On blogging altruistically or narcissistically and why Facebook is simply easier

The New York Times has an article light on data and big on conjecture claiming “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.” A sample: “Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers.” This Hacker News comment describes the blogging situation well:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Most of the great blogs that I visit are all done altruistically. They are well maintained, post useful information, and very rarely waste my time. They also require a huge amount of effort on the part of the blogger because they really have to do work to gather and present interesting and useful information for their readers.

What a lot of the press has referred to as blogging is “narcissistic.” Instead of coming up with interesting information and vetting it for their readers they mostly just spew whatever thoughts they had that day onto the page. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, but the signal to noise ratio is also very low.

It’s really hard to write stuff that will be interesting to people who don’t know you and have no real connection to you. I know because I’ve been writing The Story’s Story for three years and change. Over that time, it became obvious that producing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult. If writing in such a way that other people actually want to read your work weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t have nearly as many professional writers as we do.

If your goal is mostly to bask in the relative adulation of others, you can probably do it more efficiently (and narcissistically) via Facebook. Look at the large number of girls who post bikini or MySpace shots and wait for the comments to roll in (note: they are doing this rationally). If your goal is mostly to communicate something substantive, you’re going to find that it’s not five or ten times harder than posting a 140-character message on FB or Twitter—it’s 50 or 100 times harder. Twitter is easier than “A list of N things” and “A list of N things” is easier than a blog post and a blog post is easier than an essay.

People who want to be real writers (or filmmakers or whatever) in the sense that people with no current relationship of any kind will find their work useful will probably still blog or use other equivalents. But most of those who think they want to be real writers will probably find out precisely how hard it is to come up with useful and interesting stuff regularly. Then they’ll quit, and the people who remain will be the ones who have the energy and skill to keep it up and write things people want to read.

I’m not against Twitter, but a while ago I posted this: “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.” The first part of that sentence can fit on Twitter, but the second part clarifies and reinforces the first.

Furthermore, real life can get in the way of substantive posts. At the moment, I’m recovering from the reading for my M.A. oral exam, which was Friday (I passed). As a result, I haven’t written a lot of deep, detailed posts about books over the last month. I haven’t written that many in general this year because the thing that used to primarily be my hobby—writing about books—has now been professionalized in the form of graduate school. So the energy that used to go into those posts is now more often going into my papers. Writing academic articles “counts” towards my career and toward eventually getting people to pay me money. Writing blog posts doesn’t. I don’t think the two are pure complements or pure substitutes, and I doubt I will ever stop writing a blog altogether because blogs are an excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.

Plus, did I mention that good posts are hard to write? I think so, but I’ll mention it again here because I don’t think most people really appreciate that. Perhaps it’s best they don’t: if they did, they’d probably be less inclined to start a blog in the first place. The people who keep it up and keep doing it well have a mysterious habit of finding ways to get paid for it, either by writing books of their own or by finding an organizational umbrella (think of Megan McArdle or Matt Yglesias).

The number of people out there who have the inner drive to keep writing in the absence of external gratification is probably relatively small. I’ve made tens of dollars from “The Story’s Story.” The number of groupies who’ve flocked to me as a result of writing this blog is not notably large. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people will gravitate towards something easier, and I don’t think I’m writing this solely to raise my own status or show people how hard core or nice I am. I think I’m mostly writing it because it’s true.

The Tiger Mother post (with thoughts from The Great Stagnation)

Everyone online has an opinion about Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother article, otherwise known as the tongue-in-cheek “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The essay says all work and no play makes Jack (and Jill!) a good student. A grad-student friend said she applauds the Tiger Mother and thinks her students are lazy and would be much improved if they’d been raised by Tiger Mothers.

I wonder, though, especially since reading “Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?” in Slate. The article describes one of the potential “anti-Tiger” positions: Americans might be better at leaving more space for spectacular failure and spectacular success, then reaping the successes. I would add one other point: I went to a Seattle-area high school that was about 25% – 33% Asian and saw a lot of the Tiger Mother causalities, including the ones who are probably now in therapy, the ones who learned to hate learning, and so on. If my parents had been tigers, I don’t think I would’ve turned out so well because I have too wide a rebellious streak and was utterly indifferent to school work of any sort until I was about 16. Now in many ways I’ve superseded the tiger cubs who burned out, at least as measured by conventional measures of status and respect.

I suspect there is no “right” way, and how people turn out is more random than not. Some of the research I’ve seen indicates that parents don’t have as much control over their children’s future as many parents think, although I can’t find any direct links at the moment. See some discussion here and here from Marginal Revolution.

