May 16, 2008

Bloggers on Blogging: Tim Lee

By: AFF Editors

Welcome to the inaugural installment of Bloggers on Blogging, an ongoing series of interviews with bloggers about their medium.

This inaugural installment features seemingly ubiquitous tech and policy blogger Tim Lee, who has, over the years, blogged at the Tech Liberation Front, Cato@Liberty, TechDirt, Show-Me Daily, The American Scene, and The Angry Blog. He converses with Doublethink Online editor Peter Suderman about how blogs have changed journalism, the problem with corporate blogs, why every aspiring writer should blog, and more.


You’re a regular in many corners of the blog world. What made you want to start blogging?

I have as many reasons for blogging as I do blogs, but the basic two are personal interest in the subjects I’m writing about and professional advancement/self-promotion. The Angry Blog is purely a hobby; I rant about whatever happens to be on my mind. (This probably explains its rather small readership.)

Blogging about technology policy at TLF has opened a number of doors, professionally, including opportunities to write for Techdirt and Ars Technica, an op-ed in the New York Times, and interviews in a variety of mainstream papers. TLF lets me dig into the meat of tech policy issues I’m grappling with, and it has some incredibly smart readers who serve as an instant focus group to tell me when my ideas are stupid. Techdirt and Cato@Liberty allow me to reach broader audiences — geeks and libertarians, respectively — with more polished versions of my ideas.

You write for an awful lot of blogs. It almost seems like you’re treating blogs the way freelancers used to treat magazines. What’re the advantages and disadvantages of writing for multiple blogs?

That’s a good analogy. The big difference is that traditional freelancers tended to get paid for all the magazines they wrote for, whereas I do a mix of paid and unpaid blogging. The blogs I write for vary by subject, by level of editorial oversight, and by the size and composition of the audience they reach. Obviously, contributing to so many blogs is time-consuming, so I’d cut the number down if I could. The question is whether any given blog provides you with opportunities that you can’t get from others. Each of the blogs I write for has unique advantages over the others.

Self-promotion is obviously a big part of the blogosphere. Yet doesn’t it seem a little crass? How do you get around that? Or does it matter?

The key to having a successful blog is providing value for your readers. So obviously if you spend all your time self-promoting, you’re going to turn off a lot of readers and it’ll be self-defeating. But in my experience, readers don’t mind a reasonable amount of self-promotion. People subscribe to your blog because they’re interested in your work, so naturally they’re going to be interested in the occasional self-promotional post. For example, any time I have a new article out I do a post about it on at least one of my blogs. I can’t recall ever getting comments from readers asking me to stop. As long as I’m responsive to reader feedback, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with treating a blog as a vehicle for self-promotion.

Who was the first blogger you read regularly?

I’ve been reading Slashdot since 1998, long before the term “blog” was coined. The first individual blog I read was probably Virginia Postrel’s Dynamist blog, which was a spin-off of her first book, The Future and Its Enemies. I think I started reading that in 2000. I’ve always been a huge fan of Virginia’s work and thought her blog was great. By the time I got to DC in the summer of 2003, a few of my friends, notably Julian Sanchez, Marie Gryphon, Gene Healy, and Will Wilkinson, had started blogs. I was reading Julian and Marie when they unmasked John Lott sock puppetry in 2002.

What was your impression of the medium?

I’ve always enjoyed blogs, but I don’t think I had any sense of how big they’d become. When I started my first one in late 2003, I felt like I was already late to the party. Even more so when we started TLF in 2004. But things kept growing, and it’s become clear that there was still plenty of room for new voices. I’ve now swung in the opposite direction and I think the blogosphere still has a lot of room to grow.

How has blogging changed the way you think about the news?

Journalism is fundamentally about gathering and disseminating information, and the blogosphere is a phenomenally efficient mechanism for doing that. When one blogger posts an interesting story, it quickly gets picked up by other bloggers and can sweep across the ‘net in a matter of hours. This is a vastly more efficient and equitable than the 20th-century model in which a tiny number of professional journalists were in charge of finding and choosing stories to become national news.

I think one of the things blogging has done is to re-shape peoples expectations about authority and quality. I regard this as largely an improvement. While any one blog may be less reliable, the blogosphere is likely to do a better job of getting the facts right because having many people looking at the same source material makes it more likely that errors will get spotted. And frankly, mainstream journalists were never as infallible as they liked to pretend.

So would you say it’s changed the way you practice journalism?

I think this has led me to a rather unorthodox attitude toward fact-checking and quality control in my own blog. I’m willing to write a post that says “I’m not sure if this is true but so-and-so’s argument is plausible and here’s his evidence.” For one thing, this is obviously a lot easier for me, because I can produce more content with less effort. But more importantly, I assume that I’m not the smartest or most knowledgeable guy around, and that some of my readers might have more insight into the subject than I do.

A lot of journalists find the existence of bloggers detrimental to their profession. Is blogging going to kill — or severely maim — traditional journalism?

No. People who make that argument confuse journalism with a particular technology of news distribution. What blogging and the internet more broadly have done is increase competition in the news business. Consumers have more options and so mediocre print publications are going to lose business. The fact that a few papers may go out of business doesn’t signal the end of journalism.

The story is much the same when it comes to journalism as a profession. I don’t think we know yet whether the total number of journalism jobs is going to go up or down, but certainly the idea that journalism is a dying profession is absurd. Journalists who look down their noses at the web and expect a job at a newspaper to be a lifetime sinecure are obviously going to have problems. But as far as I’m concerned that’s the fault of the journalist, not the fault of the web.

