One Man’s Blogspam is Another Man’s Engaging Content

The truth is, folks, I don’t maintain a blog purely for the joy of doing so. I do love to write, but one doesn’t blog unless one wishes not just to write, but to be read. Even on a somewhat high-profile platform like Patheos, even coming with the cred of being the mouthpiece of a major secularist organization, and of having been the substitute-Friendly-Atheist a few times, this little blog simply isn’t making much of a dent in terms of readership.

I’d like very much for that to change. There are surely lots of things I could do to make some progress: I could post more often, I could fashion my posts to be more in line with click-bait principles, I could write about things that interest a broader range of people, or conversely, write about things that drive a small number of passionate people nuts. But the fact of the matter is that I want to write what interests me, frame and express it in a way that reflects who I am, and do so as often as I am inspired to do so. Perhaps that mean I am an entitled and privileged. Go ahead, you can say it. You wouldn’t be the first.

Given all this, the best way I have found to generate at least temporary spurts of traffic is to get my material posted to sites like Reddit or into active communities on Google+. But very often, these communities and subreddits and whatnot live by an ironclad “no blogspam” rule, which means simply that they don’t want the authors of written content linking to their own stuff.

Which I get! I’m sure, given the opportunity, thousands of “bloggers” would clog up whatever feeds they could with their own material. That’s spammy, and online communities are right to police this kind of thing.

But here’s the situation I run into: I have a piece I’ve written and that I’m proud of, and I think it will resonate with a particular audience. I can go find the appropriate subreddit or Google+ community or what have you, and share it with them. But then I get a message from a moderator telling me that I’ve violated their rules against blogspam, that the post is being removed, and that I now risk being banned.

Now, if I made a habit of plastering my material willy nilly into these communities, they’d have me dead to rights. But is there no middle ground between never promoting your own material and spam? Shouldn’t there be some allowance for an author deciding that a particular piece is relevant to a particular group and sharing it? It can always be ignored or downvoted if the community in question doesn’t like it or isn’t interested. Being immediately policed seems to me to be overkill.

Again, I appreciate and share the desire to keep unscrupulous self-promoters from sullying online communities. I have to think that when one of those people come around, though, it’s pretty obvious, and that the occasional sharing of one’s own material, when relevant, is equally obvious. But since I don’t have that kind of community moderating responsibility, I could be missing something.

Maybe there’s a better way, a way that allows me to do the work I want to do and earn the attention I think it deserves. Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe it already is.

Big Week for a Topaz Paragon

It’s been a busy week for me on the Internet. Let’s quickly review:

  • I have new digs at Huffington Post as a blogger, for which I am compensated $0.00 annually, minus taxes. I have Emily Hauser to thank for getting me in the door. Right now it’s all adapted or recycled material from this blog, but I’ll put new stuff there eventually. I know you don’t care.
  • A tweet I wrote that I thought was somewhat clever went viral and has now been retweeted over 1000 times, which I think means I get a prize or become President of Twitter. I’ll just wait to hear something.
  • A post I wrote at Friendly Atheist did pretty well, I suspect.

And off the Internet, the iOS game Bejewelled Blitz called me a “Topaz Paragon,” a position which I believe needs to first be confirmed by the Senate, but I’m not sure.

Writing on the Surface of a Lake

Is it cool if I try and work something out with you here? Okay, cool. Thanks.

I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter that I was considering giving up this blog entirely, and only writing for pay from here on out. The utter lack of attention and/or engagement that this blog gets, in contrast to the effort and love I put into it, has gone from being something I shrug off to something that causes anxiety and (increased) self-doubt. Be still my beating heart, it’s like singing in the wind or writing on the surface of a lake. Why bother anymore?

I’m trying to be easier on myself. I had this whole thing where I’d force myself to write one post every day just to keep up the practice and get into a habit. For a while it was great. I felt like I was accomplishing something, and felt a sense of completion and satisfaction. But, folks, no one was coming to see what I’d made. I’d write long posts and short posts, posts about tech and posts about books and posts about parenting. I’d try cross-posting to Medium. I cultivated connections to Internet-famous people on social media. I even got one of my favorite writers to link back to me and write in semi-response to one of my own posts. But, folks, no one was coming.

