Friday, April 24, 2009

A portrait of the blogger as a young man

What prepared you for Web 2.0? I just took up this blog recently, but I've actually been preparing for it my whole life.

One of the biggest problems we face trying to get clients into social media is getting them to create their own content. "I know I should have a blog, but what would I write? How often would I have to do it? I don't have time!"

Most people are afraid of the blank page. Writers embrace it. We're the kind of people who never shut up about the latest insight or anecdote we've added to our magpie nest of a brain. Writing it down is just one more way to let it out. So here goes:

How do you become a natural writer? For me, it was good old pen-and-ink letters in high school. Nobody does it anymore, but regular correspondence is one of the best ways to get in the habit of writing even when you're not naturally inspired. I had one regular person who I wrote to, and who wrote back, weekly for years. It really got me in the rhythm even if it didn't improve my crabby handwriting.

In university, it wasn't the essays that refined my skills, it was the school paper. For about three years, I wrote concert and record reviews for the Queen's Journal. They were your typical sloppy, self-indulgent student journalism, but what could be more blog-like? Plus, concert passes gave me great cache to get dates and provided me with impressive stories to tell. The work also gave me a portfolio, which would serve as my pass into the working world after I dropped out.

In my early 20s, I eked out a living as a freelance Copywriter, paid by the column inch for advertorial to fill space between ads of "special features" for the Kingston Whig-Standard. Not exactly world-changing stuff, but I got to interview people from all walks of life, and tell their stories. Puff pieces. But it taught me insight.

At 25, I got my first agency Copywriting job. As a junior, I was tasked with lots of newsletters and brochures, as well as this new thing called a Web site. Even as I quickly progressed to "real" ad writing, as an Ottawa agency guy I was never able to leave long copy assignments behind.

So that's the professional writing story. What about social media? In 2001, at an agency that was on its was to imploding after the high tech bubble popped, I happened upon two web communities: and Both seemed like good sources of weird news and insights, so I started to lurk on them. is a news aggregator, but is better known for its comments sections. These are hardly learned discourses on the news of the day, but rather sophomoric collections of trolling, in-jokes, and abuse. At the same time, they formed a sense of community like the regulars at a bar. I went there to joke around, let off steam, and occasionally make a point. (I'm actually quoted twice in the Fark book.) Eventually, as the community grew, Fark's originator Drew Curtis started, a subscription site-within-a-site. For five bucks a month, you can see all the links submitted (hundreds a day) and comment on the published ones before they become publicly available. But the real attraction there is TotalFark discussion, or "TFD", which is a pretty random discussion board where the smaller numbers have regained the sense of community that Fark had in its earlier days.

Fark is one of those sites that can be considered a real time-waster, but for me it has been great training. To keep up in an active thread, you have to think fast. If you get arrogant of short-sighted, people call you on it. And if you pay enough attention, it keeps you updated on all the geeky online trash talk and trends. is another story. There, users submit positions on trending topics in mini-blog form, complete with primary and background links embedded. Then elite users vote the best submissions to the page. That was real blog training, with immediate rejection for poor or lazy submissions, and praise for good ones. I was able to make enough strong submissions and comments to gain the amount of "karma" points from other users that would let me be elite too.

Plastic went "out" for a period a few years ago, when founder Carl Steadman walked away from it suddenly, and even though it came back, I never really got back on it. I guess I just moved on. But it's still there, with the same logo, icons and arguments as ever.

And now I'm here. And on Twitter. And Facebook. My long journey has taught me to be quick, be relevant, and (sometimes) be funny, but most of all it's taught me to BE THERE.

If you're wondering how to get going in social media, my advice is simple: Start writing, and see what people think. There's even a convenient comment box below.

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