.: bloggers on blogging --> scott rosenberg
Bloggers on Blogging, October 2006
Journalist Scott Rosenberg started Scott Rosenberg's Links and Comment at Salon in July 2002, and now blogs at Wordyard about the Internet and technology, politics, and international affairs. By day he is the Vice President of New Projects at Salon.
Scott, 47, has a BA from Harvard, where he studied English and history, with a strong focus on theatre. He grew up in Queens, New York, and has lived in Brooklyn, Cambridge, and San Francisco. His first book, Dreaming in Code, will be published in January 2007. He now lives in Berkeley.
What is the first weblog you read?
I guess it would be Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom Weblog, probably in 1997, which was the first place I encountered the word "Weblog" -- I believe it is the word's original source. It was more of what today we'd call a "linklog." I started reading Dave Winer around the same time. (I'd actually read his Davenet from 1994, but the actual Scripting News blog started sometime in 1997, I think.)
What about that blog appealed to you?
“ These werent just news sources, they were windows onto odd, interesting people. ”
These guys were collecting interesting tidbits about technology (and other things) and I found that plugging into their output of links helped me do my job as Salon's technology editor. This was before Slashdot had started, I believe.
I also liked the sense I got that there was a quirky personality behind each of these sites—they weren't just news sources, they were windows onto odd, interesting people. Barger would link to strange cultural phenomena that he was enthusiastic about. (Much later I found his obsessive anti-Israel stance—and I write that as someone whose sympathy for the Palestinian side has earned me the same label from some people—first distracting and then disturbing as it edged towards anti-semitism. But that's another story.)
Why did you start your weblog?
At Salon I really wanted our inhouse content management system to support weblogs. Our technology staff produced a brief-items-updated-a-lot feature called the "Tech Log" from around 1999. It should have been a blog, I yearned to make it a blog, but the CMS didn't really allow us to do that: Its brain was structured around articles. In 2002, at probably the lowest point in Salon's rocky financial history, I did a deal with Userland to start a blogging program under the Salon banner: Since we were at that point unable to invest in anything, they would run the server; and since Radio Userland was a for-pay program (we split the money), there was at least the theoretical possibility of revenue, and that kept the business side happy.
My blog started within that program as an example to Salon readers who might not be familiar with blogs of what they were and what one could do with them. It also initially provided a central source of links to interesting posts and new blogs within the Salon blogs community.
The other reason blogging was so attractive to me at the time was that my administrative duties as Salon's managing editor (I took that job on in 1999) had become pretty grueling. This was the downturn; we went through three rounds of layoffs, and I found myself with less and less time to do creative work as I had to focus more intently on delightful tasks like budget-cutting. Blogging was a perfect way for me to keep writing—I could bat off posts in between meetings or at odd hours of the day or night and keep my voice alive, even if I never had the longer chunk of time a major feature or even a full-length column would require.
How has your site changed over the years?
At the start I played the community host role pretty conscientiously. Over time it became clear (a) that the blog program was going to be high on quality but not on quantity—there were too many perfectly good free alternatives available; and (b) that Userland, which went through a lot of turmoil, wasn't going to put its energy into developing Radio any further. So my blog evolved into what it is today—a scratchpad for my political rants, my observations about the tech and web scenes and a chronicle of my work. In its new form, now that I've finally moved off Radio to Wordpress, I've got some ideas of new things I want to do with it.
The main thing I've done recently is to start a kind of discussion group or reading group around the issues that Dreaming in Code addresses. I found a vast volume of fascinating material in the history of ideas surrounding software development, and there was room for only a fraction of it in the book. So I've got a long list of books, documents and readings that I intend to publish notes on myself, then see what other people have to say. A lot of this stuff is online so it'll be easy to say, "Hey, next week I'm going to be posting about David Parnas's critique of Reagan's Star Wars program—you can read it here, then post your comments here (or send me a link to comments on your blog)."
The software field is pretty bad about introspection and paying attention to its own history. Joel Spolsky says most developers don't read, period. But there are a few who do, and maybe I can get a little group going who find a sort of guided reading and discussion valuable. At the very least I'll get to post some interesting stuff and create something of a permanent resource on the Web.
At different points I've toyed with the idea of starting a whole new site using Drupal or the equivalent, but right now that's way too ambitious given time constraints on my life, so I'm just going to make this a probably weekly feature on my blog, and use the comments for the discussion.