Finally, I think some of the Tiger narrative’s resonance with the larger cultural is linked to the decades-old idea that the U.S. is somehow losing its educational prowess or falling from some educational golden age. But it looks like American Kids Aren’t Getting Dumber; They Were Just Never That Smart. For much of the United States’ history, the smartest thing smart people around the world could do is move to the United States. So lots of smart people came to the U.S. by default. We got lots of dividends from immigration throughout history because the United States’ political institutions worked pretty well when most places were languishing under autocracies; we managed to avoid destroying ourselves, as Europe did during World Wars I and II and Japan did during World War II; we got a lot of smart minorities who fled Germany before World War II; big oceans and good relations with Canada and Mexico protected and continue to protect the U.S. from immediate threats, which means we can spend ludicrous amounts of money on military technology. There are probably others I’m not considering. But, as Cowen points out in The Great Stagnation, the rest of the world has a relatively easy playbook to catching up to the major Western democracies. Now they’re doing so, which means our “smart and ambitious immigrants” advantage might be drying up and making the rest of the world more attractive—and the world is likely to get more competitive, by some definitions of competitive.

So we get fertile soil for Amy Chuas (notice the plural), whose writing can feed the sometimes justified anxiety a lot of people who simply read the news or live in the economy are already feeling. Others are probably just saying, “Do we really need this much materialism?” (see, for example, Stumbling on Happiness), but the answer on the political level appears to be yes. Chua bridges the individual and political whether she realizes it or not, and the potent combination of two make her so attractive both to people of the anti- or pro-Tiger Mother crowd, as well as to the meta commentators like me.

Where have I been? In exam land

Someone wrote to ask why I haven’t been posting much over the last month. He was too polite to say, “haven’t been posting much with real content,” but I think the last bit was implied. Anyway, the answer is short and unpleasant: studying for my master’s exams. The written is Thursday and the oral about a week after that. People I know in real life sometimes laugh when I say that I anticipate them like a combined rectal exam / execution. One girl responded, “In that order?” I said, “If it were the other way around it wouldn’t be that bad, would it?”

Expect me to resurface in about two weeks. Hopefully this resurfacing will be more like a whale coming up for oxygen than a whale simply beaching himself.

Beating the crowds to Max Jamison

Wilifred Sheed’s Max Jamison is as hilarious as Terry Teachout says it is in “Neither Does He Spin.” The penultimate sentence of Teachout’s column says, “Though it’s out of print (surprise, surprise), you can easily procure a used copy.” Except it’s not anymore:

So, naturally, I did the only thing I could think of and listed my paperback copy for $299, since I bought it a year and change ago. Half the price of the $599 copy! I doubt it will sell, but although I like the novel, I don’t like $300 like it.

February 2011 Links: Brian Jacques, Writing, Science Fiction, Innovation, Tea, and more

* Brian Jacques died. I met him once, briefly, during an otherwise dreadful study abroad experience at the University of East Anglia in England. His books haven’t held up especially well with time—unlike, say, Tolkien and Philip Pullman, he isn’t as easily enjoyed as an adult than as a child—but I still think his plotting, characters, and ethos are forever stamped in my mind because a fifth grade teacher read Redwall and Martin the Warrior to my class.

And Jacques was an astonishing performer, more like an actor than a writer. Maybe his material and audience demanded it. Nonetheless, it was easy to see the vitality in his books in his person. I’ve met enough authors to realize they’re often nothing like the books they write, but he was.

* A Classic ‘Nontextbook’ on Writing, the “Nontextbook” being Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Expect a review when I get my copy.

* The Purpose of Science Fiction: How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology. Also, it might be fun.

* Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation. Neal Stephenson wrote this, as he did “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Both are highly recommended.

* Bureaucrat acts like a jerk and attempts to silence smart guy, news at 11:00.

* Hilarious: how advertisers use to sex to get their ads banned from the SuperBowl, then viewed widely online.

* You Can’t Be Against Dense, Urban Development and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist.

* Tea: A Literary Tour. Sample: “I suspect that many of you, dear readers, are tea drinkers, too (tea and the literary life just seem to fit together, somehow). . .”

Why exports matter more than imports — and the tendency towards corruption

From this week’s Economist: “The rise and rise of the cognitive elite: Brains bring ever larger rewards:”

Inequality jars less if the rich have earned their fortunes. Steve Jobs is a billionaire because people love Apple’s products; J.K. Rowling’s vault is stuffed with gold galleons because millions have bought her Harry Potter books. But people are more resentful when bankers are rewarded for failure, or when fortunes are made by rent-seeking rather than enterprise.

In the most corrupt countries the rulers simply help themselves to public money. In mature democracies power is abused in more subtle ways. In Japan, for example, retiring bureaucrats often take lucrative jobs at firms they used to regulate, a practice known as amakudari (literally “descent from heaven”). The Kyodo news agency reported last year that all 43 past and present heads of six non-profit organisations funded by government-run lottery revenues secured their jobs this way.

In America, too, ex-politicians often walk into cushy directorships when they retire. This may be because they are talented, driven individuals. But a study by Amy Hillman of Arizona State University finds that American firms in heavily regulated industries such as telecoms, drugs or gambling hire more ex-politicians as directors than firms in lightly regulated ones.

This sounds a lot like what I read in Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation:

Have you ever wondered why so many developing economies—the successful ones, I mean—rise to prosperity through exports and tradable goods? There are a few reasons for this, but one is that the external world market provides a real measure of value. If you are exporting successfully, it’s not based on privilege, connections, corruption, or fakery. Someone who has no stake in your country and no concern for your welfare is spending his or her own money to buy your product. Trying to export is putting your economy to the test with measurable results. If you can pass this test, it is a sign of better things to come.

