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How a Talk at SXSW From 2009 Helped Me Be a Better Blogger

I listened to a talk from 2009 by John Gruber and Merlin Mann from SXSW about blogging, and it caused a carnival of thoughts to swirl in my mind. This is me trying to articulate them.
I had never listened to this talk before, but because I started listening to the podcast Back To Work it made me want to listen to it as after being brought up so much in the first few episodes. I wanted to know if it still holds up, to see if the blogging platform is a shell of its former self. This talk couldn’t be more true today than it was then.

The talk, titled How To: 149 Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog with Credibility, was about an hour in length. Which made me sad because an episode of the The Talk Show can run twice that on average. I wanted more, I felt like there was a great deal more to learn from.

Why You Should Blog

It started with John and Merlin explaining one of the main points: to write about what delights you. To write about what you’re obsessed with. This main point would come up again and again throughout the talk. At one point Merlin would say:

“How do you know that you should start a blog? People keep telling you to shut up.” – Merlin Mann

I can’t say I am not part of this group. My fiancé is tired of me talking about Apple news, working on my iPad, and my feelings on productivity. It is something I have obsessed on in some capacity for years.

After this, they talk about how you can’t, and probably shouldn’t, make everyone happy. Merlin says it best when he explains how he admires John because John’s voice and passion outweighs any obligation to make people happy. He doesn’t go out of his way to upset anyone but he also is steadfast to continue the path he feels is right. This is something I think I lack, and that I should be more assertive at times. Too often I try and be a cheerleader and suppress my negative feelings on certain things, and I think they are valid concerns I should be addressing. I don’t plan on making this blog a place to gripe and complain all the time, but there is a place for that concern and the feelings I have.

Finding Your Audience

Next on their list is finding an audience. Gruber explains his ideal reader is “another version of me.” The crowd laughs, almost as if to say “he can’t be serious,” but I feel the same way as John. I write on Tablet Habit because I imagine myself reading a blog like this that I never started. I imagine myself looking for a place that has similar feelings on Apple, iOS, and using an iPad as a main computer. That is my main motivator for writing here. There are other factors at play, but they are all distant seconds to the strong feelings I have to write about what delights and, at times, upsets me.

“Make something really kickass and try to impress the people you really love.” – Merlin Mann

When Merlin said this, I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement. This is something I have felt for as long as I started podcasting back in 2009. Find someone you want to impress, and ask yourself every time you hit publish if that person will like it or think it’s garbage. If it’s the latter, do better. If it’s the former, send that thing to everywhere you can.

With that said, it is important, they say, to not try and piggyback off someone else’s success. A great example they provide with this is Ted Koppel, who found success as a broadcaster during the Iran hostage crisis. It caused the ABC show Nightline to be made, and it elevated Koppel to be one of the most well know journalists in that era. Side note: Nightline continues to be a great program of long-form news that I find to be more digestible than anything local or national news programs make today.

But the point they bring up, originallly made by Ira Glass from NPR’s This American Life, is that you can’t be Ted Koppel, he already exists. I can’t be John Gruber, or Merlin Mann, or Federico Viticci, those people already exist. What I can do, as they explain, is to learn from their work and try the things they did to get success. This goes for anyone looking to have success in a creative field, whatever your definition of that may be. Learn, but don’t emulate. Take their work and learn how they do the things they do.

The New Printing Press

Gruber then mentions an old saying:

“It is great that we have freedom of the press, but the only people that really have freedom of the press are people with a printing press.”

He goes on to say that “everyone has a printing press now thanks to the internet.” This is a point that especially made me think.

I worry that the “golden age” of blogging is behind us. I feel that it was great to have this ease of disseminating information when the internet was more in its adolescence back on 2009. The internet is now a giant gorilla dwarfing every other piece of media day in and day out. The internet is no longer where the cool kids are. It’s where corporations, national news, and conglomerates come to spread their message. Is the internet killing the little guys like the printing press did so long ago? I thought so at this point in the talk, but that soon changed.

When to Get Serious About Your Work

All of these pieces of advice and truth are great, but the most poignant point made throughout this was when Gruber took out a sheet of paper and explained that this was an email that Merlin Mann forwarded to him just before the talk. It was an email from a “20 year old kid” asking Merlin what he can to to get serious with his blog. What Merlin said came down to 3 short and direct pieces of advice:

  1. Give away more stuff than you think you should, and make it easy for people to get.
  2. Focus on diverse secondary revenue streams and always have your new and replacement ones.
  3. Don’t do stuff that seems profitable, but potentially messes up the reason people like you.

Not only is this advice sound, it is timeless. You could tell someone today these three things and they would all still be worthwhile. This isn’t just for bloggers. Artists, writers, journalists, painters, photographers, and YouTubers can take this advice and go a long way with it. Then John said something.

“The internet is awesome, it is totally fucking awesome. It is not just that we all have a printing press now … it is that we can do it better.” – John Gruber

This is what made my worries of corporations on the internet go away. Both Merlin and Gruber explained that corporations and big business are still failing to be anything other than giant billboards on a small screen. They don’t give anything away, they don’t offer the value indie bloggers give on a daily basis.

Making Money

Finally, the two talk abut money and making a living on what you create.

“Don’t become too obsessed with the thing you want to make money on.” – Merlin Mann

This is probably the best quote to summarize this section. Money is important, but if you first think about wanting to make money and then start a blog, podcast, or something else creative it will almost always fail to meet your expectations in the time frame you set. If you instead flip it around and make something you love and then think about how you can make money with it your odds of success dramatically increase. There is no guarantee that you will make a living, or even a nickel, doing what you love but if you have a solid foundation the chances that house you build collapses on you decreases exponentially.

Final Thoughts

This talk, 9 years after it was first given, is still timeless and something I think anyone looking to seriously create a blog, podcast, portfolio, or YouTube channel. It manages to give you actionable advice while also providing the higher level of thinking necessary to make sure you are doing things the right way with the right reasons.

If you want to listen to it you can do so on 43 Folders, or just download the file directly here.

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