Maybe I’m too egotistical. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in some childish need for “fame” or validation from unnamed others. Narcissism, self-absorption, I cop to all of it. But I’m just not one of those people who can build ships in bottles or compose poetry or carve figurines just for the mere pleasure of it. I need an audience.

So I seriously considered just killing this site. I mean, I’d archive the thing and let its contents live on a free Tumblr or site, but no new material. If I’m going to write for no one, I’d write for literally no one, and not post online. Otherwise, I’d write for an audience, and for an outlet (mine or someone else’s) that would pay me for the work. And it is work.

Obviously, I’ve backed away from the nuclear option. But particularly after playing steward to Friendly Atheist last week, which I really ejoyed, I’m even more convinced of the validity of my lament. Add to that the fact that in the past couple weeks I’ve had a medical procedure (I’m fine), got a really bad cold-flu thing, and of course endured the holidays with two small children and a couple of snowstorms, and, well, my energies have been even more drained than usual. And that’s meant almost no posting to Near-Earth Object.

I’m not going to kill the site, but you’ll see less of me here. When I get a general urge to wiggle my fingers over a keyboard, I’ll try and either direct my energies to Friendly Atheist or else toward a personal project (like the “book” I used to be working on) not intended for immediate public view. There will be times, I’m sure, that I’ll really want to just get some writerly thoughts in paragraph form onto the Web that aren’t related to atheism, and then, yeah, I’ll post here. But it won’t be every day.

And the Obcast? I’m rethinking that as well. Mostly in terms of what’s the most fun. I’ve done a bunch of really cool interviews, and I think I’m mostly over that format. The thought of booking more one-on-one episodes fills me with an introvert’s anxiety, and I just don’t need to do that to myself. I do think that when I kick it back on again, it’ll be more along the lines of the panel shows I did in October on Apple and Transformers: The Movie. Group disussion with a familiar cast of my choosing. And I genuinely hope I can find some advertising to fund it.

Look, I love Near-Earth Object. For all of my and its faults and failings, it’s my online identity in its richest possible manifestation. For that reason alone, it should go on. And for the few of you who do come by, I hope you keep doing that. My best hope, actually, is to find a new home for it within an existing outlet or network that would compensate me for the work. I’ll be glad to jump back in to a more full-time, full-tilt Near-Earth Object under that scenario.

Until then, it might get a little dusty here. But I’ll be back every so often to at least drive it around the block a few times.


Friendly Substitute Atheist

Oh, hey.

Over the holiday, Hemant Mehta finally went on his honeymoon, and once again called upon me to run the Friendly Atheist site. So once again, I wrote a whole lot of articles and posts. Some of them I’m really quite proud of. Others, you know, sometimes you just gotta feed the beast.

To see what I’ve been doing over at Friendly Atheist, click this here hyperlink. You’ll be launched through the internets to my posts.

You know what? I had a lot of fun with it, and I felt like I actually got into something resembling a groove. Thanks, Hemant!


Oh You Are Sick of Self-Love, Snarker

In a previous post, I responded to the recent discussion going on in Internet-land about snark vs. smarm by essentially declaring a plague on both their houses, lumping them together into the category of “snide.” Still, I didn’t feel like I’d quite gotten across what my problem was with snark and snideness, and then today I read Gary Olmstead’s take at The American Conservative, and I think he’s nailed it:

The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling—what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn’t have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued—and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.

That’s it. It’s not just the toxicity of the tone of the snark, but true the intention of the snark-er. I included myself in the list of snark-wielding offenders, and let me tell you, I may feel a passion for mocking, say, the GOP presidential debate clown show — a passion is born of real desire to communicate the dangers they pose — but I do it mostly because I like getting the positive attention for my nugget-size zingers. Any performer or humorist who is being honest would tell you the same.

More Olmstead:

Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark’s sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public.

Snark is elevating to the snarker because it’s so digestable, a fun and somewhat-guilty rhetorical confection for the consumer. And we’re all getting fat and sick on it.


