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.

9 responses

  1. I just found this post while randomly searching wordpress, right after viewing “Social Network”.. I’m not a FB member, but I do have a blog. You’ve given me food for thought, as I don’t want to be a narcissist – I want to post meaningful things.

    Still trying to balance light-hearted entertainment-style writing with actually making it worth “your” time. Thanks for the inspiration & insight.

    Suzanne

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  2. I certainly agree with everything you said here, but would add a couple of other considerations. I tend to use mine the same way I used to use notebooks, as a ‘thoughtbook’. Also, I follow blogs (like yours) for a similar reason – I find the writer interesting and enjoy reading whatever they feel like writing about, fully formed essay or brief scribbling, on whatever topic interests them. For me, it’s about the person. Facebook, for me, is for people I know. Blogs are generally written by people I don’t, and probably never could, as they are all over the world. But I’m one of those people who write all the time, am used to having no audience, and don’t worry about being read or liked or not.

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  3. “[P]roducing at least one meaningful post a week is difficult.” Amen to that. I agree; people interested in effectively communicating their ideas are more likely to stick with blogging. So, in a way, perhaps Facebook and Twitter are helping to raise the collective IQ of blogging. I must admit, though, my posts tip the narcissistic end of the scale more often than not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  4. Jake,
    You touch on many points swirling around my head and conversations of late. Producing meaningful content consistently is no easy task, however it is as you mentioned “excellent for ideas too short or underdeveloped for an article but still worth developing.” When we compose content that is inspiring or challenging or thought provoking or even just a worthy reminder, it is worth sharing, for most often that which we write can affect others (often far more than it affects ourselves). May we all see the world from our own eyes and opinions, yet never forgetting to ask how might our perspectives be relevant to others, and, even more importantly, how might their perspectives be relevant to us and our pursuit of better quality of life. I’d be interested if there are particular questions you ask yourself when writing each blog to ensure you maintain altruistic content.

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  5. The development of blogging in the past decade has been interesting to watch, because sometimes a professional scholar or an aspiring writer bursts onto the scene, blogs like crazy, and then very quickly runs out of things to say. Likewise, many amateurs (in the best sense of the term) discover a creative longevity that would have been denied them before the Internet. I think the popularity of Facebook and pithy, visual-heavy sites such as Tumblr suggests that people are increasingly aware of how difficult it is to write frequently, and over the long haul. The down side, I sometimes fear, is that we bloggers often seem to be writing only for each other…

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    • Yeah—the “running out of things to say” thing is a major danger for writers of all stripes, although I might also call it, “runs out of energy with which to say things.” But I’m especially interested in the “creative amateurs” category, since that seems to be where a lot of the better sex writers in particular (Belle de Jour, Abby Lee, Tucker Max (even if you don’t like him)) come from, so to speak. They’re also the kinds of people who fit well with the Internet because they couldn’t get traction with conventional publishing.

      Some of the other writers who fit in this category include Paul Graham, Joel Spolsky, and Philip Greenspun. What does it say if people writing about sex and tech are the two major winners in the amateur Internet game?

      The down side, I sometimes fear, is that we bloggers often seem to be writing only for each other…

      I write for Google! At least, that’s what my search engine traffic numbers tell me.

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  6. One of the details I most enjoy about writing a weekly blog is how it affects the way I see the world. It causes me to see the world with not only my pair of eyes, but also my reader’s eyes. It affords me a secondary perspective which I wouldn’t normally tap into.

    For example, yesterday I was traveling through Sacred Valley of Peru for the 6th time in 8 days. The first time was exhilarating. Over time the law of diminishing returns takes hold. However, when I writing for someone else, attempting to tap into their mind which has yet to experience such a beautiful place, I get the pleasure of jumping on the back of a new learning curve. I get to experience with a new pair of eyes and emotions sheep, cattle, and llamas holding up our bus trip. I’m re-inspired to take pictures of the landscape. (Honestly, this place is gorgeous and I don’t think I’ll ever lose some sense of Aw for the beauty here, but we are all still numbed in some form). For this reason, I would encourage all to write, whether only one’s wife or mother is reading or thousands are following. We are reminded of our gratefulness for all that there is to learn and experience. With this perspective, we should never run out of things to write about.

    As for writing for other bloggers, this is an interesting point. Though I’ve been writing pretty consistently for the last 3 years, I just recently put more effort into participating in and attempting to understand the blog space. I definitely get the feeling that bloggers and are writing for other bloggers. But does this make it a bad thing? The law of 90 – 10 or 80 – 20, whichever your believe in, states that only 10 or 20% of the participants will really care and make substantial process. The rest will be spectators reading details from time to time and commenting only when they are floored by an idea. Fellow bloggers are more generous in their words. They are the ones that remind us to keep pushing even when the wider community is silent. They lead us to breakthroughs. Thus, I’d contend the bloggers need each other in order to keep pushing each other deeper into perspectives. Without each other, we might truly witness a loss of inspiration. This would be a shame for the world. This all said, I still write for myself and my readers. My world at the moment is my inspiration, but I’m fully aware some day will come when the blogging community will hold me up when needed most. Great topic. Thanks for encouraging me to think about it.

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  7. Pingback: Links: Goodbye theory, the artists’s lives, coffee, Dr. Strangelove, Divorce Corp., molly, and more | The Story's Story

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