Quick follow-up on yesterday’s piece, and I do mean quick, since it’s 2:30 and I have to be up in a few hours to take Athena to preschool:
* Several people wrote to ask why, when I was discussing my readership here vs. my readership elsewhere, I compared circulation numbers of newspapers and magazines with visitors to Web sites. The (quite accurate) point here is that circulation numbers showed the potential pool of readership for any one article in a paper or magazine, not the actual readership of that article (unless you assume that everyone reads papers and magazines cover-to-cover), whereas Web page visits actually register a visit (and, presumably, a read). Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.
This is true enough, and I’ll grant it willingly, especially because I don’t particularly feel it invalidates my point. Even a fraction of the readership of a newspaper or magazine (or Web site like Slate or Salon) is larger than the total readership of most blog sites. To return to the example I gave of my DVD column in the Dayton Daily News, even if only 1 out of 10 readers that day glanced at it, that’s still a readership of 14,000, well outstripping my estimated 3,000 or so visitors over the course of a month (and coming close to my estimated daily readership for andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit). One-tenth of the circulation base of the New York Times is over 100,000, so any articles Sullivan gets in there would easily outdo his daily Web site visits. And of course, one assumes that more than 1/10th of the daily NYT audience would actually be interested in what Sullivan has to say — unlike me, people outside of his circle of friends know who he is.
(Also, any circulation manager will tell you that circulation numbers underreport total readership, since more than one person in a household will read a paper or magazine. When I worked at the Fresno Bee, the paper had a circulation of 150,000, but claimed readership of more than double that.)
Some people additionally looked askance at my estimation of 1,000,000 readers for my non-Web site work, which is fair enough. However, I’ll note the newsletters I write are opt-in, which means people have to sign up to get them, so the number there (500k) is pretty solid. I also feel pretty good about the DVD and CD reviews in Official PlayStation Magazine, since, if I may say so, the layout for these babies is pretty sweet; The DVD reviews go across two entire pages. You really can’t miss ’em (buy a copy and see for yourself. Buy two! They’re small). Even throwing out the DDN numbers, my non-Web site readership outdoes my Web site readership by a multiple of at least a couple hundred. With multiples like that, the point still stands. Others ranging from Sullivan to Lileks to Marshall may have less dramatic multiples (they have much larger Web site readerships), but the multiples are still there.
* Getting back to Andrew Sullivan, his Web master got back to me with some updated numbers for the site. He writes:
“Andrew Sullivan’s website receives an average of 40K visits per weekday right now, or about, 25K daily uniques. This translates to about 200K monthly uniques, and slightly under a million visits.”
So, does this mean that the site receives 25,000 individual visitors daily, and 200,000 individuals over the course of a month? Well, no, not necessarily.
Here’s why: “Uniques” represent distinct IP addresses that visit a site; every computer on the Web has its own IP address. But there are two major types of IP addresses out there: Static IPs and dynamic IPs. Static IPs never change; these are for people who have their own servers. Dynamic IPs do change, every time you sign on. Most people have dynamic IPs because they go through an ISP, and most ISPs assign their users dynamic IP addresses when they go online (what, you think your ISP buys a new computer each time someone subscribes?).
So, for most people, if you visit this site, log off for lunch, then sign on again and come back, my site will log you as having two distinct IP addresses — and therefore as two unique visitors. If you had trouble following that, here’s the short version: Most people look like someone new every time they sign on to the Web. At least to a Web server.
(And actually, AOL uses “floating IP,” which means the IP address you use can change several times during the same Internet session!)
Therefore: Even the unique visits metric can overreport the actual number of visitors (it can also underreport if your company routes its Web traffic through a firewall, but I suspect that over the course of time, there’s more overreporting than underreporting, if for no other reason than AOL has 30 million subscribers and everyone else doesn’t). On a daily basis, this overreporting is relatively small (although probably larger on blogs than on other sites, since people often come back to blogs more than once in a day), but it compounds the longer the metric is used; use it to chart an entire month, and it’s probably not at all accurate.
You see where I’m going here. The 25K daily figure is probably not too far off; I’d trim about 5k from it to be safe, but, okay, 20K is still pretty damn good when you consider the Web. But the 200K number is very suspect. If I had to guess (and I don’t, but I will), I’d guess that the actual number of individual visitors is substantially lower: Say, about 75k on the outside, and of those, probably 50k-60k are regular visitors (which is to say, they stop by more than once).
Please note that I do not necessarily think Sullivan’s Web master was trying to pull a fast one here; he’s not to blame that the fundamental architecture of the Web makes it difficult to accurately gauge visitors over any large length of time (or, in dealing with AOL members, over any length of time at all). It’s simply a reminder that when you’re pulling numbers off the Web, they’re usually not what they seem; they’re usually a lot less.
* Also to be clear, I have no jihad against Andrew Sullivan in particular (or Glenn Reynolds, whose blog was also featured prominently in yesterday’s column). I used them primarily because a) Norah Vincent used their sites for the numbers in her LA Times opinion piece; b) As they are the best-known of the bloggers, they make convenient examples. For the record, I like both sites and both writers just fine (I don’t know either of them personally). Neither of them exactly has my politics, but neither does my mother, and I like her just fine, too. I’m aware that some folks have already started to use yesterday’s column as a cudgel against Sullivan, who has gained ill will in some circles. It’s not about Sullivan or Reynolds personally, it’s about numbers (or lack thereof), which, mostly as a matter of my convenience, happen to be theirs.
