Thursday, September 1, 2011

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

Doubts about the utility of blogging continue to swarm like those flies this week. I am not, for the record, feeling discouraged, bored, burnt out, or like there is nothing left to say; it's more a generalized doubt about the throwaway nature of producing Internet content.

A glance at my “top ten most viewed” list—over there on the right-hand tool bar, scroll down a bit—just seems to reinforce that feeling. I am struck by how few on that list feel like they merit being there.

Most certainly aren't on there because they were my most incisive, best executed, or content-chocked work, but because of one or two almost-random factors that created readership spikes. Several (the map-related posts, the one about Gor) are on there for the simple fact that they come up high in some big-ticket Google searches and drive traffic here on almost daily basis. Two others (the variant Charisma and zero-level ones) are there because it kicked up discussion on Reddit. Two were quick, disposable jokes.

In itself none of that bothers me--it's a fine and healthy thing for a writer to be pulled out of their self-indulgence by recognizing that readers want at times different things then you. It's the flipside of that coin that gnaws at me—the fact that many of the posts I feel had more work pored into them or seemed to hit deeper notes with readers just seem to float away into the ether.

And not just over months or years, but over days. The amnesia of this medium in fact is so bad at times that I catch myself writing something in a post and then remembering that I had already written that very same thing three months back. At best, you can labor to bring something back from the archive graveyard, restarting a theme and backlinking hoping that it still carries some freshness.

I am guessing that many of you who do blog have experienced this feeling many times. Or is it just me?

The wind-up here is that I miss the staying power of things recorded on paper.

Under my bed in a battered, sticker-splattered trunk lies three decades of printed material, the flotsam and jetsom of my life zig-zags. Here are the photocopied collage zines of punk rawk culture and screw-you politics I produced in the 80s and early 90s, there my “stringbook” of hundreds of newspaper articles from the high school paper to the paying gigs. In an even-more battered box is my real treasure, personal letters, many running well over 10 pages.

It's not just the bitter-sweet sting of nostalgia that pulls me back to the trunk, it's their physical presence. They have weight.

While the 350 posts here would likely total something like 700-900 pages if printed up, they seem much less real then the two non-fiction books above my desk that contain sections running only about 60 pages each written by me.

Closer to our gaming home, I was struck by how attractive Christian's project of doing homemade, self-distributed zines  seemed to me. It was one of the few ideas that knocked its way onto my to-do list when the Borderlands monkey is off my back.

Come to think of it, it's a large part of what motivates me on getting Hill Cantons: Borderlands to print as a sourcebook. To be perfectly honest, I could care very little about it as a consumable product, and the thrill of a byline has long since passed in my day-job career arc.

It's just that I want something I can hold in my hand, some piece of this whole blogging experience that too endures.  Something that has weight.


  1. All in all, perhaps the Internet as distribution platform is better than the Internet as actual medium...

  2. @Scott
    Yes I think that's true that as a distribution and promotion channel for sure.

    It does have utility as a medium, though, with certain kinds of discussions, the things that play to its immediacy: news, quick exchanges, reviews, etc.

    For me it's probably that I just need some reorienting on what I post, say saving the meaty things for projects I am may publish (even if for free). But I suppose that also entails concentrating more on less weighty topics here...

  3. I've been feeling similar things lately... I've learned a lot from fellow bloggers, but it's very transitory. Maybe I've internalized the learning and no longer need to remember the source, or maybe I've forgotten the lesson in the first place. Couldn't say, because whatever nugget I picked up is lost in cyberspace amidst thousands of posts on hundreds of blogs. Melted into air...

    I started keeping a file of links to other folk's posts I want to be able to recall - I just need to get off my butt and post it somewhere on my blog - not necessarily for anyone else, but a reference I can refer back to - "Oh yeah, this is when so and so said that thing about doing X..."