You seem not to buy the idea that blogs will bring about the End of Journalism. But I know you’re not a full-blown tech-triumphalist either. What do you see as the downsides to blogging, as a medium — or even to the individuals involved in it, writers and bloggers like yourself?

I think the biggest occupational hazard to blogging is losing a sense of perspective. It’s easy for bloggers to lose sight of the fact that today’s most popular story isn’t necessarily the most important. Bloggers tend to be people with short attention spans, and the rush from getting feedback within minutes of doing a post only exacerbates that. So it’s important for writers to keep in mind that there are some worthwhile stories that you’ll only find by spending a day at the library, or out in the real world talking to non-bloggers. I think that blogging 40 hours a week (and for the most successful bloggers, it’s more like 60-80 hours a week) probably isn’t healthy. You’ve got to spend some time working on longer-term projects so you don’t wind up with intellectual tunnel vision. But this observation isn’t really specific to blogging. Almost any activity becomes intellectually stifling if you spend your entire workday doing it.

A lot of heavy bloggers even go so far as to say it’s changed the way they live their lives — in your experience, is that accurate?

Blogs are tremendously important for aspiring writers, whether they want to be journalists, policy analysts, PR flacks, or whatever. There used to be tremendous barriers to getting your first “break” at a newspaper, magazine, think tank, etc. Those barriers are completely gone. You don’t have to get anybody’s permission to start a blog and begin building an audience. If your content is good, sooner or later people will start to notice, read, and interact with you. Your traffic will build over time.

I don’t think most folks just starting out in public policy understand is how hard it is to find people with solid writing skills and a deep interest in policy issues. I’ve been on the hiring side of think tanks on a couple of occasions, and while we always got a ton of resumes I’ve been struck by how few had taken advantage of the opportunities blogging provided. Hardly any of the applicants had blogs, to say nothing of well-written or regularly-updated ones, and the few that did tended to be near the top of my list. And if the guy doing the hiring already reads your blog, you’re as good as hired. Organizations want people who love what they do, and nothing demonstrates that better than doing it in your free time.

So you see blogging as particularly important in the policy world. Most think tanks have blogs these days, but it’s gotten to the point where many government agencies (CBO, for example) keep frequently updated blogs too. Lots of speculation about the blog world has revolved around its effects on traditional journalism and publishing. You think it’s also going to cause shifts in the policy and government realms as well?

While I’m as guilty of this as anyone, I think it’s a bit of a mistake to treat “blogging” as one type of activity. Blogging is a medium, like newsprint or FM radio. And just like those media, it’s used for a ton of different purposes by different people. Some blogs are personal diaries. Some are high-quality news sources that rival the best mainstream media outlets. And a lot of corporate “blogs” are lifeless repositories for the company’s press releases.

Blogs tend to work best when they’re spontaneous and have a small number of clearly recognizable voices. Large institutions tend not to do “spontaneous” and “personable” very well. Government agencies’ blogs tend to be pretty dull, and I don’t expect that to change. (The same goes for political campaigns’ blogs.)

I suspect think-tank blogs have more potential. Traditionally, think tanks like Cato have largely communicated via the media, which tends to mangle and truncate peoples’ comments. Blogging allows think tank scholars to reach out directly to key audiences –journalists, academics, interest groups, Hill staffers, and the general public — and deliver their message without the filters. Bypassing the media, which tends to simplify things, will lead to more sophisticated and inclusive policy debates.

So if large institutions don’t do “spontaneous” and “personable” very well,” are big corporate blogs just a bad idea?

I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea. I would just say that large corporations need to have reasonable expectations about what an official blog can accomplish. An official blog can work perfectly well as another channel for disseminating the corporate line, alongside press releases, media interviews, glossy brochures, newsletters, etc. But it’s not going to develop the large, devoted readership of the most successful blogs.

You think there are ways around that problem? Can big institutions develop some personality?

I don’t think large institutions can develop personalities. Large institutions have distinct cultures that color the way they interact with the world, but this isn’t really the same thing as an individual’s personality. Large organizations are bureaucratic by necessity, and bureaucracy is all about replacing individual creativity with impersonal rules and regulations.

So a lack of personality isn’t something large corporations can change, but there are strategies to mitigate it. One approach is that rather than (or in addition to) an official corporate blog, they can have a variety of unofficial blogs authored by individual employees. The difficulty is that for this to work well, it’s absolutely essential that the employees have some freedom to depart from the company line, including acknowledging flaws with the company’s own products and policies. This strategy isn’t for the faint of heart. A lot of companies aren’t going to have the stomach for letting their employees criticize them on the company’s own website, and it only takes a couple of incidents of censorship before the enterprise loses all credibility

So, given all this, where does the medium go from here? What does the future hold for blogs?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d be busy implementing it, not telling you about it!

There’s a basic pattern to the spread of technology, with technologies spreading out in concentric circles from a small group of early adopters. The cell phone, for example, was first used by a few wealthy technophiles in the 1980s, and achieved ubiquity earlier this decade. The internet itself experienced a similar growth pattern. I think the same thing will happen to blogs. The earliest of early adopters have been reading blogs for close to a decade, but there are still millions of people out there who don’t even know what a blog is. That won’t last.

It’s hard to predict how “normal” users will use blogs, but my guess is that a lot of the growth will be in low-brow subjects — sports, fashion, celebrity gossip, and the other topics you see in the supermarket check-out lane. As the fraction of the population looking for news online continues to increase, the blogosphere will continue to grow larger and more lucrative.