#4) Against Blogging – with Dan Andrews

This week we are joined from Barcelona by friend of the blog Dan Andrews. Dan is an entrepreneur, a blogger, a compulsive reader, a competitive cyclist, and host of the popular TropicalMBA podcast. In what follows, he defends blogging as a revolution in how information and experience are shared. 

Eric:

Recently Matt told me a story about his time in college, when he would pepper his thesis advisor with one persistent, probably unanswerable question: What is worth doing? Even then he understood that life was short and much of what we are expected to do with life is not at all worth the trouble, and he wanted to be able to sort the good from the bad before he wasted too much of his precious and momentary time.

I had a similar experience. Throughout my twenties I made decisions based on a calculated anticipation of regret. My guiding question was this: What choices can I make today that I will be least likely to regret in the future? The two questions are more or less the same.

For a long time I was able to think this way while also contributing to various blogs. Clearly I thought that they were worth doing and that in the future I would not regret having done them. Now that the future is here I can’t quite say that I regret them, but neither am I quite convinced that they were worth it.

My most recent stint of regular blogging, at Religion Dispatches, involved a lot of following the news cycle and commenting on events as they passed. Among other things, this taught me that blogging is not worth doing. It is so transitory that, in some cases, I could spend three hours honing a post on Tuesday morning only to see it outdated and irrelevant by Thursday afternoon. In the meanwhile, I had nothing to show for the effort except for a few Facebook likes and a smattering of angry comments. What was the point?

As I approach middle age, I find myself increasingly drawn to things that last. Books, for instance, seem to have the sort of permanence that I need. Blogs, generally, do not. And yet, you are an unabashed blogging apologist. How do you make your case?

Dan:

Yes, I am very much an unabashed blogging apologist! This is for many reasons that I can elaborate on, but they boil down to something like this: blogging gives me access to the stories and insights of compelling people that I might not otherwise have access to, if, for example, I had to wait until their next book to come out. The connections I’ve made as a result – in my own thinking and with the authors and my fellow readers, have changed my life meaningfully.

Now I find it strange that a discussion of the medium – the way in which you publish your writing – has started with fundamental existential questions. What’s the good life? What’s good writing? What will last? etc. You are tasking the medium of your writing with such questions.

I’d start the conversation at the level of tactics. Should I publish this piece on my blog or save it for my book? Should I spend energy creating blog posts or just write books? Should I forget about getting a book deal and just put my book on my blog for free? And so on.

It sounds like you are just fundamentally unhappy with what you have been writing historically on blogs.

You said “I wrote a bunch of response pieces to the US newscycle a few years ago on a blog” and then say “I’m disappointed in blogging.”

What if you had written about something you had believed in? Something about what you had learned? Something that was worth reading five or even ten years from now?

Maybe you’d collect that writing and publish it in a book?

Also, I’m not willing to concede that ‘transitory blogging’ is necessarily a waste of time as it can build things that last – audience, reputation, access, and much more (and I’m happy to generate examples if you like, I’d probably start with sports writers) – but it sounds like you fundamentally don’t want to do that kind of work. Fair enough, but that type of decision is quite separate from the medium in which you ultimately publish your words.

Why not publish your words on every one you can think of?

Then see which one your readers prefer.

Eric:

The relationship between medium and message presents some interesting questions. I am a little less bullish on our ability to separate the two.

In fact I suspect that, in very many cases, the ease and speed of self-publishing via blogging platforms encourage content that is less thoughtful and/or less original than that produced for slower, more traditional outlets. This is especially true of the type of news cycle work that I was doing, and it’s reflected in the derisive way that people on Twitter refer to “hot takes” or “think pieces.”

(Maybe we can say more about these in a future post, to be titled Against Twitter.)

And actually, I was writing about things that I believe in, things that I had learned, and things that could potentially matter in ten years. But often my posts were driven by other considerations. Was a particular story or issue current? What were other people saying about it? In what ways could I respond to their comments? Could I critique someone famous in a way that would provoke him to respond in print? Could we get into it? Would our disagreement draw more readers? Could I expand my audience in this way?