    Something like the wisdom wiki had potential, but it seemed skewed towards things I'm less interested in (mechanics - My elves are different!) and not the things that blow the top off my cranium.

    Oh - and I'm with you on the uselessness of traffic for identifying one's meaningful posts... apparently a lot of people do searches for The Exorcist and Demonic Possession and get sent my way. Muhaha.

    --On the other hand, we use your LOTFP Random Starting Equipment Generator for just about every game.

  4. Yeah, coming back to the RPG blogging field after a 2 month work hiatus, I'm definitely coming to a similar conclusion about my own lack of 'finished product', as the case may be. But you've definitely got a lot of that finished product out there, even if it is digital. Do you think your work would feel more complete to you if you kept print copies of it?

  5. I know what you mean, Chris. If I spit at everyone, tread on their sacred cows and so on, blog posts about me get written elsewhere, I get loads of comments and my page views climb above 80 an hour. But when I write something that I've carefully considered for two months, like the one I wrote today, I get a lukewarm response, if any at all.

    But surely you know that in the old print media world publishing an article in a journal often gets no response ... except for your editor, who will then LOVE you for the work you do. I've never received half the love from readers that I have gained from editors, and even from the marketing department who have also received comments for things I've written.

    I have two suggestions for you to make what you write here more REAL. First, go into google and change the setting for your top 10 from all time to monthly. This will create greater change in your sidebar, and will give more life to your more recently written articles. It will also highlight articles that continue to do well with your readers, not just those that were huge once upon a time.

    Secondly, return to the back pages of your own blog and write about them, about what you've learned since, and LINK those back pages. You'll find they'll swell with readers for a week or two, particularly if those back articles were especially good.

    It's up to you to pull them up to the light of day. The readers will appreciate it.

  6. My most popular posts often aren't rpg-related and aren't generally anything creative I've done, so yeah, I understand where you're coming from.

    I sometimes feel like the blog universe is expanding, too. As more blogs join the fold (which is a good thing, in general) the ability to "keep up" with things diminishes. People pick and choose they're conversations more, and less often do you have the same stalwarts turning up every time to comment.

  7. Addendum. Apparently if make a vague reference about it here, a well-written post can get tons of attention, as the one I referenced above is now getting.

    Maybe I should pay you Chris?

  8. I've been feeling similar things lately -- both about the value of physical paper (what Christian is doing is awesome) and the inevitable "thinness" of my own blogging and blog reading.

    I'm still thinking about what, if anything, I need to do about it for myself.

  9. I used LULU to make a hardback book of my favourite posts from the blogosphere and contributed it to a community time capsule.

    Just to mess with history ;)

  10. I get it. The insecurity about reviews, or their lack, popularity, or its lack, doesn't vanish when the medium in question is paper, or clay tablets, or cavern walls.

    I'm glad you don't play the dick card to get page hits. Yeah, people line up for the freak show, but that's not the route a sane man pursues, especially in regard to a hobby that is enhanced by a sense of community.

    There's a lot of valuable material on this site, which I think needs to be said more often by visitors here and elsewhere. I thank you for it.

  11. Actually, I think you're kinda crazy. Paper is lost all the time, and while I occasionally dig up old notebooks, 99% of that material makes it to the bin. Even gaming books I only carry around for so long; I've probably only kept 5% of all I've ever picked up, at most.

    Meanwhile, I've got cataloged archives of the blog posts I like, some of them from you. On cloud servers. With backups. And tags that bring them back to my attention when I'm digging around for material. Hell, there's a whole game in there, built post by post. Moreover, I don't ever plan on cleaning it out.

    Now, admittedly, I'm crazy myself. But I think there's something to the power of the medium, once you start exploiting it's potential.

  12. "You're very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too."

    "Print is dead."

    "Oh, that's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I'm too intellectual but I think it's a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play raquetball. Do you have any hobbies?"

    "I collect spores, molds, and fungus."

