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Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

Browsing Hacker News, which I’ll admit I don’t read very closely (because, well, I’m not a hacker), I saw an interesting headline: I quit Twitter for a month and it changed my thinking about mostly everything. Well, that’s going to get my attention.

I clicked through and noted the author’s name: Adam Brault. I don’t know Adam Brault (at least, not well enough to recall reading him before), but with a headline like that, I sure wanted to read the piece. It’s quite a thoughtful rumination on his snap decision to stop using Twitter for the month of November.

Some of what Brault said didn’t resonate with me, not because I disagreed, but because it’s clear he uses Twitter in a very different manner than do I. He follows people closely and feels a connection to them that I rather envy. I follow more than 1200 people, and I’ve become a bit inured to the resulting torrent.

For me, Twitter provides a first level filter, and I then use various second-order services to tame my feed. Those filters (news.me, Percolate, Flipboard, even TechMeme) depersonalize my consumption habits. No one human voice regularly makes it into my second-order filters (but a lot of publishing brands do). In short, I don’t have much personal social capital invested in Twitter, even though it’s a very important part of my life.

Brault, on the other hand, noticed that he had perhaps too much personal investment in the people he followed in Twitter. From his essay:

I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things… I just felt horrible for those organizers… and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening….

…I’ve realized, Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

Reading that passage, I felt something – I empathized with Brault. I remember what it felt like to be connected like that. And I realized I have never been connected in that way through my “new” social media. Facebook has always been a wipeout for me, LinkedIn a utility. The only “social media” I’ve ever deeply cared about are personal blogs – which for most folks younger than 30, are usually understood to be artifacts of a pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, pre-Twitter era.

Writing out loud on a regular basis is not for everyone. It takes a fair bit of focus and commitment to maintain a site where you write essays for public consumption. Brault mentions that it took him at least three hours to finish his post. In the early days, tons of folks took to the blogging medium, but over time, many burned out. But I sense people are coming back to this form, because it’s a pleasure to write out loud  every so often. It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful. I’m guessing Brault – a software and web developer by trade – has taken true pleasure in the social expression his essay has allowed.

Call it a hunch, but I think a new generation of creators are realizing that if something is really important to them, then it’s worth taking the time to write a longform essay – one that best resides on a site that is theirs.

In the blog-only era of the early 2000s, folks like me had our personal site, and we also watched a set of sites that we truly followed. RSS was our Twitter, and we carefully pruned a list of other folks who we’d check each day. I let about 40 or so “voices into my brain” each day, and those voices mattered to me, a lot. Most of us even created “blogrolls” – links to folks we felt were worthy of attention (really – remember those?!). And when someone wrote something noteworthy, others in the network might write a response, always with a link back.

This pattern still happens, of course – that’s what I’m doing now. But it happens far less regularly, and without the clear social network that used to define communities of blogs. Those early communities have been eclipsed by professionalization (I remember following what Mike Arrington wrote each day, before it turned into TechCrunch The Site, for example), but also by burnout and by the easy dopamine hits of Facebook and Twitter. Add to this the lightweight reblogging ethos of Tumblr, and the recent rise of bespoke platforms like Medium or SVBTLE, and we no longer have robust communities of individuals calling and responding in bursts of essays, each emanating from a unique, independent place on the web. I think the world’s a bit poorer for that loss, even as it has become a far richer place overall.

Reading Adam’s essay, I mourned a little for the way it used to be. I’m keenly aware that I’m sounding like a nostalgic, but I take heart in this rising class of “every so often publishing.” If only there were a better way of surfacing all this good stuff….hmm.

Meanwhile, Brault’s essay had another wonderful insight worth repeating:

It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.

In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting—light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot….

…I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I feel exactly the same way. If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Circling back to the point of this post, I believe that the personal-site-based essay is making a comeback. I’m finding all manner of great pieces of writing lately, stuff that’s just too good to simply retweet and forget. Like this from Vibhu Norby (I promise to write a response soon, it’s an important topic). It was on a personal site that I rediscovered Craig Mod. When I did, I added his feed to my creaky old RSS reader. I just did the same for Norby. That made me think of Matt Haughey, one of the more wonderful early bloggers. Turns out, he still writes every week or two on his site. But, far as I can tell, Matt’s site has no RSS feed. Adam Brault is on Tumblr, so no RSS there either, at least that I can find. I’ll do my best to visit from time to time, but man, I’d sure rather have all his stuff pushed my way.

Of course, the debate about whether or not blogging and RSS is a dead medium has been raging for years. Clearly, RSS is no longer a universal standard. Regardless, I find it comforting that when someone with a truly unique point of view has something important to say, they often return to their own site to say it there. I hope they all keep writing. I’ll be listening.

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23 thoughts on “Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

  1. I just want to say… if 140 character twitter messages make you feel “connected”, then perhaps it’s time for you to enter into some actual relationships and enjoy real connections. Have a long conversation about the things that interest you. Debate the pros and cons of… well, just about anything. Spend an evening doing it.

    At our home, I do up a friend’s night once a week where we play chess, scrabble, destroy a pizza, and talk about current events, our own experiences over the week, etc. We don’t drink alcohol or do drugs, and we don’t watch the idiot box. It goes for hours, and everyone seems to agree that it’s a great time. Perhaps something like that might put twitter in its proper place for you.

    Good luck.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Oh believe me, I do such things. I’m talking about online interaction in this post…

    • dbv says:

      Also tangential: Many years ago, some clever folks at Xerox Parc predicted that in the future computers would disappear into the background (infrastructure) of our everyday lives leaving people with more time to do … well, more people’ly things. As the Internet of Things becomes a reality and intelligent services are layered on top of it we may (hopefully) reach this phase soon.