Atheists, Ever Shall You Blog

I have a longish piece up at Friendly Atheist today on the future prospects for blogs as a prime medium within the atheist movement. I am bullish on the form. A pinch:

Will skepto-atheists still be relying so heavily on blogs in ten years? I’m guessing yes. The main reason is that we are a movement and a community based largely on proving Some Big Point that most or far too many people still don’t agree with. To be extremely general, let’s say the Big Point is that magical thinking is wrong, and lots of times really bad. You can apply that to all sorts of things, from religion to alt-med to The Secret to UFO conspiracy theories and so on. And blogs are still the best way to make that Big Point.

And I go on. I’d really appreciate it if you gave the post a little Reddit love, keep it afloat and away from the jackals there.

If You Could Only Hear Yourself

Read your writing out loud, advises Alan Jacobs, particularly in the case of opinion or argument. Hear how your words might affect an audience by passing them up through your vocal chords and out your mouth, feeding back into your own brain via your ears. How would you then evaluate your rhythm, the strength of your position, and perhaps most importantly, your generosity of spirit?

Jacobs quotes a prayer:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.” Idle talk! — how many of us would think to place, near the head of a long prayer to be repeated frequently in Lent, a plea to be delivered from that?

And yet many have been my idle words over the years. I wonder how much harm they have done to others, and even to me. . . .

In some cases the embarrassment would have been because of arguments badly made or paragraphs awkwardly formed; but in others because of a simple lack of charity or grace. An essay begins with an idea, but an idea begins with a certain orientation of the mind and will — with a mood, if you please. We have only the ideas that our mood of the moment prepares us to have, and while our moods may be connected to the truth of things, they are normally connected only to some truths, some highly partial facet of reality. Out of that mood we think; out of those thoughts we write. And it may be that only in speaking those thoughts do we discern the mood from which they arose.

I have argued that the skepto-atheosphere (or at least its online manifestations) could benefit mightily from the rhetorical and literary ethos of the essay. A movement eating itself alive, constantly swirling with varying degrees of outrage and righteous indignation, dividing into sects and factions which then divide further into sub-sects and sub-factions. (Go ahead, hop onto any popular atheist blog or onto any Twitter neighborhood where the heretics and skeptics play. You will doubtless see at least one jab thrown at another member of our “reality-based community,” at least one missile launched, perhaps brazenly, perhaps as a snarky aside.) But I would temper my prescription by adding that it must be a thoughtful essay, a careful essay, heard out loud by the writer as Jacobs has learned.

Something a fellow heathen has done or said (or is alleged to have done or said) has you fuming, and you take to one of the Web’s myriad platforms to immediately broadcast your ire — your dudgeon high and your motives unassailable. You feel it’s your duty to call it out, shine a light, muster disapproval.

But think: is what you heard true? If so, might there be additional context? Must it now define the character of your target forevermore, casting aside that you, they, and we were once all allies for some reason?

Might you instead at least consider, perhaps even experiment with, a dose of charity, a pinch of the benefit of the doubt, a slight hint of generosity of spirit? Can you just try it out?

Or just start with reading it out loud first.

A Website You Can Talk Over: Assigning Responsibility for a Meaningful Blog

What do I want this blog to be? Perhaps using that very word, blog, assumes too much, imposing a definition. What to I want this website to be?

A little while back, I posited that perhaps the essay as a format was something that more bloggers ought to rely on, as opposed to, say, the hasty, knee-jerk missive. The reason, essentially, was to lessen the noise, the pointless butting of heads and scoring of points. To encourage more thinking and consideration, and to discourage an endless episode of “Crossfire.”

It turns out, however, that there is a contradiction. A lot of my feelings about essays stem from Andrew Sullivan, who led me to Montaigne, and on. But it is Sullivan who, in 2008, said this about blogs:

There is, after all, something simply irreplaceable about reading a piece of writing at length on paper, in a chair or on a couch or in bed. To use an obvious analogy, jazz entered our civilization much later than composed, formal music. But it hasn’t replaced it; and no jazz musician would ever claim that it could. Jazz merely demands a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.

The reason they talk while listening, and comment or link while reading, is that they understand that this is a kind of music that needs to be engaged rather than merely absorbed. To listen to jazz as one would listen to an aria is to miss the point. Reading at a monitor, at a desk, or on an iPhone provokes a querulous, impatient, distracted attitude, a demand for instant, usable information, that is simply not conducive to opening a novel or a favorite magazine on the couch. Reading on paper evokes a more relaxed and meditative response. The message dictates the medium. And each medium has its place—as long as one is not mistaken for the other.

