I rarely grant interviews, but how could I say no to a student researching blogs and blogging, especially when the student is Shay Troy. It turns out that after blogging regularly for three years now, I do have some thoughts on the subject. Here are Shay’s questions and my answers:
A. It’s interesting that you asked, not why does the NYT need a crossword blog, but why does the NYT crossword need a blog. A strength of blogs is their ability to create and nurture community, and that’s just what the Times wanted. Solving crosswords is usually something you do by yourself. A blog provides a way for anyone who loves crosswords to share their passion with likeminded solvers. If blogs help reach out to younger people as well, that’s a bonus.
Q. What do you personally bring to the blog?
A. I’m neither a crossword constructor nor a great solver, so that’s a good question. I suppose one answer could be that I bring the perspective of someone who’s neither a constructor nor a fast solver – which describes most people who do the puzzles every day. I happen to be curious about a lot of topics and every crossword is crammed full of a such a wide range of subject matter that there’s always something I’m interested in commenting on.
Truthfully, though, my main job is to spark discussion and to provide a place for others who enjoy crosswords to participate. That happens almost no matter what I happen to talk about each day. So that’s what I personally bring. I’m there, saying something.
Q. How do you think blogging is affecting the world today?
A. Blogs, like most other inventions, are both good and bad. We used to get all our political news, for example, from newspapers, but newspapers have their own prejudices and agendas. Now, bloggers often break political stories, without the filter of the established press. That sounds good, and it is, but the price is that bloggers can also be undisciplined in ways that newspapers cannot. They might publish rumors as fact, they might purposefully distort information, they might just make things up. That might happen in the press too but in their case, there are consequences. They lose their reputation, they get sued, and so on. The professional editorial voice of the mainstream press does provide value. So do blogs.
I think of it this way. In the same sense that the press provides checks on those who wield political power, blogs, at their best, can provide checks on the press. At their worst, blogs can fan the flames of ignorance or even, say, recklessly incite violence.
Most personal blogs aren’t involved in anything so dramatic, of course. These blogs change the personal world of the bloggers and their friends in smaller ways. If you have a hobby or special interest, a blog is a great way to have a virtual community based around that interest. Again, that could be good or bad. The interest might be knitting or crosswords or skinhead racism.
A. The easy answer to that question is “no” and the deeper answer is also “no” but it’s a different kind of no. There are lots of ways to benefit from blogging and whether your blog is a “success” or not depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Commercial success is rare. Most readers are loathe to pay to read a blog since most of the Internet is available for free. Some blogs run ads but unless you get something like 20,000 readers a day -- extremely rare -- it’s pretty hard to make a living at it. (One easy way to support your favorite blog is to click on ads that appear there.)
Maybe your goal is to change the world by influencing public opinion. Since most blogs (although not this one based on TypePad) are free, it seems like the easiest and cheapest way to do that, but again, attracting an audience in a world with millions of other blogs is tough.
Lots of other goals are easily achievable, though. Maybe you want to keep your friends up to date with your current thinking on important topics. A blog is much more organized for that than something like Facebook. Maybe it’s more like a diary where you’re sharing deep thoughts and it’s just a bonus if others happen to read it too. Maybe you want to practice the discipline of writing every day. All those are possible with blogs.
Q. What makes a strong blogger?
A. You probably think the answer is something about strong writing skills or an engaging style or a fascinating range of topics. All that is important, of course, but the most critical attribute of any successful blogger is simply persistence. Writing every day is hard but it’s also what makes you better and what keeps readers coming back.
To persistence, add opinions. You have to have something to say about a topic people care about. Many of the most popular blogs are characterized by very strong, even outrageous opinions. Reasoned discourse is fine and might make you respected in your community of friends, but rabid polemics draw the big crowds – both those who agree with your extreme views and those who want to call you an idiot. Not everyone can do this. I can’t – I don’t have it in me. But think about who the most popular radio talk show hosts are. Those same qualities exist in many of the most popular blogs.
Q, How do you feel about large companies like The New York Times taking part in the blogging world?
A. A blog at the Times is much different than a personal blog. On Wordplay, I operate under various restrictions. I can have whatever opinion I want – the NYT was very clear when they hired me that they didn’t want to influence my thinking – but I have to write in a way that is consistent with the Times. They have a style guide that I must follow. They have a reputation to uphold so I can’t just make up facts, for example.
There are legal restrictions too that apply to all blogs but personal bloggers never have to worry about because they’re much less likely to be sued. I can’t libel people by calling someone a criminal who has never been convicted, say. I can’t just steal photos from random websites; I need to make sure we have the legal rights to any photos I use, and so on.
That said, big corporate blogs like those at the Times allow companies to communicate with their customers in more informal ways that are more appropriate in blogs than in standard newspaper articles or other formal corporate communications. That can help soften the image of the company.
Finally, blogs are a great way for large companies to get lots of unfiltered feedback directly from customers. This kind of data is gold for any corporation.
A. Blogs have already evolved considerably since they started just a few years ago. They’ve had to evolve because of one fatal flaw – they’re too much work for most people. The dream was that anyone in the world could bypass the complicated and expensive machinery of the publishing industry and publish their thoughts directly to their audience around the world. That’s true but, as I said, it’s also hard. In fact, you have to do two hard things: writing about something is difficult but coming up with something to write about is just as hard for many. (This is the beauty of blogging about crosswords – the topics get handed to me each day in the newspaper!)
Consider how two spin-offs, Twitter and Facebook, have taken the basic idea of blogging and made it easier. You might think that by restricting Twitter “micro-blogs” to 140 characters, that would make the whole idea less attractive, but that constraint turned out to be a huge advantage. You don’t have to think about writing an essay or even a paragraph. You might not have enough space for a whole sentence. Art thrives within constraints, and so does personal communication, apparently.
Facebook took a different approach. Rather than restricting by length, they focus on friends and relationships, something everyone cares about. You’re not blogging to the world, you’re chatting with your peeps, mostly about each other.
Where blogs go from here is anyone’s guess but it seems likely that the next steps will be attempts to continue to make blogging even easier. Tumblr has a focus on sharing media so maybe that’s the future but I expect that’s too much work too. The ideal blogging environment might be one where you never have to think about blogging at all. You just live your life and your activities and even your thoughts get automatically posted.
Another sure bet is that there will be ongoing arguments about ease of use vs. privacy. We’re just beginning to figure out what’s appropriate to share electronically. The blogging system that really nails that tradeoff, might just be the next big thing.
Q. Any other thoughts on blogging?
A. If you’re curious about blogging, try it. There are lots of free options. It’s a real kick when you get your first comment, start your first on-line argument, or get quoted on another blog.