In May 1999, you wrote a smart piece on weblogs defending them from journalists who sniffed at them because they were composed (at that time) primarily of links. (For my money, it's better informed and more insightful than most of the articles about blogs that have been published in all the years since.) Since 1999, weblogs have come to include longer articles and to be regarded as some as a form of "social media". What has been the biggest surprise for you as you've watched the weblog community evolve?
Though I've been enthusiastic about the idea of digital tools empowering large numbers of people to tell stories since the early 90s, I think I was skeptical about the number of people who would adopt blogging, and am still staggered by the numbers, even once you correct for splogs and abandoned blogs and so on. I think I was locked into a journalist's way of thinking, that a blog was a beast you had to feed, and the casual, "I'll post when I can" mode of blogging that many people have adopted surprised me, though I guess it shouldn't have. I always expected people to be OK with being "famous for 15 people," but I was and am still surprised by how many are attracted to the idea of infrequent and sporadic self-expression.
I'm surprised that blogging became essentially a free service, though again, I shouldn't have been—so did email, right? Since blogging emerged during the tech downturn in the post-bubble days, when everyone was writing about "the death of free," I just assumed that "the money has to come from somewhere." Evidently it doesn't :-)
How much traffic do you get?
I don't really know. The Userland server publicly tracks total page views for the life of a blog (!) and mine is something over 1.5 million over four years, which seems to give me a lifetime average of about 1000 page views a day. I put full text in RSS and I think a lot of people read me that way too.
What is your blog's rank on Technorati?
I don't know. Not high, I don't think. I'll go look it up now. OK, it says my old blog is #7,532. That's respectable, I guess. The new one is #746,675—yow! the price of moving.
Do you make money on your site? How?
Only in the sense that I'm an employee of Salon and the blog has been, on-and-off, part of my work. But I also kept the blog going while I was on leave writing my book for a year, and off the payroll. I don't see it as a "revenue stream"—well, maybe it's a "psychic revenue stream"...
“ I dont see it as a revenue stream—well, maybe its a psychic revenue stream. ”
Which tool do you use? Why?
I originally chose Radio partly for business reasons, as I described above, but also because I loved the RSS reader integration. This was before Bloglines, and I didn't want a feed reader that looked like a mail client—I was already drowning in email. (I guess I'm on the "river of news" side of the fence, though Bloglines feels to me like it's the perfect compromise between those two modes.)
When I went looking for a replacement, I checked out Movable Type and Wordpress and decided the open source route was smarter long-term. I like MT, I've used it to set up blogs for friends, and Six Apart are good people, but they're a VC-backed startup. Amusingly, considering all the stuff in the media about how big corporations distrust open source because they wonder who'll support it, my attitude is just the reverse: I know that Wordpress has a community of developers who will keep it going because there's such a wide community of users. If Six Apart runs into trouble, if the investors get unhappy someday and decide to shut it down or sell its assets or whatever, there's no telling whether its software would turn into a dead end.
What would your ideal blogging tool do, that available ones don't offer?
The thing I'm focused on right now is idea- and draft-management. I work in multiple locations so I'd rather do this on the server side. Wordpress lets you store drafts, which is great, but the interface for listing them and manipulating them is pretty simple. I'd like more of a list that I can manage, and a scratchpad for half-baked ideas—embryonic posts. Right now they're all over the place; I do some in Wordpress itself and some in Backpack and some in Ecco (an old PIM application, different from "Ecto") and some in my text editor. If Wordpress offered just a little more in this area I'd move everything in there. I've looked at Ecto, but for Windows, at least, it's not there—and besides, it's client-side.
Do you have a background in writing?
I'm staring at the question and thinking, "Background. Background in writing? What would that mean, in my case?" Writing is more of a foreground for me. Or the whole ground. I've been writing constantly since my early teens, when I started self-publishing game magazines on a mimeograph in the basement. I wrote constantly in school for high school and college papers, then hung up a freelance-writer shingle out of college and started writing for the Boston Phoenix (1983-6), and then the SF Examiner (1986-1995), then Salon.
“ I dont know what I think about a subject until and unless Ive written about it. ”
So it's pretty much been all writing, all the time. I love to write, even when it's grueling. I don't know what I think about a subject until and unless I've written about it. The writing forces the thinking.
I recently stumbled on an article about writer's block among bloggers that gave advice on how to come up with new ideas for posts. I thought, whoa, not my problem! I have too many ideas for posts, and not enough time to produce them. I come home from a jog having composed three posts in my head. Then I shower and head into the office and end up never posting them.
