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Reader Request #2: Life Online

Reader Request Topic #2 comes from Rick McGinnis — who, incidentally, is a brand-new father to a brilliant baby girl, so give up the love for the man — who asks:

Life online. I have my own thoughts, based on a website nearing its fifth anniversary. (Fifth? Sixth? I can’t remember just now – my wife is giving birth in the other room…) As someone who’s a contemporary, with a website as old as mine – what’s your take? What’s changed? What’s the same? What’s it all about, Alfie?

I’ve actually had a Web site up, in one form or another, since 1994, when I uploaded my very first hand-typed html document (through Unix commands!) to the Cybergate servers in Fresno. It’d be a little much to call me a Web pioneer, but I’ve been around for a while. Scalzi.com has been around since 1998, and that’s when I started writing regularly on the site. Let’s confine the discussion from that time frame forward.

What’s changed is that the online writing since 1998 is that it has simultaneously become more amateurish and more professional. In 1998 was part of the first Golden Age of the Internet, in which people were funding magazines and Web sites brimming over with “real” (i.e., paid) writing and expecting that they’d make money with it somehow, some way. Well, we all know how that went — with the exception of Slate (owned by Microsoft) and Salon (the recipient, apparently, of some complicated deal with the devil by David Talbot), most of Web-only literary sites, and most Web-only magazines in general, are dead and dust. Or to put it in another, personalized way, in 1998 nearly 80% of my income came from writing online, by way of newsletter contracts with AOL, developing Web sites for businesses, and a weekly music column for Media One’s DiveIn portal. Today, in 2003, probably 15% of my income comes from writing online, and my largest single source of income at the moment is from books, which have been around (in their mass-market iteration) for several hundred years.

What’s left, of course, are the personalized sites. In 1998, the personalized sites that updated daily were in a certain style — primarily the “online journal,” which were generally deeply introspective things devoted to the minutiae of the writer’s life, and the “tech blog,” in which Unix geeks or Mac lovers or whatever obsessed about their thing. Both groups — how to put this gently — tended toward certain inward-looking social constructs, and lived in highly specialized job bubbles, typically tech geeks and/or the overeducated underemployed.

That has changed dramatically. I don’t need to rehash the reasons for the rise of the blogs, and God knows that the blogoverse doesn’t need to be told how interesting it is yet again. But the point of fact is that the composition of the blog population is tremendously more diverse than any other previous iteration of online community, and many if not most of the truly prominent bloggers are professional people who write about what they know, not just what they think about what they think they know. So you have lawyers discussing law, economists discussing the economy, writers discussing writing, so on and so forth.

They all also write about whatever else they want — i.e., they’re as happy to spout off beyond their area of expertise as any of the rest of us poor schmoes — but the point to made here is that these personalized sites are no longer simply “amateur”; there are enough people in enough fields writing in blogs that you can look to the blog world as a resource to understanding the real world, not merely a place that is reacting to it. And that’s mostly new and mostly useful.

What hasn’t changed is the social dynamic of people who live a substantial part of their lives online. Back in the early 90s when I first got online, you could see newbies trying to suck up to the cool kids on the various hip newsgroups; later I saw the newbies trying to get a mention from or make friends with the really popular online journalers. Today all the young dudes are itchin’ for a shoutout from Instapundit and a few other selected bloggers (I’ll note for honesty’s sake that after I’m done writing this entry I’ll send a note about it to Glenn to see if he’ll link. And why not). And always bubbling below the surface are various pointless and petty arguments (such as the recent “I’m the real Moxie” tiff between the administratixs of Moxie.nu and Moxiepop.com), the positioning for popularity and the constant lunch-room grade intrigues as to who is on the “A List” and who is not.

If you’re wise you learn not to worry about any of that, of course. Those who don’t learn from high school social dynamics are doomed to repeat them until they die, and how sad is that. On my end of things, I don’t worry about my social standing in the blog world, or in any online social sphere. I write, I read, I consider myself lucky to make a few good friends along the way, and a whole passel of acquaintances, and I keep a good perspective on how what I do here integrates into the rest of my life.

The next step, which is already happening to some extent, is another level of professionalization of blogs. Already a number of bloggers have begun to get paid for what they do, either through direct reader support — Andrew Sullivan has been salting away a fair amount in this manner — or by being hired to blog by some corporate entity — Glenn Reynolds with MSNBC.com is an example here. Still others have capitalized on their online notoriety to get writing gigs: Eric Olsen of Blogcritics now regularly contributes to MSNBC.com as well.