* At the request of irritated readers, I am dropping the apostrophe in front of the word “blog,” since the word has apparently entirely graduated into being its own thing and not just a shortened version of “Weblog.” One reader wrote: “A blog is a blog the way a phone is a phone.” He is, of course, referring to a ‘phone there.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that the People of the ‘Blog — the folks who write and post Weblogs on their Web sites — have been feeling like they’re riding the crest of a media wave. This was capped this last week by two positive media notices: An LA Times opinion piece by Norah Vincent praising the ‘blog nation, and piece on ‘blogging in the May Wired by journalist and ‘blogger Andrew Sullivan. There was also a negative bit by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam, who frankly made an ass of himself by whining about the ‘blogs, his assery additionally compounded because he fell for an April Fool’s ‘blog joke (whoops).
Generally, the feeling in ‘Blogistan is that the ‘blogs are about to break into the big time — and that perhaps a few of the top-tier blogs may even approach a mass media status: In the same Wired that features Sullivan’s ‘blog appreciation is a bet between Dave Winer and New York Times Digital CEO Martin Nisenholtz that by 2007, a ‘blog will outrank the New York Times as a news source three Google searches out of five (Winer is for; Nisenholtz, quite understandably, is against).
There’s just one minor problem with this “‘blog reaching critical mass” story: It’s a lie. Or more accurately, any representation by the ‘blog nation (or its compatriots) as being a threat to the conventional media or even an “irritation,” as Vincent describes them, is wildly overstated. ‘Blogs may be growing in numbers and readership, but that is because they are effectively starting from zero; there’s nowhere else to go but up. How far up, and how much of an impact they will ultimately make, well, that’s the real question — and I suspect the answer will be: Much less than ‘bloggers currently think. I’m not against ‘blogging or writing online on one’s personal Web site — check my archives to see how long I’ve been writing here — but I think before anyone goes trying to claim themselves the next wave of media, a perspective check is probably in order.
The two primary points of the ‘blog ascendancy argument are that ‘blog readership is up — and growing. Vincent notes this in her LA Times piece:
“One of the most popular such sites, andrewsullivan.com, written by the eponymous pundit and former New Republic editor, gets about 35,000 hits, or visits, a day. Another, InstaPundit.com, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, just reported a record 43,000 visits in one day.”
43,000 or 35,000 visitors in one day isn’t a bad number by any standard; during the go-go days of the 90s, that number of daily visitors could probably have gotten you VC funding and a sweet IPO. But there are a few problems with these numbers:
1. ‘Blog numbers are typically self-reported, not audited. So some fibbing may (may) be involved. Yes, it seems a bit of an overkill for a personal site to be audited by a third party, but on the other hand, if you’re going to toss out numbers as facts to prove an assertion, they should probably be verified independently. If nothing else, this would solve the problem of confusion as to what your numbers actually mean. This brings us to point #2:
2. Ms. Vincent may not be aware of this (it is admittedly an obscure, geeky thing to know), but “hits” are not the same thing as “visits.” A Web site “hit” is simply any request for information from a site’s server: Web pages, pictures, scripts and so on. If you have a Web page that has a picture on it and someone pulls it up to read it, that counts as two “hits” even though there’s just one visitor. The main page of andrewsullivan.com has, by my count, 22 graphics on it (I may have missed a few), which means that each page view requires 23 hits. So those 35,000 hits could conceivably boil down to a mere 1,500 visits each day — a nice little number, but not the numbers that herald the birth of a new and influential mass media.
3. But let’s assume that when Vincent was talking about “hits” she really did mean “visits,” which is to say, a single page view. So Sullivan is back up to 35,000 visitors a day, and Glenn Reynolds has his 43,000 visitors daily as well. Or do they? Probably not, due to the nature of the ‘blogs themselves. ‘Blogs tend to be constantly updated, which encourages repeat viewings over a single day. For example, I’m currently enjoying USS Clueless, which updates irregularly during the course of the day. So I check back three or four times a day — a single visitor, but I’m still recorded as three or four visits. I would suspect that most ‘blog readers check in more than once a day. Depending on the avidity of the visitors, those 35K and 43K “visits” trend down in terms of actual individual visitors each day.
I would expect in terms of actual individual visitors daily, both Sullivan and Reynolds are bringing in somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 daily (entire weekly audiences are probably slightly larger, but not by much, since people visit their favorite ‘blog daily) — again, not bad, but a far cry from 35,000 and 43,000, and not large by any definition other than relative to other ‘blogs. Which brings us to a final point:
4. Andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit are being used as examples because they are extraordinarily popular sites, in terms of ‘blogs; nearly every other ‘blog has traffic that is exponentially lower in number than those two. These two are less part of a growing trend than they are exceptions to the generally low traffic these sort of sites generate.
So much for the idea of the ‘blog audience being very large, at least in terms of any one individual ‘blogger. But as I mentioned earlier, the ‘blog audience is starting from zero, so a small audience is to be expected, at least at first. What’s important is that the ‘blog audience is growing — that’s the other side of the “critical mass” argument. Well, I won’t dispute that the ‘blog audience is growing; the question is, does it grow as well as conventional media site audiences grow?
A number of conventional media reported numbers on their online adjuncts last week, and the numbers are impressive (as is to be expected, since people are on the hunt for news about the Middle East): The Chicago Tribune reported a readership of 479,000 unique visitors last week (unique visitors, as opposed to “visits” or “hits” — although bear in mind that even the “unique visitors” stat is not going to be entirely accurate), an increase of 65% over their readership the week before. New York Post: 817,000 unique weekly visitors, up 59%. New York Times: 2.2 million, up 24%. LA Times: 618,000, up 21% (Norah Vincent was smart to declare the arrival of the ‘blog in the LA Times, since it’s entirely likely that more people read her article on the LA Times Web site than actually read either Sullivan or Reynolds’ site that day — not to mention in the actual paper itself).