Do you ever write short link entries?
When I started blogging I did these pretty regularly, with the specific purpose of highlighting new bloggers in the Salon Blogs community. My blog was sort of the original ringleader in that project. I had regular links pointing to me from the Salon home page, and I wanted to do what I could to help jumpstart attention to the more interesting work people were doing. We had some great participants pitching their tents in our space (people like Real Live Preacher and Julie Powell), and other people who weren't necessarily born writers but who were trying out interesting experiments, and I wanted to make sure that they got some links.
Today I guess I feel first of all that there are many excellent providers of links out there already, and I'm more interested in the writing than in the listing of links, and del.icio.us is a better tool for offering a feed of links anyway, if that's what you want to do. So these days, mostly, I'll do the occasional link-only post only if it's something I think other people haven't already glommed onto, or if it's something I want to make sure I can find later myself.
How do you choose items to write about?
I've always got a backlog. So when I get a chance to post I'll either riff on something I just read, some news story or breaking-news event that I feel I've got something to say about, or, if there's nothing pressing, I'll look at my list of unwritten posts and grab one to write.
I'm mostly applying the same criteria I've always applied as a writer and editor: do I have something to say that hasn't been said already? Do I have anything to add to the party? How can I make my post worth the precious time of the people who are reading it? Is there a public good I'm contributing to? Is there a personal pleasure to be derived from the writing? Any of these things can justify a post—the more, the more likely it is that the post will be a valuable one.
How long does it take you to write an entry? Describe your writing process. Do you use a formula?
No formula, not much process. I write pretty fast. I've been a deadline writer all my life; I used to write 1000-1500-word theater reviews between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Most blog postings take 15-30 minutes to write, less if they're really short, but I tend to write mini-essays. Sometimes I'll write something and then think, "No, not interesting enough," and I'll put it aside and come back to it later that day after my brain has had a chance to work on it in the background, and with any luck I'll have a new idea or twist at that point to make me feel I'm contributing something. If that hasn't happened, I just won't post.
Do you ever write to deliberately provoke a reaction? Any tips on how to do that?
No, I don't think so. I find it's very hard to predict what will get a reaction, anyway. I mean, if you shout "Macs suck!" you know you'll get some response, but that doesn't tell you anything about your own talent—it's like dropping your pants in public. Last month I posted a little item about Bush's stem cell veto; I almost didn't bother to write it, but it was an issue I'd covered to a degree back in summer of 2001, before 9/11 made everyone forget about it, and I thought I should keep that thread going, so I wrote something extremely fast and posted it. And for whatever reason BoingBoing decided to link to it, turning a firehose of traffic on my old blog during a week when I was actually trying to let it die a slow death as I prepared to migrate to Wordpress.
“ Mostly I just post what I like and assume that my interests and those of the crowd will intersect often enough to keep me feeling like somebodys paying attention. ”
Then a couple weeks ago I was heading off on a camping trip and thought, nah, no time to blog, gotta pack; but I saw the Business Week cover that said Kevin Rose had made $60 million with Digg and thought, huh? Once I read the story I was steamed at how they'd basically invented the number. That's how the dotcom boom happened. Business Week should and does know better. So I posted about that, thinking I was just doing a wee bit of media criticism, and ended up with a vast influx of traffic. A lot of other people were steamed about the same thing, I guess. But I'd never have known beforehand that that post would be such a hit. Then I'll go through spells of many days of posts that I think are pretty provocative and they'll just pass without too many comments or inbound links. So mostly I just post what I like and assume that my interests and those of the crowd will intersect often enough to keep me feeling like somebody's paying attention.
How do you handle corrections?
We wrestled with this a decade ago in the early days of Salon. It seems to me that online you're always obligated to do two things, at least: (1) fix the original error and (2) note that it's been fixed, both at the spot where you made the error and at some "current" location (for a blog, the top of the blog). If you're correcting soon after posting, or while the item is still prominent at or near the top of the blog, maybe noting the fix in place is enough.
With comments, I think that if someone calls you out to correct something and you think they're wrong, it's good to explain why you've decided not to make a fix.
