Posts Tagged ‘Blogging’

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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