Since the raw numbers regarding ‘blog visits are somewhat shaky, the numbers regarding their percentage growth are likely to be equally so, but I’d be interested to see if the top 10 ‘blogs, whatever they may be, averaged the same sort of percentage growth last week as the top 10 conventional media sites. If they didn’t, then the odds of Nisenholtz winning his Wired bet just got better. Not only that, but Vincent’s argument of ‘blogging being an alternative to a liberal media (many ‘bloggers are conservative) is shown to be somewhat specious, since it shows that when people want news online, what they do is go to the usual suspects first.
Given the small number of visitors to ‘blogs, this following point will come as no surprise: Most professional journalists who write ‘blogs write them for the smallest audiences they reach. I don’t have to pick on Sullivan for this one, since I can use my own site as an example. Over the last four weeks, I’ve averaged 1,400 visits daily (a number probably closer to the actual number of daily visitors than either Sullivan or Reynolds, since I typically only update once a day, if that). Over the course of a month, I’d estimate that works out to between 2,000 or 3,000 regular readers, which means that this site is comfortably midlist; I’m not Sullivan or Reynolds, but I’m not some schmuck with a spanky new Blogger account, either. So, anyway: 2,000 to 3,000 regular readers for the site. Let’s contrast this with my other regular audiences:
* CD/DVD reviews for Official US Playstation Magazine: 360,000 monthly
* Weekly DVD column for Dayton Daily News: 140,000 weekly
* 4 Online Newsletters (2 personal finance, 1 food, 1 photography): 500,000 weekly (aggregate)
So: My personal site: 3,000 readers at best. My other work: 1,000,000 readers, for a ratio of 1 to 333 (I don’t include my corporate work in this, since I have no way of tracking how many people see that). My site is going to have become a lot more popular before it even begins to rival my reach in conventional online and offline media. Or, to present another perspective on the matter: My recent “I Hate Your Politics” column was avidly linked to on blogs and other sites, even “charting” on MIT’s Blogdex for a few days. Total visits over two weeks: 10,000 or so. One of the people who read it was the editor of the Willamette Week alt-newsweekly, who bought it to reprint in his paper. Total readership: 85,000. Eight times as many people will be exposed to it in print than saw it on the Web in two weeks.
And so it goes with others. Sullivan crows about the potential of ‘blogs, but does so in Wired (circ: 500,000). His presence on the Web is dwarfed by his reach in the New York Times and the other places he writes to make scratch. Joshua Micha Marshall, one of the few liberal ‘bloggers with any popularity, gets vastly more readers every time he’s published in Salon or the New York Post. James Lileks’ immensely popular site’s readership is dwarfed by the public for his “Backfence” column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Their reasons for writing on the Web are their own — but it’s not because they were looking for a larger audience than what they already had.
(Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that many of the most popular ‘blogs are written by established journalists and writers — i.e., people who have made their writing bones before coming to the ‘blog lifestyle. I don’t think it’s a reach to say one of the major reasons that Andrew Sullivan’s site is popular is because he was already a controversial and polarizing figure; if he was just another guy spouting off on the Web instead of a former editor of the New Republic, substantially fewer people would care what he had to say (this is also one of the reasons why Sullivan is revered among the ‘bloglitariat — he’s a big-shot writer who descended from on high to bless the ‘blogs). Whether the ‘bloggers choose to recognize it or not, they still look to and crave recognition from the very media they profess to irritate or, with more hubris, plan to usurp.)
Those who have any sense of ‘Net history will note that the “Rise of the ‘Blogs” closely resembles the putative rise of an earlier generation of personal Web sites known as the online journal, in which the writers, like ‘bloggers, wrote about current events and linked to friends and strangers who had similar views and opinions. Many of these online journals were as popular in their day as the top-tier ‘blogs are today: the late, lamented “Squishy” (written by the gifted Pamela Ribon) was so popular that her fans actually held a “Pamie-con” in Pamie’s honor. The movement was written up in national media, and some predicted that they represented the next mass media.
What happened to them? Well, nothing happened to them. Some of them went away because the writers got bored or decided to try to make money from writing instead of writing for free on the Web; some of them are still out there, writing away (and producing some very good writing doing it). It’s just that the cultural moment for the online journal passed, or, at the very least, mutated into the cultural moment for the ‘blog. The same fate does not necessarily await the ‘blog, but as elsewhere, history on the ‘Net seems to show a tendency to repeat itself.
Let’s posit that it won’t be a bad thing if all the ‘blogs ever become is what they already are. James Lileks, in his refutation of Alex Beam’s mostly brain-dead ‘blog lashing, noted that “The newspaper is a lecture. The Web is a conversation.” Lileks is absolutely correct in this assessment, and bloggers everywhere took it in as a maxim. Many ‘bloggers seem to be skimming over that fact that conversation, whatever other wonderful qualities it may have, is not a mass medium.
PETA wants to promote breastfeeding in Mississippi with billboards showing the Baby Jesus suckling at the Virgin Mary’s nipple. This is a bit like the Beef Advisory Council promoting their product by placing a burger in each of the many hands of Shiva. You could chalk it up to miscalculation and ignorance, but it’s PETA, whose grand plan to promote their cause in the United States seems to boil down to “enrage meat eaters to such a degree that they choke on their steaks.” Miscalculation isn’t part of the plan.
Were I a meat-bearing animal (and unless I’m schlepping groceries, I’m not), the folks at PETA are just about the last people on Earth I’d want promoting my cause, since the short-term result of this sort of intentionally antagonistic marketing approach is that someone’s likely to have protest grill-a-thon right under the billboard. You can see it now: Eat a sausage for Jesus. Clearly, this wouldn’t help. Someone needs to do a study to see whether meat sales go up after every PETA stunt; I think we all might be surprised at the results. I don’t think PETAs cause is unjust in the least, I just think the end result of their tactics is likely to be higher bacon consumption.