I do put a little effort into making sure that what I'm posting is accurate. I mean, I see a certain practice evolving out there where a high profile blogger will basically post something that says, "I've heard a rumor that X happened," and then see whether it's denied or confirmed. It's not an evil practice, but I don't think it's particularly healthy for one's credibility. In this regard I guess I'm of the old school, which says, call/email everyone first, then write your story. Increasingly I see "Let's post one side of the story and see if that flushes out the other guys." I'm not saying it's unethical; maybe it's even more Web-native and transparent. But it leaves me wondering, when I read a post, "Is this something the writer believes to be true? Or is it the opening move in a chess game?"
Has blogging affected your non-blog writing?
I don't think so, except in the sense that it created a hunger in me to write long-form. I'd spent decades basically writing 1000-2000-word pieces. Then beginning around 2002 I stopped writing longer pieces, mostly, and began blogging. By 2003 I was feeling, blogging is great, but I want to try something totally different—I want to write a book! So for me, short-form blogging ended up complementing long-form book writing pretty well.
How often do you update?
I have tried to stick to the goal of at least one substantive post per weekday. I think I've achieved that on average (Wordpress says I've got 1083 posts, which means I'm averaging a bit over 250 a year, so I seem to be roughly on target). If I were in my 20s and didn't have a family and wasn't lucky enough to already have an established career in writing I can imagine I'd be blogging around the clock.
How much time each day do you spend on your site?
Well, what with Salon as my day and sometimes night job, I'm online pretty much all the time. It's hard to apportion that between "Salon time" and "blog time," but it's probably 85-90 percent Salon these days and 10-15 percent blog, mostly in the early morning and late evening.
When do you blog?
When the kids are asleep, mostly.
What is your advice for a new blogger?
I started long enough ago that I imagine the scene is quite different for someone starting today. I have a hard time offering blanket advice because there are so many different styles of blogging and purposes in starting a blog. If you're aiming to build traffic that's going to demand some different approaches than if you're simply aiming to express yourself for a circle of friends. If you're hoping to use your blog professionally that 's a different beast from something that's purely personal. I think the best advice I could give would be: be conscious of what you want to do with your blog as you're doing it.
How many weblogs do you follow?
I have well over 100 feeds in Bloglines. I don't keep up with all of them religiously. Some really high-volume ones, like Instapundit or Engadget, I've pretty much given up on—not enough time. I like to try to keep up with certain blogs as a way to keep up with the people behind them; others I subscribe to because I've found they deliver value in proportion to the time it takes to absorb them. I try to cycle some new blogs into my feed list every so often as I retire others, because otherwise I'm helping perpetuate the first-mover advantage game, where the only people who have widely read blogs are the people who've been doing it for years, and that's no fun.
How do you find new weblogs?
Links, links, links. If I land on a specific post on someone's blog that I've never visited before and I like what I've read, I'll go sample the full current blog home page, and if I like that, I'll subscribe to the feed as a sort of trial for a while.
How much reader email do you get? Are you able to answer it all?
I get a pretty low volume from the blog, a much higher volume just through Salon. I do try to answer it all. If the volume increased I can see where that might just get impossible.
Do you ever receive abusive email or comments? How do you handle it?
From my early days on the Well on through the earliest era of Salon up to the blogging present, I've always tried to hew to a really simple approach: nine times out of ten, abusive email or comments are flung over the ramparts with no expectation of receiving a response, and if you do respond in a normal human way, the angry interlocutor will bashfully retreat, and maybe recommence a more civil dialogue. The other ten percent are the real sociopaths, and there's nothing you can do with them aside from ignoring, banning or deleting. But you don't know in advance who they are. I wrote about this a long, long time ago, where I recounted how, as a lurker on the Well, I found someone saying that the SF Examiner's movie critic should be shot—that would've been me.
How does the possibility that you may be flamed affect your writing?
I don't think it does. I've been writing publicly long enough that I'm pretty much always thinking, "How will readers take what I'm about to say? Will it be understood? What can I do to be clearer?" I don't want to be flamed on the basis of a misunderstanding. But if I've done a decent job of expressing myself, and people still want to flame, well, let them. It doesn't really matter. You learn to let it roll off you, and you try to filter out the anger and see if there's any useful residue.
In your reading, do you actively seek out differing points of view? How?
Yes, but carefully. I read the Wall Street Journal editorial page nearly every day. I started doing this during the Clinton impeachment controversy because it seemed important, as Salon was taking one side, to understand what "the other side" believed. The WSJ editorial page has served as a useful "other side" for nearly every other issue under the sun; they are like Old Faithful to me—I can always count on them to take a position I can't stomach. But I have to limit my intake. I don't read a lot of the hard-core right wing blogs, the Little Green Footballs and such. I do try to read some libertarian and Cato-school conservatism because they've got a coherent philosophy that's deserving of some respect.
