Completely (and appropriately) lost in my wild textual stampede to complete The Ghost Brigades was the fact that Tuesday marked the seventh anniversary of the Whatever. As I’ve noted before this makes it the single writing thing I’ve done the longest at one stretch (I’ve been reviewing movies longer, but that comes in chunks, first as the film critic, and then as the DVD critic (both five years each)).
In the year, I haven’t done anything different in terms of how I write the Whatever — indeed, the whole “write whatever the hell I feel like writing about” concept has been remarkably robust since 1998 — but I will share a few observations about the whole writing online thing here that have come to my mind in the last year.
* First, I’ve reconciled to the idea that the Whatever is a blog. The Whatever, mind you, predates the common use of the word “blog,” so I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the word — when I started doing this thing, the most common description of this sort of thing was “online journal,” which I also didn’t like, for various fairly stupid reasons. I could go into all the reasons why the Whatever is different and special from all the other things people write online and how it is so singular it deserves its own category, but aside from the fact that it really isn’t notably unique in form or content and I’m getting tired of finding new and exciting ways of maintaining the fiction that this isn’t a blog and everyone gets what you say when you say “I have a blog” so do you don’t have to say anything else about it, the fact is, there are worse things than writing a blog. So: Fine. The Whatever is a blog and I’m a blogger, and however silly a word “blog” is — it’s exactly onomatopoetic for the sound of a toad dropping a turd — it’s the word everyone has for things like this. Let us now move on.
* I’ve also given up the illusion that I am doing the Whatever in a manner that is either completely carefree or unrelated to the rest of my writing life. The latter, frankly, is obvious: The fact that something I wrote here appeared in one of the largest newspapers in the country yesterday demonstrates the permeability of the wall between this amateur writing and my professional writing (not to mention those two novels I sold off the site). The Whatever has been useful enough in this regard that recently, when discussing a book project with a publisher, he actually suggested serializing the writing here before he published the book in order to increase the value and visibility of the book. These are interesting times, writing-wise.
The flip side of this, however, is that first point: The Whatever is important enough to me now as marketing that it’s also something that’s worth maintaining, even when I feel like taking a break. One of the reasons for the fabulous, fabulous guest bloggers in July was the simple fact that I didn’t want to leave this place fallow for a month; I didn’t want readers to break the habit of checking in on a daily basis. In the blogsophere, regularity matters. It’s better to write something banal, say, “my cat’s breath smells like cat food,” than to write nothing at all (especially if you also then post a picture of said cat).
It pays off: This site is now clocking in at between 10k and 20k unique visitors a day — it fluctuates wildly between those poles on any given day — which makes it one of the better-read personal sites out there, especially when you consider that the Whatever is not a mono-topic site (i.e., all about the politics or geekery), or a link farm, nor is it written by a pretty woman (this makes Wonkette the perfect storm, Internet-wise). But on the other hand, I don’t just want to write one line about my cat and pride myself on very basic audience maintenance; I do prefer the delusion that people who read the site would like me to write about something. And now you see why it’s not entirely carefree. These are constraints and obligations I place on myself, mind you, but it doesn’t mean they are any less there.
The one thing that has remained constant during all this obsessing is that I still do write about whatever the hell it is I want to write about; I don’t bother to ask myself “hmmmm, is this something that’s going to alienate my audience” because then I’ll get sulky and petulant (stupid audience! They won’t let me write what I want), and that’s just silly. Also, honestly, I figure anyone who comes here on a regular basis knows I’ll write what I feel like; to some extent, that’s why they drop by. This is an unabashedly egotistical site. And God knows, when I want to write about my cat, I do.
For the record, her breath does smell like cat food.
* I am also increasingly aware that it’s not just me who regards the Whatever as a quasi-professional space; having a deserved-or-otherwise reputation for being a “prominent blogger” means I now get press releases sent my way (eh), and also books (yay!). One of the more interesting recent anecdotes of this type is when the publicist for Annie Jacobsen’s book Terror in the Skies contacted me about the book, wanting to know whether I’d be interested in looking at the book for possible inclusion in the Whatever. Ms. Jacobsen, you may remember, is the writer who lost her composure on an airplane last year after she noticed a large group of swarthy fellows sitting together; I wasn’t particularly impressed. The reason I was contacted, I think, was simply because I did write about Jacobsen at one point, even if not in a particularly complimentary fashion. I told the publicist to go ahead and send the book, although I made no promises regarding reading it or mentioning it, which is the appropriate thing to say at a time like that.
Although, look, I did just mention it. And here’s the link again! And somewhere, another publicist earns his wings (no, I haven’t read the book yet. I was busy writing one of my own, remember).
I am now getting enough books and swag and publicity releases that I will very shortly create some guidelines for publicists as to what’s appropriate to send along to me. If you were to ask me if I ever thought I’d get to a point where I’d ever write publicist guidelines for the Whatever, you would hear me engage in a nice, hearty laugh. And yet, here we are. Not that I mind. Hey: Free books! Whoo-hoo!
* One minor interesting thing I’ve noticed is that in the last year, thanks I suspect to the combination of Old Man’s War, the AOL Journals gig and the growth of the Whatever, I’ll occasionally get the “internet celebrity” thing, where I’ll drop a comment on someone’s blog and their reaction is “OMG!!! It’s Scalzi!!” I find this deeply, deeply silly. Being a minor Internet celebrity is like being the second most popular steel drummer in the Netherlands. Yes, it’s nice, and people who share your enthusiasms know you, but really, that’s about all it’s good for. Anyway, even though I’ve been doing this for seven years and I blog professionally and I’ve sold not one but two books to publishers from this Web site, I never get invited to speak at Ivy League blog conferences or panels. So clearly, I’m not a real Internet celebrity anyway. It stings, it does.
* One thing I’ve definitely noticed in the last year — and has been noted by others — has been the “community” activity around here, by which I mean a strong and vibrant set of both regular and infrequent commentors. I remember a few years ago, before I had implemented comments (and before I knew the following), I read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s comment on her site that said something along the lines of “if you’re not reading the comments, you’re missing out on half the fun.” I was, shall we say, rather skeptical of the observation. But as it turns out, she was absolutely correct: the community of commentors at Making Light matters, in no small part because they are smart, engaged and passionate, and because TNH also serves as an able moderator — any person who can think up and/or popularize “disemvoweling” as a punishment for comment stupidity deserves a medal for Service to the Blogosphere.
I do not judge myself as facile a comment moderator as TNH, but I do think the Whatever community of commentors is one of the best out there, tending toward thoughtful and diverse enough in opinon to make the comments less like an echo chamber and more like a round table of people talking. And, they tend to be grownups to boot: Usually the least-mannered person in a comment thread is me.
So to the folks who hang around the Whatever: Thanks. I appreciate it.