Put aside the question of physical medium for a moment. In blogs, Sullivan is describing a back and forth, not just a conversational tone (like Montaigne pioneered), but an actual discussion, a real chat. Is that in conflict with what the essay, placed on a website, would offer or imply?

“Uh oh” was my first thought.

That’s gone, though. It seems to me that the author of a blog post can hope to engender conversation that is substantive and respectful with a thoughtful essay-like piece. But the audience has to acquiesce, to buy into this approach.

On an episode of “On the Media,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in some detail how he manages comments on his blog at The Atlantic. He doesn’t simply allow anything to happen; he carefully curates, mediates, and if necessary, gives folks the boot who aren’t playing by his rules. I like that.

But this is about more than comments. Coates can’t control what happens on the wider Internet as a result of his writing. But he can choose not to engage with the activity that doesn’t suit his or her overall approach. As Pour Me Coffee has said, he can “ruthlessly curate [his] online experience.” I really like that.

So. The first part is to write in such a way, and with such a voice, that meaningful conversation (in comments, on Twitter, what have you) is encouraged, is exemplified. But then, second, the readers and participants have to play along in that mode. Third, the author then must manage his or her online interactions in such a way that incentivize substance over vitriol and snark for its own sake.

Good then!

But what else? Obviously, I’ve not limited this blog, by any means, to wordy essays. Like Sullivan, there are plenty of one-off links and a smattering of commentary. Does that dilute the site, perhaps? It doesn’t for Sullivan and The Dish, but I think that’s because his site never stops generating content. One can skim through the shorter bits, and stop and pause to read his longer pieces (or as he calls them “keepers”).

John Gruber at Daring Fireball works in a similar fashion: The norm is that a post will be a “link post,” where Gruber highlights a bit of news or commentary, throws in a sentence of his own, and even has the headline’s link lead to the originating source, not is own post. Then he sets apart “keepers,” longer essays, by marking them with a star before the title of the post. He also has no comments section on his blog, and lets all conversation happen outside and around his blog, but not on it.

But again, Gruber is more prolific than I. He and Sullivan, of course, make their livings doing this, while I am lucky to find the time and energy to blog regularly, as much as I would love for it to be my main occupation.

So can I ape their styles in an effective way in order to make Near-Earth Object what I want it to be? I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that irregular and sparse posting makes that style work.

I may have to experiment, to blog more often than I am initially inclined, to get the machinery in my brain working at full power. I’d also have to accept that, at least for a while, I may post a lot of garbage. (Would anyone notice?) I may want to retool the look of the site so that “keepers” can be easily spotted (in a sidebar?). I’m going to think about it, and more important, start acting on thoughts.

Back to physical medium, briefly. Sullivan, in the above quote, distinguishes between the reader’s behavior based on what surface they are reading content off of; a screen or a piece of paper. That was written in 2008, and I have to imagine that he’d rethink this today. There was no iPad then, and the Kindle was an expensive novelty device. And no one had heard the term “Retina display.”

Today, we have those technologies that encourage and facilitate deeper, longer-form reading, such that Instapaper is an indispensable app, and so I think that today it’s not about screens and paper, but about presentation of content. And the onus for that is, yes, firstly on the author or outlet, but now just as much on the reader. If one opts to read a piece on their lunch break at a desktop display, the attitude and mindset may be very different than if that reader has saved the piece in Instapaper, and now reads it in a comfy chair from an iPad or Kindle, free (or freer) from distractions, windows, and notifications.

It is like jazz. You can, in fact, talk over it. But you can also buy the remastered CD, put on your pricey Bose headphones, and savor every note. Your call.

I like that, too.

A Tendency Away from Certitude: Our Blogosphere Needs the Essay

It had seemed to me that, in the ideal, the chief distinguishing characteristic of the blog format, as opposed to, say, formal print newspaper and magazine article, was that it represented a piece of a larger conversation. Not in the strict sense of point-counterpoint, you-go-I-go, but in the sense of being an individual’s considered musing upon a given topic that contributes to the overall swirl of thought and content going on all around. That’s certainly the picture painted by someone like Andrew Sullivan, who for me is kind of the Foundational Blogger for all intents and purposes.

