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Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons

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An open letter to those who run the Blogcritics community

First a question: what is wrong with these headlines?

Satire: Partition – A New Solution For Iraq

Satire: Attack of the Killer Immigrants

Satire: How to Write Good

Satire: No Mexicans, Get Congress On The Job!

Satire: Take Cover, There's a Kennedy at the Wheel!

In your mad rush to "professionalize" the Blogcritics community and "drive traffic" to the site, you are losing the plot.

I have been fairly inactive in the community, but I have a few comments on the editorial changes that have been made in our joint.

First, what's the deal with not allowing links in the body of the text? The link is the only currency of the web. If someone goes to the effort to punctuate a point, to explain with hypertext instead of footnotes, that should be celebrated. Instead it's a matter of style. Well, we have our style. It's the web style. You don't need a print style to become "an official Google News and My Yahoo! source," those folks are coming to you. Fetishizing search engine reach and arbitrage for attention in the current manner gives cause for concern. That style is not the native web style. You should know better.

Which leads me to my second point, what's the deal with the titles? Why that big Satire prefix? Even The New York Times, and that lady is all about style guides, wouldn't label Calvin Trillin's wit and wisdom as "Satire." That goes under Opinion or Op-Art or something.

And good titles are important to be sure. It's always worth spending a few minutes getting a good title, but then you spoil it all with that nasty prefix. It then becomes a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google or shall we say Snooze Headlines

The days of the catchy newspaper headlines full of wit and style and the occasional double entendre are fading to blah as a growing number of news outlets are bowing to the 'bots. Search-engine 'bots, that is, designed to scour online newspapers, magazines, and TV news headlines worldwide to rank and list news items for the likes of Google and Yahoo.

News organizations have been rewriting or distilling the traditional eye-catching headlines with more subdued, logical ones for software to catch. One California newspaper recently renamed some of its sections to make them easier for 'bots to find: "Real Estate" became "Homes"; "Scene" became "Lifestyles"; and the dining out section became a bland "Taste/Food." Ironically, search engines often rework their algorithms to avoid self-serving manipulation by news outlets.

I have been on a tear in recent months with lots of material that could well have been featured on Blogcritics. After I'd written each piece, I'd first worry that the title I'd chosen would be changed. If I got over that threshold, I would then compose the draft and prepare to hit submit. Out of habit, I'd check the Blogcritics front page and without fail would see another one of those "Satire:" posts on the site and lose heart. To the extent that I've "lost traffic" in the interim that is a shame. But my writing is about changing the perspective and I can't buy into the primacy of traffic and the disembodiment of my writing. Thus I've been conducting a quiet boycott for the past few months.

I suppose if Jonathan Swift had submitted "A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public", you would have jumped in to make it more palatable. I can just see the title after after it passes through the Blogcritics satirical filter

Satire: Irish Babies have nutitional value and should be eaten.

Why have titles like these?

Satire: How to Become an Onion Ring Connoisseur

Satire: A Deep Man Running for President

Satire: Q & A With the Bookologist

I haven't read the above articles, but really, why mess with the onion rings or the bookologist?

In your current policy you seem to be conforming to the worst stereotypes of Americans as overly earnest people and the notion that it takes "Old World" decadence to appreciate irony and satire. That hogwash about Puritans, Salem, and such. At the very least fix the labeling of satire; categories are there for that, don't telegraph your intentions. Part of the shock of the best satire, the savage satire that I love, is that there is a sting of recognition and discomfort. We don't need to be protected from such things.

I dug the notion of the Blogcritics tagline, that "sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics." That sounds very much like that well-known English word, toli. More broadly, I make a living worrying about community software, hence I can see the classic warning signs of community drift, and not just because I am currently drifting afloat in the brackish Blogcritics tide.

The Blogcritics commons is important; it's a community full of people bursting with ideas and wielding their keyboards irreverently. We are the unwashed masses that the energy of the web has unleashed. I love engaging with editors but it strikes me that in trying to tame that horseless carriage, you might neuter it into bland conformity. Consider me part of the dark matter of said community, I'm surfacing for a brief moment to simply say "pay attention to the commons and don't lose your soul." You may claim it's editorial necessity, at the risk of being perceived as deliberately provocative, I'll say it's just the commercial imperative, it appears that it's all about gaming search engines for attention as evidenced in the breathless tones I read in the Blogcritics mailing list, "the traffic! the traffic!" echoes of that crazy baldhead known as Kurtz. Like that sign I saw on the subway in Boston read:

Buy something, you stupid consumer.

