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September 16, 2005

Seven Years

Completely (and appropriately) lost in my wild textual stampede to complete The Ghost Brigades was the fact that Tuesday marked the seventh anniversary of the Whatever. As I've noted before this makes it the single writing thing I've done the longest at one stretch (I've been reviewing movies longer, but that comes in chunks, first as the film critic, and then as the DVD critic (both five years each)).

In the year, I haven't done anything different in terms of how I write the Whatever -- indeed, the whole "write whatever the hell I feel like writing about" concept has been remarkably robust since 1998 -- but I will share a few observations about the whole writing online thing here that have come to my mind in the last year.

* First, I've reconciled to the idea that the Whatever is a blog. The Whatever, mind you, predates the common use of the word "blog," so I've never been entirely comfortable with the word -- when I started doing this thing, the most common description of this sort of thing was "online journal," which I also didn't like, for various fairly stupid reasons. I could go into all the reasons why the Whatever is different and special from all the other things people write online and how it is so singular it deserves its own category, but aside from the fact that it really isn't notably unique in form or content and I'm getting tired of finding new and exciting ways of maintaining the fiction that this isn't a blog and everyone gets what you say when you say "I have a blog" so do you don't have to say anything else about it, the fact is, there are worse things than writing a blog. So: Fine. The Whatever is a blog and I'm a blogger, and however silly a word "blog" is -- it's exactly onomatopoetic for the sound of a toad dropping a turd -- it's the word everyone has for things like this. Let us now move on.

* I've also given up the illusion that I am doing the Whatever in a manner that is either completely carefree or unrelated to the rest of my writing life. The latter, frankly, is obvious: The fact that something I wrote here appeared in one of the largest newspapers in the country yesterday demonstrates the permeability of the wall between this amateur writing and my professional writing (not to mention those two novels I sold off the site). The Whatever has been useful enough in this regard that recently, when discussing a book project with a publisher, he actually suggested serializing the writing here before he published the book in order to increase the value and visibility of the book. These are interesting times, writing-wise.

The flip side of this, however, is that first point: The Whatever is important enough to me now as marketing that it's also something that's worth maintaining, even when I feel like taking a break. One of the reasons for the fabulous, fabulous guest bloggers in July was the simple fact that I didn't want to leave this place fallow for a month; I didn't want readers to break the habit of checking in on a daily basis. In the blogsophere, regularity matters. It's better to write something banal, say, "my cat's breath smells like cat food," than to write nothing at all (especially if you also then post a picture of said cat).

It pays off: This site is now clocking in at between 10k and 20k unique visitors a day -- it fluctuates wildly between those poles on any given day -- which makes it one of the better-read personal sites out there, especially when you consider that the Whatever is not a mono-topic site (i.e., all about the politics or geekery), or a link farm, nor is it written by a pretty woman (this makes Wonkette the perfect storm, Internet-wise). But on the other hand, I don't just want to write one line about my cat and pride myself on very basic audience maintenance; I do prefer the delusion that people who read the site would like me to write about something. And now you see why it's not entirely carefree. These are constraints and obligations I place on myself, mind you, but it doesn't mean they are any less there.

The one thing that has remained constant during all this obsessing is that I still do write about whatever the hell it is I want to write about; I don't bother to ask myself "hmmmm, is this something that's going to alienate my audience" because then I'll get sulky and petulant (stupid audience! They won't let me write what I want), and that's just silly. Also, honestly, I figure anyone who comes here on a regular basis knows I'll write what I feel like; to some extent, that's why they drop by. This is an unabashedly egotistical site. And God knows, when I want to write about my cat, I do.

For the record, her breath does smell like cat food.

