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June 16, 2003

Reader Request #2: Life Online

Reader Request Topic #2 comes from Rick McGinnis -- who, incidentally, is a brand-new father to a brilliant baby girl, so give up the love for the man -- who asks:

Life online. I have my own thoughts, based on a website nearing its fifth anniversary. (Fifth? Sixth? I can't remember just now - my wife is giving birth in the other room...) As someone who's a contemporary, with a website as old as mine - what's your take? What's changed? What's the same? What's it all about, Alfie?

I've actually had a Web site up, in one form or another, since 1994, when I uploaded my very first hand-typed html document (through Unix commands!) to the Cybergate servers in Fresno. It'd be a little much to call me a Web pioneer, but I've been around for a while. Scalzi.com has been around since 1998, and that's when I started writing regularly on the site. Let's confine the discussion from that time frame forward.

What's changed is that the online writing since 1998 is that it has simultaneously become more amateurish and more professional. In 1998 was part of the first Golden Age of the Internet, in which people were funding magazines and Web sites brimming over with "real" (i.e., paid) writing and expecting that they'd make money with it somehow, some way. Well, we all know how that went -- with the exception of Slate (owned by Microsoft) and Salon (the recipient, apparently, of some complicated deal with the devil by David Talbot), most of Web-only literary sites, and most Web-only magazines in general, are dead and dust. Or to put it in another, personalized way, in 1998 nearly 80% of my income came from writing online, by way of newsletter contracts with AOL, developing Web sites for businesses, and a weekly music column for Media One's DiveIn portal. Today, in 2003, probably 15% of my income comes from writing online, and my largest single source of income at the moment is from books, which have been around (in their mass-market iteration) for several hundred years.

What's left, of course, are the personalized sites. In 1998, the personalized sites that updated daily were in a certain style -- primarily the "online journal," which were generally deeply introspective things devoted to the minutiae of the writer's life, and the "tech blog," in which Unix geeks or Mac lovers or whatever obsessed about their thing. Both groups -- how to put this gently -- tended toward certain inward-looking social constructs, and lived in highly specialized job bubbles, typically tech geeks and/or the overeducated underemployed.

That has changed dramatically. I don't need to rehash the reasons for the rise of the blogs, and God knows that the blogoverse doesn't need to be told how interesting it is yet again. But the point of fact is that the composition of the blog population is tremendously more diverse than any other previous iteration of online community, and many if not most of the truly prominent bloggers are professional people who write about what they know, not just what they think about what they think they know. So you have lawyers discussing law, economists discussing the economy, writers discussing writing, so on and so forth.

They all also write about whatever else they want -- i.e., they're as happy to spout off beyond their area of expertise as any of the rest of us poor schmoes -- but the point to made here is that these personalized sites are no longer simply "amateur"; there are enough people in enough fields writing in blogs that you can look to the blog world as a resource to understanding the real world, not merely a place that is reacting to it. And that's mostly new and mostly useful.

What hasn't changed is the social dynamic of people who live a substantial part of their lives online. Back in the early 90s when I first got online, you could see newbies trying to suck up to the cool kids on the various hip newsgroups; later I saw the newbies trying to get a mention from or make friends with the really popular online journalers. Today all the young dudes are itchin' for a shoutout from Instapundit and a few other selected bloggers (I'll note for honesty's sake that after I'm done writing this entry I'll send a note about it to Glenn to see if he'll link. And why not). And always bubbling below the surface are various pointless and petty arguments (such as the recent "I'm the real Moxie" tiff between the administratixs of Moxie.nu and Moxiepop.com), the positioning for popularity and the constant lunch-room grade intrigues as to who is on the "A List" and who is not.

If you're wise you learn not to worry about any of that, of course. Those who don't learn from high school social dynamics are doomed to repeat them until they die, and how sad is that. On my end of things, I don't worry about my social standing in the blog world, or in any online social sphere. I write, I read, I consider myself lucky to make a few good friends along the way, and a whole passel of acquaintances, and I keep a good perspective on how what I do here integrates into the rest of my life.

The next step, which is already happening to some extent, is another level of professionalization of blogs. Already a number of bloggers have begun to get paid for what they do, either through direct reader support -- Andrew Sullivan has been salting away a fair amount in this manner -- or by being hired to blog by some corporate entity -- Glenn Reynolds with MSNBC.com is an example here. Still others have capitalized on their online notoriety to get writing gigs: Eric Olsen of Blogcritics now regularly contributes to MSNBC.com as well.

Will this create a tiered "haves and have nots" situation in the online world? I don't think so, any more or less than it already exists. Most of the "pro" bloggers seem to see their role as promoters of the blogoverse, boosting its potential both as a resource for knowledge and commentary, and as a unique, emerging social construct. The pro bloggers, as far as I can tell, don't see themselves as "graduating" from the online world as much as evangelizing the online world and the advantages of communicating online to everyone else -- the people who are offline, or the people who are online but haven't begun to add their voice to the mix. They're excited to be on the front lines of something big -- and to get paid for it. As well they should.

So that's where we are at the moment.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at June 16, 2003 10:57 AM

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I'm also feeling like THIS today too. (link stolen from Glenn Reynolds, a truly, great blogger.... [Read More]

Tracked on June 16, 2003 03:18 PM


mike lawson | June 16, 2003 12:18 PM

What is truly funny is that I was going to start my blog today with the same topic. Ahhh I guess you beat me to it by just a few hours. And yes, I am sucking up to Glenn as well. Very well, since you have covered the basics here (and quite good, I might add) I will expand on the topic. Just give me a couple hours and I will post my first blog (It will be under the news blog section)
Mike Lawson

David | June 16, 2003 01:16 PM

Perhaps not "graduating", but you may see more melding, both in terms of blog journalists' output, and in terms of blogs and old media. Not to mention the increasing number of group blogs, which are another but not unconnected form of melding.