Unfortunately, the progress of the Bush era has so polarized things that seeking out "the other side" pays fewer and fewer returns. There's a clear public record of people who foretold what would happen in Iraq, well before it happened. I had a tiny piece of it on my blog and lots of other people did far more. This was in 2002 and early 2003, well before the invasion. So when we hear, from Republicans and also many Democrats who supported the war initially, that, you know, "everybody" assumed there were WMD and "nobody" predicted the resistance and, really, we were all taken by surprise, it's a lie. And at a certain point one loses respect for the "other side" when it continues to hew to a line that you know is a lie, and that can be publicly proven to be a lie.
There are a lot of bloggers who are vigorously putting forth that same argument, but it doesn't seem to have trickled into the media. Realistically, is there anything bloggers can do to speak truth to power, or are we really just preaching to the choir?
“ America does not lack for writers and bloggers who speak truth to power. Powers just been stone deaf for several years now. ”
Well, bloggers can always speak truth to power. I think what you're really asking is, how can we make power listen? It's like the great line from Christopher Durang's play "Sister Mary Ignatius," in which the nun says that God answers all our prayers, only sometimes the answer is "no." America does not lack for writers and bloggers who speak truth to power. Power's just been stone deaf for several years now.
I think that the universe of political blogs is already a significant actor in the American political circus. But moving the mainstream doesn't happen overnight. A few thousand bloggers can maybe influence some newspapers, the newspapers influence TV coverage, and millions of people receive some information. That's still the dominant ecosystem. Maybe there's a different back channel evolving, a populist process through which bloggers work up from the grassroots, changing minds in small numbers. But people believe what they want to believe; saying "invading Iraq is a mistake" in 2003 plainly didn't get the traction it's getting today. It's taken Americans three years and thousands of casualties and the spectacle of abject and dangerous failure to traverse that ground. Blogging probably played only a small part in that.
Anyone who argues that, you know, bloggers will on their own transform American politics and usher in the participatory millennium simply because they are blogging is not being serious. Blogs are simply a format in the continuing evolution of the Internet. They make it really easy for individuals to publish. This is a wonderful and valuable thing. Then it's up to us to do something with it. If your goal is to "speak truth to power," it behooves you to figure out where the powerful people are and how to get their attention. My own ambitions are somewhat more modest; I enjoy self-expression and contributing to the vast river of public discourse and hope that I'm adding value and connecting with people who find my contribution valuable.
Reporters often ask me what political influence blogs have, and I tell them quite honestly, I don't have any idea. What is your sense of this? Do blogs have more than an occasional impact on politics, or they just another source of noise?
In terms of this question, there are blogs and then there are blogs. Someone like Kos is clearly setting out not to be "a blogger" but to be a player in national politics for whom blogging happened to serve as a novel avenue to influence. For him and similar activists, a blog is simply an alternate means to accomplish the goal of political organization. That's great, but it's certainly different from the "I blog to express myself" tradition of the lone writer.
I think what I'm saying is, if you decide that you want to have an impact on politics, then blogging offers a new addition to the toolbox. But you have to want influence, and actively seek it. You can't sit back and blog and just assume that millions will listen to you simply because you happen to be posting your thoughts online.
You and I were on one of the very first panels discussing weblogs and journalism . I remember how surprised I was at JD Lasica's and Dan Gilmor's insistence that weblogs were a new form of journalism. I argued, of course, that most of them were not—that most bloggers were doing something different from journalism. I don't remember which side of that argument you took.
I don't either :-) No, really, I think I've been pretty consistent over the years in saying that blogging could be used for journalism, and would be, and indeed already was. Some bloggers choose to use blogs for journalism, others use it for self-expression or staying in touch with friends or getting ahead in their careers or publicizing their businesses or communing with the household gods of the World Wide Web or whatever other unusual ideas motivate people. Saying "blogging is journalism" (or "blogging isn't journalism") is as silly as saying "The Web is/isn't journalism." It's apples and oranges.
Now, 4 years later, what is your take on blogging and journalism?The "blogging and journalism" discussion is really just the latest turn of the wheel in the "internet and journalism" discussion. I like Steven Johnson's set of principles, Five Things All Sane People Agree On About Blogs And Mainstream Journalism.
