blog, DanielDrezner.com.
Most bloggers do not get their first taste of blogging on an already popular blog. Most bloggers start their blog to zero acclaim, with just a few readers made up primarily of their friends, family and colleagues. As they write and link to other bloggers, so the community at large becomes aware of them. If they write well, link frequently, join in the conversation on other blogs, have comments and trackbacks enabled and generally participate in the blogosphere, they stand a chance of building up a wider readership.
During this period they learn about blogging, they learn about writing, they go through different phases of the blogging lifecycle which equate, one could say, to the different phases of a relationship: First, it all seems like a wonderful idea. You fall into a state of limerance where everything about your partner (i.e. your blog) is perfect. Then that feeling lifts and you realise that your blog leaves dirty socks in the bed and never does the washing up. You might fall out of love a bit, and blog less frequently. You might even take a break. But then you realise that blogging really is your one true love and you settle into a comfortable, companionable relationship which you are confident will last forever.
You simply can’t experience that by blogging for one week on someone else’s blog. It’s not possible. For Greenberg to really understand blogging, he has to start his own and go through all the ups and downs, become a part of the community and participate in the conversation.
How hard could blogging be? You roll out of bed, turn on your computer, scan the headlines, think up some clever analysis while brushing your teeth, type it onto your site and you’re off.
Here, Greenberg is thinking as a journalist, not as a blogger. He is stuck firmly in the broadcast paradigm: ‘What can I write that will get lots of eyeballs?’ Far better to ask, what conversations are going on that I have an opinion on? What discussions can I participate in? What is happening around me that’s important?
I can’t really blame Greenberg for this. He’s a journalist, he thinks like a journalist, and changing paradigms is a hard thing for anyone to do.
But as I discovered, blogging is no longer for amateurs or the faint of heart. Blogging - if it’s done well - has evolved into an all-consuming art.
Oh no. Not the amateurs/professionals thing again. The only difference between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs don’t get paid and professionals do. The vast majority of bloggers do it because they are passionate about it, not because someone is paying them to do it. They do not really care about earning money, they care about communicating.
Whilst it’s true that for some bloggers, blogging is all-consuming, but for many it is not. I know a whole bunch of bloggers who don’t see it as all that important at all, they do it because it’s fun and they do it as and when they feel like it.
I think that Greenberg is falling into the broadcast trap. If you’re blogging on a popular blog and you feel the pressure to write something ‘impressive’ because you’ve got lots of readers, then you’re going to find it hard work. That doesn’t mean that blogging is hard work per se, it means that you’re making it hard work.
Last Sunday, after a cup of coffee, I made my first offering, a smart critique, I thought, of an article about liberal politics in The New York Review of Books by Thomas Frank, the author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”
I checked back a while later. There were, I think, three responses. Later, another post generated eight replies. Another, two. A couple got zero.
I checked the responses to Dan’s posts. He seemed to average about 50. Sure, my wife, Suzanne, had been blogging for weeks on her own site, democracyarsenal.org, but still how was she getting 12, 19, even 34 replies?
I started to worry. It wasn’t just my ego. I didn’t want to send Dan’s robust traffic numbers into a downward plunge.
Obsessing over traffic stats is a common symptom amongst new bloggers. I think it’s natural - you want to know that people are reading, you want your work to be appreciated. But it’s something that I think most bloggers grow out of as they settle into their blog and realise that it’s not about quantity, but quality.
Blogging is about self-expression, and again many people blog perfectly happily without drawing huge readerships - the fact that they have a place online to call their own and that they are able to communicate with the people who are important to them is all that they need. The issue here is that Greenberg feels he belongs in the ’spike’ of the blogosphere where the defining paradigm is one-to-many, but by concentrating on indicators of popularity he’s missing out on the real joy of blogging, the fun of writing something and sharing it with the world and seeing what they think of it.
As I thought about what else to opine about, I started to see that blogging wasn’t as easy as it looked. Who were these people, blogging on other sites, who so confidently tossed about obscure minutiae relating to North Korea’s nuclear program or President Bush’s proposed revisions to Social Security benefits? Where did they find the time? (To say nothing of the readers.)
The advice to writers to ‘write what you know’ is as old as it is true, i.e. very. It applies as much to blogging as it does to novels, film scripts or non-fiction. Write what you know. Bloggers are very good at writing what they know, frequently and in depth. People who blog about the minutiae of North Korea’s nuclear program do so because they know the subject already (or at least in some cases, think they do). People who know about knitting write about knitting. Asking where these people find this information or where they find the time is a bit like asking how a stamp collector knows all about stamps or finds the time to collect them. They do because it’s what they do. It’s what makes them who they are.
