Five Years

As of this week, I’ve been writing the Whatever for five years, which makes it the single longest writing “gig” I’ve ever had, if you can believe that. I began it in 1998 with the intent of keeping sharp for writing newspaper columns, because I’d been a newspaper columnist once and was hoping to be again at some point in the future. But along the way some interesting (and ironic) things have happened and I’m come to realize certain other things. I’d like to share those with you now.

First, there’s some measure of irony that what the Whatever was actually keeping me sharp for, professionally speaking, was writing online. I am a professional blogger, a term which still sounds vaguely dissonant to me, as I’m sure “professional rock-and-roller” sounded to musicians doing that job in 1956. But there’s no doubt that what I was doing here gave me the preparation for what I’m now doing for AOL. It is, to use a word I dislike, serendipitous.

One of the additional ironies of me being a pro blogger, as I am, is that over the course of the Whatever, it can be legitimately said that I’ve taken a hostile attitude regarding the professional potential and uses of writing online. In one of the earliest pieces I did on the subject, in February of 2000, I commented that “Writing an online journal is good practice for one thing: Writing an online journal… If you’re writing an online journal explicitly for ‘practice’ to become a paid writer, there’s a really good chance you’re wasting your time.”

I’ve also famously suggested that everyone who writes online needs to get a day job, although I also note “if you can make money putting content online, well, good God. Grab that cash with both hands and run to the bank as fast as your little legs will carry you. I’ll be applauding you every step of the way.” That was in 2001. In 2002, I was even more (in)famous for pointing out that the “huge” numbers of visitors bloggers like Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan were getting were not really all that big, for reasons technical and otherwise. That column that earned me a couple of enemies, although thankfully neither Glenn nor Andrew were among them. That year I also questioned whether blogging would ever be profitable for anyone, saying, “Blogging may never be profitable, but it is already useful, to some extent it is influential (not as much as bloggers like to think, but more than mainstream media gives it credit for), and in any event it is usually pretty fun.”

Now it’s September 2003 and the following has happened:

* There’s a small but real group of paid bloggers, many of whom got their gigs (in whole or in part) as a result of their unpaid but popular blogs. This population includes one (Sullivan) who has managed to extract around $100K in pledges from readers.

* Instapundit recently logged its 25 millionth page view and 20 millionth visitor.

* Bloggers frequently show up in traditional media stories, tv shows and in magazines.

* And, of course, AOL has jumped on the blogging bandwagon, simultaneously recognizing and validating the mass-market appeal of blogs — the affirmation the blogoverse was both dreading and hoping for.

What does this mean? From my end, two things.

1. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.

2. I don’t really mind, ’cause I’m getting paid.

Having said that, I would like to qualify the first of these conclusions. I was wrong in special cases. Speaking generally about blogging, however, I was (and am) still largely correct. Here’s why:

* Paid bloggers are a vanishingly small percentage of the entire blogging population, and will almost certainly continue to be so. I would suspect at this point in time, there may be 100 to 200 people around the world who take home significant pay from blogging (“significant” being defined as “you can actually pay bills with it”). There are probably a million people who blog. Even if the number of paid bloggers expands tenfold in the next year (and why not?), that’s still a 1000-to-1 ratio of amateur to paid.

* Nearly every paid blogger is now concurrently or was at some previous point a pro writer, and those who weren’t primarily writers previously often had some training in formal writing (Glenn Reynolds, for example, is a law professor but also wrote a book in 1997). This is true even when they got their paid blogging gigs through the exposure of their own unpaid blogs.

Coincidence? No, because nearly all of the organizations that pay for blogging are media companies, who have certain baseline expectations of professionalism. There are indications that a generation of “pure” bloggers — i.e., writers who were known only from blogging — is breaking into the pro blogging ranks: Matthew Yglesias, as an example, has started a gig at Tapped (I don’t know if he gets paid for that, but I sure hope he does). But given the nature of the pro media beast, I’d suspect that for the short term, pro bloggers will be nearly exclusively previously pro writers.

* With the exception of Andrew Sullivan, blogs as blogs still don’t make money to speak of. Most of the pro blogs are adjuncts to larger media entities who don’t view the blogs they have as revenue generators in themselves. These entities do blogging for more nebulous corporate strategy reasons, like “reader retention,” because they’re “cutting edge” and because their competitors are doing blogs, too. Outside of the occasional Caf Press t-shirt or a tip jar, there’s still no clear concept of a revenue stream for most bloggers, or even if there were, how most bloggers would be able to profit from their blog in a significant way.

* The number of “big” bloggers has expanded, and the diversity of the “big” bloggers is fabulous. But if you rented a convention hall for all the bloggers who get more than 5,000 unique visitors a day, you’d have a big, empty convention hall and a small clot of guys near the punch bowl, talking about the Dean campaign and shuffling their feet.

Fundamentally, blogging remains an amateur, small-scale endeavor — and for the vast majority of those who do it, it will continue to be so for as long as they do it. The fact of pro bloggers does nothing to change this any more than the existence of pro baseball players changes the fact that your company softball team exists primarily to give the guys in marketing some much-needed exercise.

But the thing to remember about blogging is that by and large it should be an amateur production — indeed, it needs to be and remain an amateur production. It is blogging’s fundamentally amateur nature that makes it utterly unique in the history of human expression. There has been no other medium in the history of the world that has allowed a single human’s thoughts to be (potentially) perceived by as many other human beings as blogging allows through the simplicity of its interface and its accessibility through the Internet (and, equally as important, through Web search engines and links from other blogs).

It is, to use another word I dislike, but which again is entirely appropriate, revolutionary. Up until blogging/journaling hit its stride, the potential for mass dissemination of ideas was limited to certain classes, most recently the professional classes of journalists, published authors, published musicians and the like. The exclusivity of dissemination no longer exists. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that 100 million readers around the world are going to click through to read your thoughts about your cat. But they could — the mere potential of this action is where this revolution has its genesis.

If the blogosphere becomes professionalized to a great extent, all we’re doing is handing the freedoms this new informational architecture provides back to a smaller, restricted class, which is basically pissing away what makes it valuable in the first place. It shouldn’t be done. Now, none of this is news to anyone who thinks about blogs; I won’t even pretend that I’m sharing an original thought here. But it bears repeating from time to time, and now is one of those times.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I’m getting paid to blog; I’d like to keep doing it, and I think it’ll be swell when more people get into my sort of position. But I’ll tell you now that if I stop getting paid to blog (it could happen, since my contract with AOL is merely short-term), I’ll just go back to writing online for no financial value, just like I’m doing right now.

So there you have it: Probably the greatest irony about the five years I’ve been writing the Whatever is that even though I began writing it to stay sharp for paid work, the most important thing I’ve gotten out of it is understanding the value of writing as an amateur.

Thank you all for reading me over the years. I plan to keep at it.

2 Comments on “Five Years”

  1. Blogging As A Vocation

    Worthwhile remarks on the subject from John Scalzi. Some remarks regarding the remarks about me, however, are worth making:There are indications that a generation of “pure” bloggers — i.e., writers who were known only from blogging — is breaking into…

  2. More blogging advice

    In the wake of the advice I gave to new bloggers last week, several others have posted some valuable advice that’s worth clicking on: 1) Electric Venom offers her top ten lessons after six months of blogging. Numbers nine, six,…

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