Owning Their Words

When I started this website, I did so with the same intentions many decide to set up a blog these days: post often and about topics that interest me, and link to the work of others in between. In short, I set out to model my website after the likes of John Gruber, Shawn Blanc, and Marco Arment, back when the latter two published with much more regularity. By any measure, I succeeded: I wrote regularly, posted often, and occasionally made something interesting enough to spawn some intelligent discussions. I succeeded by adopting a proven format, even though I did little to improve upon it. Towards the end of last year, I began the difficult process of rectifying that.

I have always admired John Gruber for his success, although his style — not so much. For a while I really got behind the philosophy that justified a link post1 devoid of anything but a pull-quote by saying that nothing more than the original author’s words need be said on the topic, and to add something else would be to introduce unnecessary fluff to the conversation. I believed in that mantra in no small part because it was convenient, and in large part because I had seen the likes of John Gruber and Jim Dalrymple — titans of this industry — attain incredible success through it. Every so often a debate, one that inevitably morphed into a flame war, would pop up questioning some aspect of this practice: the ethicality of allegedly passing off another’s words as your own, for example, or whether in doing so the link blog’s adherents actually added anything to the larger narrative at hand. I generally ignored those discussions, though — I was in the right, after all. Turns out, not so much.

Within the first few days of February, I finally quantified the result of my misgivings regarding this tried tactic in a tweet, roughly fifteen months after my first post went live:

“It’s my goal never to use a pull-quote in a link blog post. If I can’t add to the surrounding conversation, I shouldn’t be linking to it.”

This shift had been a long time in coming. Over the preceding weeks, I had begun to see its effects in everything I wrote: I posted fewer “articles” containing nothing but the greatest parts of another author’s best work; the number of long form pieces I produced also increased as I sought to actually add something to the larger conversation, and ended up writing as a result. This piece, in fact, stemmed from that very process: I set out to write a short commendation of Matt Gemmell’s recent article Own your words, and before I knew it I had written five paragraphs and nearly five hundred words. All in all, then, this change has been a remarkably advantageous one: every writer wishes to become more prolific, and I managed to do so with (that clichéd phrase) “one simple trick.” My motivations were not quite wholly selfish, though; don’t judge me quite yet.

By its very definition, the practice of running a linkblog1 entails searching for excellent content, extracting the appropriate amount without going so far as to anger anyone enough to raise their plagiarism banner, and then posting it in your place. As I explained earlier, although I ignored most of the arguments against this strategy, I was not unaware of them. And even though I managed to keep myself one step removed from the criticisms constantly lobbed at those who capitalize on this format, they still affected me enough to get me thinking. And the more I thought, the less comfortable I became.

I, personally, have no problem if someone takes this paragraph and puts it on their site providing they do so with some obvious attribution. But doing that to the work of others, I became increasingly less comfortable with. In the parlance of Matt Gemmell’s aforecited post, I had made taking others’ prose outside of their place and putting it into my place a habit, and found that realization a bitter pill to swallow. By “showcasing” their work I was not doing them a favor, and certainly not contributing to the surrounding conversation; in reality, I had taken any incentive for my meager readership to read another’s writing by extracting the most pertinent paragraph and squashed it, subconsciously hoping that in the process I could drive more traffic to my own site by capitalizing on the brilliance of another individual in the same situation as me. I did not own their words, yet I passed them off in place of my own all too often. It was upon realizing this that I set out with the goal of actually contributing something worthwhile, to creating something worthy of my then-virtually-nonexistent readership’s time, and provide an additional incentive for someone to go read whatever great article I found and posted to my website besides the sound reasoning and excellent craft that got it there in the first place.

Rather than using a pull-quote as a way to lend credence to my implicit endorsement of a particular site or article, I started writing single-paragraph summaries in which I talked about exactly what I found so compelling in the linked item, why I thought my readers ought to take time out of their busy day to read said piece, and where to go after reading it. I completely stopped using any pull-quotes whatsoever; if I had nothing concrete to say with regards to that article in my Instapaper queue, it had no place going on my website. I had done the writers I respect a disservice up to that point, because I do believe, as Matt Gemmell does as well, that your writing belongs nowhere but your place. I had robbed my readers of the privilege to read some great work in the venue through which the original author intended, but no longer: I do not mean to say that you should not continue upon the path of the linkblog, but it is no longer a path for me. I have decided to blaze my own trail; follow, if you like.

 Linkblog (Link-blog? Link blog?) entry? Linked list (Linked-list) item? The naming convention around this small microcosm could use some work, to say the least.