* I am also increasingly aware that it's not just me who regards the Whatever as a quasi-professional space; having a deserved-or-otherwise reputation for being a "prominent blogger" means I now get press releases sent my way (eh), and also books (yay!). One of the more interesting recent anecdotes of this type is when the publicist for Annie Jacobsen's book Terror in the Skies contacted me about the book, wanting to know whether I'd be interested in looking at the book for possible inclusion in the Whatever. Ms. Jacobsen, you may remember, is the writer who lost her composure on an airplane last year after she noticed a large group of swarthy fellows sitting together; I wasn't particularly impressed. The reason I was contacted, I think, was simply because I did write about Jacobsen at one point, even if not in a particularly complimentary fashion. I told the publicist to go ahead and send the book, although I made no promises regarding reading it or mentioning it, which is the appropriate thing to say at a time like that.

Although, look, I did just mention it. And here's the link again! And somewhere, another publicist earns his wings (no, I haven't read the book yet. I was busy writing one of my own, remember).

I am now getting enough books and swag and publicity releases that I will very shortly create some guidelines for publicists as to what's appropriate to send along to me. If you were to ask me if I ever thought I'd get to a point where I'd ever write publicist guidelines for the Whatever, you would hear me engage in a nice, hearty laugh. And yet, here we are. Not that I mind. Hey: Free books! Whoo-hoo!

* One minor interesting thing I've noticed is that in the last year, thanks I suspect to the combination of Old Man's War, the AOL Journals gig and the growth of the Whatever, I'll occasionally get the "internet celebrity" thing, where I'll drop a comment on someone's blog and their reaction is "OMG!!! It's Scalzi!!" I find this deeply, deeply silly. Being a minor Internet celebrity is like being the second most popular steel drummer in the Netherlands. Yes, it's nice, and people who share your enthusiasms know you, but really, that's about all it's good for. Anyway, even though I've been doing this for seven years and I blog professionally and I've sold not one but two books to publishers from this Web site, I never get invited to speak at Ivy League blog conferences or panels. So clearly, I'm not a real Internet celebrity anyway. It stings, it does.

* One thing I've definitely noticed in the last year -- and has been noted by others -- has been the "community" activity around here, by which I mean a strong and vibrant set of both regular and infrequent commentors. I remember a few years ago, before I had implemented comments (and before I knew the following), I read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's comment on her site that said something along the lines of "if you're not reading the comments, you're missing out on half the fun." I was, shall we say, rather skeptical of the observation. But as it turns out, she was absolutely correct: the community of commentors at Making Light matters, in no small part because they are smart, engaged and passionate, and because TNH also serves as an able moderator -- any person who can think up and/or popularize "disemvoweling" as a punishment for comment stupidity deserves a medal for Service to the Blogosphere.

I do not judge myself as facile a comment moderator as TNH, but I do think the Whatever community of commentors is one of the best out there, tending toward thoughtful and diverse enough in opinon to make the comments less like an echo chamber and more like a round table of people talking. And, they tend to be grownups to boot: Usually the least-mannered person in a comment thread is me.

So to the folks who hang around the Whatever: Thanks. I appreciate it.

Posted by john at September 16, 2005 05:19 AM

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Comments

Sue | September 16, 2005 07:37 AM

I hadn't really thought about it, but yeah, I definitely see that there's been a gradual shift in how you've used the Whatever since I started reading (right after Athena was born). I think it pretty much parallels the success you've had in your career. You seem to focus a little more on the publishing industry now than you did a few years ago, which makes sense, because it's a bigger part of your life. You also seem to take fewer breaks and I can see how that would be a conscious effort on your part.

I suppose I fall into the "regular commenter" category, so seeing how much traffic actually comes here makes me a little more nervous about what I write. Don't want to sound dumb, you know.

It's been nice to kind of follow along as you've become more established with the writing thing. I hope you'll always find at least some time for us little people when you're a NY Times Bestselling Author, because I'm pretty sure that'll happen one day.

Jon Hansen | September 16, 2005 09:07 AM

Being a minor Internet celebrity is like being the second most popular steel drummer in the Netherlands.

And lines like that keep us coming back.

Emily | September 16, 2005 09:33 AM

Man, you have to embrace being a minor internet celebrity, John. That means the rest of us who knew you when can trade on your name.

