Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

Much to my bemusement, I see that James Maguire has listed this blog as one of the top 200 technology blogs, in the GNU/Linux/ Free and Open Source category.

James is my editor at Datamation, who shows amazing toleration for my inability to edit my own work, so I already know him for a decent sort. So, I figure he just needed to round out the spaces he had allotted for the category. Not that I don’t appreciate the honor, but I can see myself clearly enough to know that I don’t deserve it.

For one thing, look at the company I’m keeping. My entries here certainly aren’t a match for the varied articles at Linux.com, which is also on the list. Nor do they come close to the combination of astute legal analysis and wonky opinion on Groklaw. As for equating my efforts here with the industry analysis in the blogs of Mark Shuttleworth, Jim Zemlin, or Matt Assay – no way, man, as we used to say in my increasingly distant youth. I mean, I didn’t call this blog “Off the Wall” at random, you know what I mean?

What is really ironic is that, when I started this blog, I intended it as a place where I could write about things other than free and open source software. At the very most, it would be a sandbox for ideas that weren’t ready to be articles, or ones that I didn’t think I could sell. Nor do I often write on such topics, although I have plenty to say about my life as a journalist who covers such topics.

Yet, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that, when I do cover free and open source topics directly, the posts attract an entire order of magnitude more readers than my other topics. And I mean that literally, without any exaggeration whatsoever. So, maybe James is right, and this is a technology blog after all.

Anyway, I was taught that, if someone pays you a compliment, you say thanks and smile warmly – especially if the compliment isn’t true. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, figuratively speaking.

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Why are mainstream journalists so threatened by blogging? The question is starting to nag me, because the response is so widespread – and based, I believe, on some key misunderstandings.

The strongest recent expression of mainstream journalists’ discomfort is from Christie Blatchford of The Globe and Mail. A few weeks ago, she used her report from the Olympic Games as an attack on blogging. Blogging, she says, is “the unofficial end to journalism as I know it.” Claiming that she is not complaining just because she is a Luddite, she says that she objects to blogging because she only has so many stories in her, and she doesn’t want to fritter them away. More importantly, she feels that blogging will diminish the craft of journalism, because blog entries and reader comments open up an unfiltered conversation.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Blatchford’s view. Frankly, I find many people who are famous for blogging a pretentious waste of time. However, the term “blogging” covers so many different types of writing – everything from a teenager’s angst-ridden diary of her love life to columns by both semi-professional and professional journalists – that I can’t accept her catch-all condemnation. So far as I can see, when Blatchford talks about blogging, she is referring to any sort of writing published online.

In other words, when she says it’s not just because she’s a Luddite, I have the feeling that, yes, it is because she is a Luddite. She sounds worried that the ability to write something publishable is debased by the Internet, but, mostly, what I hear in her complaints is the cry of the middle-aged, bemoaning the fact that the world has changed.

Mostly, I find her fears groundless. Yes, online-publication – whether you call the result a blog, a column, or an article – is now open to everyone. However, the ability to write a piece that someone will pay to publish remains the dividing line between the professional and the amateur. Expertise – to say nothing of the ability to make deadlines — still matters, and, so far as I can see, always will.

The fact is, writing remains writing, regardless of the medium. The ability to choose worthwhile topics, to research and express them, are not diminished by the Internet. They are still rare skills that people respect and will pay for accordingly. If anything, suck skills stand out all the more in the new tidal waves of illiterate and self-indulgent prose.

As the old signature tag used to say, it was once thought that an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know that isn’t true.

Admittedly, the ease with which readers respond online does create a new relationship with writers. And this relation is scary, and takes some getting used to, because readers assume an absolute egalitariansm with the writer, and do not automatically respect the writer. A professional online writer has to learn the give and take of such a relationship, and learn when – and when not to – take its demands seriously.

