When I started this blog I thought it could be the answer to many problems. It was a creative outlet. It was a project I could dedicate time to. It was a chance to start discussions. It forced me to think about various topics. Now I like writing for my blog, but I could achieve many of these results without it. I like reading other people’s blogs, but I also like reading news and opinion articles for “real” publications. I like commenting on other people’s blogs and receiving comments on mine, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to be part of an online community.
In short, the blogosphere has certain problematic tendencies. Read this as a complaint roster, or as advice to new bloggers, but here is my list of tendencies we’d all do best to avoid:
Do real people read and comment on your blog, or just other bloggers? Imagine I wanted to create a home design blog. One thing all the ‘How to grow your audience’ advice posts will tell you is to start following and leaving comments on other home design blogs. People reply to your comments, they click through to your blog, you might get some reciprocal follows. Your initial efforts seem to have paid off. You have an audience! The market has spoken: there is demand, you will supply. You continue to produce home design content.
There is a potential trap here. Is this a genuine market? Who are your followers, and how do you know they aren’t following you just to increase their traffic? Are their comments genuine or self-interested? You might have quit while you were ahead, but you had a community. But it’s unclear what purpose the community serves except precisely to perpetuate itself. If you have any interest in being read by people who are not other bloggers – particularly, not other bloggers in the same subject matter area – this is something to bear in mind.
We’ve mentioned this already. That person put their own website URL in their comment; why? Did they actually like your post? If they didn’t have a website of their own to promote, did they like your post enough that they would have commented all the same? I mean, I’ve done this. Did I really think that the link to one of my own posts was going to be genuinely informative for the writer and their existing readers – or did I just want more of my own? I, like most bloggers, may simply have internalised the message from idly flicking through the rudiments of blog marketing. I’ve said it before, but when self-interest is at play, it can be difficult to parse out your real motivations. But we should try.
Kind of as above, really. It can feel like everyone has an agenda: riding off the back of your readership to grow their own audiences, getting their name out there, getting sponsorship opportunities for themselves … this is hardly the way we should relate to each other – even online!
Then there is the fact that there is so much dross out there about how to start a blog, how to write for your blog, how to get into good blogging habits, how to publicise your blog, how to attract sponsors, top 10 blog ideas for when you’ve abandoned all question of thinking for yourself, interest, or originality, and just need to churn something out to make sure you maintain an upward stats trajectory …
Even this post is an example of the above! But I’m meta-blogging to ask whether we might have less meta-blogging clogging up the internet and more thought-provoking items of interest …
Linked to the above, but specific to the blog on which the post is published. Posts about how your stats are doing. Posts about how you think of content for your blog. Posts whose sole content is an apology for not having blogged recently. Posts with too many links to your other posts. Posts listing your top 10 most popular posts. Again, mea maxima culpa, I’ve done this myself. I found it quite fun to take stock of how I’d achieved a personal goal a year after I started this blog. But I did feel slightly shame-faced about publicising it to others. I should probably stop saying the words ‘my blog’ now. Cringe.
… in the sense that very often we are happy to cater to the lowest common denominator. The culture of writing for a living unfortunately seems to lead to popularism. Look at the great authors of the past: most of them were aristocrats with lots of time on their hands and no need to earn a living. They could write whatever they wanted: something from the heart, something niche, something profound, something high-culturally allusive, something difficult, something obscure, something ambiguous, because they weren’t concerned about the audience. These are the great works. We are concerned about our audience (even when we don’t rely on our blogs for an income) and this means writing what people want to hear. But the content that’s tailored to hit all your metrics for reader engagement is unlikely to be a great work, I’m afraid to say.
How can we rescue the blogosphere from this vicious circle of unjustified mutual flattery?
I mean, just reverse the above:
- Don’t self-perpetuate: if you don’t have genuine readers, there’s no point
- Don’t be self-interested: leave your URL if you want, but only comment if you really have something useful to contribute. Make sure your praise is authentic.
- Don’t be self-promoting: ‘Great post! Make sure to check out myblog.com’ is gross
- Don’t be self-obsessed: cut the meta-posts
- Don’t self-refer
- Don’t self-abase
The last one might be the most important for me. I don’t want to read what I want to read. I don’t want to be flattered. I don’t want to be pandered to. I don’t want to be written to. I certainly don’t want to read something that I suspect has been manipulated to induce me to like, comment and share. Unless you’re writing something honest, difficult, vulnerable, intellectual, beautiful, then I really question what the point is. And if you complain that you can’t make a living that way, I question whether (all things being equal) yours is a living worth making. Before Picasso, no one would have had in mind that they would want to see paintings that fragmented and distorted their subjects, but we would consider it a loss to the world had this style never been developed. No one wanted the Rite of Spring at the time of its first performance; it was considered so aesthetically repulsive there was a near-riot at the concert hall (although it’s unclear whether the dissonant music or the choreography was at fault). Writing in accordance with what people want now leaves no room for originality. So we should strive for excellence, not for readers.
Nay, we should even strive for unreadability. The following passage is from a book called Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick. Granted, it’s at the other end of the writing spectrum to one’s own efforts (750 pages of academic philosophy), but there are lessons for all.
PS: Another rant of mine about bad (fictional) writing can be found here.