December 22, 2003

Blogging, talkers, and reasons

Perhaps I'm wasting an A-list notice, but Lawrence Lessig has a very nice post where he says:

I missed that Seth has a blog. He's been right about many things, but I think he's wrong about one thing: blogs are not just for talkers, for talkers have no time for links. The best blogs synthesize, and reflect. Not just news, but a way to triangulate, as Dave describes it. I hope he rethinks.

What I'm focusing on, is the issues of why people write, and trying to go past the basic point that some people write as a hobby. That is, we know some people enjoy writing, even if there is nobody reading. Which is fine. Just like some people like to spot the trains roll by, or watch birds, or be spectators for several hours while a few guys kick a ball around. There's nothing wrong with any of it, in my view.

But I think the conflation of writing a diary, which is for yourself and immediate circle, with reporting and commentary, which is primarily writing for other people, has been very confusing for the stock discussion of "What Is Blogging, And WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?"

Diary entries, press-releases, reporting, analysis - these all share an empirical characteristic of being frequent writing. But they don't all have the same functionality in terms of reasons to do them. That is, the motivation or reason to write a daily diary entry is not the same as a daily journalistic news roundup or analysis, even if both are "blog posts".

People who are in a writing business - that is, authors, journalists, lawyers, lobbyists, public-relations (I'm terming "talkers") - can benefit personally from doing a constant stream of writing. Even if the writing is given away, free, it can drum up business, get one's name out there, and so on. It's very rare to make money directly from a blog. But it's often useful to think of it as a form of personal advertising.

But I am not in a writing business. I'm not a "talker". By profession, I'm a programmer. After a while, it seems to make sense to ask "Is my writing of commentary, read by almost nobody, worthwhile"? What is this for?

Synthesizing takes time, effort. Can I ever, objectively, say "This isn't working" (for me)? Ever? Or as long as there is one other reader in the entire world, is that the standard of "working"? Note for diary writing, one might say that the definition is purely internal, and it doesn't matter if there are zero other readers. But again, I'm uninterested in keeping up a purely personal online diary.

So maybe writing frequent free barely-read commentary/analysis, just isn't for me. The easy answer is of course to say, yes, keep spending the time, keep putting in the effort, nose to grindstone, shoulder to wheel, etc. But this is not useful. Of course if there's one interested reader in the world, that reader is going to say they're happy to read it, it's almost tautological. An answer which isn't a platitude has to consider that it's not costless to do this. This connects in a deep way to the idea that "Punditry is not democracy". We aren't all going to be reporters/commentators, even if only simply because we all can't afford it.

Cake tastes great. But not everyone is eating cake, more like bread crumbs.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on December 22, 2003 07:11 AM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Hey, Seth, yes, I'm almost nobody, but I'm still reading.

Do we need micropayments to make it worth while for you to keep writing?

Posted by: Bob at December 22, 2003 01:12 PM

I would not have interviewed you without your blog, if that is any conciliation. This is simply because I would not have found you and I would not have known that you hosted interesting views on other subjects than anti-censorware. Interviews, like our Greplaw interview, will make you more well-known and attract new clients. It will also make you more attractive to current clients, who will get confirmation of your knowledge. Never underestimate the power of PR.

Maybe you do benefit from your blog, even if you do not consider yourself a 'talker'.

Still, this does not make democracy out of punditry. Blogging is a great marketing tool no matter if your name is Lessig or Finkelstein. We live in a bumpersticker culture, so keep on sticking the bumper!

Best regards,


Posted by: Mikael Pawlo at December 22, 2003 02:46 PM

Good points as usual. I'll add: It makes no sense for everybody to be a pundit/commentator. At least not on all topics, although there are few literate people who can't commentate intelligently on some topics.

I'm a "semipro talker." That is, I make a living doing systems analysis and design in the library field. But I'm far better known for the books, articles, and speeches I've done: Not a lot of money (although enough to live well in most developing nations), but a fair amount of awareness and modest prestige.

So for me, a weblog could make sense--but it doesn't suit my style of commentary. For diarists, well, the diary is the thing. For topical bloggers, it can stop working (or work better) at almost any time. You're in the topical blogger area, primarily, which means that you--and only you--have to keep deciding whether it's worthwhile. (As I do with my 'zine, which has been called a weblog, which shows just how confused people get about these matters.)

Posted by: Walt Crawford at December 22, 2003 04:07 PM


Bob: I meant "almost nobody" in terms of numbers, not status :-). With order-of-magnitude 100 readers, even macropayments won't help (somewhere I read that even Instapundit makes a minimal amount of money in direct donations, though in his case the fame is a stepping-stone)

Mikael: Indeed, I never do underestimate the power of PR. My problem is I get very little of it. I can't imagine getting a client from any of this analysis. My employer does know I have a blog, and a co-worker once read it in the past (don't know if he does now), but I've never felt it was regarded as anything more than an interesting hobby (i.e., didn't count for me, didn't count against me, just an interesting activity, like the co-worker who was a real part-time Zen monk and told us stories about the going-ons in the local Zen temple).

Walt: I've tried to determine if it's worthwhile based on some measurements, so I have some sort of empirical basis. The numbers are dishearteningly low.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 22, 2003 09:30 PM

Greetings from your 13th reader. :-) I think there are two main reasons why your blog isn't making as many waves as one might hope:

(1) Columbine, in Twenty Rules for the New Escribitionist, says that regardless of how much you try to promote yourself, it will take you a year to accumulate ten regular readers and two years to accumulate fifty; since most online journals fold within three years, it's hard to predict how your audience will grow after that.

(2) I think most people who are in a position to make noise about censorware, your main concern, don't particularly care about it, because they can get uncensored Internet access, and stupid filters on the computers at their public library don't affect them. (Compare with abortion: existing legal obstacles, like 24-hour waiting periods, and the absence of abortion providers in many areas, make it impractical for poor women to get abortions, but don't impede middle-class women.)

Posted by: Seth Gordon at December 23, 2003 09:21 AM

Welcome, SethG, long-time-no-see.

1) If it's 10readers/1year and 50readers/2year, then again, so much for the idea that anyone with a blog can refute the power of big media. Very, very, few people can afford, in terms of time or energy, to keep at something draining for three years or more. That is, this is for *talkers*.

2) There's some truth to that. But also, for example, the fact that I got comparatively little publicity for my DMCA exemption win is partially a factor from simply not being well-supported. Static Control Components (SCC, printer chips) basically *lost* their DMCA exemption bid. Yet they got huge publicity by simply paying several hundred dollars to press-distribute a press release claiming victory. I didn't have the resources to do something similar. And I outright didn't get some recognition because of grudges. Sadly, people don't just don't want to believe that it can *hurt* for vendettas to result in lack of coverage.

All of which is once more very much an argument against my efforts.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 24, 2003 11:10 AM

"The best blogs synthesize, and reflect. Not just news, but a way to triangulate, as Dave describes it." -- Lawrence Lessig

"We've asked our clients to recontextualize their business. We've re- ... recontextualized what it is to be a business-services ... and that'll continually ... " -- Jeff Dachis, co-founder of Razorfish, losing his mind on "60 Minutes II"

What we need now is for someone to synthesize AND recontextualize the blogosphere. Only then will we be able to triangulate the proper information necessary to live in the next realm of the information superhighway.

For a community that claims to see through political spin, the blogosphere (ugh, that "word") has created a completely incomprehensible smokescreen of Newspeak. Doublepluscongratulations!

Posted by: Anonymous at January 1, 2004 01:18 PM