Suffice it to say that my earnest desire to explore universal matters of belief and morality and politics was gradually subordinated to more practical, less noble concerns, and that this soured me on the exercise.

Clearly there are bloggers out there who use their platforms to share interesting ideas and interact thoughtfully with their readers and, in some cases, transfer their posts into book projects and larger thought structures. But they are exceptions to the rule, exhibiting a professionalism and an intellectual discipline that are actually atypical of the form. To do blogging as well as they do is to violate some of the conventions that make (or made?) blogging popular.

There is a pretty obvious tongue-in-cheekness to my gripe here, since the blogging complaint is being made on a blog. But here as elsewhere in my life I am genuinely interested in finding an approach that will make my effort more rewarding in the long term.

We started talking about a book blog because we enjoy talking about books and thought that doing so in a more public setting could allow us to do it better with more people and so improve the quality of our thinking and our lives. In that sense the value question is necessarily tied up with the more existential ones.

I know that you read a lot of blogs by people who also write books, and I wonder if there are any traits or methods common across those blogs that can help us understand how the smart ones do it well.

Dan:

Yes, the framework of blogging has allowed some writers to degrade their writing in ways that they wouldn’t if they had a book advance and an editor. However, it’s also allowed them to improve it in ways that previously weren’t possible.

Let’s say this first: you can publish world-class “book-like” material on a blog and people will read it as such. The Martian is a popular example. I won’t bore the readers (if any) yet that much of our most timeless ‘writing’ didn’t start in books at all. But let’s stay focused on books and blogs for now:

Sure, with a blog, you can do a whole lot more than with a book. You can comment on the news. You can link to stuff. You can solicit immediate feedback, and so on. Just because so many bloggers (that you read) focus on those new attributes doesn’t say anything about the thousands who use the “easy access” to increase the quality of content that’s available to a reading public.

In particular, it’s given us access to writing that previously would have never been published due to factors like 1) not deemed marketable or 2) author doesn’t want to or have the time/energy/money/marketability to write a book. (I’m sure there are many others).

Take, for example, the first-hand insights from a famous internet tycoon like Mark Cuban. Yeah, he wrote a book called How to Win at the Sport of Business, something a publisher thought people would pick up in an airport, but on his blog you can follow writing regarding his political opinions, the back room negotiating in the NBA, his thoughts on investing, to how he cured a nasty case of vertigo. It’s all available for public consumption thanks to blogging.

What about Jodi Ettenberg’s story of travel through food at “Legal Nomads?” What about Nate Duncan’s hyper-technical NBA analysis at Dunc’d On? Pedestrian Observations? Rob Walling’s story of “stair stepping” his way into small business millions might have been told, five years later, with the distortions of journalism, but instead we heard it from him. There’s endless examples of non-commercial, non-interest based personal insights available for basically the first time in history.

Blogging has gotten us free from those who only write – “professional writers” – and has given us an opportunity to hear directly from practitioners. There is virtue in the amateur writer. They often do not write because they “need” to – for career, for money, fame, et all.

A thought experiment:

Imagine if, for example, I re-wrote your previous response slightly:

The thing is, I was writing books about things that I believe in, things that I had learned, and things that could potentially matter in ten years. But often my works were driven by other considerations. Could I expand my audience in this way?

Suffice it to say that my earnest desire to explore universal matters of belief and morality and politics was gradually subordinated to more practical, less noble concerns, and that this soured me on the exercise.

Clearly there are writers out there who use their books to share interesting ideas and interact thoughtfully with their readers and, in some cases, creating something truly meaningful, but they are exceptions to the rule.

I get why it’s interesting to pit blogs vs. books, but how about books worth reading vs. books in general. Most books are immediately forgotten. Never read. Tolerated and or cynically contrived by publishers who need to ‘fill a niche,’ by authors who need to ‘further their career’ and by scam artists or narcissists who just want anyone to pay attention. Most will never get it.

This fact is well-known by the publishing industry, which depends on the rare breakouts (the numbers here are stunning, single digit percentages) like Harry Potter and Strengths Finder 2.0 and – relevantly – The Art of the Deal and so on to keep the lights on.

So my critique of your critique might be the crux of the issue entirely: it’s not interesting.