But I can’t say that this is what I see today in the blogosphere, or the sectors into which I delve on a regular basis. I can speak best, of course, to my perceptions of the skepto-atheist blogosphere and the wider genre of political blogging. In those areas, I see very little of what could pass as conversation. Recently, I’m realizing how much I wish this were not so.

What I see in blogs today (and let’s keep it to the skepto-atheosphere for now) is more or less a competition of zingers, gotchas, and positions asserted as though self-evident, done via polemic, snark, indignant rhetoric, and quote-mining. I see not a conversation, but lines and lines of entrenched infantry, all working to win their war by scoring the most points.

I’m over-generalizing, I realize. Particularly due to my job, I am exposed to a very specific tributary of the vast rivers of online prose that empty into even wider digital oceans. But I am hoping to follow a thread of thought to something.

Sullivan sees the blog as an evolution — or perhaps modern manifestation of — the essay, and draws the greatest influence from Montaigne (as I do now, thanks in large part to Sullivan), the Ur-blogger.

Christy Wampole has written <a href="”>a beautiful piece about what the essay form can offer modern discourse; where we are missing out on its benefits, and abusing it when utilized. She presents her thesis as thus:

I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”

The “x-ification” of anything as a panacea is a gimmick I often bristle at, but Wampole is on to something here. For clarity, she writes:

When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude. Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but. These texts include the kind of writing expected on the SAT, in seminar papers, dissertations, professional criticism or other scholarly writing; politically engaged texts or other forms of peremptory writing that insist upon their theses and leave no room for uncertainty; or other short prose forms in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised. What these texts often have in common is, first, their self-conscious hiding of the “I” under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where rigor and science are the managers on duty.

The shroud of objectivity, an office of higher truth…could there be any better description for the tone of so much of the skepto-atheosphere’s bloggery? She goes on:

Second, these texts are untentative: they know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.

Case-making, anticipating objections, etc. In other words, winning on points. One part that many of my fellow bloggers might object to is her assertion that the non-essay “leav[es] the reader uninvited,” as most of the blogosphere is open to comments and reaction, but in my experience comments sections and other blog-based responses are usually more of a piece with the original posting. They are still fortresses, just perhaps smaller ones, or constructed on a different front.

There is, of course, a need for plain-speaking. There is a time and place for laying down lines of demarcation, of, yes, building a fortress, because that fortress may be defending something that is genuinely worthy. I would not feel such common case with “New Atheism” and its (to some) stark and uncompromising positions if I did not think that humanity faced moral and existential threats from religion, faith, and dogma.

But I also want the conversation. Rather than dueling blog posts about, say, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their attitudes toward Muslims (one set of posts says they’re totally on-point for such-and-such reasons, and another set of posts declaring them unforgivable racists for such-and-such reasons), I’d prefer a slower contemplation — I’m talking primarily about text, but also audio, video, or what have you — that tackled the topic from all angles, and allowed space to look inward and question one’s own suppositions and conclusions. Certainly, the quality of the writing could improve if nothing else.

Blogs, from my vantage point, are not doing this. They are not essays. Are essays anywhere to be found? I have one idea. An essay, as suggested by Wampole, is informed by “possibilitarianism,” by

contingency and trying things out digressively, following this or that forking path, feeling around life without a specific ambition: not for discovery’s sake, not for conquest’s sake, not for proof’s sake, but simply for the sake of trying.

To me, this sounds a lot like Tumblr. Tumblogs are often, rather unintentionally I’d guess, explorations of experience, a gathering of encounters, predilections, and bursts of raw expression that might just be in line with what a Wampolian essay is supposed to be. They may or may not be as polished, and obviously they are not always (or often) text-based. But perhaps there’s something here.

But wait! Wampole says:

I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned.

Ah yes. And loop Facebook and Pinterest and their ilk into this as well. A running log of oh-well-that-happened. Maybe. What, then? Wampole, one more time:

Today’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right.

Good, then. Let us demand more of our own essays, be they in the form of blogs or social network posts, podcast episodes or YouTube monologues. Let us begin each piece with so much confidence in our own intellect and capacity for understanding, that we allow that we may be wrong. We allow that we may have our own blinding biases and obstructive obstinacies. And we say so, and we explore that fact as deeply as anything else.