However, PETA is correct on two points. The first is that human breast milk is far better for infants than cow’s milk (which is the point of the billboard) and in fact cow’s milk can be bad for very young babies: Far too much sodium, for one thing (you can do a number on a baby’s kidneys). There are also too many nutrients at too many different levels relative to the mix a newborn needs. I remember that while Athena was being born, a very good (childless) friend of ours who was feeding our pets also bought us two gallons of whole milk so we could be prepared. I certainly appreciated the thought (and still do), but I’d have been about as likely to pop open a can of Sprite and put that in our newborn’s bottle as I would be to give her milk from the store.
PETA’s billboard is fatuous to the extent that any pediatrician or ob/gyn who did not get a medical degree from a box of Trix already knows all this and will have communicated this information to their expectant mothers (as will have the instructors of their birthing classes, who comprise a veritable La Leche League mafia). So its only true value is to piss off religious conservatives, which is entirely why PETA did it anyway. But technically, it’s not wrong.
The second point where PETA is correct is that the baby Jesus did breastfeed off the Virgin Mary. It was 2000 years ago, baby formula had not yet made inroads into the parenting market, and while there almost certainly was a cow around (Jesus was camping out in the animal’s food bin, after all), chances are very good Mary guided Jesus to her breast instead. That’s what breasts are for. Mary may have been a virgin, but she wasn’t stupid.
The real question is why religious conservatives are so incensed by the portrayal. I don’t mean this in the entirely fake way PETA officials are pretending to be shocked, shocked that anyone could see something as natural as a mother suckling her child as offensive, since if it hadn’t have been offensive, PETA simply wouldn’t have done it. They would picked some other outrageous image; this being the South, I imagine a billboard of General Sherman torching Atlanta, with the tagline underneath: Haven’t You Had Enough of Barbeque? That’d get them going down in Dixie (Note to PETA: Steal this, and you’ll get a call from my lawyers. They’re carnivores).
PETA counted on it being offensive, but, fundamentally, why should it be offensive? Jesus was divine, but also human. He was a baby, he had to eat. Mary was the Mother of God but also a mother; she gave birth, her body pumped out milk so she could feed her baby. Mary suckled the Baby Jesus. Deal with it.
The response: We know she did it, we just don’t want to see it or think about it. And of course, the answer here is: Why on Earth not? Well, for one thing, it’s a breast — and we all know that looking at boobs arouses thoughts of sex. Sex leads to sin, sin leads to fear, fear leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. So we just can’t have the Virgin Mary going topless. The kids will riot.
As you can imagine, this line of reasoning makes me giggle. For one thing, there’s undoubtedly a special seating area in Hell for people who have lustful thoughts about the Virgin Mary (excluding, possibly, Joseph). Everybody knows this, so anyone who glances at the picture and thinks “Huh huh huh — the Virgin Mary is totally hot” is already feeling Satan’s tines sticking his ass and has other problems to worry about.
For another thing, breasts used for breastfeeding are unsexy in almost exactly the same way a vagina being used for birth is unsexy — indeed, it’s a vivid reminder that God, in His wisdom, evolved dual uses for just about every fun-providing part of the human anatomy, and that second use is definitely not about having a good time. So I think we can shelve the “Boobs = sex” line of reasoning here. The Virgin Mary suckling the Baby Jesus is about as far from sex as we’re likely to get, even without throwing in the nature of Mary’s impregnation.
The other issue may simply be that Christians don’t like dwelling on the human aspect of Jesus and Mary — just as any person prefers not to dwell on the grosser (in every meaning of the word) aspects of the humanity of their idols. But I have to say this doesn’t make much sense to me. Christian theology is built on Jesus’ dual nature as divine and human: Toss out one half, and the other half doesn’t work. Jesus’ suffering was rooted in his divinity — he was called on to redeem the sins of the world — but the actual suffering part was predicated upon his human nature. Being nailed to a cross to die doesn’t work if He Who is Nailed doesn’t have the humanity required to suffer.
Aside from Jesus, other major Christian figures relied on their humanity to confirm their divinity as well. You can’t throw a rock in a room full of early Christian saints without hitting one martyred for his faith (depending on who you hit, in fact, the rock throwing bit is nothing new to him). Martyrdom is physical and painful, a reflection of Jesus’ human pain on the cross. And of course there’s Mary herself, chosen to carry Jesus for her essential humanity.
Dwelling on the humanity of Jesus and Mary doesn’t weaken their divinity, it strengthens it. Showing a picture of the Blessed Mother and Child as the latter is breastfeeding off the former shouldn’t been seen as sacrilege or blasphemy, but an acknowledgement of part of what makes them special, loved and revered. I think that people who are enraged by the picture should take a few moments and reflect on that fact. Jesus was human as much as divine, and it’s simply wrong to deny His humanity, and the things that come with it.
It doesn’t mean you have to walk around with a picture in your wallet of Jesus suckling from the Virgin Mary, mind you (or of Jesus performing any other human functions you might not care to think about on an everyday basis, because, you know, Jesus did those things too). But this way, when someone shoves a picture like this in your face as a cheap way to piss you off, you can laugh it away. And then you can have a nice slab of pork round. See who’s more pissed off then.
Mail from Libertarians (more than one) discussing the crack I made in the “I Hate Your Politics” rant about them all being disappointed that they’re not the illegitimate children of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein. Most are admitting this is true (The Libertarians as a group are being rather good-natured about the ribbing, much like a secure bald guy tolerates jokes about not having any hair), but a couple have expressed a horror contemplating at least one of these authors as a progenitor. The most recent e-mail along this line, solidly in Ayn’s camp, noted: “I would have been satisfied to have Ayn Rand as a mother, [but] to have the author of numerous execrable Lazarus Long novels as my father would cause me to contemplate self-destruction.”