Much more so that the traditional print journalist, the online writer has to develop careful filters for reader commentary, knowing that much of it is worthless and that conflicting opinions often cancel each other out, yet remaining open to the small percentage of valid criticism. They have to learn not to take abuse seriously, nor praise either. Online writers also need to budget their time, to ensure that they do not lose too much time in endless debates with readers (my personal rule is to respond no more than twice to any except in exceptional circumstances).

But, if all the increased commentary gets irksome at times, online writers can at least take comfort in the fact that people are reading. They may be misunderstanding, taking thoughts out of context, and using your ideas as a starting point for their own rants, but they are reading. And, in the case of online publications, the audience can consist of millions rather than the tens of thousands for traditional journalists – figures that any writer is sure to appreciate.

I am equally dubious about Blatchford’s concern about running out of stories. Journalists don’t concoct stories out of pure imagination; they respond to the events on their beat. In my experience, the problem is not finding a topic, but deciding which one most deserves coverage or is most interesting to you or your readers. And deadlines, I find, are a marvelous antidote for writer’s block. Would Blatchford, I wonder, have the same concern about the number of columns she has left in her?

However, Blatchford has been a professional journalist much longer than I have, so I can’t completely discount the possibility that I won’t have the same concern when I have her experience.

Apparently, I am on the other side of the digital divided from Blatchford, even though I am probably not that far from her age. My own journalistic career is almost entirely online, except for a handful of print articles each year, and the conditions that Blatchford seems to fear are simply normal working conditions to me. But it seems to me that the worries of Blatchford and other traditional journalists are nothing more than a fear of change, and mostly groundless. Change happens, but most of it is far less revolutionary than the claims of its supporters.

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Something has always bothered me about so-called celebrity bloggers, but I’ve never been quite able to identify it. I’ve vaguely thought that a lot of fuss was being made over very little, but never troubled to clarify the impression. The other day, though, I made a mental connection that explained why I was unimpressed.

When I was a university instructor, I did more than my share of first-year composition. When you’re new and being hired by the semester, that’s the price of clinging to the edges of academia. But the point is that, in most semesters, I would encounter students who had passed high school simply by completing every assignments. A few had even got scholarships because they had completed every assignment at exhaustive length. Often, some of these students would do poorly on their first few assignments – and, when they did, they couldn’t understand why. My explanation that, at university, you got marks for what you accomplished rather than what you attempted might have been talking in tongues for all the sense it made to them. How could they not pass? They had done the assignment, hadn’t they?

Too many celebrity bloggers, I concluded, were like these students. To a surprising degree, what they are known for is not for writing about interesting topics, or for insightful comments, or even for pithy turns of phrase, but for blogging and nothing else.

I remember that, at one networking event, the organizer announced that a celebrity blogger would be live-blogging the event. Immediately, everyone applauded, while the blogger looked around modestly. The blogger didn’t participate much in the event, being hunched over the keyboard of a laptop all evening, so naturally I expected some clear and concise reporting, if not the original insights along the lines of Joseph Addison’s or George Orwell’s.

What I found the next morning was an unfiltered stream of consciousness, perhaps of interest to the blogger’s friends, but no more intrinsically interesting than a conversation overheard on the bus. Authentic it might be, but also a well-bred bore, with little except basic literacy to recommend it.

The blogger, I realize now, was famous for blogging – not blogging well, but simply blogging. And, like the high school kids whose world view I used to detonate, to the blogger and their audience, that was supposed to be enough.

This impression was confirmed by a recent local blogathon, in which a number of these celebrity bloggers posted an entry every half hour for twenty-four hours, each trying to raise money for a favorite charity.

As a fund-raising idea, the blogathon seems futile and full of self-importance. Most people simply aren’t that interested in blogs. In every case where I could find figures, the amount of money raised was less than my average charity donation (and I’m far from wealthy).

But what matters here is how the effort was regarded. The organizer referred to participating in the blogathon as a “sacrifice” — mostly of time and sleep — when really it was nothing of the sort. It’s not a sacrifice when you get something in return, and, in my view, the sense of excitement and importance participants obviously received removed any sense of sacrifice from their efforts. And while such efforts are interesting when someone as accomplished as the American fantasist Harlan Ellison does them as a calculated bit of grandstanding (he has, for example, written in the window of a book store), I couldn’t help noticing that, in the case of the blogathon, what mattered in the blogathon was producing the requisite number of entries, not the quality of the entries.

