I went to Blogs with Balls this weekend, the first ever sports blogging conference. There was some early trepidation about going, but I’m glad I bit the bullet. It was a lot of fun, the food was decent, and I met some exceptionally cool people – more on them later.
More importantly, the conference allowed me to flesh out some ideas on blogs and blogdom and the broader sports media landscape that I had been unable to previously articulate. The panelists were a mix of blogger/writers, new media moguls, and miscellaneous white people. I learned a ton.
I didn’t realize I was learning anything groundbreaking besides how to be good on Twitter until the last panel of the day. It was supposed to be on why the old guard media hates bloggers, but devolved into a sort of free-for-all. FreeDarko’s Bethlehem Shoals worked himself up into an existential, expletive-filled frenzy over what we were all doing there in the first place.
“A blog is just a fucking platform,” he said at one point.
That hit home. I don’t blog because I want to make a million dollars in ad revenue or because I believe in blogging as some sort of movement. I write a blog because blogs are stunningly effective at getting words from one person’s head to another’s line of sight. If this were the 1700s, and the most effective way for me to share a thousand word essay on racism, nationalism, and fan identity was by printing up pamphlets and handing them out on the streets, I’d probably be doing that.
In the 1700s not all pamphleteers were doing the same thing, and today not all bloggers do the same thing. Some pamphleteers wrote angry screeds about the Quartering Act and others collected funny jokes about King George III’s fish-like facial features. It’s unfair to lump those two together content-wise because they both happened to choose the most effective means of distribution.
I was sort of irked by the notion of the blog as a genre and bloggers as a monolithic entity. The platform is still new and its conventions are still being defined. The whole notion of blogger solidarity seems more based on the common recognition of technology’s value (and the whiplash scolding by media folks who don’t) than any unified concept of what we do. Or as Spencer Hall, who blogs for the Sporting News and Every Day Should Be Saturday, so drunkenly put it on Saturday, “we all do different things.”
Many of the panelists, like I said before, weren’t bloggers at all. There were Twitter experts, entrepreneurs, and all kinds of internet gurus. Most of what they talked about was money. How do you turn your passion (blogging, writing, sports, whatever) into cash? How do you grow your audience? How do you become as famous as the guys from Deadspin?
All good questions, but questions that caused me to take a second look at my motivations for blogging and for being there in the first place. I blog because I love to write, and at this point nobody – much less the vaunted mainstream media – is paying me to do it. It’s an outlet and a platform and hell, a bit of a showcase for me. I’m interested in baseball and culture and literature and I think some other people might be too. Hopefully one of those other people works for ESPN or The Atlantic and wants to pay me to write something. If not, that’s alright too. I love the process.
That’s what scared me about that second, businessman type of panelist. I don’t know if he gets or cares about that process. Content might be king to that guy, but only because without it there is nothing to draw an audience, nothing to wrap ads around.
None of this really crystallized until the keynote speaker, a super-rich wine/internet expert named Gary Vaynerchuk took the stage. His message, I thought, was muddled. He said that we should grab life by the balls, define our passion and pursue it and make it our livelihood (key phrase: FUCKING CRUSH IT). Then he said that for every hour we spent on that passion, we should spend twenty or thirty hours on promoting it, on hustling basically. That’s a lot of hours, Gary, and it doesn’t jive with me or my values. I wasn’t the only one who thought so either.
If it’s really about the content, about doing something you care about and doing it well, then that’s what you spend the time on. There was a punk band out of San Pedro, CA in the 1980s called the Minutemen. Their message was simple: We Jam Econo. It’s not about the money or the chicks or the record companies or the egos. It’s about playing the music we love and getting it out there and everything else is bullshit. They’ve got a song called History Lesson, Part II. You may have heard it:
Our band could be your life. Their band was their life. Not because they were out on their knees in front of Capital Records trying to get their demo in the right suit’s hands, but because they put the music first, always. The stage, the radio, the record were just platforms.
Of course I’m not 100 pct idealistic and naïve and I’m not on some futile jihad for artistic integrity. I want more traffic on this blog. I want more attention as a writer. I want to do this for a living. All the passion in the world won’t net you a dime by itself. I’ve got a soap box, and I could stand up here all day and shout for my small audience. But if I don’t step away, that audience won’t grow very fast. It takes networking, hustling, savvy to make it in the business. A Tribe Called Quest puts things into perspective:
Note the last verse from Diamond D. It’s all about striking a balance, and it ain’t easy:
You gotta get a label that’s willin’ and able
To market and promote, and you better hope
(For what?) That the product is dope
Take it from Diamond, it’s like mountain climbin’
When it comes to rhymin’ you gotta put your time in
And that’s the one thing I did appreciate about the keynote speaker, Gary Vaynerchuk. He said we should play to our strengths. If that means joining a blog network like Yard Barker or SB Nation to get promoted and make money and build traffic, then maybe it’s a wise thing to do. If that means asking a friend to help with spreading the word about you, while you help them with something else (note: not sure how helpful I can be, but I’ll try), then do it that way.
I may differ from a lot of the other guys at the Blogs with Balls event. I’m not posting a ton every day, or putting up sports gossip and pictures of hot chicks, or writing exclusively about one team. But that’s okay. There’s a place for what they do and a place for what I do.
In the end, a blog is what you make it: journal, news source, humor venue, platform for silly essays only ostensibly about baseball. It’s really up to us.
I’m going to list some of the cool folks I talked to at BwB. I’ve spent the last day reading over their sites, and I can say with confidence that aside from being nice guys, they are good writers and worth a look. Some might not be your thing (i.e. I’m a huge Dolphins fan, but spent a lot of the day talking with the proprietor of a Jets blog), but good writing is good writing:
Mike Mader: MikeOnThePhillies.com
Paul Catalano: AndAPlayerToBeNamedLater.blogspot.com
Brian Bassett: TheJetsBlog.com
Bethlehem Shoals: FreeDarko.com
Don Povia*: HuggingHaroldReynolds.com
Jared Wade: BothTeamsPlayedHard.net
Andrew Feinstein: DenverStiffs.com
*Bonus points for organizing the conference