Needless to say I dissent.

The founding mythology of the Ewes, the Ghanaian tribe, my mother's people, is that they were chafing under the reign of an overbearing chief who was restricting them in countless little ways. They aired their complaints in the normal manner in town meetings but were roundly ignored over the years. They made their preparations over months, gathered up their children and belongings, and one night they snuck out through a hole they had secretly dug in the thick walls of the town (a precursor to those walled garden things). They walked backwards so that their tracks in the dust would confuse those who were sure to follow in hot pursuit come morning. It was a long journey until they found their promised land but it was worth it. That is why they don't have chiefs any longer, of if they do tolerate one, why everyone sit on stools at the same level in village meetings.

I am not so sure that clans as a means for social organization is effective — witness the degenerate case of Somalia — but it seems to work for the Ewes. Still, they sometimes look longingly at the Akans, my paternal people, with a lump in their throat at their riches and prestige — you may have heard of the Ashantis.  Things also work in the reverse direction: some of the other tribes look at their entrepeneurial spirit and fearlessness with a touch of wistfulness at the vibrancy that has been lost. And to pursue the analogy further, better financed and more "efficient" or organized sites may garner more traffic but they have far less soul and character. I wonder if you realize the depth of fortitude in your community and how important it is to husband its evolution. From another context, this was my take:

It is in small insignificant items that the tribal instinct is articulated.

Pagerank is not the reason we contribute to Blogcritics, despite what you seem to think. Being an "official Google News source" is beside the point. Our irreverent and informed voices are the point.

In any case I've ranted enough, some editor will wordsmith this piece I suppose and make it fit the "official" style guide. I hope I picked a reasonable title, husbanding the commons sounds about right to me, but feel free to prepend some byline that fits the prevailing style (Rant, Nitpick, Satire, or something) or maybe this:

Satire: Tempest In Teapot About Title Terminology and Traffic Tendencies

or perhaps:

Satire: Boston Blowhard Boldy Blows Bile on Bubbly Blogcritics Behemoth

With some tongue in cheek, you can consider this note as my raised hand at the village meeting in the blog commons; I've been making my own preparations. I do like the sinister cabal idea and wouldn't want to start walking backwards. Just recently I asked myself

"Must everything be utilitarian? Is a country without whimsy worth worrying about?".

Suffice to say that I'm wondering about Blogcritics in the same vein and those carnival things are looking more attractive. I miss the whimsy in our commons. So please, less of the breathless posturing, leaderboards and such. Chill a little on the traffic obsession, and above all don't mess with the satire.

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About Koranteng

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Koranteng, you raise interesting questions, and there are answers to all of them, but detailed questions deserve a detailed answer. I’m a co-owner of this site, one of three partners, and I published this article after the initial editor thought it should probably be deleted and the discussion moved elsewhere. I do intend to answer all of our questions in detail, as time permits.

    For now let me just address your first point, about links:

    Links

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. I emailed you to ask about this before publishing the article, and you responded with something about “product links” and I still have no idea what you’re talking about. We encourage links of all sorts in articles, and always have. The only restrictions we have on links at all are:

    1. Links to Amazon should use the Blogcritic referrer code.
    2. Links to your own site at the end of each article, that used to be encouraged (e.g. “More articles like this can be found at [link]My Site[/link]”) are still allowed and encouraged, but rather than being written manually in each and every article, we now want them to be put in the “author bio” which automatically appears at the end of every article. You’re allowed up to three links in that bio, and of course there are already two links to your blog on this and every article pages, plus there will be a link to your personal weblog’s RSS feed if you supply it.

    That’s it. Both of those policies have very good reasons behind them: The chief one is that there are roughly two dozen people who work hard on a daily basis to make this site work, and it costs quite a bit of money out-of-pocket every month to keep this site afloat. Unlike your standard open source software project, which can remain stable even if the develop takes a week or a month off, happily sitting on sourceforge’s servers and bandwidth, this site requires a ton of daily attention. Not just “if it is to be commercially successful,” if it is to remain accessible. Our current hosting plan charges us hundreds of dollars every month just in bandwidth overages! And yes, we’re consider other hosting plans, but it takes a bit of work to move a site with 45,000 articles and 350,000 comments, too. And to do so without heavily disrupting the 50+ articles published every day.