Is anyone surprised that, except for an entry from a blogger who specialized in humor and one or two others, the entries were almost entirely void of interest for anyone except perhaps the bloggers and their immediate friends? Despite the popularity of personal journalism these days, it takes an expert to write a personal essay that interests acquaintances or strangers, and these didn’t. As Attila the Stockbroker used to say, it would take a mentally subnormal yak to care about most of the blogathon entries.

But that didn’t matter. What the blogathon participants care about was that, like my composition students, the fact that they had completed the assignments.

I don’t mean to insult celebrity bloggers by this observation. I’m friendly with one or two local ones, and, away from their obsession, some of them are interesting enough people. If they or their friends get pleasure from such entries, who am I to say that they shouldn’t? But I do mean to say that what they are doing is played by relaxed rules, and that I’m not interested imitating them.

For me, playing by real world rules is the only way worth playing. That doesn’t necessarily mean being paid for your writing (although it’s true that few reactions suggest that you are writing to at least a minimal standard than having someone buy the right to publish you). But unless my concern is catch the interest of others with every trick I can muster and risking failure, then I’m no better than a high school student expecting to be rewarded just for trying.

That’s fine for practice. But high school was a long time ago, and I prefer to operate by real world rules. If the rise of failure is greater (and I’m the first to admit that I’ve failed many times), then so is the chance of a truly satisfying success (and I’ve had a few of those, although far fewer than my ego likes to admit). In the end, what matters to me is not how much I write, but the reception it gets from readers.

Otherwise, in my own estimation, I am no better than those owners of one-person companies who call themselves CEOs – self-aggrandizing, lacking self-perspective, and more than slightly pathetic.

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“Let us now compare mythologies”
-Leonard Cohen

One advantage of blogging, I find, is that it reveals my personal mythology. A single entry might not do so, but if I look over a few dozen entries (something I rarely do, because the urge to edit and improve is almost irresistible), a definite pattern starts to emerge.

When I talk about mythology, I’m not talking about lies. Rather, I’m talking about myths in the anthropological sense – stories that explain where you come from and why you do things in certain ways. In this sense, whether a myth is true or a lie is only of secondary importance. What matters is whether the myth sustains you and gives a sense of identity.

For instance, to an American, does it really matter whether America was settled by the best and brightest from older countries? Or, to a feminist, whether a prehistoric universal matriarchy ever existed? You can examine and even debunk such stories – and there can be a certain satisfaction in disproving what everybody knows – but you won’t be thanked, and your proofs will not be welcomed (if anything, you’ll be pilloried). What matters is not the objective reality of myth, but the sense of identity it gives a culture or an individual. If a story helps to sustain identity, that is all that really counts.

So what is my personal myth? Looking through blog entries about my past, I’d say it could be summarized in five words: triumphing after a bad start. Or, in a single word: endurance.

Time and time again, the narrative I tell about myself begins with me doing something badly. Often, I am humiliated by how inept I am. But I am determined, and through perseverance, I make myself competent and even highly skilled where I was once inept.

Considering this story more closely, I find that it has all sorts of implications. For one thing, it’s not a story tied to a particular group or set of circumstances; instead, it’s about attitudes and applicable to a number of situations. Since I’ve always considered myself a generalist with a broad array of interests, I’m fascinated to find that view reflected in my personal myth.

For another, it’s about education – again, not surprising considering that I’ve always believed in education for its own sake, and research is what I currently do for a living.

But what I find most interesting is that my myth that emphasizes persistence. It make no claim to my brilliance or talent. Natural ability isn’t even a consideration. Instead, it’s about learning from mistakes and not giving up. Learning to speak, learning good handwriting, becoming a high school running champion, finding the right profession – time and time again, the story I tell myself is about plodding along until I do or find the right thing.

