Takes one to know one

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Nick Carr wrote a post that has resonated strongly with several people.

He writes of the A Listers who say, “link to me to be linked in turn”, and thus perpetuate their own dynasty. He calls it an innocent fraud from John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The Economics of Innocent Fraud. It is, Carr says, about a lie, but a lie more white than black. A lie that makes people happy. The A Listers who write that anyone can become like them if they just link and write well, are perpetuating this new innocent fraud:

The powerful have a greater stake in the perpetuation of an innocent fraud than do the powerless. Long after the powerless have suspended their suspension of disbelief, the powerful will continue to hold tightly to the fraud, repeating it endlessly amongst themselves in an echo chamber that provides a false ring of truth.

I like what Nick writes, and I can agree with him in most cases. If I have any concern at all about Carr is that I’m afraid he will become somewhat the ‘poster child’ of contrarians. He is, after all, a Harvard educated white male, quite WASPy in fact, who drops literary references rather frequently, and thus could be more acceptable and given more credence as a challenger of the status quo than others who have been, and continue to be, just as vocal. (Both Dave Rogers and Seth Finkelstein are two that come most readily to mind, though there are others who will, I hope, forgive me for not calling them out).

In regards to Carr’s current, post, I think once upon a time there was some truth to this ‘lie’ but that was before much of the attention in weblogging was co-opted by professionals who scented both money and power in weblogging, and moved in using well honed marketing tactics we mortals cannot possibly hope to match.

People like Michael ‘Core Values’ Arrington, who talks from experience of being a weblogger one whole year, and in that time quickly bobbing to the top of the food chain like a bad lure spit out by a fish. He starts his post with his now trademarked approach of writing a flammatory title, which leads to certain types of responses that he can deplore being the noble kind of guy he is. He then continues with:

None of this is accurate. The “biggest” blogs have changed dramatically over the last year since I started writing. Guys that commanded large audiences have fallen, new people have risen. Sure, there are massive politics and games involved, and a lot of mud gets thrown about. But at the end of the day those people with interesting things to say tend to get listened to. Those that don’t…dont.

Actually, it doesn’t work that way, Michael. You rose to the top because you fed the egos of many of the people who you eventually supplanted. You also focused purely on the game in Silicon Valley, and since marketing is now the new pink (hey Tara!), you received a great deal of attention for same. After all, attention in weblogging is now part of the new funding cycle for startups in SillyValley.

In other words, you focused on that, which is measured. You cover all the new startups, most of which any thinking person knows have no chance of survival. You give them the attention they need to hopefully generate enough cash to make enough of a splash so they’ll be bought out. In return, I believe you when you say you don’t accept money or gifts. People wonder at this, but they forget what is the coin of this realm: attention.

You cultivate these desperate companies and their many bloggers. From this pool of willing subjects, you gather both attention and information. You throw parties for a thousand and get sponsors–sponsors, good lord–thus creating an even wider pool of the hopeful, as well as the frantic and the fearful. And woe to the company that doesn’t come to you with a story first, so that you have the inside track.

Its a tried and true tactic used by others outside of tech. Michelle Malkin used this approach. I watched her go from new blogger to the top of the pile, as she coldly and methodically used attention as both draw and weapon. I believe she actually received help in developing these techniques by a think tank, of all things. Fascinating to watch. But I digress.

Arrington also writes:

It’s not so much about how one blog can rise through the ranks and get popular. What I love about blogging is the fact that an ecosystem exists, where conversations spring up about anything at all, involving all who wish to participate (through blogs, comments and trackbacks), evolve and move on to other things. Geography, time zones, and cultural differences are mostly irrelevant. It’s about the purity of ideas and the two-way web, where we get to say what we think when we disagree. And trust me, I see disagreement on a constant basis in the trackbacks and comments on my blog. But I’m just happy I’m part of the conversation. Is the system perfect? Nope. But its the coolest thing I’ve ever encountered, and my non-sleeping life is now dedicated to being a part of it.

Now this is where Carr’s writing must stand out as a beacon on a rock to ships at sea. This is the innocent fraud. To be part of the discussion, all you need do is invite yourself in. The reality is, it doesn’t matter what you write on your weblog, or how many times you trackback if you’re not allowed into the converstion. Yes, allowed into the conversation. A few years back, attention threaded. Now, attention swarms.

Debate occurs too frequently now based on rank and familiarity and similarity rather than being open and cross-blog as Arrington seems to imply. It has all but disappeared in the community interested in weblogging and even Web 2.0 technologies.

It’s not necessarily a matter of not being linked or acknowledged, though there is that. It’s when the ‘outsider’, the critic, is responded to, it’s in the most personal sense. Rather than being critical of what’s written the response is usually critical of the person in addition to, or in place of, being critical of the writing.

I’ve seen this approach used with women involved in debate, where every time a woman makes a point, someone refers to her as being as ‘hysterical’ or ’shrill’, effectively underminding the person rather than the words. As such, perhaps I’m more attuned than the men, but reference to the critic being ‘bitter’ is becoming all too common in these debates; even when the writing is rather intellectually aloof, as much of Nick Carr’s writing is. Remarks such as this even become a self-fulfilling prophecy: you tell a person they’re bitter enough, and by god, they will become bitter.

Even Carr, the Champion, zeros in on the emotional context of what other critics are saying in his post, though more as proof than as deprecation.