Which of course caused me to contemplate: Given the choice between Heinlein and Rand, which would I want as a parent? Let’s posit that one couldn’t have both — beyond such a union causing the cracking of at least four of the seven seals, there’s a pretty good chance that after about 15 minutes in each other’s presence, either or both of them would have been thumbing their holsters. There can only be one Alpha Male in the room. In a shootout, incidentally, it’d be even money: Heinlein would probably be faster off the draw, but Rand would probably need a stake through the heart to go down. (Before you start: I know about Rand and her thoughts on force. But let’s just see her try to reason with Angry Bob.)
Personally, I’m not so sure I’d want Heinlein for a dad (too much weapons-handling and gruff-but-fair cuffing around the ears), but I can say with absolute certainly that the idea of Rand as my mother fills me with an unholy terror. As, I’m sure, it would fill Rand to contemplate me as a child of hers, or, really, to have any children whatsoever. Some people want children, and some want acolytes, and Rand was well into that second camp. Children are unreasonable. Acolytes aren’t (well, maybe they are, but they know to keep it away from you).
But why go on into detail about all the reasons I wouldn’t want Ayn Rand for a mom when a cheap-and-simplistic Top Ten list will do? And so, without further ado:
The Top Ten Reasons You Don’t Want Ayn Rand as Your Mom
10: Her not-so-secret disappointment that you weren’t able to operate a speedboat the first time you saw one, even after watching the help do it for ten whole minutes.
9: Birthday gifts: Erector sets and a “Lil’ Smelter” kit.
8: Pushing you to date her young male followers after she’s “vetted” them is really kind of creepy.
7: At bedtime, reads you The Giving Tree as a cautionary tale.
6: Wouldn’t speak to you for a week after you admitted that you kind of like useless ornamentation.
5: Her “Birds and Bees” chat to you sounds like a particularly seamy scene in a film by David Fincher.
4: Always ends arguments by throwing down a bunch of pictures of modern buildings; seems angry that you don’t see the logic.
3: Dismisses your desire to visit Disneyland as “Anti-Life.” She’s right, of course, but you’re still disappointed.
2: Tears down the house rather than let you choose the wallpaper for your room.
1: Your Babysitter: Alan Greenspan.
Apparently over the weekend I went from occasionally griping about blogs to actually killing one off: Journalist Bill Peschel headlined his Saturday ‘blog entry “JOHN SCALZI KILLED OFF THIS BLOG” and then credited one of my commentaries on writing online as a tipping point in his decision to can his blog and use the time it had been filling up to concentrate on novels, short stories and other brands of pay copy.
The commentary in question was actually discussing online journals, and not ‘blogs, but the comments work tolerably well when applied to blogging. The point was that while writing online can be fun and a fine way to amuse one’s self harmlessly, in terms of actual writing craft, writing on one’s own Web’s site is good for one thing only: Writing on one’s own Web site. It’s mostly useless for learning how to write professionally — which is to say, learning how to produce pay copy that editors will buy. Not everyone who writes online in a journal or a blog wants to become a professional writer, which is perfectly fine; everyone needs a hobby. But those folks who actually want to graduate to getting paid for writing should spend time trying to sell their work and figuring out how to work with and for editors. Peschel has apparently taken this to heart.
I’ve never had contact with Peschel before (I found his site by tracking backwards through referrer logs, because I’m just that sort of person), and of course I’m mildly apprehensive about providing even a contributing factor to someone’s career aspirations. If everything in Peschel’s writing life goes to Hell from here on out, I hope he won’t crystallize in his mind that it’s my fault, track me to my home and start pounding on my front door with an axe. However, speaking in a broad sense, I approve of any writer making the effort to refine his or her craft, and choosing to take the more difficult route of offering up one’s work for editorial consideration. It’s difficult to put your babies on the chopping block, especially since most everything that gets put on the chopping block gets chopped. But it’s something that just has to get done.
I’ll go a step further and suggest that writing online can become a genuine crutch both for aspiring and established writers. Speaking as a professional writer, I enjoy writing online because it offers unmediated opportunities to communicate, and often what I write here simply isn’t going to find a market elsewhere; not too many editors are going to touch an essay on “Football With Jesus,” or a tutorial on how to write hate mail. And the feedback from writing online is immense relative to what you get offline. I wrote a weekly column in the Fresno Bee that got in front of 150,000 readers (not counting syndication) and I’d be lucky to get one or two letters. The “I Hate Your Politics” screed, with a tenth the readership, has generated 100 times the mail, plus several discussion threads online. Writers like mail and discussion threads, even when (or in my case, especially when) it’s just someone telling you you’re a complete idiot.
This freedom and immediate and active feedback is emotionally much more compelling than, say, shutting the door, writing an article, picking a market and then sending it off and waiting for weeks before receiving a single binary response to it (accepted/rejected). And it’s certainly more fun than spending a few hours coming up with query ideas to pitch to an editor who has to riffle through a couple hundred other query ideas from other writers that same week, many of whom had the same idea you did (yes, it happens, the bastards).
Writers are attention hogs, and the attention we get from writing online, even if it’s to a very small audience, fills up the ego pretty quickly. The problem is that nearly all writers it’s the emotional equivalent of empty calories — it’s ultimately not healthy for one’s career, and eventually even “successful” Web writers want the legitimacy of having other people pay for their work. Sooner or later, if a Web writer wants to make that happen, he or she has to curb the desire for instant feedback, lock the door, unplug the Internet connection, and just get to work.