  2. Anil Dash says:

    Sort of tangential to your point, but Matt’s RSS feed is at http://feeds.feedburner.com/AWholeLottaNothing

    It’s telling that many of us don’t even advertise our feeds anymore.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Thanks Anil. I know, it is telling. I think we’ve replaced RSS with Twitter, and for me anyway, I think there’s a major loss there.

  3. After a ‘sleepless’ night of trying to figure out what to write for my newsletter, I went to my “igoogle” account for a bit of distraction to see what my fav writers were pushing my way. Your post appeared and I was drawn to read immediately… and it hit all kinds of triggers.

    First, the ‘death’ of the RSS feed is a tragedy in my opinion. When google announced the end of igoogle late next year, I was beside myself. I have it organized in a manner that means something to me– when I want to spend time in a certain community in a focused manner. If I arranged my twitter feeds in that same way, it would NEVER allow me to get deeply committed to the community and feel part of it. “Schizophrenia” is a good description for Twitter. I don’t want 140 characters of dribble all day long. That’s a distraction I can do away with.

    Second, your comment — “If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.”

    Oh, my did that hit home… It IS nice to know I’m not alone. I’m facing that right now and unfortunately “clearing that day” ties in with my ability to generate revenue for my (3rd) music startup… which I thought was an audiophile music delivery system, but I’ve come to the realization is completely dependent on my ability to generate a weekly newsletter. If I don’t write, customers don’t buy, my crew and creditors don’t get paid.. simple as that! It’s so much easier to produce someone else’s music.

    I’ve tried moving the fans over to Facebook and Twitter, but it’s not working.. and honestly, I’m not sure I want it to work there. We have 350 likes and followers… our newsletter has 15,000 subscribers with a 40% open rate and growing about 1000 a month. Why would I want to give it away at Facebook or Twiiter?

    I’ve moved from writing once a month to once a week and can’t imagine if I have to move to daily (which I tried over the Thanksgiving holiday… a commitment of 4 days with the community and it was physically difficult). Not only is writing mentally exhausting clearing a path to creative focus, but physically those long stretches cause all kinds of ailments.

    Third, as I write this from my “spot” in hopes of working up the juices to write to my community, I remembered your post of moving your writing efforts to ‘your spot’. My best ‘spot’ for writing on a deadline is lying in bed, looking over my deck garden at the hills of the peninsula and the San Andreas fault, between the hours of 5:30am and 11am. Am I completely doomed?

    Heaven forbid that our bootstrapping efforts make us a viable company for investment/growth and I have to work from another building. Clearing a path of uninterrupted thought and finding a new spot to write from.

    Now, the big question.. should I hit “post” and leave my fears on your blog where they may not be seen by my community but could be found by investors during my Series A funding? Oh Hell, why not! I’m over fifty… and life is pretty good otherwise.

    Keep up the great work!

    • johnbattelle says:

      Thank you for hitting “post”! And repost it on your site, of course!

      • Thanks, John and Falicon, and happy to note that I was able to write my newsletter and cause a lot of controversy about charging $50 for the SF Symphony DSD Download! ;) I feel so much better, now. Controversy I can handle! I’ll share this blog. Thanks!

    • falicon says:

      It is never a bad thing to have your passion discoverable…that is all you have done here, share your passion in public.

      +100

  4. Drew Meyers says:

    I miss the pre-Twitter world as well. I feel like there were much more thoughtful conversations occurring prior to twitter existing compared to now; it’s close to impossible to have an in depth conversation via Twitter in 140 word spurts.

    I never stopped writing on blogs (in fact, I maintain 4 blogs), nor did you. I agree that personal essays are making a comeback on a broader scale (though slowly). There is too much noise on the web, so I’m seeing decreasing value in follow/listening to tons of people who are not making me think. Personal essays are a way to stand out from the masses who are too lazy to do anything other than post 140 character bursts..

    • johnbattelle says:

      I’d love to create some kind of surfacing mechanism for good personal essays by topic/interest. I’m noodling on it.

      • Drew Meyers says:

        Long reads? http://longreads.com/travelreads/ (my friend Jodi curates this)
        The human/personality component is huge for me – that’s what I gravitate towards, and the personality is why I read bloggers like Fred Wilson and you. You both write on a wide range of topics, I personally don’t think topic alone is enough of a filter…at least for me. Unless it’s curated by an individual I really trust.

        • johnbattelle says:

          Yes, familiar with Longreads, though have not engaged with it as much as I’d like. I have a “New Yorker” like relationship with it.

      • falicon says:

        I’m with you…and this is a big part of the long term motivation behind my gawk.it project (conversation search that both helps you find the right conversation, and helps the right conversation find you –> http://gawk.it/about ).

        Looking forward to hearing/reading more about the angles you’re thinking of and about around this as well…

        BTW – I got directed to this post itself because your content passes through gawk.it and I have some key world monitors set up that were triggered around this discussion (so it’s already working for me on a *really* early level!)

  5. takingpitches says:

    Love this line:

    “It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful.”
    I blog mostly for myself, but I hope that once in a while someone gets some benefit on it, and that also gives me pleasure.
    But fundamentally, when I am in that posting groove, it is joyful and therapeutic. Conversely, whenever it feels like a chore, I know it’s not really worth posting,

  6. tacanderson says:

    Read this post about Reader and thought of you and this post http://www.buzzfeed.com/robf4/googles-lost-social-network

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