Twenty Rules for the New Escribitionist
Originally this was going to be a comment posted to this message thread. But then two things happened: 1) It grew like Topsy, and 2) I realized I wasn't writing it so they could read it, I was writing it to get it sorted out in my head and have done - writing to vent all this so that I can get on with worthier things.
I said a while back (on the journals list) that "there is no such thing as 'the journalling community.'" That was a little severe. I retract it.
There is a journalling community, in the sense that there are a lot of people who keep online journals and correspond with each other. Sometimes they have things in common. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they fight.
I have only been keeping an online journal for about three years (Alewife Bayou solidified into a journally form somewhere around May-June 1998), and I wouldn't have admitted that was what it was for most of the first year. Three years is not a long time, although it's a lot longer in internet years. In the thread above, Gabby specifically set four years as her milestone for "back in the day." So let's assume I wasn't present for that.
But I have been hanging out in various online places since a time when "being online" meant posting messages on someone's BBS and the IBM PC was still something of a novelty. And that is real time - getting on towards twenty years now. I've been doing this since I was a wee tyke. And, if you'll forgive these creaky observations from Grandma (fetch me the Geritol, please): The online world has always been contentious, always been rude and inflammatory and prone to wild mood swings. I have not seen this change. I do not believe it will change.
We could speculate on the reasons why all day (and in other places, I have). The first users of the medium were people not demographically known for their social graces. The medium distances us from voice and facial cues that convey important mood information. Not having to stand face-to-face with the person you're confronting encourages belligerence. And so on.
To all those good reasons, let me add two more with especial significance to the online journalling community: 1) There are a lot more of us now than there were then. 2) People want their words to be read.
What's missing - what has been missing for a very long time - is the journal, the process of writing it, the small thrill of rolling out an entry that you know is well done and getting feedback on it.
It's not missing, Gabby. It's only the latter part that's harder to get. There are too many sites and not enough time.
Look: I have never promoted this site, never even asked for a link, and I don't plan to start. Any readers I get I have gotten from word of mouth - and I am grateful for the handful of regular readers I have, because like everyone else I want my words to be read.
But I have other outlets. This is not even my only web site, let alone my only place to put words-in-a-row. I can afford to say, and mean it, "So what if no one reads my journal?" I am not bragging - I'm saying that I got lucky. Others aren't so lucky.
I think it would be a real pity, to paraphrase the poem, if you gave a website and no one came. But there are hundreds upon hundreds of journals. I can't keep track of them all, I can't read them all. No one can. I hear about people who aren't sure they have any readers, and I feel sorry for them.
Now, maybe they can't write. Maybe they can. Who cares? A journal isn't going to be one's most polished prose anyway. It's rather impromptu, by definition. But whether they are good or bad, they need readers.
And we have reached a point where there is more content than there are eyeballs to read it.
So, yes, the squabbles and fusses on the various mailing lists do sometimes take on the tenor of a popularity contest among six-year-olds. There's a lot at stake here. We cannot all get read.
I'd like to teach more people to write for the pleasure of writing, to honestly not worry about whether anyone's reading their words or not. But I can't. It'd be hypocritical. Just because this isn't my primary outlet is no excuse .... Let me tell you, when I write a short story and I can't get anyone to acknowledge they looked at it, much less comment on it, I'm devastated. At least temporarily. Then I start to wonder what I did wrong. Then I get mad and jealous.
Just like anyone else.
There is something that we can collectively do to make the online journalling community less like a barrel of rabid weasels. Everyone just has to agree to remember this one Very Important Fact:
Statistically, members of this community are quite likely to have strongly held opinions.
And not be afraid to express them.
I don't read Gabby and I don't think she reads me. All I know of her is what I see in her various messages. She strikes me as a very opinionated person. Should I dislike her for that? Good god, I'd be shooting off my own foot. And if I held a grudge against any journaller who's expressed an opinion I don't agree with - whether they've expressed it nicely or nastily - I'd be building a really narrow little universe for myself.
No, for once my standards are not double. I cut everyone some slack for hot-headedness, in hopes that they will one day return the favor. Because, believe me, I will give them ample opportunities to need to, what with my own personal exercise program:
1. Open mouth
2. Insert foot
3. Close mouth
I guess what this screed comes down to, as someone else titled a message thread, is "Why can't we just get along?" Except that I wouldn't ask that ... because I've never noticed that this community is particularly nasty.