(There’s also the procrastination angle, of course — these little sites are total time sucks, and that takes time away from paid work.)
Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four people who write primarily on their Web sites who I think should either quit or scale back in order to start focusing on writing in other avenues: Books, articles, novels, whatever. I know at least a couple of these people want to do it but are intimidated by the prospect of “real” writing, or simply like the level of attention they get too much to cut it back. It seems sort of silly to put it this way, but it’s a problem, and in a very real sense, their Web sites are holding them down. They’re like training wheels on your bike. Sooner or later you have to pull them off and ride on two wheels — and risk the crash.
(Yes, yes, the irony of writing on a personal Web site about the perils of personal Web sites. Look — I have two books coming out later this year, three regular magazine columns and a weekly newspaper column, not to mention rich, creamy, sinful corporate work. The training wheels are off my bike, thanks. But of course even I still spend too much time doing this. I should be writing a chapter on Jupiter right now. Don’t tell my book editor.)
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know Bill Peschel at all. But I hope his decision turns out to be a good one for him; I read the first couple of chapters of his novel in progress (P is For Space — think Have Space Suit, Will Travel with a middle-aged guy in the place of a teenage boy, and the Space Shuttle instead of a smelly ol’ space suit) and I’ll be ready to read more when it comes out in book form. Given the choice between having his blog up on my computer screen, or his book on my shelf, I know which I’d prefer to have. If in some small way what I’ve written manages to help that happen, I’ll be honored. I’ll also want 10%.
I got lots of e-mail and read lots of fun commentary on the “I Hate Your Politics” column I wrote on Friday. The e-mail I’ll keep private, but the commentary threads are available for you to read on Plastic and MetaFilter. These conversations are pretty interesting, and feature some good put-downs as well as plaudits, but if what you’re looking for is pure balls-out lunacy, you really must check out the commentary thread about the article at the FreeRepublic site, which is a hangout for conservatives.
The folks there thought the article was amusing until they decided that I had to be a liberal (I was judged to have been less insulting to the liberals than to the conservatives), at which point they sharpened up their pointy little heads and did their best to poke me to death. The line-by-line exegesis of message #50 in the thread is by far my personal favorite. The author of that one starts off by labeling me a “socialist-communist”; since I read that as I was writing up one of my weekly personal finance newsletters, I thought that was pretty funny. I also find it interesting to note that FreeRepublic posted my entire column; conservative though the folks there may be, they apparently don’t know much about copyright or the limitations of “fair use.” Oh, well. To them, I’m only a liberal. It’s not like I deserve to have rights.
There’s no reason to respond to specific comments on any of these threads, or from the e-mail, but I’d like to chat about three common complaints folks had about the rant, since I think they touch on a couple larger issues (at least in terms of writing).
The first of these complaints is simply that I wrote the piece to get attention. As a writer, I never know what to make of this complaint. Of course I write to get attention; if I didn’t want attention for what I wrote, I would write it in a locked diary, shove it in a safe between entries and then demand the executors of my estate burn the journal after I died. I think it’s pretty self-evident that anything I post on a publicly accessible Web site is meant to be read by others.
Additionally, after I’m done writing, I’ll frequently drop an e-mail to a blog whose author might find the article interesting enough to link to. It’s nice when people link spontaneously (as happened in the case of Plastic and VodkaPundit), but sometimes I like to make the case for a link. In the case of the “Politics” piece, I dropped an e-mail to InstaPundit and Libertarian Samizdata. The latter linked; the former did not. When I write media-related pieces, I’ll frequently shoot an e-mail over Jim Romenesko. I don’t know if this sort of occasional self-promotion regarding blogs is the usual thing but clearly I don’t have an issue doing it. Blogs need links to comment on; I want to be read by readers. It seems a good arrangement.
Now, I didn’t write the piece just to get attention — i.e., wrote it only because I knew it would be an attention-grabber. Doing that never works anyway, since you never know what people are going to like or dislike. Fact is, I felt like ranting, I did it. It felt good, which has its own value. Inasmuch people link to my stuff of their own accord whether I solicit a link or not, it’s entirely conceivable no one would have bothered to link, and the thing would only have been seen by those who generally stop by the site on a day-to-day basis. That would have been just fine. I like people who visit on their own accord. But once the piece was done, sure, I let the appropriate folks know I’d written something their readerships might find interesting. In the world of online writing, that’s how you do it.
The second complaint I saw, primarily on the Plastic and MetaFilter boards, was that the rant didn’t say anything constructive about politics; it was just a litany of complaints. The idea here being that if you’re going to bitch about something, then you should offer an alternative. Otherwise, I guess, you’re just part of the problem.
I think this is a pretty stupid argument, myself. Not every piece of writing needs to be fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful. Having everything fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful is boring. People who demand everything is fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful are boring. I wrote a rant; the purpose of a rant is to spew angrily for several paragraphs. We could have a sit-in here discussing the value of catharsis as a literary device, but since the idea of doing so fills me with an almost crushing sense of ennui, let’s not.
I don’t mind people reading the piece and saying “it’s not funny,” since funny is one of those subjective things, as amply evidenced by the continued persistence of Martin Lawrence’s career. Even saying “it’s not good,” is fine — you can’t make everyone happy all the time. But complaining that the piece isn’t fair or meaningful is really missing the point. You have to be spectacularly beef-witted not to realize that any piece of writing that starts with a declaration that the author hates your politics even though he doesn’t know what they are is going to be a generally unfair and unconstructive read. Let a rant be a rant, for God’s sake; there’s more than enough time for a seminar on political affiliations some other time.