(And having danced with you! And seen you do karaoke!)

John Scalzi | September 16, 2005 09:43 AM

For the record, Emily dances better than I. And I rock the karaoke mike.

Bruce Arthurs | September 16, 2005 09:46 AM

Now you've got me wondering...

...who IS the second most popular steeldrummer in the Netherlands?

Justin Anderson | September 16, 2005 10:04 AM

OMG!!! It's Scalzi!!

Hey man, you've put in the work -- enjoy the minor celebrity. Hell, I'm still trying to get something out of my great contribution to 'net culture (adding color to the Turbo C++ version of Moria -- in 1992). Needless to say, I haven't been invited to speak at any conferences either.

Ingrates.

Dean | September 16, 2005 10:55 AM

Damn. I suppose I can't display my silver medal from the Amsterdam Steel Drum Championships quite so proudly now*.

I don't know what is that makes a blog community**. You're right, I think: this is one of the most diverse and thoughtful groups of commenters around. That's a substantial accomplishment and it is in large part due to the thoughtful and diverse tone that you, the owner, strike. It is very easy for a community to fall into bickering or mindless back-slapping.

* I'm just kidding. I'm as musical as a brick.
** We need a word, or a term, for 'the collective group of people who frequent a blog'.

John Scalzi | September 16, 2005 11:14 AM

Dean write:

"We need a word, or a term, for 'the collective group of people who frequent a blog."

Blogettes!

James Goodman | September 16, 2005 11:21 AM

"Blogettes!"

Wasn't that a pop band from the 50's?

Tina K. | September 16, 2005 11:21 AM

If you are the 'blogger' wouldn't that make us "bloggies?"

Yeah, I know, sorry.

Justin Anderson | September 16, 2005 11:43 AM

Hmm...if 'blog' is short for 'weblog', then I submit that the proper term would be short for 'commenters' -- 'menters'. Although that's still a full two syllables, so I don't know if it could fly.

Menters?

Mentos!

marrije | September 16, 2005 12:06 PM

This commenter from the Netherlands would like to point out that she has no idea who the second most popular steeldrummer over here is - but he certainly wasn't on board for that fun-fun-fun day out on a boat with steeldrummers and a buffet and many boring colleagues my poor boyfriend had to endure a few years back.

I would also like to point out that Mentos are from The Netherlands! We rule!

Melanie Fletcher | September 16, 2005 12:13 PM

Mmmm -- Mentos.

Yes, I know that's only one line, but I'm taking beta blockers and not enough oxygenated blood is perfusing my cerebrum at this time to allow for more detailed posts.

Damn, that was a detailed post. Damn.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden | September 16, 2005 12:13 PM

Seven years of John Scalzi? That's not too many.

Why do we need to coin a new word for the people who frequent a given weblog? Is there something wrong with "readers," "commenters," and (optionally) "regulars"?

marrije | September 16, 2005 12:13 PM

Drat. Site-with-frames. See Mentos here.

D. Potter | September 16, 2005 12:31 PM

Ridiculous nitpick: In the third paragraph, second sentence, did you mean "outdates" or "predates" there?

Best wishes on your seventh year and I for one look forward to The Ghost Brigades.

And actually, aren't we due for a picture of dear Ghlaghghee about now?

Emily | September 16, 2005 12:33 PM

Man, John, now I want to put up a "what people are saying about me" just so I can include that quote about my dancing skills. And for the record, it takes a skilled dancer to make their partner look good.

And I will agree on the karaoke-rocking. I don't suppose you have much in the way of karaoke bars in Ohio, eh?

wendell | September 16, 2005 01:57 PM

My heartfelt congratulations on the Seventh Anniversary of the Internet's One And True Whatever, and special recognition on being the first writer in fifty years to write fifteen paragraphs about a Seventh Anniversay without using the word "itch".

