Freshly Pressed. Are you ready kid? Can you handle the spotlight, the big time? Or will you crack under the pressure of being on the front page? I recently had the good fortune to be featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed front page. Like all starry-eyed rookie bloggers, when I first started this…thing, I read the “how to become Freshly Pressed” page with rapt attention. I knew I could make it on there. I could write well, I could find nice pictures. After reading some of the other entries that made it, I felt even more confident that I had the right stuff. Not because the other entries were mediocre, but because they were tangible examples, something to shoot for.
But alas, not all dreams are meant to be. I struggled at first trying to find the right voice for my blog. My topics were all over the place. One day it would be about video games, another day it might be about Sun Tzu’s the Art of War. I soon found that I wrote best about what I loved best. I love books, philosophy sociology. I love ideas, both simple and complex, and I love the often quirky people who think them up in the first place. I like figuring out how systems work, especially social, economic, and political ones. I was always the kid taking apart radios and old T.V.s when I was younger, but unfortunately for my engineering career, I was never very good at putting them back together. That’s something I’ve tried to remedy when I pick apart other systems. It’s easy to be negative, and point out flaws. But valuable thinkers, and they’re rare, are able to offer effective and nuanced alternatives.
So after I found the right tone and subject matter for my blog, it must have been sent straight to the front page, passing GO and collecting $200, right? Well, not really. As soon as I figured out one aspect of the blogosphere, I butted up against another. Namely that followers, likes and comments matter here. The blog ecosystem is an intricate mix of producing original content, and commenting; networking with other bloggers. First and foremost, I wanted people to read my blog. I know some people write exclusively for themselves, as a kind of cathartic experience, a way to relax or as self-therapy. Writing, and blogging, serve these purposes for me as well, but I have no shame in admitting I want readers. I want readers because it feels good to be valued. I want readers because I want to believe that what I write is worthwhile. But most of all, I want readers because every once in a while, I’m able to give voice to something someone else is thinking. George Orwell does a remarkable job of describing the role of a good writer:
“The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new… The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”
Writers are there to shine a light on the dim shadows of our thoughts. Writers give form to those shifting shapes. They take our nascent notions, dust them off, and present them to us made anew, but still carved from our own elemental psychological matter. The best moments when reading come when we shout in our heads: Yes! That’s exactly what I was thinking, I just couldn’t find the words to say it that way. This is extremely hard to do, but when we accomplish it, there’s a sense of elation, a sense of purpose. The comments and emails that touch me most are the ones that tell me that I’ve been able to explain a feeling a reader had, or didn’t even know he or she had. These are the correspondences that make it all worth it, that make agonizing over a word, or editing manageable.
So I had this goal, to reach readers, to give them something to think about, and to give words to the faint inklings in the back of my mind, as well as my reader’s minds. But I quickly found that an intellectual blog, focused on ideas may not always be the most popular, or successful in terms of likes or comments. It’s hard to compete with top five lists, or how to blogs, when you’re talking about the military industrial complex, or ancient history. It just doesn’t have the same cultural cache that these other subjects do. I’m not saying that my blog or thoughts are better, or more worthwhile than how to blogs or the like, just that I know I don’t generate the same mass appeal. For a while, this was hard to swallow. I figured I would comment as much as I could, like as many things as I could, and try to build up some buzz. But eventually, I came to accept that I would only ever carve out my small niche, and somehow, that was alright.
In our Web 2.0 culture, the internet is filled with a staggering amount of content. There is just so much out there to read, that we’re often faced with a paralysis of choice. There are millions of new post published just on WordPress every day. Blogs have effectively lowered the cost of entry to realm of writers to $0. It costs nothing to start a blog, if you don’t host it yourself. Anyone can be a writer today; there are no stipulations. In a sense, this is tremendously liberating. If you reach far back enough in time, you’ll find that almost all writers used to be indebted to their patrons. Philosophers paid homage to their princes, poets wrote pages of gratitude to their noble benefactors. Pick up nearly any classic work, and if it is old enough, the dedication will almost certainly be to a noble, patronage figure. The big break came when Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote a repudiating letter to one of his patrons, Lord Chesterfield, a supporter of the dictionary Johnson was writing. This letter, according to Alvin Kernan:
“Stands as the Magna Carta of the modern author, the public announcement that the days of courtly letters were at last ended, that the author was the true source of his work and that he and it were no longer dependent on patron or the social system he represented.”
Johnson, and his literary descendants began the long slog to intellectual independence. As writing became a professional pursuit, remunerated with money from book sales, writers became increasingly independent from their patrons. With this freedom, they could engage in new and controversial topics, things that their patrons would have stricken from print immediately. It seems as if writing as a form of free expression, finds it logical and perhaps terminal conclusion in the form of blogs. We can write nearly anything we want, so long as it isn’t hateful or extremely offensive. And if you really need to say something objectionable, you can always start your own site. The web is tremendously freeing in this regard, but there is also a darker side.
The sheer amount of content available is staggering, stupefying even. One can never hope to even experience the tip of the iceberg of what’s out there. With so much noise, it can be hard to pick out the beautiful melodies amid the static. At least for me, this tidal wave of content has sapped my attention span. I feel as if there is so much to read and explore, that I most often find myself skimming blogs, instead of taking the time to appreciate the quality and craft of the writing.
And we aren’t safe from patrons anymore either. That’s because you, dear reader, are now my patron. The value conveyed by pageviews, likes and comments has come to replace the court appointment in our day and age. We have to question the definition of a “successful” blog. This definition varies, but as I stated, I want to attract readers. I want to get my point across. But to get readers requires a web presence. My time isn’t spent merely writing. I also have to manage twitter, and facebook, and most importantly the comments. Luckily, I’m blessed with insightful and thought provoking readers.
As much as I like garnering readers though, I knew my subject matter would probably never attract the big crowds. But I learned to be happy, very happy, with my own little corner of the internet. It became my sanctuary, my home(page), just like the physical room it’s meant to replace. So I kept plugging away, filling the invisible shelves with tomes of my thought, and rejoicing at every like, follow or comment. So I was a little surprised to find my blog chosen for Freshly Pressed; surprised and overjoyed. As much as it might be “cool” to say, I don’t care, I just write to write man, for me that would be dishonest. Maybe it’s true for some, but I don’t write for a vacuum, I don’t even write for myself. I write for the conversations I can start, and for the hope that I might make someone out there nod their head in agreement as they read these lines of text. For that’s the power of writing, the ability to convey something, anything across time and space. To bloggers looking for readers, or clicks, all I can say is trust me, if the writing is good, it will happen. It took me a long time, but if someone can notice me, they can notice you too. So, unfortunately, I don’t have a Top Five Ways to get Freshly Pressed post, but hey, that’s just not my style.