Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process.

Frictionless Publishing: It's Just Text, Except That It's Not

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a decent amount of discussion on the subject of Tumblr, Posterous and the rise of the micro-blog. Without recapping all the details, the general feeling of many is this: these services make it so easy to post that the quality of the content produced by the users of these services is very low.

And with the rise of blogs like “f*&%yeahwelshcorgis”, many would agree. But as a Tumblr user and a proponent of the service, I feel this point is a little off the mark.

The Myth: The Tool Is the Problem

The gist of the complaint can be summed up in this comment from Leon Paternoster:

It’s a shame when bloggers switch from standard blog software like WordPress to Tumblr (Cameron Moll, for example). Before, we benefited from an expert’s opinion and/or good writing, now we just get a stream of links and disconnected commentary. It’s a more passive experience: writer points to x and reader dutifully follows.

In a follow up post, Jonathan Christopher — a man I admire and whose writing I regularly link to — had this to add:

Of course it’s a limited case scenario, and there are numerous Tumblr blogs I’ve subscribed to for longer than I can remember. Even though rockstars are now moving platforms, I can agree with the sentiment that the overall experience is limited by the platform.

The “experience is limited by the platform”? Strong words, easily written I imagine, but, in the end, incorrect.

There are plenty of people regurgitating content using WordPress and there are no shortage of bad sites run on the Blogger platform. How exactly does WordPress — or any other platform — make one a better writer? The problem with these types of statements is this: just as the goaltender who looks at his glove immediately after being scored on, blaming easy-to-use systems like Tumblr is propagating a scapegoat mentality.

With a current emphasis on minimalist computing and devices that remove friction, placing the blame of bad content on the publishing tool is misguided at best. The onus is on the content producer — period.

Same as it ever was.

Reality: Publishing Quality Content Is Work

The truth: good writing is hard. Very hard.

With the rise of blogging and self-publishing this past decade, there is no doubt that many people have jumped right in without much thought, posting pictures and linking to other people's content with abandon. But there has also been a large proportion of people who looked at this opportunity to improve their writing and promote their thoughts and ideas.

Shawn Blanc is one such person, a writer widely respected, not for short blurbs and links, but lengthy, in-depth reviews of software. In a partial interview recently published, when asked whether his writing was better when spontaneous or when carefully edited over a longer period of time, Shawn had this to say:

I guess it depends on the definition of writing better. If I have an idea that just pours out then yes, the initial foundation for what I’m writing is certainly much stronger than an idea I’m unclear on and trying to winkle through. But a piece that I were to write quickly and then publish would not nearly be as well written as one I took the time to write, edit, re-write, and then edit some more.

In my opinion, my strongest articles are ones which I spend a significant amount of time on (sometimes several weeks) before publishing. Some of those articles started as an idea that just “poured out”, but some of them didn’t.

A great point, and one many of us could take to heart. And I count myself squarely among the sinners. Many times I have posted something just because, “It's been a few days.” I rarely take sufficient time to review and edit my own posts. I've often allowed the desire to be heard outweigh the desire to write well, which is self-defeating in the end. Quality trumps quantity every time.

This is something I want to change, because I want to improve as a writer. As we all should.

But Mr. Paternoster and Mr. Christopher do have a legitimate issue — there’s a lot of crap being published these days. And it’s easy for writers — even great ones — to slip into a lazy habit of linking to the content of others rather than producing their own work.

But the blame should not be placed on the tool.

The Problem: Our Internet Is a Consumer Culture

The Internet has permeated our lives — it's wound its way into our homes, our workplace, our places of worship. Everywhere. It's changing the way we work and the way we consume. And many of the tools we use have been designed to make it easy for us to consume massive amounts of everything.

In addition, many of these tools have been designed to allow us to share — in one way or another — the items we've consumed that entertained, challenged, or inspired us. And yes, it is easy to pass these items on to our “friends” or followers with little to no thought.

But quality writing — whether creating long articles or posts, or sharing links to items of interest — takes careful time and attention.

The truth is, writers like Kottke and Gruber are not common. Despite the tremendous amount of consuming they do, they share and filter with high quality. They are really a breed unto themselves, and their success is proof of that. But they are also what other writers should aspire to — not to be the next John Gruber or to sound just like him though.

Rather, like them, we should all be making every effort to ensure that each sentence, each word, each character we publish, is done with the utmost care and thought. Each link, each photo, each small piece of Internet miscellany we pass on to our readers is done so with the understanding that the attention of our readers is not a resource to be squandered or taken lightly.

There is one other troubling aspect of our current culture: busyness and “doing” are not conducive to this level of quality. We have to turn off the firehose at times to allow our brains to be creative. To stop consuming in order to enable ourselves to roam free in the vast expanse of our own minds.

Liz Danzico spoke of this in a post titled, “In Praise of Nothingness”:

What I didn’t mention to this person was that I need idle time in equal proportion to planned time; leaving time for the unplanned, and making sure there’s enough time for a bit of nothing. It’s this space that makes the planned more worthwhile.

This is why I do all of my best writing in the shower. My mind just gets going, thoughts careen and words tumble out … it's also why my wife complains about my 30 minute showers. But regardless of where and when this creativity happens for each of us, we should structure our schedules to ensure that we get at least a small bit of this type of time each and every day.

And so, whatever tool we choose to use is not the issue at hand. It's more a matter of purpose: why do we hit the Publish button? What sort of standard do we hold ourselves to? And most important, who are we trying to please?

If we can correctly answer those questions, the tool becomes irrelevant.