Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

“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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A few years ago, the mechanics of business networking were simple. You attended an event – a cocktail party, or perhaps a seminar – and circulated like mad, collecting business cards. All that is still an important part of networking, but, thanks to the social Internet (AKA Web 2.0), it’s just the beginning.

This awareness has been growing in me for over a year, but I only became fully aware of this change last Saturday, when I dropped in at the end of the documentation camp for Joomla! that Rastin Mehr had organized in Vancouver. Like many of those at the event, Rastin is a computer consultant, and he quite frankly saw the event as a change to socialize with his associates. But was what was interesting to me was how he – and everyone else — went about it.

One of Rastin’s vocations is photography, so he took dozens of shots of the event, and immediately posted some of them to Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Naturally, many of those at the event logged on for a look, either at the event – since most people were carrying laptops – or in the next few days afterwards. Some made comments, and Rastin provided links on FaceBook. (He also took some videos using the built-in webcam on his laptop, which has the effect of showing everyone at their foreshortened worse as they peer up at the lens).

Meanwhile, several attendees blogged about the event, including Rastin and Monica Hamburg. Rastin’s blog was especially interesting as a form of networking, since he included his pictures of everyone, and wrote short biographies about those depicted (mine, which accompanied a picture that caught me with my eyes open, described my new West Coast bracelet as a chronoplate and me as a kind of journalistic Doctor Who – a comparison that delighted me, since I’ve been a fan of the regenerating Doctor for years). Naturally, people commented on those, too. Jeanette Duguay did something of the same, borrowing a picture from Rastin to illustrate her blog. People at other Joomla! doc camps also logged in, extending the networking to those who not only weren’t at the event, but who lived on other continents.

(Now, of course, I’m doing something of the same, writing about these blogs and linking to them – although not, in my case, with pictures).

As I write, Rastin has yet to post his video interviews, but I imagine that they will provide the same opportunities for continued interactions among the attendees.

And, as if the blogs weren’t enough, instead of dropping the business cards they had collected into a pile destined to be forgotten in a corner, people took those cards and made LinkedIn and FaceBook connections with them. Connections on such sites are sometimes dismissed as shallow – and many times rightly so – but they do have the advantage over business cards of keeping people automatically in touch, providing that they login semi-regularly.

In short, what social sites have done is to extend this networking event long past the hours in which it was held. Moreover, while they have provided ways to follow up on the encounters and perpetuate them. Whether in the long run they will help to make the connection more meaningful I can’t tell yet, but they certainly have created a better chance of lasting connections.

Most social network sites, of course, were developed for teenagers and young adults as an extension of their leisure time. They still serve that function, and probably always well. All the same, seeing how working professionals are using them, I can’t help thinking that the social sites have proved themselves at last Far from being frivolous, as mainstream dilettantes are always maintaining, they’re becoming ways to enhance the power of networking.

If you’re a professional seeking contacts, a FaceBook account is now as important as being decently dressed. And what you lose in straight forwardness, you gain in effective networking.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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For someone who rejected the idea of blogging for so long, I’ve made up for lost time.

Last year, I started writing a twice monthly blog for the Linux Journal site, making me one of the few bloggers I know who is actually paid for the hobby. I confess that the blog is more a function of the content management system used by the site, and what I am really writing is articles, but I admit that I enjoy the look on blogging advocates’ faces when they hear that a parvenu like me is getting paid.

Then, in March 2007, I started this blog for personal topics, mostly unrelated to my usual work covering free software and GNU/Linux. It really isn’t a regular blog, either. Instead of keeping a journal, I usually write entries that are short personal essays. The result hasn’t been a runaway success, but the readership is growing nicely for a new blog, and, a couple of weeks ago, my entry “What Makes a Canadian Canadian” received almost six hundred visits in a day.

Left to myself, I probably would have been content to stay at two. However, a few days ago, David Repa from Free Geek Vancouver asked me if I wanted to start writing a blog for that organization’s site. Since I’ve already written a few blog entries here about environmentalism and computing, I agreed.

The experience should be interesting. Like many people, I’ve always been vaguely supportive of environmental topics, but I confess that I was originally more interested in the free software side of Free Geek’s efforts. However, I’m less ignorant that I was a month ago, and with luck I’ll be less ignorant a month from now than I am now.

I already have enough topics for my first four or five entries. Bar disasters, I’ll be posting the first entry on the Free Geek Vancouver site some time in the next few days.

