The Linkblog Cancer

There’s a cancer spreading through the indie tech blogger community: the blockquote + link post.

This summer, I’ve been traveling more than usual due to my day job and vacations, and I’ve had less time to keep up with my favorite blogs. What’s been odd is that when I do open up Reeder, I don’t feel like I’m missing much, even after I trimmed my subscription list down to only my favorite blogs.

In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering what happened to all these blogs that I loved reading. Matt Alexander’s tweet made me realize I wasn’t the only one:

Having been somewhat removed for a fortnight, each visit to Reeder seems to deepen my concerns for today’s state of writing online.

So what’s going on? Slow news cycle in the summer? Maybe. But the link post is much more to blame. It was pioneered by John Gruber back in 04, and was one of the first forms of simple curation on the web – generally featuring a blockquote from an interesting part of a piece, and then linking directly back to the source.

When Shawn Blanc interviewed Gruber back in 2008, he had this to say about linking:

There’s a certain pace and rhythm to what I’m going for, a mix of the technical, the artful, the thoughtful, and the absurd. In the same way that I strive to achieve a certain voice in my prose, as a writer, I strive for a certain voice with regard to what I link to. No single item I post to the Linked List is all that important. It’s the mix, the gestalt of an entire day’s worth taken together, that matters to me.

The problem is, we can’t all be Daring Fireball – we can’t get away with posting a witty headline and a blockquote 5-10 times a day. We’ve adopted John’s concept of linking, but not the idea that we need to tell a bigger story on our sites.

Our job as independent writers isn’t to be first or even to get the most pageviews. It’s to answer the question of “so what?”. Taken as a whole, our sites should tell a unique story that no one else can, with storylines that develop over time that help bring order to the chaos of what we cover.

The “so what?” in our commentary should help steer readers, answering questions like:

  • Why am I linking to this anyways?
  • What conclusion should my readers reach?
  • How will this impact our industry?
  • What changes will we see in 5 years as a result of this?

In discussing this with privately Kyle Baxter, he made an interesting point:

In 2008, I think this kind of writing was advancing things and doing interesting things. I think since we’ve covered so much ground with it, and because Apple’s future is pretty well laid out right now, there’s a lot of derivative stuff going on. Which is a big part why hearing from people building stuff is a hell of a lot more interesting

“Creators” are putting out some of the most interesting writing these days – people who are building the stuff worth talking about. Sam Soffes, who built Cheddar is a perfect example of this.

Interestingly, much of this “so what?” analysis is moving to a few podcasts. On this week’s Build and Analyze, Marco and Dan covered Microsoft dropping the ‘Metro’ name, but took it in a unique direction – looking into how Microsoft caving on this simple branding topic was representative of a bigger potential failure of Windows 8 because they’ll be willing to compromise on more. They spent a good 15-20 minutes covering what that one news item could mean for the future of Windows 8 and Microsoft.

So much tech writing today is centered around what Apple is doing, but our goal should be to be interesting regardless of what Apple is or isn’t doing. Let’s not get so focused on Samsung, patents, bad commercials, and OS reviews that we miss where we’re going these next 5 years.

August 8, 2012