For bloggers interested in doing journalism and for journalists interested in doing blogging I created a list, for the third Bloggercon, of stuff that each could learn from each other.
“ Turf wars dont interest me, but experiments in boundary redefinition do. ”
Today I'm most interested in moving beyond the rehashing of this issue, and the inevitable and ultimately boring professional turf wars—in which professional journalists sniff about barbarians at the gates and bloggers rant about crashing those gates. That's just a waste of energy. We had those arguments ten years ago.
What's interesting to me is exploring the fertile zone of overlap between the two fields. What can journalists do with blogging (and other participatory tools) that they couldn't do before? What new things can bloggers do as they pursue more overtly journalistic practices while unaffiliated with a newsroom? Some of the great work Josh Marshall has been doing is a good example—he is perfectly and deftly straddling the line between old-school journalism and new-model online activism (as when he encouraged his readers to try to nail down their representatives' position on Social Security privatization, or more recently figure out which senator had put a hold on a sunshine bill). Jay Rosen is beginning to put a stake in the ground in this same area at his NewAssignment.Net. Dan Gillmor continues to try to experiment. Turf wars don't interest me, but experiments in boundary redefinition do.
How many hours a day do you spend online?
God, I guess typically 8-10 on weekday (workday) because my work is all online. Weekends, less, except when there's big breaking news.
How many hours do you spend on offline media?
I am a confirmed non-TV watcher. I really just don't watch anything. I used to be a movie and theater omnivore but since becoming a parent of twins at the turn of the millennium I had to cut way way back there. Mostly I read print: newspapers, magazines, books. For the past couple years my reading has been mostly about software, as part of the research for Dreaming in Code. I do listen to music every chance I get, which these days is on BART, and late at night on headphones.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging? To your other writing?
Not too differently from writing online, except it's harder to link to....
Tell me about your book.
It's an attempt to understand why software is still so hard to make well. I had some painful experiences at Salon in helping manage the creation of our content management system back in 1999 and 2000 that led me to believe I was an ignorant fool in this area and needed to teach myself how people who weren't ignorant went about it. And when I started looking into the topic I discovered that, no, in fact, the experts are often just as flummoxed. There's a long history of pain in the field, from The Mythical Man-Month to the present. So I got the idea of picking a half-dozen software projects and telling their stories as a way of looking at the issue. The very first one I approached was Mitch Kapor's Chandler, in fall 2002. That turned out to be an epic in itself; almost as soon as I started following their work I realized that trying to follow more than one story would both tax my own abilities as a researcher and writer and end up asking too much of any reader.
So the book ends up using the story of a single project as a doorway to essays about larger questions like, why is it so difficult to manage programmers? or, why is software always late? or, why is communicating about software—among specialists and between specialists and non-technical people—so treacherous?
It's hybrid non-fiction—part narrative and part essay. I'm hoping that it will appeal beyond the geek universe and interest and engage people who've always wondered why computer programs have bugs and don't work the way we think. I don't think I achieved everything I set out to, but I hope I accomplished enough for it to be of value to readers. And I'm incredibly grateful that I got to write exactly the book I wanted to write. I've been in journalism long enough to know how unusual that is.
Did you come out of this project with a feeling that something about creating software is inherently different than creating other kinds of things? (A film, for example, is composed of lots of creative people to be managed, and lots of discrete parts with lots of dependencies, and lots of specialist jargon, and the pressure of a deadline.) What makes software unique, or has the industry just not mastered the art of project management?
The whole book is really my answer to this question, and I hesitate to boil it down too far. With a film your ultimate goal is to create an artifact: a set of images and sounds that can be viewed in sequence and stored on film (or digitally or however). And we've been doing films for a century, so there are a lot of relatively mature processes and specialty roles that we understand (storyboarding and continuity and location scouting and so on).
Software is younger and stranger. It has some unique traits. One is its insubstantiality. A computer program is "only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff," in the words of Frederick Brooks. That makes it hard for groups of people to work together on it because there's so little you can point to and say, "This is what we're creating." There's code, but that's more mechanism than product. There are screens and screenshots, but they're like freeze-frames, they don't unfold in time the way functioning software does. There's documentation and flowcharts and so forth, but that's all at one remove from the thing itself.