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I was already an adult in the first days of the Internet, but I clamped on to it like a lamprey hungry for its next meal. For a letter writing, research addict like me, it was the tool I had always wanted. More recently, working in high-tech journalism and interacting with people from fourteen to eighty, I’ve been kept fully submerged in the latest trends. I don’t always participate in them (for instance, I was late to blog), but I have generally poked around and experimented. In fact, that’s my job. Yet it’s only been in the last few months that I realized that most of my middle-aged contemporaries view the Internet, Web 2.0, and related trends very differently. Some of them hope to exploit the trends, but few understand them and many are not-so secretly suspicious and hostile towards them.

On the Internet, the generation gap is not only alive, but stronger than it has been any time since the 1960s. Take email, for instance. Many middle-aged business experts suggest that email should only be a few lines long at the most. What would they say of the 2600 word email I received yesterday as part of my research for a story? And while these same experts talk about email overload, I routinely deal with several hundred emails a day. Naturally, I don’t read all those emails; but I deal with them. It’s a rare day, too, that I write less than a couple of dozen myself. No big deal – just part of my routine.

The difference, I think, is that, like people younger with me, I treat email casually. For me, email is useful when I’m not concerned about the speed of the response, or when I and my correspondents want to plan what we say more carefully than is possible on IRC. By contrast, most of my contemporaries still treat each email like a letter. Their attitude makes any given email a much more significant event to them than it is for me.

Unfortunately, accustomed to treating any given email as a minor event, I didn’t realize this difference until it cost me a friend whom I might have valued. While I was treating the person like I would any colleague, to the potential friend I was coming across as demanding and needy.

But at least email is something that my generation has reluctantly embraced because of its usefulness. When you get to various forms of social networking, the gap is even greater. A column in The Globe and Mail this morning that was supposed to be about Facebook quickly turned into a rant about the fecklessness of the young. Russell Smith, a writer in his mid-forties, wrote:

I kept asking young people, what is it, exactly, what is it for, what is the point? You keep in constant touch with your friends for why, exactly? . . . . Why on earth would anyone want to increase their e-mail workload? Why would anyone want to deliberately eliminate any remnants of their privacy?

Instead of exploring social networking as an interesting phenomenon, the column amounted to a rant because “young people” didn’t share Smith’s values. In the end, he came off as sneering and intolerant – attitudes very much against the prevailing spirit of the Internet. Generally, in my sixteen years of connectivity, I’ve found the Web extremely tolerant, almost too much so, considering some of its darker corners. Flame wars do erupt, but the Internet is a big place: If you don’t like the people in the parts you hang out, you can always find somewhere else to go.

All too often, though, the middle-aged make no distinctions. They persist in talking about the Internet as a homogeneous whole. Recently, for example, I read another middle-aged man’s comment that the Internet was responsible for a rise in “ludicrous” professions — not exactly the most tolerant view of change. And if you believe the average traditional media outlets, nothing exists on the Internet except viruses and pornography. This attitude may be due to the jealousy of traditional journalists who find their audiences shrinking and their relevance reduced by online hacks like me, but there’s a more general hostility and distrust there, too. Too many of my contemporaries sound like octogenarians whining about the young and their crazy ways because their bad backs are giving them trouble.

I’m no trendoid. I pick and choose the parts of the Internet in which I participate, in the same way that I pick and choose whether to carry a cell phone or own a microwave or credit cards (three commonplaces for which I have no use). Nor do I go overboard trying to use every acronym in the IRC lexicon. Nothing, after all, is more pathetic — or, at times, creepy — than the middle-aged trying to pretend they’re young. But just because I choose not to participate in something doesn’t mean it has no right to exist. And, more importantly, I prefer to be open-minded, and to base my conclusions on knowledge rather than prejudice.

If acting my age means being stodgy and irritable about everything new that comes along, then I plan to prolong my first childhood until my second one kicks in.

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If you know me at all, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing here. In the past, I’ve never had much use for blogging. Bloggers, I’ve said loudly, are either trendy narcissists or amateur journalists. I’ve never had patience with trendies of any kind, and, being a professional journalist for sites like Linux.com and Linux Journal, why would I want to be an amateur one? I don’t quite agree with Samuel Johnson’s comment that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but part of me thinks that publishing without running a gauntlet of editors is a bit like using the cheat codes in a video game. You can do it, but where’s the satisfaction?

Yet here I am — and that needs a bit of explanation.

I could say that my resistance has been lowered by writing what is loosely called a blog for the Linux Journal site twice a month. Yet despite what the software calls my efforts, they are really articles. I admit, though, that I take a perverse delight in telling hardcore bloggers that I get paid for blogging.

A truer reason is, having met a few more bloggers at places like Barcamp Vancouver, I have to admit that I’ve over-generalized about them. As I should have known, had I bothered reacting to anything except the mainstream media’s presentation (and we all know how reliable that can be on any topic), people blog for all sorts of reasons: as a hobby, as a way to keep friends informed, and, as a way to start discussions. As an ex-instructor of university English, who practically used to plead for students to find ways to make writing part of their lives, how can I continue to disapprove of something that makes them do just that?