What’s a more permanent medium, books or blogs?

Who cares?

What’s worth reading? What can’t you put down? Who’s worth listening to? What sort of writing would necessarily make it’s way to other mediums?

What do you need to say?

Eric:

Okay, that was strong. My case is battered, and bloodied, and collapsed in the corner. But maybe we can twist the question a bit to keep me in the ring. We seem to agree that, where public writing is concerned, there is a problem of volume. There are a million books that we could be reading (or writing), and about as many blogs, but life is short and our time is precious and so we need to be selective.

The atmosphere that I am rejecting overwhelms us with the illusion of options. There is this constant churn of political-cultural trivia arising from countless identical sources, the vast majority of which will live on only in the footnotes of our time. To blog about it is to enter into a different sort of rat race in which you try to keep pace with thousands of comparable writers bowing to exactly the same motivations and incentives.

It is clear to me that my dissatisfaction with the form is pretty directly attributable to my dissatisfaction with this form of the form, and with my participation in it.

I’m looking for an alternative to this, ideally one that addresses the related problems of volume and speed. My answer, so far, has been to slow and reduce my consumption, a technique that you may dismiss, but that is consistent with a canonizing mentality. It relies on the belief that everything worth saying about the human experience has already been said in one way or another by a relatively small collection of really great authors. On this, too, I think you would disagree.

So now we’ve got a new blog. We’re well-meaning people and capable writers and generally enthusiastic about the ways well-meaning people tend to explore life in print. What do we need to do to make this blog worth reading? How do we make it worth doing?

Dan:

That’s the million dollar question, and I suppose I could rattle off a bunch of strategies that seem to make sense to me, but it’s worth prefacing it by saying I really don’t know. That’s an extremely hard question to answer. I guess you could say it’s the work of a writer.

I can say that I very much don’t feel that everything worth saying has been said, although I can understand how one could feel that way. My response when reading that line is deflation and sadness. But I’m not sure I could mount a great argument against it. It’s an attitude. If you think all the great writing has been done, either you won’t be a writer or you could decide to just do some good writing instead.

There’s plenty of good work to be done. Perhaps we need to think a little differently about what a ‘life in print’ means.

Much of the ‘content’ we are used to reading online is based on a paper/tv/industrial complex, where creating things like books, magazines, and videos was extremely expensive. So when you opened even some highbrow stuff like The New Yorker, you were essentially reading a high-culture potpourri of random stuff that was essentially entertainment, designed to attract valuable eyeballs for advertisers (for the most part). I rarely bother with stuff like that anymore.

Instead of TV I watch individual cycling coaches on Youtube who have something to say about contemporary training methods. This would have never made it to TV or The New Yorker.

Instead of reading The New York Times (which is invariably depressing), I read bloggers who are discovering new ways of navigating their businesses and careers. The principles of what they are on about are the same, but the ways they can go about navigating their worlds seem fresh and relevant to me.

But the question remains: how do you write things worth reading?

Here’s a few ideas in order of difficulty:

1) Do things you are interested in and then write about them.

2) If you aren’t willing to do that, you can write about others who are doing interesting things.

3) The hardest way to write things worth reading is to write what you think about things. This is generally only interesting if you’re thinking about practices or spheres you’ve been involved in for a great deal of time, and even then it can be tough to offer anything uniquely compelling.

So in your case, you’ve spent the vast majority of your working time over the past five years professor-ing. There’s something worth writing about right? If it’s worth doing it’s certainly worth writing about.

And then if you find yourself hating writing about it, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it?

Maybe if you find yourself enjoying writing about it, it would make the doing even better?

But like I said, I really don’t know!

For more of Dan’s thoughts on business, cycling, living abroad, and other interests, follow the TropicalMBA podcast on iTunes. For more on blogging in particular, check out his recent interview with blogger/author Mark Manson, “A Discussion About The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.”

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About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Blogging, Reading and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to #4) Against Blogging – with Dan Andrews

  1. Pingback: #5) Culture and Anarchy I – Sweetness and Light and Donald Trump | BookBlog

  2. Pingback: #13) Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Heroes of the Frontier | BookBlog

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