    So it takes a teams of people working every day, and despite the tons of advertising you see here, there isn’t nearly enough money to pay them all. Most are volunteers. I put in 40+ hour weeks on this site for many, many months — in addition to my full-time day-job — before I ever saw a penny, and I still don’t earn nearly enough to quit my job. That’s why all the ads (which you didn’t mention) and why product links need to have *our* Amazon affiliate code.

    As far as the other rule, on blog self-links, this touches on an issue that comes up often at BC, and in any other group of people: while it make not “take every kind of people to make the world go round,” we certainly do end up with every kind of people, and some people think it’s swell to write biographical blurbs that threaten to exceed the length of the article itself.

    In fact, we think that the little author bio is an improvement, especially since it makes it easier to put a photo or two in there, plus link to things other than this article on your own blog. Most people have agreed.

    All other links are allowed, even encouraged, so I’m not sure what else to say about this.

    As I said at the beginning, you raise interesting questions, most far more interesting than this one, which seems to me to be basd entirely on a misconception on your part.

    I’ll comment on the “Satire” stuff later, but the really, really short version is this: If we don’t label the satire, we simply can’t publish it at all. I’ll explain why later.

  • http://koranteng.blogspot.com/ Koranteng

    I’m glad that the more nuanced policy about links has been published so explicitly, and it should serve to clear up any future confusion. I hope others haven’t been similarly misdirected.

    One source of my “misconception” is an email to me from a Blogcritics editor last November (as the editorial changes were rolling out) which read:

    “Please don’t include Amazon links in the body of the copy, as this means BC doesn’t get the possibly benefit from people clicking on the “official” links.”

    The clarification that this is a matter about *our* “affiliate codes” is a good refinement that narrows the broad injunction that I took from the note. I stand corrected.

    My theses, such as they were, concerned links, titles and traffic. The lens through which I viewed this was satire, or as is the style here:

    “Satire: Links, Titles, Traffic!”

    I was suggesting a Declaration of Independence of the Link (and any infringment on my capacity to link was to be duly scutinized by keyboard wielding Patriots). The Freedom to Link was Tim Berners-Lee’s First Amendment of the web style. I am happy to learn that my product linking rights are not been unduly compromised in the Blogcritics Homeland. It was never my intent to use Foreign Codes and if I’ve ever used some in the past, I’ll happily curtail my flirtation with them. I normally use No-Name Links and I think it makes sense to use Made in Blogcritics product links. The House deserves a cut and more.

    With respect to traffic, I was suggesting that traffic was a proxy for matters of attention, arbitrage and the like… Again I realize the balancing act of sustaining a volunteer run site with the necessities of survival and even growth. Lean a little this way…

    The core of my piece was with respect to titles and the especial treatment that satire seems to receive on Blogcritics.

    I hope the conversation will focus on this last aspect satire as it’s one of my favourite topics. My last sentence didn’t make the cut, it was a reference to the fact that this note was part of the Boycott Day Trinity which might serve to frame things.

    One of Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical works was called The Battle of the Books. I’ll suggest here that we should turn our thoughts towards what I’d call The Saga of the Onion Ring Connoisseur who seems to be in a wrestling deathmatch with the Satire Prefix.

    Live on pay-per-view this Saturday for the low price of $29.95 at the Blogcritics Arena, Las Vegas.

  • gonzo marx

    oh my stars and garters…where to begin?

    let’s just go with the fact that both Erics and Phillip (not to mention various Editors) have put up with and actively encouraged my own particular brand of typographical madness and anarchy…

    this environment and community has grown geometrically since i first found it

    and conditions continue ot improve constantly!

    face it, any site that has the like of me and Bambeneck both writing on it at the same time…and both equally encouraged….with free range on what we want to rant about…is a wonderful expression of not only Free Speech, but the exchange of Ideas and a grand soapbox for discussion, argument and full blown diatribes…

    so this humble keyboard pecker salutes the “sinister cabal”…and will strive to not only live up to the Ideals, but work way fucking hard to continue to push that envelope and watch it bend…

    nuff said

    Excelsior?

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Gonzo, that’s mighty powerful testimony and deeply appreciated. I agree with you.

