(The following is a recreation and expansion of the talk – or maybe “rant” is a better word – that I gave at the Tazzu WordPress Camp on April 30. The talk was titled by Rastin Mehr, but I decided to keep it for the sake of irony.)
I’m a little surprised to be here tonight. Two years ago, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was blogging.
Back then, I thought that bloggers were self-important amateurs. When I looked at the topics for blogging conferences, I was reminded of academic seminars, and it all looked so serious and earnest that I wanted to shake the nearest blogger and say, “For God’s sake, well you get over yourself? Why don’t you just shut up and write?”
For me, blogging was like vanity publishing, or playing tennis with the net down: You could do it, but wouldn’t you always wonder if you were good enough to make it on your own?
Yes, I know there are a handful of bloggers who are respected for their in-depth coverage of a subject and who have essentially become professional journalists. Pamela Jones of Groklaw springs to mind. But these bloggers probably would have been well-known anyway, and had they gone the traditional routes to recognition, on the way they might have shed some of the amateur self-indulgence that often still mars their work.
As for the majority of bloggers, they’re never going to be recognized and they’re never going to monetize their blog in anyway. In fact, even most of those who succeed in living off their blog are probably only going to do so by focusing on the marketing to the expense of content – if not their integrity.
Yet here I am today, a blogging addict. I still haven’t changed my opinions of most blogs, yet despite my reservations, I still believe that the worst of them has value.
Why I blog
My own reasons for blogging are probably peculiar. I started because, while I am a professional journalist who covers free and open source software, there are other subjects that I want to write about. Mostly, I stay away from free software subjects, although I know that I can get thousands of hits a day if I discuss them. But I can do the same and get paid for it, so I have no great interest in increasing my audience.
Still, for a professional (which really is just a name for an exhibitionist with respectable outlets for their proclivities), writing implies an audience, no matter how small. In fact, philosophically speaking, a writer without an audience can hardly be said to be a writer at all. Even Samuel Pepys, the famous secret diarist, seems to have developed the idea of a future readership as he went on. So, if I’m going to write, I do want a few people to react to it, if only a handful.
For me, writing a blog entry is a warmup for my paid work, or a way to bleed off excess energy when I’m done for the day. It’s a place where I can experiment with structure and subject matter, and learn about the short personal essay as an art form. Sometimes, I even use it as a sandbox for subjects that I later write a paid article for, its content enriched by the feedback from commenters.
But all these are idiosyncratic reasons. Why do I think blogging holds value for anyone?
Reasons for blogging
My answer begins with my past occupation as a university composition instructor. I used to ask students to keep a journal during the semester with a minimal number of entries, to be graded simply on whether it was done or not done. Early on in my thinking, I realized that, if I were still teaching, I would have graduated to asking students to keep blogs. The trendiness of blogging would encourage them in a way that private journals never could.
The reasons I assigned a journal also applies to blogs. Unless you are doing an entry level manual job, the ability to write clearly is always going to give you an edge in your profession. The medium of your writing, whether it’s paper or a computer file doesn’t matter. And if you want to write well, the only way to do it is to keep in practice. You wouldn’t expect to play a guitar well or run ten kilometers easily if you only tried once every three weeks, so why would you imagine that writing is any different?
More importantly, writing is an ideal way to explore your thoughts. I think it was the American writer William Faulkner who said he wrote to learn what he thought on a particular subject, and that idea is in tune with my own experience. It’s only after I stop researching a subject and start thinking how to structure an article that I know my opinion on most of what I write about. When an interviewee asks me what the point of an article will be, most of the time, my only honest answer would be, “I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet.” So, if my own experience holds true for others, writing is a way to self-knowledge. Through the act of writing, you can under both your subject and yourself better.
Even more importantly, writing is one of the lowest-entry creative tasks that you can do. Admittedly, blogging requires access to some relatively expensive hardware, but a computer is relatively cheap compared to say, a painter’s supplies or a dancer’s outfits. If you have to, you can even do blog from a public library terminal, reducing your costs to next to nothing. And if you believe with Abraham Maslow, that everyone has a basic need for creativity – well, how can you argue with a trend that gives everyone who wants it a means of self-expression?
All this, and blogging is fun, too. For some, it’s a way to keep in touch with their friends. And for those who, in the words of Ray Wylie Hubbard, “are condemned by the gods to write,” doing so becomes nothing short of addictive. And if you are an addict (“Hello, my name is Bruce, and I’m a writing junkie”), then you know that nothing quite compares. Personally, I’ve always appreciated the response that science fiction writer Isaac Asimov made when asked if he would rather make love or write: “I can write for twelve hours a day.”
In this commercial, supposedly hard-headed days, these reasons for valuing something may be slight. And it’s true – blogging has more to do with a liberal education than going to law school or getting your MBA. For most of those who blog, the activity is not going to pay off, definitely not in the short term and almost certainly not in the long term. Get used to it.
Yet contrary to the conventional wisdom, choosing to do something without the potential for a return can be neither stupid nor naive. When you’re talking about something like blogging, it means you have your priorities straight, and you know the intrinsic worth of what you’re doing.
I have no claim to wisdom or influence, but, if I did, I’d urge bloggers to stop taking themselves so seriously and just enjoy what they are doing. If you’re blogging, you’re helping yourself to think better and can have fun while you do so. I mean, what more joy do you need? In my experience, money come and goes, but personal growth stays with you forever.