After his latest piece started circling on Twitter, I went down a rabbit hole on Robin Sloan’s website. It’s not how I intended my morning to be spent, but I’m not mad about it. Many of his posts helped clarify my approach to writing online and the direction I’m taking in the new year with this blog/newsletter thingy.
In a post called “Thinking, Not Replying,” Robin quotes an article about climate policy where the author writes:
In fact, Aklin and Mildenberger say, climate change is a distributive-conflict problem—a term that was new to me and that I will now explain. In essence, climate policy restructures the economy, creating new economic winners and losers. [Etc.]
I nearly gasped at “a term that was new to me and that I will now explain”. Consider a few things:
How easy it would have been to omit. “Climate change is a distributive-conflict problem. In essence, climate policy restructures the economy … ” Pretty normal.
How it transforms Rob from “explainer” to “thinker-alongside”.
How bloggy it sounds! Can you detect that, too? I know not all blogs — not even most — were models of “thinking in public”; the blogosphere was thick with pedantry. At the same time, there was something about the format that seemed to invite a generous, generative approach. >
I want to talk about the second thing he considers about how easy it would have been to say, “…In essence climate policy…” and omit completely the phrase “a term that was new to me and that I will now explain.”
In most of those posts like that, the author doesn’t admit to not knowing something they’re writing about. It’s also surprising that it was in an article from The Atlantic and not a Blogspot blog written by an economics professor who is exploring climate policy.
Robin continues down a tangentially related line of inquiry about how online discourse is always replying, never thinking. I concur with that observation. Thinking aloud online is nearly impossible because most people read something you say and then slap a label on you.
Once they see you through the lens of that label, they assume you believe everything that comes with wearing it. This turns what could be a helpful intellectual discourse into an online boxing match in the comments. Since that’s not helpful for anyone, the people who would enjoy having an intellectual discourse steer clear of the comments section, letting the online boxers populate and litter what could be a beautiful back-and-forth exchange of thinking.
In a post called “The Thing About Blogging Is,” Robin writes:
The thing about blogging is, you can just write about the things you love. A “professional” “critic” (scare quotes because who even knows what words mean anymore) has to do something else, something more difficult: manage a kind of unfolding … aesthetic … worldview? Balance one thing against the other? A blogger suffers no such burden. A blogger can simply
- love a thing, and
- write about it. >
…and that’s what I love about blogging.
In this weird newsletter era of online writing, I’ve been hesitant to embrace the idea of writing a newsletter because, typically, to gain a readership, an audience has to be able to put your work in a box.
Oh, you write about finance? Okay, I like finance. Sure I’ll subscribe to you even though I don’t know you because I’m interested in your niche.
And that’s the thing about niches. They provide a box for a potential reader to put you in until they trust you. But once they do, the box goes out the window. You become “just a finance writer” that they enjoy to “a writer” that they like.
I suspect that’s why everyone says to “pick a niche.” That has to be one of the most popular pieces of advice to aspiring creators, but I haven’t seen an analysis about why it works–and it does work.
But to hell with a niche.
I don’t want to be put into a box. I want to love a thing–or hate a thing–and then write about it. Will my blog go viral? Probably not, but it’s not unheard of.
When a blog gets posted to Hacker News, the quality and content of that post are what people care about. Since it’s ranked high enough on a site trusted by millions, the “trust” factor that a niche provides is no longer relevant. It doesn’t matter what else you’ve written about because this is the post that made it to the front page of Hacker News. This is the post that your favorite writer tweeted out.
So it all goes back to a question of quantity vs. quality debate. Will a blog that posts garbage every day ever make it to the front page of Hacker News? Not in a good way.
Will a blog that posts inconsistent bangers make it to the front page of Hacker News? Most likely.
The question then has to be asked, “Okay, what game are you trying to play?”
As I’ve said in my welcome email to the Substack portion of this blog, I’m not trying to build a career writing online. Not yet, at least. I’m content with my video editing job, learning programming, and writing about those things.
I write because I want to write. Because whenever I come across a uniquely designed website online (like this or this or this), I think that’s what I want. I want my blog to be a treasure trove of interesting nuggets. I want someone to go down a rabbit hole on my blog and write a response about it.
Getting on the front page of Hacker News isn’t a goal for me. Would it be nice? Of course! But I’d rather connect with 5-10 people building their own custom blogs and exploring their unique world through it. I want to collaborate with other curious individuals—folks who are more concerned with why something happens rather than forming an opinion about it.
The blogosphere needs to live on. Bring back nicheless posts, category tags in the sidebar, monthly archives, and “contra” responses Huzzah!