That’s not surprising, I suppose. The one story I knew about someone with my name when I was growing up was the one about Robert the Bruce learning persistence from a spider. And, as a distance runner, I had concrete knowledge of the importance of endurance, because it wasn’t speed or even strategy that won races so much as the ability to keep going. But, until now, I hadn’t realized how deep-rooted such values were inside me.

In fact, I’m not sure that this is a myth I would have consciously chosen for myself. It has limits, such as a distrust of anything that comes too easily. Perhaps, too, it suggests a lack of confidence, and an expectation of failure the first time. It certainly dropped me into the worst stress that I have ever endured in my life.

Nor, now that I have opened up the myth to examine it, am I completely sure that it is always true. I can think of exceptions to the myth, and, looking back, I think I can see places where I have tugged the raw material of my life to make it fit into the myth better, like the corner of a sheet on a bed. In other places, I suspect I’ve exaggerated or even made up things out of whole cloth.

Still, for better or worse, the myth is mine. And like all myths, what matters in the end is that, on some level, I’ve made it a part of me.

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In the last few days, I’ve had several experiences that make me think about my role as a journalist in the free and open source software community:

The first was a reaction I had from someone I requested some answers from. Although I thought I was being polite, what I got back was an attack: “I am not prepared to answer any of these questions at this time. The intent of your article is to feed the flames and I will have no part in that. The fact that people like you like to stir up controversy is to be expected, since that is the job of any writer trying to get readers.”

This reply not only seemed presumptuously prescient, since I hadn’t written the article, or even decided what angle it would take, but also unjustifiably venomous, given that I didn’t know the person. Moreover, although I am in some ways a contrarian, in that I believe that questioning the accepted wisdom is always a useful exercise, when I write, I am far more interested in learning enough to come to a supported conclusion or to cover an interesting subject than I am in stirring up controversy for its own sake. The fact that an editor believes that a topic will get a lot of page hits is meaningful to me mainly because the belief sets me loose to write a story that interests me.

Still, I don’t blame my correspondent. He probably had his reasons for his outburst, even though they didn’t have much to do with me. But the fact that someone could react that way says some unpleasant things about some current practioners of free software journalism — things that alarm me.

Another was the discovery of the Linux Hater’s Blog (no, I won’t link to it and give it easy page hits; if you want to find it, do the work yourself). I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more mean-spirited and needlessly vicious blog, and I hope I never do. However, recently as I’ve been preparing stories, I’ve come across some commenters on individual mailing lists who were equally abusive. They are all examples, not only of what I never want my work to be, but the sort of writing that makes me scrutinize my own work to ensure that it doesn’t resemble them in anyway whatsoever.

Journalism that stirs up hate or encourages paranoia — or even journalism whose focus is sensationalism — is journalism played with the net down, and I’m not interested in it. Oh, I might make the occasional crack, being only human, or use the time-honoured tactic of saying something outrageous then qualifying it into a more reasonable statement. But, mostly, I prefer to work for my page hits.

Such sites also suggest that the line between blogging and journalism is sometimes being blurred in ways that aren’t very complimentary to bloggers. While some bloggers can deliver professional commentary, and do it faster than traditional media, others seem to be bringing a new level of nihilism to journalism.

A third is the unexpected death of Joe Barr, my colleague at Linux.com. Joe, better known as warthawg or MtJB (“Mister the Joe Bar,” a story he liked to tell against himself) encouraged me with his kindness when I was first becoming a full-time journalist. Later, when I started writing commentaries, his editorials were an indicator for me of what could be done in that genre. As I adjust to the idea that Joe isn’t around any more, I’m also thinking about how I’ve developed over the last few years.