But the reason I’ve started a blog myself is even simpler: Because I’m a writer now.

When I attended my first high school reunion in October 2006, the people I had known decades ago were unsurprised to hear that I was earning my living as a journalist. To them, journalism seemed an obvious choice of careers for me. Yet for years, it wasn’t obvious.

For most of my life, I was a wannabe. Ever since I was fourteen, I had published the occasional poem or short story, but I didn’t know how to make a living as a writer. I could only edge around the idea, gradually circling closer as I grew older. I became a university instructor, then a technical writer, and detoured into business as a product manager and marketing and communications director during the dot-com boom. I like to think that I was good at most of these types of employment, and even excelled at one or two of them, but eventually after a year or two, I would feel myself wanting to move on, never knowing why.

That changed in the fall of 2004. Towards the end of October, I was walking along the Coal Harbor seawall in Vancouver, when I had a revelation. I’d had two massively non-challenging consulting contracts in a row. Even more importantly, having been part of the core team at two startups had spoiled my patience for the vagaries of upper management; I felt I could do their jobs better than they could. And besides, was meeting an artificial deadline really worth long hours of overtime that kept you from the last dregs of summer?

As I strolled in the sun, suddenly I knew that I would not be renewing my contract when it came due for renewal in a couple of weeks. In fact, if possible, I would never be working in an office again.

Over the previous year, I’d been doing occasional articles for NewsForge and Linux.com to compensate for the dullness of my contracts. Now, desperate but determined, I asked the senior editor Robin Miller, one of the inventors of online journalism, if I could write full-time for the two sites. He took pity on me, but, even so, it took a year before I had the confidence and discipline to manage a full-time writing schedule, and another eight months before I had developed other markets and started bringing my income up to the level it had been when I had been a marketing and communications consultant. But whatever else I could say of the experience, I’ve never been bored and never wanted to do something else.

Busy with learning to be a journalist, I never noticed the change that was occurring until I started a brief email correspondence with a high school friend after our reunion. Like me, she had been a wannabe in high school. Now, although a successful business woman and the writer of several books, she characterized herself as “not a communicator” and wistfully expressed admiration for “creative people.”

I felt sorry she had a poor self-image, but her comments made me realize that I was no longer a wannabe. Somehow, without noticing, I had actually become a writer. Maybe I wasn’t the fiction writer I always wanted to be, but I was still doing pieces to which I was proud to sign my name.

And the thing about writers is that they write. The fact that they can do it for money is gratifying, and frees them from other distractions, but they also do it — if they’re being honest — because they get a kick out of the performance, out of knowing that people are reading what they have to say and praising or damning it. Yes, they’re expressing themselves, but, as satisfying as self-expression can be, the real kick is expressing yourself and having people listen.

That joy in performance explains this blog. My professional writing is mostly about GNU/Linux and free software, two important topics of which I don’t ever expect to tire. They’re varied, they represent a good cause, and they are championed by smart, talented people whom I am proud to know — and still awed, at times, to be accepted by.

Yet, at the end of the day, like the musician who can’t resist picking out a tune or two on the piano while the roadies break down the set, I find that I still want to perform, and often riffing topics that I don’t cover in my professional life. So, with that selfish (but, I hope, very human motivation), I’m starting this blog.

I don’t know how often I’ll perform here, or how big my audience will be. But for me the point of a blog is that it contains the possibility of an audience in a way that a private journal doesn’t. And for me, it’s one thing to write hopefully as a wannabe and quite another to do so as a writer. With so many wannabes everywhere I turn, I never wanted to be counted among them. I was nervous about being denounced as pretentious, and worried that if I spent time talking about writing, I’d never actually do it. Now, those concerns no longer apply, and I can write freely and put aside my misgivings.

But remember: what I’m doing is performing. I may mention personal details, but they will be ordered details, selected to reinforce whatever point I may have at the time, and given a significance that they may not have had by themselves or at the time I experienced them.

Nor am I proselytizing or reporting with strict accuracy. And I’m definitely not telling great truths as I see them. From time to time, I may claim, implicitly or explicitly, to be doing all of these things, but the truth is

(I’m a liar; trust me)

that what I’m really doing is enjoying myself. Any readers who come along won’t get to know me any more than I know them (although they may have an illusion of knowing me). But they will, I hope, find their own brief amusement in the performance and in their response to it.

Really, that’s what writing is all about, and blogging is no exception. Only my own insecurities kept me from seeing that before.

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