Fireballed

Note: I really wish I could link to the entirety of Guy English’s wonderful piece in the first issue of The Magazine. If you have an iPad or iPhone, I strongly recommend signing up for the seven day trial, as  it contains some great writing.  

Guy English does a great job talking about the “Fireball Format”, the type of blog made popular by John Gruber’s Daring Fireball.​ If you read this site you’re probably very familiar with the format: a link to another blog post or article, a interesting/stupid quote from that source, and one to several paragraphs’s worth of sentences giving the author’s opinion on the subject or some kind of smug auto-e-fellatio for being right about a prediction. 

It’s relatively easy to see why the Linkblog portion of the Fireball Format has become popular. It’s deceptively easy to link to articles of interest, and it offers the author a voice in the conversation without them having to invest in writing a longer piece. In this format, it’s the voice that starts to become of paramount importance. The voice isn’t just the jokes and commentary, it’s the editorial stewardship of the links that are shared. A Linkblog is, fundamentally, a personality-driven endeavour.

In this way, a Linkblog is not too different from something like The Daily Show or The O’Reilly Factor. The publication selects the topics of the day and offers their opinions. Linkblogs are commentary, not news sites. As such, their success is often based upon the personality of the authors. Read through John Moltz’s Very Nice Web Site and you’ll immediately get a sense of his personality.

First off, I’ve never thought to compare what I do for fun to the great work done by the staff of The Daily Show, so ​thanks to Guy English for that little nugget of insight. John Moltz is an excellent example for that comparison, in that what makes both he and Jon Stewart so great at what they do isn’t so much what they cover but rather how they cover it. Jon Stewart uses amusing voices and sarcasm to present serious issues in a light that makes people want to watch. Moltz uses sarcasm and absurdity to do the same for technology news. Are you any less informed because you laughed while you were absorbing information? I don’t think so.

I’d like to think that my personality comes through what I link to and comment on. Going through just the posts on my front page, I think it’s pretty clear that I:

  • Am not a fan of Gov. Romney.
  • Am a gamer.
  • Don’t like writers who say bullshit about products that haven’t even been announced to get page views.
  • Like supporting quality work.
  • Like folk and rock music.
  • Like Apple’s marketing.

That’s a lot about me. That’s more then you would learn about me on a decent first date. And that’s without reading anything I actually wrote – all of that comes from just the titles of things I link to.

Of course, the idea that a Fireball Format blog’s success relies on the personality of the author is rather intimidating for someone trying who’s still trying to build an audience. What if there simply isn’t much of a niche for my personality? Should you try changing your personality until you find what works? Taken to it’s logical end, that means linking to things that are formulaically popular – and then you’re no better than Gizmodo.

But there’s a potential pitfall: where’s the pressure to write longer, more thoughtful pieces? A Fireball Format site enables a writer to take longer between more further-reaching, thoughtful pieces, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage them. Indeed, simply keeping up with the news to be able to comment on it takes a huge amount of time — time that could have been used researching and writing less timely but more timeless pieces. And sponsors expect that the site will be updated as regularly during their period as it was during others. Does taking a day off the Linkblog beat to research and write an in-depth piece make sense for many of these sites? It could work a few times, I imagine, but it could hardly be a regular thing. The link-and-commentary coal must be shoveled into the furnace or the engine will slow.

Well said. Even on Daring Fireball, maybe ten percent of posts are longer than a short paragraph. I don’t think the site is hurting for it – indeed, I feel like I get a lot out of DF’s feed in Reeder each day. Thousands of others clearly agree. But I bet all of them would appreciate Gruber using his talent to address “bigger” topics than the current positions of Apple/Amazon/Google/Samsung in the war to sell smartphones and tablets.

Not that I’m any better. I’d like to make at least one long post per day, but I’d also like to make it through college with grades that won’t be too embarrassing on my resume. So I’d even settle for one per week. But I can’t even pull that off, for various reasons. Now, what I can do is write link-posts as I do my daily reading. As Guy points out, it’s also an easy way to keep traffic up, which is something I care a lot about as someone who hasn’t gotten to the level of readership where those numbers don’t matter.

​If I got anything out of Guy’s piece, it’s that I don’t think link-blogs are a “cancer”. It’s just a format for writing quick posts. It lets writers have a voice and show what matters to them without a huge time commitment. I would like to write more lengthy pieces, but it’s hard to do that and stay relevant and maintain traffic. So what I’m going to try to do is write bigger, more “timeless” pieces when I have the time. If they take forever, so what? Relevance won’t be an issue. Maybe I can even get them into The Magazine.

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