The final link was a long interview – almost twice my normal time – with Aaron Seigo, one of the best-known figures in the KDE desktop project. One of the many twists and turns in our conversation was the role of journalism in free and open source software (FOSS). As Seigo sees things, FOSS journalists are advocate journalists, acting as intermediaries between FOSS projects and the larger community of users. He wasn’t suggesting that FOSS journalists are fan-boys, loyally supporting the Cause and suppressing doubts; nothing in his comments suggested that. But he was pointing out that FOSS journalists are an essential part of the community. In fact, much of what he said echoed my own half-formed sentiments.

Seigo also discussed how a small number of people making a lot of noise can easily deceive journalists who are trying to be fair and balanced by making the journalists think that the noisily-expressed beliefs are held by more people than they actually are. As he points out, the American Right has been very successful in this tactic, especially through talk-radio. He worried that part of the recent user revolt against KDE 4 might be due to something similar.

Listening to him, I tried to decide if I had fallen for this ploy in the past. I decided that I might have been, although usually I try not just to be thorough, but also analytical enough to sift down to the truth.

I was going to try to summarize what I had learned from these four separate experiences, but my efforts to do so only sounded sententious – to say nothing of self-important and over-simplified. But I’m thought of all four as I’ve exercised recently, and I’ll be thinking of them for some time to come, too.

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In the past, I’ve described bloggers as amateur journalists. Those who are good enough and ambitious enough eventually find paying gigs and become professional. Broadly speaking, that’s still true, but I now think that’s incomplete. Where a professional journalist is constrained to follow a code of ethics in doing reviews, bloggers only need to follow their consciences. And, for some, their consciences are not enough.

As a professional journalist, I am required by my editors to follow a well-recognized set of guidelines in dealing with my subject matter. If I write about an organization to which I have connections, I’m supposed to disclose that connection, if only at the end of the story. If I receive a piece of proprietary software (not that I ever get much, since I cover free and open source software), I either return it or throw it away when I’m finished with the review. Similarly hardware (again, I don’t get much; due to the vagaries of the tariffs imposed by Canada Customs, few companies are willing to ship from the United States to Canada), I return it to the sender when I’m done.

This basic code of ethics isn’t always comfortable. It means, among other things, that I don’t take out membership in the Free Software Foundation, even though I support that organization’s goals, because I might be tempted to pull my punches should a time ever come when I need to criticize freely. But I try to follow it because part of what I sell is a truthful voice. Unless I make an effort to keep that voice, then what I write is useless.

Probably, the editors I sell to regularly wouldn’t fire me if I knowingly lapsed from these standards. But they would reprimand me the first time, and would probably stop buying my work if I continued in the ethical lapse. They have their own credibility to consider, and buying tainted work doesn’t enhance it. And, at the risk of sounding priggish, I accept these standards as natural and, if not ideal, then at least the best that can be followed to retain integrity.

Imagine my shocked innocence, then, when I discovered that some bloggers do not consider themselves similarly restrained (I won’t name them; I have no wish to pick a fight, and the names don’t matter as much as the behavior). At least one well-known blogger openly advertises on his front page how much he charges to blog about a product. Another blogg accepted samples of moderately priced merchandise to write about it. Then, when the advertising agency that connected them with the manufacturers changed the rules on them but continued to invite them to participate in such campaigns, they were conscience-free enough to complain of maltreatment and spamming. Others also complained about spamming by the same advertiser, but expressed wishes that they could have qualified to take part in such a campaign.

To say the least, these people live in a very different ethical universe than me – and, by extension, than other professional journalists. And, much as I hate to say it (since they all seem decent enough people when I’ve met them socially), their definitions of acceptable behavior makes everything they write unreliable. Unless they announce that they’ve changed their ways, how can I know that what they write is a honest opinion, and not a bought one? Even if they’re writing on an innocuous subject, I’ll always wonder if their opinions are tainted.

Am I being too rigid here? Nobody else seems to be bothered by such behavior, so why should I be? Maybe my self-mocking description of myself as a modern Puritan has more truth than I realized.

All the same, I keep thinking of the comedian Bill Hicks’ comment about people who do product endorsements: “Do a commercial, and you’re off the artistic roll call. Every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore. End of story.”

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(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.

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