    Koranteng, your regard and concern for the site are also deeply appreciated. I’m not going to get in Phillip’s way in addressing your concerns in a more complete manner, but the reason we put Satire in the titles was in order to be able to publish satire at all. Otherwise we ould have had to exclude it. Such are the compromises made to live to fight another day.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Thanks, Gonzo. I think we do have something pretty special here when it can bring together right and left, Christian and Wiccan, and various other folks from all over just about any spectrum you can imagine. No site can be everything to everybody, but this one comes pretty close to being most things to most people!

  • Dave Nalle

    Satire: Korentang’s Mother is an Ewe – Is he a Sheep or a Ram?

    That said, I agree on the silliness of putting satire in the titles, but I would never go on quite so long on the subject, brevity being the soul of wit.

    As for the links in the text, someone may have already covered that, but it’s supposed to apply to Amazon links. However, I know I’m perfectly capable of putting ‘pageturners0c’ in the proper place in the HTML code and I bet others could learn to do it too.

    Dave

  • Clavos

    I’m a newbie, having only discovered BC a couple of weeks ago, but the free-wheeling spirit and glorious mix of ideas presented here are positively addictive.

    I find myself neglecting other aspects of my life (ask my wife, she says we haven’t had a decent conversation in weeks), as I happily sit at the computer reading, learning and yes, sticking my oar into the threads here and there.

    A warm salute to Eric and Phillip and all the people who help to make BLOGCRITICS as special as it is–a uniquely American endeavour with worlwide appeal. Thanks, folks!

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Koranteng, I’m glad your confusion over links is cleared up!

    Your second point is the big one, from my perspective. It breaks down into two parts, as I see it, so I’ll try to address them separately.

    Titles
    1. Why the “Satire:” label?
    2. And why are titles so Google-focused?

    Both fair questions. On Satire, the end result is simple: if we can’t label the article in the title, we can’t publish satire at all. Why? It’s a long story.

    The short version is that people are stupid. That applies to both readers and writers, by the way, including myself. Most writers aren’t nearly as talented as Jonathan Swift, and it is worth noting that Swift faced severe recrimination for A Modest Proposal, almost losing his patronage. More importantly to my mind, he was well-known as a satirical pamphleteer. If Blogcritics is to be known as a source of satirical material, that’s fine, but the 50 or so non-satirical articles we publish every day will need to stop. On the other hand, if we’re to be taken seriously at all, the satire must be easily recognized.

    We didn’t label satirical articles at first. They were tagged with a category, quite subtle, and a well-written satirical article could really take them in. But then Blogcritics became labeled by Google News as satirical, so that even our serious articles weren’t taken seriously. Despite what you might think about the motivations of people for writing for BC, I’ve been here since day one, and I can tell you that exposure on GNews is a big deal to a lot of people. They complained, we investigated, and found that GNews readers had complained and gotten us labeled.

    When we contacted GNews, we basically had two choices. We could either stop publishing satire entirely, or we could label it to avoid confusion. Does it lessen the impact? Assuredly, it does. I’m disappointed by it, and I wonder how much we might get away with pushing the envelope. You mention the Onion Ring article in your article, which is pretty recent. I remember thinking that we probably didn’t need the Satire in the title of that one. Maybe some others, either. The problem with treading the line is that we’re risking something that interests a lot of writers. GNews could as easily decide to yank us from their index entirely as label our site again. It’s a chance we’re not sure we can afford to take.

    Let me put it this way: If I made a list of people who have made it clear, by statement or by action, that they’re very interested in their articles being carried in GNews (and with some of our other partners), and then made another list of people who’ve actually written satirical pieces, the first list would be much, much longer. It really would be outrageous for me to risk losing all of those dedicated writers who appreciate the wider exposure in order to satisfy my own desire for sustained irony, or the few writers who attempt to engage in such.

    Besides, most writers of satire aren’t nearly as effective as they think they are. We’ve got several good writers, and several who should still to straight writing. I won’t name names, but I’m sure you’ve seen what I mean.

    In this case, at least, it isn’t purely a commercial interest that is driving the onerous labeling. It’s the interests of our writers, not all of whom have the same priorities.