As far as rigidification of the blogosphere goes, it still looks pretty meritocratic from here. Sure, one mediocre writer's site may get much more traffic than another's, but if someone like James Lileks were to start over anonymously, pulling no strings, can anyone doubt that he'd be right back up where he is now in a matter of months?

Charles Compton | June 16, 2003 01:26 PM

John, you (perhaps inadvertantly) stirred up some pre-Internet memories.

Around 1990, there were Bulletin Board Systems, accessed with a modem and a (hopefully local) phone call. Read a message - leave a message was about the extent of most of them. Yet the sysops of these "boards" were engaged in continuous vitriol-spitting with one another over whose was the best and who got the most phone calls. Sometimes there were even threats of violence.

It's been interesting -- if a bit saddening -- to see some of that flavor actually being resurrected in cyberspace.

Ah, everything old is new again...

Eric Scheie | June 16, 2003 03:35 PM

But for today's Instapundit link to your blog, it would have been a coin toss whether I would have seen your insights into blogging, indisputably the best I've found anywhere. The advice for writers at your professional life section is altruistic "tough love" at its finest, and, compulsive writer and new blogger that I am, I will try to take it to heart. While I know I'm not the greatest writer, I believe I have something to say. Blogging strikes me as the last, possibly only, resort for unpopular, unfashionable ideas.

Your much-needed advice makes me feel like lowering my horizons while raising them -- such a contradiction that I guess I'll just continue blogging for now -- as long as I can stand it.

Thank you! I barely started reading your posts, which offer much more... (Loved reading about one of my favorites -- John "the Devil" Wilkes -- his name unfairly ruined, but for whose name's sake?)

Required reading for all bloggers with even a smidgen of literacy!

mike lawson | June 16, 2003 03:57 PM

ok...as promised earlier...the post is now up on my site...

Steve | June 16, 2003 05:47 PM

In addition to the emergence of professional blog and professional bloggers, another interesting trend is that of collaborative blogging. The Volokh conspiracy is a fine example - more are springing up all the time. Unlearned Hand is adding personnel. The Dead Parrot Society brings diverse professionals together for the sake of variety. My own new effort, Begging To Differ, attempts to present diverse viewpoints as written by four people loosely designated as two liberals and two conservatives.

The big blogs, once the antidote to traditional media organizations, are themselves becoming media entities. Where the Weekly Standard wonders the identity of the next great American newspaper, I wonder if it will be a huge collaborative blog. Imagine if the top 20 bloggers all got together, hired an editor, and charged $X per year to read their site. It may or may not be viable today. But what about tomorrow?

Zelda | June 17, 2003 01:47 AM

I like this entry. It's insightful. But the Internet is a big place, with the potential to be as big as the world. And although I read a whole lot around the Internet, I'm only vaguely familiar with some of the names you mention.

I think the "young dudes" you mention are a spectrum of MALES, who mainly wear blinders to a whole thriving strata of other weblogs written by _women_. The "A-list" concept is like trying to define a literary canon. It's slippery, and depends heavily upon your own perspective and situation.

Dawn | June 18, 2003 09:48 AM

John, I was under the impression that Moxie was paid for her written articles under her penname Moxie, as well as recieving all her income through ad space on her site and through donations.

How is that any different than say "Mark Twain" or any other well-known penname?

Branding is part of marketing, when your brandname is being used by every Tom, Dick and Harry, it begins to lose it's allure and just becomes commonplace.

I sure don't think Coke would be happy if Pepsi started selling itself as Coke.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2003 10:57 AM

Dawn writes:

"John, I was under the impression that Moxie was paid for her written articles under her penname Moxie, as well as recieving all her income through ad space on her site and through donations."

She's getting that income because who she is, not because she's got the penname "Moxie." Were she called "Sam Jones," she'd still get attention because she writes interesting stuff well and (not a small consideration) is also totally hot.

I sympathize with Moxie (of Moxie.nu), but in a realistic sense, one should not adopt a widely-known trademarked brand (even an antique one) as one's pen name and then reasonably expect it to keep it exclusively, or to be able to make a compelling argument that it *should* be hers exclusively. She herself acknowleges she's borrowing the name, thereby implictly acknowledging its nonexclusivity.

And it's interesting you make the soda pop comparison, since Moxie is still being manufactured out there in the world. If its manufacturers decided to sue Moxie.nu (or indeed MoxiePop.com) on the rationale that either or both site is diluting its trademark, they'd have a very good case. Actually, I'm vaguely surprised it hasn't happened. Certainly if I created a "Coke.nu" site I'd get a nice little "cease and desist" mash note from Coke's lawyers in an instant.

I would agree that branding is part of marketing, but I would also suggest that in the particular case, Moxie has a legally very weak claim to the title. Even if she *could* make a claim to the title (i.e., she could argue there's a substantial enough distance between her as a writer and Moxie the refreshing regional drink), if she had wanted to claim the title exclusively, she ought to have trademarked it herself. Certainly people have trademarked their names before -- see "Billy Joel." She did not and thereby has no (legal) reason to complain when someone else starts calling themself "Moxie" online.

Beyond this, it's also fairly clear that the administratix of MoxiePop.com is *not* trying to pass herself as the administratix of Moxie.nu.

Again, I think Moxie's just fab, but this whole thing discussion about her "brand" is irrelevant. In any event, the best way for her to enhance her notoriety as "Moxie" is not to complain when other people pick up the name, but to build a body of work that establishes her by reputation as the only Moxie that matters. Ideally, she shouldn't have bothered to note the other Moxie at all.