I hate to say this, but you folks need perspective. Been on Slashdot lately? How about one of the alt.insert.controversial.topic newsgroups? You should see some of the flamewars that go on in this little technology mailing list I subscribe to. You wouldn't believe that people could work up so much warmth of emotion over security protocols.
What does make the online journallers a little different - and I apologize for this in advance - is that the demographics have an abrupt schizm. Or two.
Here's my theory: There are some web activities that are primarily done by people in the twenty-five to thirty-five set - the people who can, with some legitimacy, claim to be Generation Zero of the internet. There are a few web activities who are done by the old pioneers (which in this case means thirty-five to fifty, I'm sorry to say; people of a genuine age, like an Ardent Reader of mine who is in his seventies, are few and far between on the web). And there are some web activities which are done by the next generation, the ones for whom the web was never a novelty - those twenty and below.
Keeping an online journal is one of the few web activities that all three groups do. And as far as the community forums are concerned, all three groups have to share the same message threads. The possibilities for infighting become clear.
These three groups do not always share common interests, outlooks, or styles. It is foolish to expect them to. It is also foolish to ridicule the other groups simply because they're not your peers. But it seems to happen.
With the possible exception of the divide between American and non-American journallers, this is the big one - the rift that launched a thousand flames. And that's a problem which Slashdot, for example - a much more homogenous body - doesn't have.
But I think I'm letting myself drift here. The point was whether or not things have gotten worse. That was the point, wasn't it?
I wasn't here four years ago. But I have not noticed a change in climate since I got here, other than the obvious fact that every day more people join the community, looking around blinking and trying to figure out just what the hell's going on.
That's the real cause of the problem. It's hard being the new kid.
So I am doing something I probably shouldn't do: I am going up on the High Horse and pronouncing my advice to the Hypothetical New Online Journaller.
(Open mouth. Insert foot. Close mouth.)
Twenty Rules for the New Escribitionist
1. It will take you a year to accumulate ten regular readers. It will take you two years to accumulate fifty. Self-promotion will not notably increase this. There are very few exceptions.
Returns may well continue to increase fivefold after that (i.e. 250 regulars at the end of your third year), but it's hard to say because
2. Most online journals do not last three years.
3. Do not ask someone to link to you. Do not post a message to a mailing list which is nothing but a plug for your site.
It is acceptable to remind people from time to time that your site exists, but pure promotion is always a little vulgar. If you accompany your URL with an interesting comment, or a suggestion that the person might find an entry of yours germane to what he/she was pontificating about, it will not only be better received, it might actually get read.
Similarly, would you link to a site you didn't actually read regularly? Why would you expect someone else to?
4. You will get more readers if you can write coherently. Okay, I said up there somewhere that journals were allowed to be ad-hoc and stream-of-consciousness, and having a distinctive personal style is always a good thing, but there are limits. We have to be able to make out what it is that you're trying to say.
5. Spelling is good too.
6. There are people in this community who like to argue. I am one of them. If I, or others of my ilk, start an argument with you, it doesn't mean we hate you, or even necessarily that we're mad at you. This is our way of analyzing ideas.
7. There are people in this community that are just ill-tempered. (I may be one of these too; opinions vary.) Accept them for what they are; it's not personal. In general if they're snippy with everyone, it's their problem. If they're snippy with just you, it may bear polite investigation.
8. If you ask them "what'd I do?" and they get even snippier, write them off and leave them alone.
9. Corollary: Let people make their own hells.
10. It is not always necessary to point out in public when you think someone else is being an idiot. Believe it or not, most people will figure this out on their own. It's just that the politer ones won't say anything.
11. You will learn who replies to email and who doesn't. Usually, when someone doesn't reply to email, that's just their workload or personal habit talking, and it doesn't mean they hate you or that they're dead. The ones to worry about are the ones who normally reply to email fairly promptly and then suddenly stop. In those cases a polite query is not out of the question. But keep it polite.
12. Do not assume that just because a particular journaller has a lot of readers, they are automatically smug.
13. Do not assume that just because a particular journaller has almost no readers, they are automatically humble.
14. Do not assume that someone ten years older or younger than you has no opinions you'd be interested in.
15. Don't assume the inverse of that, either.
16. While there's more latitude than you might think, there's some truth to this: If you stop writing for a while, people will stop checking your site.
17. But you can always announce it once you start writing again. They'll come back.
18. It is always vulgar to talk about one's hit counts, gripe about one's hit counts, or even admit awareness that one has hit counts.
19. Everyone wants to be read just as much as you do.
20. But if you don't enjoy the writing for its own sake as well, then something is seriously wrong.