    I will spend some time thinking about the Satire label specifically, because it does seem to me that some articles might safely omit it and still be obvious to all but the most dense of readers. Perhaps the time has come to actually experiment and see if GNews will be more mellow this time around. We’ve got a nice big color label right at the top of Satire articles as it is, so the only effect of the word missing from the title would be to cause people to click through from GNews in alarm. I’ll definitely think about it and discuss with with the editors. I might try to contact GNews ahead of time and see if we can work something out with them, too.

    I’m afraid your other title concerns will hae to wait for a response, as I need to run to a meeting just now. Late tonight I’ll pull together a list of all articles with Satire in the title, and another list of all articles of type Satire, and see if some progress can be made on that front.

    More comments tomorrow, I hope.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Dave, truly, I should code things so that our associate code is automatically added to links, and I can’t believe I haven’t done so thus far! I’ll add it to my to-do list, but in the meantime, you solution is an excellent one.

    Clavos, the solution to your problem is obvious to me: your wife should start reading BC as well, so that you can fight over which writers are better and which comments the funniest!

    Thanks for reading. :-)

  • Dave Nalle

    Now that WOULD be brilliant, Phillip. Hop to it. I know you’ve got nothing else on your plate.

    Thinking about an interim solution, is it possible for writers to go to amazon and generate the link code for themselves with the BC associates ID included? That would make it super easy for them. And I seriously think that an in-text product link is FAR more powerful and effective than any other.

    BTW, I regularly steal the amazon links html from my BC articles and when I repost them on my own site I just search and replace for pageturners0c and replace it with diablog-20. Very convenient.

    Dave

  • http://www.culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Writing is, at its essence, the ultimate act of ego. Once you strip away all the intellectualizing, the proseletizing, the posturing and the justifying, we do it for one reason–we believe in our heart of hearts that what we think is damn bloody important, and the rest of the world better listen. To romanticize it any more than that is delusion at best.

    That being said, we also have to face certain realities once we attempt to make our voices heard, not the least of which is writing is a business, pure and simple. Blogcritics did not invent writer’s guidelines– they’ve been around
    literally forever–and certainly before the internet. I’ve been doing this for a while (as in over two and a half decades) as a writer, editor and publisher, and it occurred to me early on that you have to target your writing to your audience. That’s not to say that you whore yourself out–you just don’t waste time submitting to a market that’s not interested in your viewpoint.

    Blogcritics told me upfront that I had to include at least one link to Amazon in my article. Fair enough. If I had a problem with that, I would have merely said, “check please.” And if I had any problem with Blogcritics’ policies, I would have just moved elsewhere.

    Now, about the “Satire” tag, or any other tag, for that matter, that’s expeditious–in the online world, your audience is scrolling impatiently to find what interests them. And a “Satire” (or whatever) category aids them in finding their interest. A catchy headline is going to sell over a stilted, but grammatically correct, title every time.

    It gets down to this: if you want the reader to hear you, you have to grab their attention straightaway, or you’re that tree falling in the silent forest.

  • http://www.rebeccawright.com Rebecca

    I am very new to the Blogcritics writing community, but I like Ray, read the rules and agreed to them before writing my first post. I would just like to thank Eric and the rest of the crew here at the site for giving me the opportunity to do something I love: watch, read and listen to new things and express my thoughts on them in the written form.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Ray and Rebecca, it’s great to hear from both of you. I’m the geek in this partnership, while Eric O takes the foreground in talking with new writers, so I don’t know everyone as well as I wish I did. Plus, um, there are a lot of folks! Anyway, I’m glad you’re both here, and I hope BC continue to be a great outlet for you.

    Ray, Koranteng does have a good point on the titles. In the end, as you say, we do gear the titles to try to draw in the most traffic, to ensure your words are read by the maximum number of people. However, it does sometimes injure my soul in some small way to take a catchy title and relegate the catchiness to a sub-head because the catchy title didn’t actually describe the contents of the article. I really believe we have no choice, but it still hurts. I’ll try to say more on this later today (Saturday, as I write this), but for now I’m going to go sleep.

  • gonzo marx

    sleep?..waitafuckingminnithere…big E, ya let Phillip sleep?

    WTF is wrong with you?

    give the boy more amphetamines fer Bog’s sake, sleep is for the weak…and we all know how much Phillip slacks off as it is!

    next ya know, he’ll be wanting food, and to be allowed to actually at least see the outside world…

    where will it end?

    heh

    Excelsior?

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