As for a semi-good brief term for contributors to a Blog Comment thread, may I reccommend "threaders". It should elicit the same "What the f*&% are you talking about?" reaction that first-time exposure to "blog" usually produces.

sGreer | September 16, 2005 02:23 PM

Being a minor Internet celebrity is like being the second most popular steel drummer in the Netherlands.

You might cringe at this, but part of what keeps me reading is your ability to succinctly take an entire notion and wrap it up in sixteen words. Yes, sound byte, maybe, but it's still a skill.

Excuse me while I go set up my newest sig line.

RooK | September 16, 2005 03:43 PM

John said:
"Usually the least-mannered person in a comment thread is me."

I sense a niche I can fill!

Ryan Freebern | September 16, 2005 03:56 PM

Happy (belated) Birthday, Whatever!

Plin | September 16, 2005 05:55 PM

How things have changed in lo these seven years (I guess I hadn't ever realized we're olj contemporaries): once upon a time, this entry would have prompted a flurry of discussion on Diary-L and have been linked from dozens of journals. Later, it would have been murmered about on a handful of forums. Now it's trackbacks, comments and LJ friends lists--and none of it to make a big deal about the "this is a weblog" remark.

It's evolution in progress! Happy anniversary.

JonathanMoeller | September 16, 2005 09:21 PM

Indeed, I consider it an obligation, nay, a solemn duty, to leave inane, insane, or downright incomprehensible comments on the weblogs of persons I, personally, have never met.

minishorts | September 17, 2005 12:49 AM

Congratulations, John. Personally I have spent countless days sitting in front of my computer, staring transfixed at the power of your diction, and many times your posts have invited me to allow the free-spirit in me to rant free on my own site... Whatever isn't just a famous site, it's one of a kind. You're inspiring and when I get older, I want to be like you.

Soni | September 17, 2005 02:56 AM

In this week's Word of the Day, we've been learning about the group names of various animals and were invited to come up with our own, so this whole discussion on what to call a blogger's community of readers and commentors is especially apt.

Since our contributions are part of what make us a community, I vote for the group term of "commentary" - as in, "Boy, that John Scalzi. He has such a huge commentary of rabid fans." or "The commentary are at it again - cat sodomizing is back up at the top of the Scalzi Google search page."

Alex | September 17, 2005 05:03 AM

Or blogzophrenics? = ppl who get turned on by blogs, ppl who read too many blogs, ppl who blog too much. :)

John Scalzi | September 17, 2005 07:53 AM

Minishorts:

"You're inspiring and when I get older, I want to be like you."

Heh. Well, when you put it that way, I want to be like me when I get older, too. Thanks!

Fiona | September 18, 2005 02:11 AM

Congratulations on seven years of Whatever!

Carol | September 18, 2005 10:08 PM

Seven years? You mean I've been reading the Whatever for seven freaking years? Whoa.

As someone who has done the "OMG, it's Scalzi!" on my own humble blog, I have to say it's still kind of cool to have a minor internet celebrity stop by and say hi. Then again, I am one of the biggest dorks in the Western Hemisphere and I credit you, John, for good or ill, with starting me on my online journaling/blogging ways, so it's not surprising I get all dorky like that.

Eagerly awaiting The Ghost Brigades, BTW

Brian Greenberg | September 19, 2005 04:36 PM

So if you're a minor internet celebrity and we're frequent commentors on the site, does that make us sub-minor-internet celebrities?

As the author of a blog that gets, oh I don't know, five or six unique views a day, my ego needs whatever boost it can get.

I mean, seriously - more people clearly read what I write here than what I write on my site...

So, a nickname for commenters, huh? "Moochers" comes to mind... ;-)

John Scalzi | September 19, 2005 04:43 PM

Brian Greenberg:

"So if you're a minor internet celebrity and we're frequent commentors on the site, does that make us sub-minor-internet celebrities?"

You're majorly minor internet celebrities.

Brian Greenberg | September 20, 2005 04:10 PM

"A majorly minor internet celebrity"
-- John Scalzi

That is so going on my blog homepage...

:-)

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