Will this create a tiered “haves and have nots” situation in the online world? I don’t think so, any more or less than it already exists. Most of the “pro” bloggers seem to see their role as promoters of the blogoverse, boosting its potential both as a resource for knowledge and commentary, and as a unique, emerging social construct. The pro bloggers, as far as I can tell, don’t see themselves as “graduating” from the online world as much as evangelizing the online world and the advantages of communicating online to everyone else — the people who are offline, or the people who are online but haven’t begun to add their voice to the mix. They’re excited to be on the front lines of something big — and to get paid for it. As well they should.

So that’s where we are at the moment.

(Remember I’m still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

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Reader Request #1: The Middle East

Welcome to Reader Request Week, in which most entries will be on topics suggested by readers. Why? Why not? I’m still taking requests, by the way, and will be all week long. Put them in the comment thread here.

Our first request, from “Ohako”: I’d like to hear you jaw on about the Middle East, from the way things are now, to the way things should be, to the ‘Pundit Fights’ that CNN stages every now and then.

When people say “Middle East,” my brain says “Israel and Palestine,” and I’m generally not very optimistic about that. To give you an indication of how not optimistic I am about that, I’ll note that in the science fiction novel I’m currently writing, which is set an unspecified number of centuries in the future, a Secretary of State comments to another character about how this year’s negotiations were going along just fine until another suicide bomber blew himself up in Haifa. It’s not a major plot point in the story, just an aside, but there you have it.

As a matter of personal philosophy, I’m very pro-Israel, and I’m very pro the US guaranteeing that nation’s existence. I think life would be tremendously easier if “Israel” wasn’t where it is geographically — If it were in South Dakota, say, we wouldn’t have nearly the problems we do now — but there’s not much that can be done about that now.

I think the current Israeli government is treating the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza badly, but on the other hand, it’s difficult to treat any people who send their teenagers into malls packed with nail studded C4 with any real measure of respect. Israel’s governments may have varying levels of interest in peace, but the Palestinian government, such as it is, is utterly worthless on this score. I have some mild hopes that the new Palestinian prime minister might be the sort of pragmatic leader who prefers to see his people live in peace with Israelis, but I don’t discount Arafat’s ability to keep screwing things up, either.

The one thing I always come away from the Israel-Palestine thing is the idea that I’m lucky to live in the New World, which is were people came to get away from the people who were holding grudges against them for something that happened several centuries ago or whatever. The US is not an entirely blameless country (it did sweep the then-current inhabitants off the land), but the fact is that by and large in today’s America, anyone can live anywhere they want and not have to worry about the neighbors holding a grudge from the old country. You don’t see Jews and Muslims at each other’s throats, or Armenians and Turks, or Serbs and Muslims, or Greeks and Turks, or Protestant and Catholics, Hindu and Muslim or whatever other penny-ante centuries-old crap they’re carrying around in the rest of the world. And while not in the least excusing our own racial problems, ours today tend not to leave piles of bodies lying around.

Ultimately, Americans would rather live together than live apart, which is something that differentiates us from the Middle East and indeed from most of the world. It helps that Americans, while not ignorant of past hatreds and wrongs and whatever, also have a tendency to be willing to leave them where they are, in the past, and work with what we have today and what we want for the future. We’re pragmatic and unromantic in that way, and that’s a very good thing. What I wish for the Middle East, and indeed anywhere, is some of that American pragmatism and unromanticism.

Re: Talking heads on CNN — I don’t watch them. It’s like ESPN for Wonks, and I don’t even watch regular ESPN. Anyway, when I want to see people snarl back and forth about a subject, I read blogs.

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Officially a Geek

My descent into the realms of total geekdom is complete (it was a short trip): I am now officially a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I got my clubhouse pass this weekend in the form of the SFWA Forum, the in-house magazine of the group, in which my name was officially listed along with several other initiates. This means two things. First, the check for membership dues cleared. This is always a positive. Second, I’m in with the grownup version of the Geek Table in the high school cafeteria.

Excited? You bet. Geeks always have the best conversations; it’s something about being so involved with the life of the mind, whether or not that’s by choice. Sure, they may have some social and/or motor skills deficiencies, but, honestly now. Who doesn’t? Anyway, now I’m married. I don’t want a date, I just want to associate with other people of my geek writing tribe.

The only way I suppose I could be come any geekier would be to join Mensa, but since I think I rather file my teeth down to points and then tear out my own femoral artery than to do that, I’ll stay at my current geek status. It’s enough.

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