Let’s count ways to hurl words at the Web: (1) Blog on your own space, or (2) on someone else’s, like Blogspot or WordPress. (3) Live it up on a mailing list with a public archive. (4) Go short-form on Twitter (wow, or maybe a competitor). (5) Social-net it on Facebook or G+. (6) Minimize effort on Tumblr or whatever. (7) Try a new mode with Branch, or (8) an even newer one on Medium.
Maybe the notion of standalone chunks of writing — essays, if you will — is shuffling offstage. Some of the most interesting publishing action is either ultra-short-form or picture-centric (Pinterest, Instagram). Meanwhile, Anil Dash tells us to think streams not pages.
The words you’re reading are delivered via old-school blog tech and live permanently at tbray.org; so I’m probably non-neutral. And it’s hard to worry too much; the Internet didn’t kill TV, which didn’t kill movies, which didn’t kill books, which didn’t kill spoken language.
Let’s start with a question.
Why Write, Anyhow? · Here are the reasons I can think of for pasting billboards on the Web’s walls:
You love writing.
A lot of the discussion in this space focuses on item #1. And you gotta eat, so yeah. But actually no. Because writing has always been a shitty way to make a buck, which has never really been a problem because mostly it’s done by people who can’t not do it.
Blogging pretty well sucks as a way to make money. But then so do Tweeting and Facebooking and so on; and I bet Branching and Mediuming aren’t gonna be cash cows either.
Some people are going to figure out how to turn words into money; I sort of have, this blog having helped me into a couple of pretty good jobs.
But I’d still like to subtract that from the discussion. First of all, to quote Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” Second, the people who do make money will mostly stumble into it, when their form and content touch nerves en masse; they won’t have started with a business plan.
I’d also like to subtract the love-writing/can’t-not-write dimension from the discussion, because it’s a given. Most people who like blogging also like tweeting and all that other stuff too.
Influence, Entertainment, and Information · Are what’s left when you ignore love and money.
If what you care about is informing people, you can’t beat the short form: Just the facts, ma’am. Twitter has resulted in the whole world being having a clearer and fresher view of what’s going on out there.
If you’re about entertaining, making people happy, you can tell stories or play music or display pictures or show movies. Blogging is a good storytelling option, and for the rest, it’s pretty well a saw-off.
That Leaves Influence · Anyone who’s built a significant online voice finds that, on occasion, they’ve wielded influence. In my personal experience, planning for this never works; whenever I’ve ever written something that’s moved a needle somewhere, I’ve noticed after-the-fact, been surprised. Carefully-laid plans don’t come into it. But your mileage may vary.
Influence is very, very seductive. Anyone who’s had it and says they didn’t enjoy it is probably lying.
And that’s why I think blogging is safe, for the moment. I don’t know of any way to be influential without deploying some combination of rhetoric and polemic and storyline. And I don’t think you can do that without writing a few hundred words, organized into paragraphs, with a permalink.
Maximizing Influence · If that’s what you want, then here are some tips:
Learn the Readability lesson; strip away all the visual shit that distracts from your message. Don’t be, as Anil puts it, “a jarring, cluttered experience where the most appealing option is the back button”.
Have a full-content feed. These are becoming rarer and rarer. But boy, do they ever make it easier for influencers (a high proportion of whom still use feed-readers) to absorb your message.
Own your space on the Web, and pay for it. Extra effort, but otherwise you’re a sharecropper. I note that Rob Scoble uses his own space to tell a sad story about what can go wrong.
A Gap in the Ecosystem · What originally got me started writing this wasn’t any of the pieces linked above, it was Ellen Grafton’s Where is the New Yorker of the internet? over on (ha-ha) Branch.com.
I’m convinced that medium/long-form writing’s future is unthreatened; but remain puzzled that nobody in new media has really figured out the elite-curation story and created a place that you go, and then subscribe to with real money, because that’s where you have a high chance of being entertained, influenced, and informed.
I mean, the New Yorker and Economist and so on are here, and they work fine. But they really aren’t of the Web; and none of the places that are have really reached that level.
Personally, I think it’s because they’re looking in the wrong direction, at the money. Quality publishing, as a business, is tough, always has been; but still uniquely rewarding.