When possible, look for real measures of whether someone (or some country) is making the world a better place by making something / doing things, or whether that person is merely trying to take things from others (investment bankers appear to increasingly fall into this category).

Inequality also might “jar” more if a society has a history of instability, which the United States mostly doesn’t. Tony Judt mentions this in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century:

The welfare states [in Europe] were […] prophylactic states. They were designed quite consciously to meet the widespread yearning for security and stability that John Maynard Keynes and others foresaw long before the end of World War II, and they succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Thanks to half a century of prosperity and safety, we in the West have forgotten the political and social traumas of mass insecurity. And thus we have forgotten why we have inherited those welfare states and what brought them about.

But, as Cowen says, they were prophylactic states enabled by technological advancement and diffusion combined with rapidly expanding education. Whether that can continue in an environment with lower all-round growth remains to be seen.

How could Twitter not change how protests happen?: Egypt and the history of the novel

There’s been a lot of talk about the role Twitter, text messaging, and other communication mediums are playing in the unfolding drama in Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell basically says the role isn’t great: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

But I am not convinced this is true: by lowering the friction of communication, thus making it real-time and instantaneous, Twitter and other technological tools are almost certainly changing what is said. Quantity has a quality all its own, and how we speak has a habit of changing what we say.

Gladwell’s post (and others) remind me of the arguments in English literature the field around the development of the novel as a genre (see, for example this post on Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History). Basically, a lot of people want to argue about the development of the novel without taking into account the printing press.

To me this is silly because mass cheap printing was a precondition to the novel as we know it. Without that, we would have fictional prose narratives of some length, but we probably wouldn’t have them alluding to one another, we wouldn’t have large portions of the population reading them, and we wouldn’t have (relatively) large portions of the population with enough disposable income to avoid them. If you look at surviving works that we would now classify as fiction that were written prior to ~1600, almost all of them are religious in nature because only the church had the resources to fund writing, maintain large collections of writing, and bother writing anything down.

After ~1600 (or ~1500, if you prefer, but that’s about it), you have a lot of things written that would previously not have been considered “worth” writing down because writing and copying manuscripts was so expensive and time consuming. Technology did change what was said. How something was said changed what was said. Technology is doing the same thing now. I don’t know how the current drama will play out; if you looked at the printing press around the time it was first created, it was mostly used to print religious stuff (hence the “Gutenberg Bible”). Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change describes some of this. By the nineteenth century, however, writers are grappling with the idea of a world without God, per J. Hillis Miller’s Form of Victorian Fiction, or a world where “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s famous and misunderstood proclamation: he wasn’t saying that people would stop believing in God or that would religion would stop being a force society, but rather that religious studies were a dead end and people would cease to attribute everything in their life to God or God’s will.

In 1500, the material published via printing press looked basically continuous with what came about in 1400. By 1850, things are looking pretty different, and the diversity of printed materials has fundamentally changed what people could say. The printing press allowed people with grievances, to use Gladwell’s formulation, to communicate with each other much more efficiently than they previously could, which leads to a lot of political, social, scientific, and philosophical developments that most of us living today approve of. How many of us want to return to being illiterate serfs toiling in fields for distant masters?

Gladwell is right in one sense: the media is probably overstating the importance of Twitter and SMS. But both of those still play an important role in what’s going on. Somehow, people with grievances against monarchs and dictators weren’t all that successful on average in the years prior to ~1600. After that, they got more and more successful, to the point where a fair bit of world’s population now lives without dictators. Part of the reason is because ideas about freedom and good governance could be disseminated cheaply, where before they couldn’t, and everyone spent most waking hours covered in shit, farming, and hoping they’re not going to starve to death in late winter / early spring.

Mark at the computing education blog says, “A particularly interesting anecdote for me is the below: That the Internet was turned off in Egypt, but the protests continued. So what role was Facebook and Twitter playing, really?” Depends on the timeframe. Various technological tools helped people initially organize and helped the conditions for organization come about. They will probably do so again in the future. In the long term, such tools will probably create the conditions for much larger projects that we only dimly perceive now. I would predict what those will be, but things have a habit of turning out much stranger than random prognosticators like me can predict.

Questioning the academic enterprise. . .

Here’s Robertson Davies from an interview in Conversations with Robertson Davies:

There are a lot of things in that book [by Elspeth Buitenhuis; the work in question is not named, though it discusses Davies] that I never said and don’t agree with but she must say what she thinks. There’s a lady at McGill who teaches Fifth Business in a course on Canadian literature and she says that the stone which Ramsay carried all his life and which Boy Staunton had in his mouth when he died is the stone of judgment out of the Talmud. I have never read the Talmud. I don’t know anything about the stone of judgment, but when you fall into the hands of academics you’re a gone goose. They will interpret and say what they think and there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t really very much matter unless we take it too seriously.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to pull the stunt Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

If what literary academics are doing “doesn’t really very much matter,” the question becomes, what then are we doing?

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