August 16th, 2006

Blogging Is the New Novel/Screenplay Writing

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There’s yet another (tiresome) dust-up in the blogosphere over the existence of an “A List” and its relationship to the “long tail” of 50 million+ bloggers — and whether it’s fair — courtesy of Nick Carr, everyone’s favorite lightnight rod. Here’s the filter I always use to make sense of this — technological advances (e.g. blogging software) may be the great enabler, but people don’t change. That’s why I would posit that blogging is the new novel/screenplay writing.

When I was in college, I worked for a literary agent in New York. Part of my job was sifting through mountains of unsolicited manuscripts that arrived at the door everyday — if I had grown up on the west coast, it would probably have been screenplays. There were so many people pouring their hearts onto reams of paper, and most of these manuscripts would never be read by anyone other than friends, family, and college interns like me.

And yet people kept writing, partly on the distant hope of making it big, but also because they had something to say.

Some fraction of the manuscripts that ended up in the reject pile may have been written by great undiscovered talent — and that may be the case with some bloggers who toil in low-traffic obscurity. A tinier fraction made it big, and joined the book writer “A List.” But the vast majority never got published and never got attention — and probably never deserved much attention (which is not to say they might not have had a small niche of attention, had that been logistically possible, as it is now on the Web). Does that mean that those writers wasted their time?

I don’t think so. Writing, including blogging, is overwhelmingly an avocation — the attention pie is way too small for most people with something to say to get a meaningful share of attention, even within a niche. But if you’ve got something to say, in most cases you’ll probably be a happier person if you get it out rather than keep it inside. Many people write journals for precisely this reason. Others get satisfaction from other people reading what they have to say, but even if no one does, there is typically still satisfaction in the writing.

I am also a believer in talent. Most of the time attention correlates with talent — sometimes those with relatively little talent get a disproportionate amount of attention, and sometimes those with a lot of talent get unfairly overlooked — this is as true in the blogosphere as it is in so many other spheres. But the correlation between talent and attention holds true on average.

As for Nick Carr, I continue to read his blog because he is a talented writer and an incisive thinker — he almost always makes me think, and even if I end up completely disagreeing with him, that’s something I value. Does he carry the link baiting thing too far sometimes? Probably. But let’s get real — all bloggers link bait, so let’s not get on our high horses. Nick’s link baiting works because he does make people think — and the blogosphere is at its best when people can disagree with him.

That said, the blogosophere would be a nicer place if we could disagree without so much vitriol and ad hominem attacks.

So I’ll be a good blogosphere citizen by giving some link love to Rex Hammock, for responding to Nick with a funny counter fairytale, and to Rob Hyndman, for not being afraid to admit that he reads Nick Carr and for advancing the thinking on the topic rather than just reacting emotionally to it.

I’ll end by saying that even if no one reads this post, I feel better having written it.

UPDATE

I can’t resist observing the following ironies:

- There is arguably no better way to get attention and links in the blogosphere than to blog about blogging and bloggers — we all love to read and talk about ourselves and what we do — that’s just human nature. If Nick Carr is a troll, he’s awfully good at it, as Robert Scoble observed. Nick understands what makes us all tick.

- I didn’t write this post with the intention of getting attention from A Listers, but sure enough I got a link from Dave Winer and Scoble stopped by to let me know he had subscribed. It would have been very hard to aim at either of those outcomes — they had to be earned somewhat unintentionally. (Although as I pointed out to Rex Hammock below, intention is difficult to parse, even for the intender.) The same is true of the attention that this post got from other prominent bloggers I admire and respect, like Rex Hammock, Mathew Ingram, Brian Clark, and Rob Hyndman.

The first rule of blogging, as with novel writing and so many other endeavors, is to do it principally out of passion and conviction. That’s what motivated this post (at least I’m pretty sure it was). It’s kind of a Zen thing — you have to let go of your expectations before they can be met. I can’t claim honestly that I write every post out of pure conviction, but I do find that it correlates strongly with attention. And the converse is true — when I’m too focused on getting attention, I generally don’t get very much. Links and readers need to be earned — they are hard to manufacture.

So why did I write this Update? Because I found these observations interesting, even if no one else does.

(Admittedly, the Zen thing is hard — you can hurt your brain if you try too hard, which is where not taking yourself too seriously is a useful crutch.)

  • Why the needless politicizing? It seems pretty obvious to me. The "BigHeads" got to the top with a combination of talent, intelligence, hard work and luck. Some people have talent, intelligence, and hard work, but no luck, and have not risen to the top. Or maybe they just have poor strategy with their blogs, or don't even care about rising to the top.

