Drop the Job to Blog

6 minute read

Blogger icon Jason Kottke of Kottke.org has decided to make blogging a career. It’s a bold move to say the least. I must admit that I only recently (and by recently I mean in the last couple months) got turned on to his website in full. His remaindered links blog was the inspiration for my own supplement.

Pen for Hire

It’s been interesting to watch various weblogs have gotten acclaim for various reasons. The most notable and recognized by the public being the exposure of the CBS memos as fakes. However, in computer culture, other sites have earned more attention and respect from their respective audience. John Gruber of Daring Fireball has built a huge following using little more than a spartan web page and thought provoking commentary. I say thought provoking, but really what I mean is that his logic is so utterly relentless that any thought you might have had contrary to his generally gets a thorough beat down. He parlayed that following into a way to build revenue through ads and now subscription only content.

The market is out there for this. The question is how can one bend that market into something they can use.

Product Placement

Jason has decided to forgo advertising. I find that semi-puzzling as most people are willing to accept advertising. He has some good arguments against it though.

Why not advertising? Like I said above, there’s got to be a way to support media that doesn’t involve advertising. But more than that, I don’t want to disrupt the relationship dynamic we’ve got going here. There are currently two parties involved with kottke.org: me and the collective you. Advertising introduces a third party. In my experience, the third wheel of advertising often works to unbalance the relationship in favor of either the author or the readers (usually in favor of the author). If ads were involved, I might feel the need to change what or how I write to appease advertisers. I might write to increase pageviews and earn more revenue. I could fill pages with ads, earning more revenue but making the content more difficult to read or pushing some content off the page entirely. You could block advertising and deny me needed revenue.

None of that is appealing to me. If I’m writing, you’re reading, I’m responding to what you’ve got to say about my writing, and we’re mixin’ it up in the comments, why do we need a middleman? Why not keep that dynamic intact if we can?

The dynamic he describes is untangible and impossible to argue against, at least no more than I can argue against the way people feel. The arguable aspect is whether an advertiser introduces a third party into the interaction. Now, it does introduce a visual element to the page itself. Again, had Jason argued that it mucks with his presentation, that’s fair. I doubt I’d enjoy Shakespeare if the costumes were adorned like race cars. Things don’t have to be like that though.

Shout it from the Rooftops

There was a time when all advertising had to be largely untargeted (and therefore simply annoying) and in banner form. Advertisers started using bold colors to divert attention from the real subject of interest to their product. Then they added animation. When they started using Flash (which is an act against humanity in most cases anyway), that’s when I had to draw a line.

Combine strobing animations capable of sending just about anybody into a seizure, subtle yet irritating sounds (AOL Instant Messenger used to wake up one of my friends with its ads), and windows that opened by themselves and you’ve successfully forced consumers into looking for ways to avoid that advertising. It should send a message when every major browser includes pop-up suppression. People don’t like them. At all.

Whispering instead of Shouting

Enter Google and their Adwords. I don’t want to paint Google as a messiah necessarily (as there is a mounting group of people that are suspicious of them), but they were one of the pioneers of targeted, text-based advertisements. The ads were no longer obnoxious or unrelated. Web authors can style that text to fit in with the general presentation of the site, negating the distraction and defacement argument. The ads match the content, not the other way around. One does not need to try to appease advertisers as that is inherent in the technology. Further, most people don’t feel the need to block those ads because they don’t interfere. Imagine if this kind of advertising was accepted as the norm before the hey-day of the pop-up. We might not have pop-up blocking at all. In short, I think if one chooses the appropriate advertising, it doesn’t need to obscure the message.

Selling your Soul

The real question becomes whether it is necessary to advertise in order to support one’s self. The answer to that I think is dependent upon your model. If you choose to adopt a subscription model, locking out non-paying users, advertising is wholly avoidable. One only need set the price appropriately (according to market conditions). If one makes those materials available freely without mandatory compensation, the true nature of humans is revealed. People won’t pay as a generalized view. The reasons vary between being cheap, lacking the funds, and being forgetful. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I use a lot of donationware and read a lot of web sites with virtual tip jars. It’s not that I’m unwilling to pay, it’s just that I have no motivation to and paying for things online is still a pain in the ass.

The result is that the author must remind his audience that he survives on that income. If this is in the form of a “please donate” graphic or link, it is little more than a direct advertisement. The alternative is to work the plea into posts at various times, or as most people know it, begging. Begging may be a bit harsh as a characterization, but at the very least it is a guilt trip. How well do guilt trips play into an author audience dynamic. I would submit that it is worse than having an advertiser off to the side. It becomes a part of that conversation. It becomes a primary concern and motivating factor. That’s what Jason was seeking to avoid to begin with though. I hope he finds a way to avoid advertising without moving to the begger’s model because I fear it will both changed his dynamic with his audience and ultimately fail.

Not Here, Not Now

It’s rather easy for me to criticize and make these assertions because I’m not in his position. I don’t have the audience he has. My comments are mostly limited to the ramblings of close friends (well, unless I get linked in MacSurfer which is always welcome). I hope that some day I might. As it is now, I come nowhere close to my monthly bandwidth allotment. It’s almost embarrassing how far from I am actually. Maybe that’s actually a testament to how light I keep my site.

When I actually start to draw some good traffic and get some participation going, I’ll seriously consider adding some kind of non-annoying advertisement. I’d like to be able to run this site for free and perhaps even make a profit. I’d like even more to be able to consider doing what Jason is doing, but the reality is that it’s far more likely that I write for another publication than do this for a living.

For now I’ll wish him well, but I hope he comes up with a far more inventive business model.