The underlying theme is still ‘broadcast’ here, and the bloggers Greenberg describes are just as much stuck in that mode as he is:
Serious bloggers, I realized, aggressively report a pet issue, updating their sites throughout the day. They scavenge the Internet for every shard of information on a hot topic, like John R. Bolton’s chances of becoming ambassador to the United Nations or Tom DeLay’s ethical troubles.
‘Serious bloggers’? What does that mean? Are the people who aren’t fixated on the spike of the power curve automatically dilettantes? I don’t like this division. I always thought that the appealing thing about blogging was that it isn’t a medium that submits to being split up thusly. It’s not healthy for us to start believing that such divisions even exist because they don’t - it’s all in our perceptions - and by creating these divisions we forget and devalue the fact that blogging centres around individual bloggers and the conversations that they are having. We don’t talk about ’serious’ telephone users, so why talk about ’serious’ bloggers?
Greenberg finally decides to blog about what he knows, but then manages to misjudge his audience.
On Tuesday, I posted a link to a piece I’d written for the online magazine Slate, faulting President Bush for his remarks criticizing the 1945 Yalta agreement, in which he said that Europe was unjustly carved up by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
This time I got a lot of responses - abusive ones. Sample: “Anyone who thinks its ‘ugly’ to point out what was done to millions of people at Yalta is a moral cretin.”
I posted again to clarify my point - that the Yalta agreement wasn’t what consigned Eastern Europe to Soviet oppression. But I wasn’t looking forward to the next fusillade of invective.
I did have sympathy for the audience. They expected their usual diet of conservative commentary. Instead, they got a liberal foreign policy expert (Suzanne) and a liberal historian linking to Arts & Letters Daily (aldaily.com) and the History News Network (hnn.us).
That’s another problem with blogging on someone else’s blog. You have to understand what the readers have come to expect and if you challenge those expectations you have to find yourself a thick skin from somewhere. The problem with a free speech culture, such as the one that exists on the internet, is that people are free to disagree with you, and they do that sometimes in a most disagreeable way. It can be hard to learn to deal with, especially if you are not used to getting such vitriolic feedback.
I personally don’t believe that challenging expectations is such a bad thing because it’s good to try and make people think, but I think Greenberg’s mistake was not being prepared for the reaction it would engender. There are many trolls out there, many people whose kneejerk reactions result a swift patella to the groin, and as soon as you poke your head above the parapet you have to expect people to start taking pot shots at you.
Blogging on an already popular blog is definitely sticking your head above the parapet.
Again, I think that if Greenberg had had his own blog, and built up to that slowly to that level of visibility the way most popular bloggers do he would have had the opportunity to learn what to expect and how to deal with it, but instead he went for the baptism of fire. Shame, really, because it gives him a skewed view of what blogging is.
As I checked other sites for ideas, I now realized that I didn’t need only new information. I needed a gimmick - a motif or a running joke that would keep the blog rolling all week. All of a sudden, I was reading other blogs, not for what they had to say, but for how they said it.
The best bloggers develop hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases that they put into wider circulation. Creating your own idiosyncratic set of villains to skewer and theories to promote - while keeping readers interested - requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece.
No, no, no. No gimmicks. No leitmotifs. No shtick. Any running jokes that emerge in a blog, any themes, have to emerge naturally. What are the words we are continually associating with blogs? Honesty. Authenticity. Transparency. The best bloggers allow their personality to shine through, they let their sense of humour emerge naturally, (if they have one, that is).
Creating some faux persona with catchphrases and hobbyhorses to draw people to your blog is a big mistake, because blogging is a long term gig and rare is the person who can keep up that sort of sham, particularly in writing. You’ll get found out. Remember Libertarian Girl?
Greenberg finally concluded that blogging was far too much like hard work, with far too much group-think, and that he just wasn’t cut out for it.
I beg to differ. Blogging is only hard work if you make it hard work. Only have time to post once a week? Then only post once a week. It’s your blog, and it’s up to you to manage the expectations of your readers and, more importantly, yourself. No one forces us to blog.
Blogging is no more and no less prone to group-think than any other communications medium, and the fact of its existence is not a good reason not to blog. If anything, it’s a good reason to pick up the blogging mantle and make yourself heard.
Finally, I have to strongly disagree that Greenberg is not cut out for blogging. The truth of the matter is that he has no idea if he is or not, because he hasn’t actually had a typical blogging experience. My advice to Greenberg is this: get yourself a blog somewhere and just get on with it. Take part in the community, enjoy it for what it is, and experiment with your own expectations, which means no big announcements, no striving for attention, no obsession over readership. Just go through the growth curve that we all go through and learn something about blogging, and about yourself whilst you’re at it. You might well be surprised.