  13. So a battered trunk under the bed full of stuff that nobody but you can even read, and even you probably don't is better because? Maybe I'm just another crazy guy named Joshua, but I love the fact that if I want to find my write-up of Drowleks, I just ask Google. If I want to find that list of 20 Treasures for Encounter Critical, Google finds it for me in Jeff Rients' blog.

    Now, I think there is something to the notion that if it wasn't posted within the past few months, it tends to get overlooked if you aren't specifically trying to find it, but zines are even worse in that regard. Still, it's worth thinking about ways to counter that. In my blog I have a featured post section, where I put my personal favorite posts, and Alexis' suggestion of showing top by month is a good one too.

    One thing that might be interesting is to encourage people to do something along the lines of Twitter's #FollowFriday, only have it be once a week post five links in your blog to posts from the past from other people's blogs, to get some traffic for things that you thought were cool. Maybe Time Travel Tuesday?

  14. @All Hands
    Like all who put their writing out in public, of course, I want people to read my stuff--especially where I think I'm putting my best foot forward. But it's less about whether those posts are being read by a large enough audience and more about how much truck the ideas, conversations, and gameable material have over time. Ones down here in the blogosphere seem to float away much quicker and easier than I am used to in print media (but less so than radio and TV).

    With all my time pressures writing is now a zero-sum experience for me. Granted the gaming blogging is much pleasanter and dare I say “fun” than many other places I have put that energy, but the cost-benefit still hangs over me.

    It's also wrapped up in my personal feelings about reading print works over electronic. The whole package of the former trumps the latter. I can read hundreds of pages at a sitting with print, I bounce around reading a page here, a paragraph there online.

    Yeah eventually e-readers and other devices will catch up to bridge the gap some. There will be a point likely that I will feel as comfortable reading one of them newfangled devices as I do reading a well-thumbed paperback, but it ain't here now. (I have a Kindle that I use so don't take me as a pure Luddite.)

    But it will be a long time in coming before it replaces a bundle of letters.

  15. @Beedo
    Maybe I've internalized the learning and no longer need to remember the source, or maybe I've forgotten the lesson in the first place. Couldn't say, because whatever nugget I picked up is lost in cyberspace amidst thousands of posts on hundreds of blogs. Melted into air...

    There are a tiny handful of people I know who are unique enough thinkers to definitively say they know exactly where their ideas start and others leave off (there are many more who claim that mantle who are mired in self-deception about our lives as social animals).

    The rest of us have to constantly navigate between the places where we stand on other's shoulders and where we are rocking our own ideas. The rapid speed-up of the Internet “news-cycle" I think translates into the fact that when you are reading a lot of other blogs and writing frequently it just gets worse. The blend becomes harder to distinguish as you flip around between hundreds of sources—the expansion Trey is referring to--rather than a dozen.

    Part of me really digs that expansion even that muddle. Whatever my feelings about print, I think the crowdsourcing of the Internet has its own virtues--and pitfalls—too.

    Man am gathering the the wool today. Isn't this a gaming blog?

    But on a practical side, yes it's just plain hard to find those damn posts. I keep wanting a vetted and edited Best Of volume of blog posts--problem being that I am fickle on what I read consistently.

    we use your LOTFP Random Starting Equipment Generator for just about every game.

    That's actually really good to hear, the most important thing really for a pragmatist like me.

    Do you think your work would feel more complete to you if you kept print copies of it?

    Yes and a lot more so if it was printed in a really satisfying format: well edited and with lots of gut-grabbing visuals from art to the paper itself.

  16. @Alexis
    This is why I cut you a major length of slack.

    Both practical suggestions I definitely plan on testing out. I like the sound of both of them.

    And no my services are free—in lieu of you burning down my house next time. Metaphorically speaking of course.

    I always feel a little guilty about your blog. I read it every time I see a new post on it and without fail enjoy them a good deal--but only comment about a fifth of the time (at best really). I have no idea if there is a similar number of readers doing the same here.