    Either way, the reason those on the top are hard to shake is that they're established. Once any group of people are established, they create a barrier to entry by others. Especially if their dominance is mutually supportive. Top bloggers link to each other and support their dominance. Just like any established elite does. It's not good or bad, it's just the nature of human systems.

  • Seth:

    I agree with you, ethnicity and gender can be a factor in someone's success. I just don't agree that it is the factor. Where you are born, your genetic makeup, the way your parent's raise you, the socio-economic background you come from, it all is a factor. You can work very hard and not succeed even if you happen to be white and male. Race and gender are factors, but not overwhelming so. Talent and hard work are by far the deciding factors in someones success based on my experience.

    I am aware that I might be passed up for a variety of opportunities due solely to the fact that I am not a minority or female, so I see your point about networking effects. ;-)

    I agree also that we all need to have some social awareness when it comes to discriminating against others. I just want an even playing field instead of a system that puts ethnicity/gender ahead of actual qualifications. If we look at a profession like firefighting, statistically it is predominantly held by males. Everyone has an equal opportunity to take the tests that the job requires, so why the disparate ratio in genders? It could be that males have some sort of physical advantage or it could be that for social reasons it appeals more to males. Making assumptions based solely on statistics is poor policy. Have a standard, make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to meet the standard and then select the best candidates. In my opinion, this seems like the most rational way of doing things.

    Since by taking a position not in line with yours I am just "repeating endlessly that it isn't so", I guess this will be my last comment. Your argument represents the truth, and my side is therefore irrelevant. I enjoyed the discussion with you (though I wonder if Scott has grown tired of us). Although it seems that "endlessly repeating something" is working out for you. Cheers.

  • Brian, this is the strawman: "hard working and talented people are justly rewarded when you imply they have gained their wealth/influence solely based on their ethnicity or gender"

    The argument is this: Ethnicity and gender is A FACTOR, because of networking effects. *A FACTOR*. So, statistically, one can see this factor at work in the way the wealthy and powerful are overwhelming white males.

    What didn't this say? It didn't say "hard work" was meaningless. It did say that you can work very hard, and not succeed based on another barrier, race, sex, etc.

    This is a very objectional idea to some people, because it implies many disturbing consequences, most notably that some sort of social awareness is important. So they repeat, endlessly, that isn't so. But endlessly repeating something doesn't make it true.

  • Seth:

    Ironically, you are now the one making the straw man attack. If I said that hard working, intelligent people tend to become wealthy, does it follow that lazy unintelligent people tend not to become wealthy? Most of us live in societies that reward hard work and talent. You are distorting my argument that hard working and talented people are justly rewarded when you imply they have gained their wealth/influence solely based on their ethnicity or gender. Also, being talented and hard working does not guarantee you anything, but it certainly opens up more opportunities. Let us unmask the question by asking how people have become wealthy or influential instead of just looking at superficial attributes like ethnicity or gender. I would be willing to bet that regardless of their ethnicity or gender, the wealthy and influential members of a society are on average harder working or more talented then the general population.

    I feel this is a digression of the original discussion however, which was about influence and power within the blogosphere. You speak of the immense inequality of power and top-down gatekeepered pontification. If you want to look at the logical problem, let us use Occam's razor. When trying to explain the phenomenon of influence within the blogosphere, is it simpler to assume that those bloggers who are more talented writers or contribute the most to the community will become the most influential? Or shall we assume that there is some sort of conspiracy and architecture in place where the powerful hold back the powerless? I would put forth that mine is the simpler, and therefore more likely explanation.

  • Sid Steward

    Tish- That's hilarious! I'm more of a builder than a talker. I created a service, a sort of social networking site for bloggers/startups. Its main feature is an eyeball bartering ad system. I based it on the premise that bloggers/startups have little funds for advertising and a surplus of ad space. It's called LinkLike.

    So, say you discover my site on LinkLike and want to trade eyeballs with me. You send me an invitation and I accept (double opt-in, isn't it?). You paste the ad code on your site and my ad begins appearing. Your ad begins appearing on my site, too. For every pair of eyeballs you send to my site, I must send a pair to yours. Otherwise my ad stops showing on your site until the click flow balances out.

    This click metering might seem like overkill, but I wanted high caliber sites to feel comfortable partnering with low caliber sites.

    Is that what you had in mind? If you try it out, I would like to know what you think of it. Thanks- Sid

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