Joel Spolsky wrote his final blog post last week. If you’re not in the software field, you might not know Spolsky’s name. But since 2000 his Joel on Software blog has been explaining the intricacies of programming with clarity and humor for an audience of both insiders and novices.
Joel on Software served as a model example of how blogging liberated experts in myriad fields, enabling them to school readers without taking the shortcuts that so often mar conventional coverage of their subjects. A good many technology journalists, myself included, got any number of crash courses from Spolsky’s posts, on arcane topics like unicode or “the law of leaky abstractions” or distributed version control (the topic of Spolsky’s final piece).
The reasons for Spolsky’s success were no mystery: He had a wealth of knowledge and personal experience, and he had a compellingly comic voice. He would, for instance, explain the inefficiency of a particular algorithm by referencing a joke about Shlemiel the painter. As a writer, he was a sort of geek vaudevillan, and he would hold your attention through shameless ploys that you couldn’t help smiling over. If blogging didn’t exist, it’s hard to imagine how Spolsky would ever have emerged as the Mel Brooks of programming.
Lifespan of Blogs
Blogs have natural lifespans. Anyone who has written one for a decade and produced over 1,000 substantial posts has a right to say, as Spolsky did, “I’m done.” But with Spolsky adding his hat to a rack now groaning with retired bloggers’ headgear, we are once again hearing the perennial question: Is blogging over?
Spolsky announced his move with a column in Inc. (also his last) that explained his company, Fog Creek Software, was now going to take more of his time. He also wondered whether the “blog your way to success” model makes any sense. Certainly, if you’re trying to answer the question, “Should I blog?” from a purely mercenary perspective — will a blog help promote my business? — then the answer is a moving target. Today Spolsky has concluded that his firm has won as much success as it can through the blogosphere; now it’s time to adopt more traditional marketing techniques.
Spolsky is a smart guy, and I’m sure what he’s doing makes sense for his company. But can we please be spared the latest round of funeral dirges for blogging that his decision has prompted?
Consider, for instance, this post from Adam Lashinsky of Fortune, who uses Spolsky’s retirement as an occasion to pen an obituary for blogging as an independent activity. “If you’ve truly got something interesting to say,” Lashinsky writes, “you’re going to be part of an organization that can give you a platform.”
Lashinsky reminds us that a few years back Time named “You” as its “person of the year,” based on the way web culture placed “you” at the center of its media universe. The Fortune writer can’t wait to smite this straw man:
People are beginning to understand that if a medium with new and exciting tools is just an excuse to write nonsense while wearing pajamas, then it’s not worth much. If, however, a blogger has a message, some thought, and some research, well, that’s called journalism. And that, come to think of it, is what we paid serious attention to before it became all about you.
In other words: When blogging gets personal, it’s worthless; and when it’s good, then it’s just plain old journalism. This is a great illustration of the sort of ostrich-like reasoning that kept so many journalists from understanding the impact of blogging for most of the last decade. Trapped in their own narrow professional vantage, they, like Lashinsky, couldn’t see that the value and purpose of blogging lies precisely in its differences from previous media forms — in the way it liberates personal publishing from commercial norms and radically widens the spectrum of public voices we can hear.
Blogging emerged and continues to thrive because it gives us something our old institutions and practices can’t. Its combination of immediacy and archival persistence uniquely exploits the web’s native qualities in ways older-fashioned publications are still trying to match. Its near-zero cost of publishing and distribution means that anyone can do it. That enables individuals to project their words in the public sphere without needing to work for a media company or stand on a platform controlled by someone else. And it allows writers to mix up the personal and professional at will.
The result can be illuminating — and, yes, it can also be, as skeptics are so ready to point out, self-indulgent. Some bloggers take “write about yourself” as a license to dispense a stream of trivia about their lives; but many others take it as an invitation to teach the world what they know by telling stories from their experience. Doing the latter, as Spolsky always did, is — pace Lashinsky — not the same thing as journalism. It’s more like a complement and supplement to journalism.
Like many of the most valuable bloggers, Spolsky is a participant in a specialized field who took up blogging to tell his own stories and make his own arguments directly to the public. He’s made a success of that by intelligently projecting his own voice, perspective and experience directly into his writing in an informal, personal way that journalists have traditionally eschewed and still rarely attempt.
I’ll miss Joel on Software, no question. But I’m not worried about the future of blogging.