Now listen to Arrington’s response:

If you find that you are blogging just to get influence and attention, you should stop because you are going to be dissapointed. No one wants to hear about your woeful stories of bitterness, despair and rejection (except Nick of course). If you are writing because you are absolutely passionate about whatever you are writing about, and you can’t stop yourself from writing, keep doing it. You’ll be happy, even if no one is reading. (emph. mine)

Cry babies. Whiners. Jealous. Envious. Bitter. Rejected. Spoil sports. Stop crying about it and post something interesting. … really, stop me when I reach the end.

Then there’s this: If you are writing because you are absolutely passionate about whatever you are writing about, and you can’t stop yourself from writing, keep doing it. Sounds good. Sounds noble. I have to wonder, though, where Mr. Arrington would be now if he weren’t at the top of the heap. Since most of his sites are now written by others, I wonder what his passion really is? What is your passion, Mr. Arrington, other than copying other successful sites?

As for concept that being passionate about what you do being enough to sustain you, and how one shouldn’t need to have attention, shouldn’t need to be included in the discussion–what an effective way to shut down people critical of the environment. If being called bitter isn’t enough to muffle and filter, then appeal to nobility of purpose. This wouldn’t irk me so much if it weren’t for the fact that too many at the top who make such arrogant statements do so with a smug self-serving assertion that only the best floats to the top, the best being, we assume, themselves.

Now, this is a lie, but it is not an innocent fraud. There is nothing innocent about this fraud.

Rob Hyndman writes about Carr’s post, and Carr’s Jay Rosen example (Rosen being the weblogger who suggested to link to be linked):

…I would have riffed off of Rosen’s other point: “at least when they have some substance.” The A-listers are A-listers for two reasons – history of course, but also quality (and for some, the former carries more weight than the latter). And a significant reason that non A-listers don’t give that link back is because it’s just not worth giving – the writing simply does not merit the mention. Much of what is written, after all, deserves obscurity. The barriers are now gone, but our appetite for reading writing of quality remains. Absent editing, how to filter what is worth one’s attention? I don’t see why blog writing should be any different from any other creative activity – quality matters, is noticed, and distinguishes those who offer it from those who don’t. Few have it; many don’t and toil away in obscurity (been to Nashville lately?) until their will fails, others don’t but don’t particularly care and continue whether anyone notices or not. Expecting A-listers to give mentions to much of what is written in the ’sphere today is simply unrealistic.

Excellence is not the name of the game in weblogging. That is the not-so-innocent fraud. The name of the game is attracting attention, and writing skill and interest and passion all matter less than marketing skill when it comes to attracting attention.

Not just marketing, or only marketing: similarity also attracts attention. We’re more likely to respect the work of those more like us than not. The old chestnut about how people are judged on the quality of their work rather than their race, culture, or gender is based on an assumption that one can separate one’s own gender and race and culture out of making a judgment of what is good. Hogwash.

Going with the flow also attracts attention. Those who are critical are less likely to get attention than those who are complimentary; especially if the criticism is of the platform from which you rise above the ‘less talented’ hoi polloi.

Going against the flow can also attract attention, but it helps to be part of that which you’re criticizing. No one likes an outsider, pointing fingers, grinning like a mad man at the monkeys behind the glass.

A scent of money attracts attention. The gadget weblogs appeal to our consumerism and they attract attention. Extremely polarized views attract attention–especially those who villify the ‘opposition’. Rubbing up against, and attaching to, like a suckerfish, those with attention attracts attention. Even sex–a certain Washington DC weblogger comes to mind, because sex attracts.

None of this has to do with quality of offering, and to make an implication that this is so, will cause people to burn out and quit, to our loss. I think of Dave and Seth and how discouraged they sound at times and realize how much I would miss their weblogs if they quit.

No matter how much you love to write and are passionate about it, or the topics or the causes you write about, if you’re continually fed the lie that quality and popularity/rank are synonymous, even the most dedicated will wonder over time, Is it worth it? Most people are fragile when it comes to such an intimate act as writing, and if we can survive not getting positive feedback, it’s a rare person who can survive such implicit negative feedback.

Dear, no one is commenting, because your work sucks, we’re assured solemnly by those in the know. Bilgewater.

Making an assumption that those who are not at the top of the heap are somehow less than quality is to misunderstand weblogging. Getting attention has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with this environment.

Even Nick Carr’s very rise in popularity is, in some ways, proof of this. He is a good writer, true, but he’s also so very palatable.


Then there’s Hugh MacLeod’s succinct summation of weblogging in comments to Carr’s post:

There are basically two rules of blogging:

1. Nobody is going to read your blog unless there’s something in it for them.

2. Nobody is going to link to your blog unless there’s something in it for them.

I can actually agree with Hugh: I read many weblogs for the joy they give me. Linking is nothing more than a natural extension of that joy. Where I’m failing, and denying myself pleasure, is not linking to them enough.

Second Update:

Interesting exchange between Don Park and Michael Arrington in comments to Arrington’s post.

Don wrote:

I have to agree with others on the unnecessary harshness of the post title. Nick’s post reflects feelings of millions. 90% of Kids in Korea has a ‘hompy’, usually at Cyworld, and most of them have gone through or is going through the feeling Nick’s post evokes.

Arrington responds:

Don, you HAVE to realize that Nick knows this and is leveraging those feeling for links, right? He’s not helping these people, he’s using them. You must know that this is his thing – he has no core values, he’ll do anything for attention.

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