August 16th, 2006
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.
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.)