    @Professor Pope
    I am glad you are thinking about it and I hope you blog about it when you find some satisfying. Note I am not at all suggesting there is only one solution here, just one that seems to fit with my views and personal dynamics.

    Cool to see someone actually act on that impulse, I've done a few lulu softbacks from PDFs of gaming material, it's a relatively easy process. Maybe I will give it a whirl.

  17. Well, obviously, Keyboards and Bathrobes deserves to be there......

    Other than that, yeah me too, every so often. I either take a break, or just write something different for a change. I try and remember that really, for me, my blog is really just an outlet for my constant writing....I hope people like it, but on the whole, I don;t have to follow a trail or agenda -I just post stuff. And because if I do not write, I will be torn apart by evil goblins.

  18. Guys.
    mythmere at yahoo dot com
    Send me your favorite blog posts and let me take a look at publishing them as short articles in Knockspell. I have some pages I can devote to putting up short, thoughtful articles (or better, short fun ones!)

  19. @Chris - No need to feel guilty. I read your blog more than I comment--and that's true in a dozen other places. There are just too many good posts to give the comments they deserve and maintain the rest of one's life. Well, maybe if my employer's didn't expect me to actually work.

  20. That tub of zines under your bed is something special. Blogs, electronic bulletin boards, listserv messages, and Usenet posts will be long forgotten, but you will still have that amazing collection of zines. Each one of those is a labor of love. :)

  21. Don't sell yourself short - this blog is a great sounding board of ideas, and I for one have gotten a lot from it. Use it as such to refine your thoughts and work towards a product (if that is your aim) and I am sure it'll be better for it.

  22. Generally I also prefer to have something I can hold in my hand. But for space reasons most of my RPG collection now consists of pdfs. I simply can't afford to devote two rooms of the house to gaming materials. Not that the wife would let me anyway.

    That said: everytime I come across a cool monster, table or theory article from another author worth keeping I copy and paste it into a word document which eventually will get the pdf treatment and be printed out. If it's of immediate utility to whatever I'm Dming now, then it's also printed out there and then and placed in my campaign folder. If anything, I use blogging as a release valve. If I can't get paid writing work at the moment, well, to heck with it, I'll post on my blog.
    After all, it doesn't do any good stuck in my head -and it's not like most writers can make a living solely from writing after all, is it?

  23. I get discouraged like you wouldn't believe. I have a rigid 5 posts per week schedule set for myself, independent of inspiration, motivation, or other concerns intruding on writing time. Sometimes, I look at my blog and wonder why I work so hard at it, especially in weeks where comments are light to nonexistent, so it is hard to tell if this is a referendum on my content. The feeling usually passes, however, as having an audience to be accountable to has made me produce more writing in the last six months than I would have otherwise.

  24. I understand full well where you are coming from. My blog is about rules design, so I write down some mechanics and go through details why I set them to function that way. Why does X and not Y, what did I try before X and how did that work.

    But then what? Sometimes there are things with brilliant mechanical simplicity and use, but its a 2 year old post and who really reads years of back posts to find it?

    There is some truth to making a physical copy of things you write. I turned the game I wrote into a nice hard cover with tanotex binding and silk ribbons and gold stamps, linen pages and clean layout. It makes me smile, but I do have to be honest about all the other books on my shelf. I don't read them more often than I do past blog posts, they still sit there not being used for the majority of their existence.

    A blog is much like a newspaper. Reading old newspapers is great way to research the past, but how often do you actually go to the library and say "I'd like to read the papers for July 15th 1986, see what was going on".

    Maybe remaking old posts every year or two is the right idea, pull a George Lucas and update them, see if the reaction to them is different this time around.