The final complaint I want to comment on is the one that suggests that by venting about political affiliations, I was promoting the cause of political apathy — although in the Plastic thread, there were people who saw this as a positive and a negative, so I suppose that “complaint” might not be the most accurate word where.
Whatever it is, it’s incorrect. I don’t see how bitching about conservatives, liberals and libertarians equates with being politically apathetic. That’s like saying just because I think your car is a flaming piece of crap, I can’t have a set of wheels of my own. Anyone who crawls through this site will determine pretty quickly that I do have political beliefs, and since I make it a point to vote every chance I get, I feel perfectly justified in commenting on any damn thing I feel like, when it comes to politics.
I’m many things, to be sure, but politically apathetic is not one of them. Anyone who equates not identifying with the conservatives, liberals or libertarians as apathy should work on their math. In the meantime, of course, I’ll just keep voting. That’ll really piss ’em off.
A number of people were wondering what it was that set me off on the rant in the first place. The answer to this, I’m afraid, is wholly apolitical: A vomiting 3-year-old at 1:30 am, followed by a bout of insomnia. It’s enough to make anyone cranky, I suspect.
I hate your politics.
No, I don’t know what they are. And no, I probably don’t know who you are, either. Really, those two points are immaterial (no offense). As it turns out about, about 46% of you are liberal, 46% of you are conservative, and the rest of you just want your guns, drugs and brothels (here in the US, we call them folks “libertarians”).
Each of you carries baggage from your political affiliation, and all of that baggage has a punky smell to it, like one of your larger species of rodent crawled in and expired in your folded underwear. Listening to any of you yammer on about the geopolitical situation is enough to make one want to melt down one’s dental fillings with a beeswax candle and then jam an ice pick into the freshly-exposed nerve, just to have something else to think about. It’s not so much that politics brings out the worst in people than it is that the worst in people goes looking for something to do, and that usually ends up being politics. It’s either that or setting fires in trashcans.
In the spirit of fairness, and of completeness, let me go down the list and tell you what I hate about each major branch of political thinking.
Liberals: The stupidest and weakest members of the political triumvirate, they allowed conservatives to turn their name into a slur against them, exposing them as the political equivalent of the kid who lets the school bully pummel him with his own fists (Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself). Liberals champion the poor and the weak but do it in such condescendingly bureaucratic ways that the po’ illedumacated Cleti would rather eat their own shotguns than associate with the likes of them. Famously humorless and dour, probably because for a really good liberal, everything is political, and you just can’t joke about things like that.
Defensive and peevish even when they’re right. Under the impression that people in politics should play fair, which is probably why they get screwed as often as they do (nb: 2000 Presidential election). Feel guilty about the freedoms their political positions allow them, which is frankly idiotic. Liberals are politically able to have all sorts of freaky mammal sex but typically don’t; good liberal foreplay is a permission slip and three layers of impermeable barriers. The only vaguely liberal person we know of who seemed to enjoy sex in the last 30 years is Clinton, and look what he got out of it.
Fractious and have no sense of loyalty; will publicly tear out the intestines of those closest to them at the most politically inopportune times. The attention spans of poultry; easily distracted from large, useful goals by pointless minutiae. Not only can’t see the forest for the trees, can’t see the trees for the pine needles. Deserve every bad thing that happens to them because they just can’t get their act together. Too bad those they presume to stand for get royally screwed as well.
Conservatives: Self-hating moral relativists, unless you can convince me that an intellectual class that publicly praises family values but privately engages in sodomy, coke and trophy wives is more aptly described in some other way. Not every conservative is an old wealthy white man on his third wife, but nearly every conservative aspires to be so, which is a real waste of money, youth, race and women. Genuinely fear and hate those who are not “with” them — the sort of people who would rather shit on a freshly-baked cherry pie than share it with someone not of their own tribe.
Conservatives believe in a government by the oligarchy, for the oligarchy, which is why the conservative idea of an excellent leader is Ronald Reagan, i.e., genial, brain-damaged and amenable to manipulation by his more mentally composed underlings. Under the impression they own the copyright on Jesus and get testy when other political factions point out that technically Christ is in the public domain. Conservatives don’t actually bother to spend time with people who are not conservative, and thus become confused and irritable when people disagree with them; fundamentally can’t see how that’s even possible, which shows an almost charming intellectual naiveté. Less interested in explaining their point of view than nuking you and everything you stand for into blackened cinders before your evil worldview catches on like a virus. Conservatives have no volume control on their hate and yet were shocked as Hell when Rush Limbaugh went deaf.
Conservatives clueless enough to think that having Condi Rice and Andrew Sullivan on the team somehow counts as diversity. Pen their “thinkers” like veal in think tanks rather than let them interact with people who might oppose their views. Loathe women who are not willing to have their opinions as safely shellacked as their hair. Let their sons get caught with a dime bag and see how many are really for “zero-tolerance.” Let a swarthy day laborer impregnate their daughters and find out how many of them are really pro-life.
Libertarians: Never got over the fact they weren’t the illegitimate children of Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand; currently punishing the rest of us for it. Unusually smug for a political philosophy that’s never gotten anyone elected for anything above the local water board. All for legalized drugs and prostitution but probably wouldn’t want their kids blowing strangers for crack; all for slashing taxes for nearly every social service but don’t seem to understand why most people aren’t at all keen to trade in even the minimal safety net the US provides for 55-gallon barrels of beans and rice, a crossbow and a first-aid kit in the basement. Blissfully clueless that Libertarianism is just great as long as it doesn’t actually involve real live humans.