Another thing that's different about software is that, unlike many other creative and/or functional products of the human brain and hand, we don't make it at all unless we need something new. If software already exists to perform some particular task in a particular way, it's always cheaper to make a copy of the existing program than to create a new one. Copies cost essentially nothing. The only impetus to make a new program is if the existing program doesn't do what we want it to do—say, it's 1996 and there's lots of email programs out there, but nobody's done one in a Web browser, so hey, let's build Hotmail! If all we wanted to do was what Eudora did, just go buy (or copy) Eudora. So the work of any ambitious software project is almost by definition work that breaks new ground, or it wouldn't need to be done at all. The entire field, then, is a kind of research. So trouble—dead ends and delays and bugs—is to be expected. That doesn't excuse bad design and flawed products, but it does suggest that, as Brooks wrote years ago, the difficulty of making software is part of its "essence," not an accident of circumstance.
Whose writing do you particularly admire?
Online: As I said, I think the work Josh Marshall is doing in blending resourceful traditional reporting and collaborations with his readers is extraordinary. Jay Rosen has turned blogging in an interesting direction; he posts long essays only, but each one has an active forum; it's sort of the anti-Romenesko—all substance and ideas, no headlines or gossip. (I'm addicted to Romenesko's site, too.)
On programming and related tech subjects, I'm a big fan of Steven Johnson's work. Ellen Ullman has been eye-openingly eloquent in both non-fiction (Close to the Machine) and fiction (The Bug). Joel Spolsky's essays are lucid for non-programmers, and hilarious to boot. Paul Graham is provocative and fun to read.
On politics, Frank Rich's graceful and apparently effortless arc from theater critic to political essayist inspires me. My friend David Edelstein writes movie criticism so well it sometimes makes me regret having left behind that part of my career.
I think my favorite fiction of recent years has been the great Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials—I haven't had such fun since first reading "The Lord of the Rings" nearly 40 years ago.
What are your hobbies?
I play guitar very poorly. But the fact that I will go to my grave having been able to strum the chords to "Sweet Jane" and the entire Feelies catalog makes me happy each and every day. And I garden— it's a great tactile and sensory shift from sitting at the computer.
How has your weblog changed your life?
I think I'd have a hard time thoroughly disentangling the impact of my blog on my life from the much larger impact of the Web on my life. I view the blog as simply the next logical step down the road the Web opened up for me in 1994. That larger progress has transformed my professional life from one where I felt basically powerless in a newsroom run by other people in a small-minded, shrinking industry to one where I was free to build new things, experiment and learn.
With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?
“ The Web and our blogs serve as a day-by-day and hour-by-hour collective record of what we knew and when we said it. ”
I think it would be sitting down at the computer late at night a couple of days before Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. I was heartbroken at the prospect of an unnecessary and ill-advised war. I grew up at the tail end of Vietnam and always assumed that, whatever other mistakes the nation would make in my lifetime, we would never let ourselves make that one again. I put my kids to bed, thought about the world Bush's mistake was likely to shape for them, and poured out my heart in a post I titled Eve of Destruction (the comments are still at the old location).
When I hear people arguing that we didn't and couldn't know before we invaded Iraq what we know now, I recall that moment. It reminds me that many people knew just how deceptive and stupid the Iraq policy was from the start. And it makes me grateful that the Web and our blogs serve as a day-by-day and hour-by-hour collective record of what we knew and when we said it.
What are three blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?
Rafe Colburn: He's just a good smart guy, a programmer who started to blog years ago, in the very early days, using his own home-cooked software. He writes about his work and politics and whatever else is on his mind. I see you recently wrote about him too, but I was going to mention him before I saw that :-)
Josh Kornbluth: I've known Josh since he and I worked on the Boston Phoenix together more than 20 years ago. He is one of the world's great storytellers. He's got this talk show on KQED now, and KQED gave him a blog; he posts about his show, but also sometimes just great, digressive, free-associative posts about what happened to him that day.
Sylvia Paull: In the early '90s, as I was navigating my way from arts criticism to technology writing, I found my way to the regular "cyber salons" that Sylvia was holding in her home in Berkeley. I've known her ever since. She is a classic "connector" in the Gladwellian sense, and I get the feeling that that's what she would be doing on the planet even if she didn't earn her living doing PR. Today she and I are neighbors and I much enjoy her blog, with its sporadic, cantankerous musings on technology, politics and local events.
Would you read your site?
Uh, yeah, of course. Is that a trick question? If the answer were "no," I hope I'd stop writing immediately!
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