  25. Yeah, I've been following about a score of blogs for a while now, but for a long time I didn't bother, because - and my impression hasn't changed - a blog's utility is about the same as a club newsletter or streetcorner handout. Drink coffee; read words; click button. Mostly this is because of how it is organized. Books have a table of contents that can be flipped to to see what all is in there. Blogs only hold 1 month's posts - any more than that and you have to search through by month and unless you've been following it all along, how do you even know that something what's there to begin with? It is built in obscurity. What I would say is not to expect much of the format, but if you think you have useful material (and you know you do) to edit it into a "best of" and make it a .pdf. That's a much better format for organizing the good stuff.

  26. @Zzarchov
    I turned the game I wrote into a nice hard cover with tanotex binding and silk ribbons and gold stamps, linen pages and clean layout.

    Now that's what I am talking about. The book as a tactile artifact.

  27. You could make a seperate page with an index of your posts by topic or whatever.

  28. It is not just the general Internet, it is specifically the blogs. Blogs suck if you want to distribute content, and here is why:
    #1 You can't really go back: both Blogspot and other blog formats make it hard for a new visitor to retrieve, or even become aware of old content. A single page usually holds five posts; something gone from page one is rarely if ever seen again unless it somehow becomes notorious.
    #2 Posts are ranked by posting date, not actuality: on forums, if a discussion keeps on going, or if it is revived, it goes back to the top of page one. On blogs, it stays right there on page umpteen, and others will never see your comments unless they have subscribed.
    #3 You will not even see a lot of the good stuff: Be gone from a forum for two weeks, and you can update yourself in a matter of 30-40 minutes when you return by going back a few pages. Be gone from the blogosphere, and you will not realise a lot of posts even existed, because they showed up on The Underdark Gazette (or other aggregators), but got bumped off by new posts. Any single time, you will see only one new post from a blog over there... and not the most interesting, but the newest. RSS feeds are possibly helpful (I don't use them), but there are always blogs you don't follow, but they just happened to post that cool little something...

  29. #4 You cannot follow discussions: On a forum, a topic contains and sorts opinions about a single subject. They drift and they generate new threads all the time, but all the stuff is in there. In the blogosphere, it gets scattered among 12 blogs reacting to the initial idea, and you will not be able to study the development of an idea. Try this for a relatively fresh meme: hunt down every "merit badge" post. Hint: you can't. That's because the posts aren't interlinked (blog technology gives you trackbacks and stuff like that, but few people ever use them), and the whole discussion disintegrates, very quickly.

    #5 Indeed, it melts into air: Forums die, which is why you ought to archive favourite or interesting threads (I have ten years worth of searchable archives on DVDs to prove I have done my work). But forums die pretty rarely. You can still log in to the Necromancer Games boards and they have discussion, even though Necro has been inactive forever. But blogs... blogs disappear all the time, in part because they get pulled. I don't deny peoples' rights to do it, but it is probably too easy, and it gets done disturbingly too often. This often destroys tons of content (and imagine if someone like Jeff Rients or James Maliszewski did it), potentially valuable or interesting. All the comments people have contributed to the blog are also destroyed irretrievably.

    # My suggestions #: Do not use blogs to distribute content, or at least not the blog you update every day. Set up a dedicated website or blog where you store your adventures and noteworthy posts. It will only have a few dozen posts at most, and it will be easy to find them.

    As a second alternative, take Nemo235's advice and set up a master post dedicated to your greatest hits or whatever.

    And return to forums. Forums are less authorial, less personal, and give you less personal control, but they are a much better venue for discussion. Blogs are a dead end of Internet communication.

  30. And ironically, the post reflecting to this one at has fallen off the face of the Earth. .)

  31. @Melan
    That is a odd and strangely appropriate given the subject. I had a minor correction on his post, my (smallish) beef being that he made it out that my biggest problem was the lack of commentary or eyeballs on my top-shelf posts. (The problem is more about the durability of them over time, that they tend to just float away instead of building up and forward.)

    Dunno if that is why he pulled the plug, hope not I was interested to see where that discussion went.