Libertarians blog with a frequency that makes one wonder if they’re actually employed somewhere or if they have loved ones who miss them. Libertarian blogs even more snide than conservative blogs, if that’s possible. Socially slow — will assume other people actually want to talk about legalizing hemp and the benefits of a polyamorous ethos when all these other folks really want is to drink beer and play Grand Theft Auto 3. Libertarianism the official political system of science fiction authors, which explains why science fiction is in such a rut these days. Libertarians often polyamorous (and hope you are too) but also somewhat out of shape, which takes a lot of the fun out of it.
Easily offended; Libertarians most likely to respond to this column. The author will attempt to engage subtle wit but will actually come across as a geeky whiner (Conservatives, more schooled in the art of poisonous replies, may actually achieve wit; liberals will reply that they don’t find any of this humorous at all). Libertarians secretly worried that ultimately someone will figure out the whole of their political philosophy boils down to “Get Off My Property.” News flash: This is not really a big secret to the rest of us.
I’m guessing you thought I was way off on your political philosophy but right on the button about the other two. Just think about that for a while.
The lord is my receiver; I shall not fumble. He maketh me perform the handoff, and occasionally leadeth me to the Hail Mary pass. He restoreth the point spread; He leadeth me down the field toward victory in His name. Yea, though I thread through the Valley of the Blitzing 350-Pound Defensive Line, I will fear no sacking; for Thou art with me; Thy offensive line of burly disciples they comfort me.
Let me ask the Christians out there in the audience: Would you really want your children to play football with Jesus? Before you respond in the affirmative, let me point out a couple of things to consider first.
1. Jesus is heedlessly playing contact football in a robe and sandals, those two articles of clothing being that which visually distinguish Him from, say, the lead singer of the Spin Doctors (who you almost certainly would not let play football with your children). While Jesus is the Son of God, His divinity does not preclude Him from injury; if you doubt this, take a long hard look at a crucifix sometime. Your child could, say, accidentally spike Jesus in His instep, injuring the Redeemer of Humanity and causing Him to be carried off the field, limping and grimacing in pain. No doubt Jesus would forgive your kid, but even so, your kid is going to be known forever as “The Kid That Took Jesus Out of the Game.” 4th grade has enough name-calling in it without that following your kid around for the rest of the year.
2. Regardless of his protective clothing situation, Jesus is a full grown adult here, greatly outmassing any of His competitors, and offering any Pop Warner team He might play for a distinct (and some would say unfair) advantage. Imagine the terror any 60-pound kid would feel as any 180-pound opponent bore down on him, but especially one bizarrely garbed in robe and sandals and who has the power to unleash the Final Judgment upon all of humanity. Even if the kid covering Jesus attempts the tackle, what if Jesus stiff-arms him and keeps on going? What does it do to one’s faith when your savior clips you into the turf on His way to the end zone?
3. Angry parents who see their kids hit by others on the field have been known to confront the other player’s parents during or after the game. Do you really want to try that maneuver in this situation?
4. As alluded to earlier, when Jesus is playing football, not only is he playing for a team, he’s playing against a team as well. Well, honestly, who wants to play against Jesus? I mean, the kid attempting to tackle the Living Christ has a massive theological quandary on his hands. We all know what happens to those who aren’t on Jesus’ team, in the larger eschatological sense — they’re going to spend eternity in a hot tub filled with kerosene and people who voted for Nader. How is being on an opposing Pee-Wee football team any different? The answer, for your average 8-to-10 year old, at least: It isn’t. Jesus’ team would win every game by forfeit. That doesn’t make for a very interesting season.
Well, you say, simple solution: Just pack the opposing teams with the infidel children of the unbelievers. Those little Wiccan kids shouldn’t have a problem tackling Jesus; they’re already going to Hell. Okay, but then you have another problem. There are a finite number of spots available on any football team, so only a relatively few Christian children will be able to play in those spots (not to mention that at least a few non-Christians will want to play on the team too, not because of religious reasons but because any kid’s football team with a 6-foot, 180-pound receiver has got a real advantage). And as we all know, from a “wrong end of Satan’s basting syringe” perspective, simply not being on Jesus’ team is just as bad as being actively against Him. You see the quandary.
5. We’ve been making the assumption any team with Jesus on it will automatically win: If not by forfeit, then by Jesus’ height and weight advantage, and if not by that then by divine intervention, pure and simple. But intellectual honesty requires us to ask: What if Jesus’ team loses? Aside from the psychological toll this would take on the children (whose team is so bad that it can’t win even with the direct and active intercession of Jesus Christ Himself), think of the problematic theological issues — especially if, as postulated in the point above, the opposing team was populated entirely by the children of the infidels. If Wotan’s Whacker’s consistently drive down the field, smiting Jesus’ teammates along the way, you can bet that’s going to have some spiritual resonance, particularly in those parts of the country where Friday Night Football is attended as religiously as Sunday Morning Services.
6. Akin to this, what if Jesus is just a really bad football player? Football was not exactly big in the Middle East 2000 years ago, after all. What if He fumbles continuously? Or is continually offsides on the snap? What if His philosophy of “turn the other cheek” translates to standing there passively while the defensive line pounds the QB into the dirt?
Well, clearly, Jesus will need to be taken off the field to be replaced by a more competent player. But who wants to be the coach that benches Jesus? Who wants to replace Him on the field? And again, there’s the larger competence issue. If Jesus can’t even handle a hand-off, just how well is he going to guide the souls of the saved to their Final Reward? Both activities are about getting to the goal, after all. You don’t want to be in the hands of a bobbler.
All in all, while having your kids play competitive sports with Jesus might seem like a good idea on the surface, in the end it simply raises too many theological and competitive questions. It’s probably best just to have Jesus cheering on the sidelines, as long as He’s discreet about it and throws in an occasional cheer for the other kids, too. You know. It’s the Christian thing to do.