I find it coincidental that yesterday, Adam Roberts asked the question “are food blogs over?”, during the same time I’ve been trying to figure out the role of the individual blogger and their relationships with their readers. The two points are intertwined, in my point of view, as there seems to be something of a innovation vacuum in the food blogging, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what blogging “is”.
It needs to be stated that this last point is strictly my opinion, but it’s based on an idea that was reinforced by my shaping beliefs about writing, as well as a post from Terrible Minds entitled 25 Lies writers tell (and start to believe). I was particularly struck by #9:
”I write only for me!”
Then don’t write. Sorry to be a hard-ass (ha ha, of course I’m not), but writing is an act of communicating. It’s an argument. It’s a conversation. (And yes, it’s entertainment.) And that necessitates at least one other person on the other end of this metaphorical phone call. You want to do something for yourself, eat a cheeseburger, buy an air conditioner, take a nap. Telling stories is an act we perform for others.
For the longest time, I’ve said that you only need one thing to blog - to know why you’re blogging. Everything else will fall out of that. But my assertion had an aspect that I didn’t take into account – the audience. I was blogging, at first as a place where I could store items I could use for larger writing projects, then I was blogging as a means to communicate some of the most egregious behaviors of food companies, and then I was blogging as a way to either distract myself from, or, at times, highlight aspects of my larger writing projects. Not once did I take the role of the reader into account. Unknowingly, my own reasons for writing had backed me into a corner.
If a writer, blogging or otherwise, needs an audience – and we all do, or else what’s the point - then the writer should look at the relationship between themselves and their audience. That relationship can be looked at in a multitude of ways, and can manifest itself in ways from loving, to hateful, to everything in between. Regardless of how it manifests itself, the relationship between a writer and their audience is a power dynamic. The writer has the ability to influence that dynamic through words, and establish the relationship with their readers based off of differing levels of charisma, knowledge and expertise, writing skills, celebrity, and power of persuasion. The writer, by definition, dictates the relationship, although the readers can shape it as well through a variety of methods.
A long time ago, I made a decision to base my writing on knowledge and, later, expertise. This was a conscious decision made from the simple, controversial opinion that I believe that writers, when communicating to/at their audience, should know what the hell they are talking about.
(Side Note: This is power dynamic is clearly on display in both of my books, but from the opposite side of the coin. Both books start with someone at the start of the book lacking knowledge (Krysta in 99 Drams, and myself in Sweet Tooth), and then using history’s narrative to fill us in on the details of the relevant subject. The idea was to give the reader an avatar-of-sorts to which they can share the experience and keep them engaged in the book. How effective I was at that is up for debate.)
When it comes to food blogs – heck, blogging in general – such consideration of the power dynamic between reader and writer never occurs. The result is that we have blogs out there where the writer is talking at their reader, rather than with them, and their authority comes only from the skill of their writing and “loudness of their bullhorn”.
The “loudness of their bullhorn” needs some explanation. It’s nothing more than a metaphor, really, with the bullhorn being the medium in which the writing is conveyed, and its loudness being the amount of readers that come to the site. The Huffington Post or Eater.com both have a louder bullhorn than mine here at Accidental Hedonist. This would change if I had more everyday readers than either of these two sites. However to do that, I would have to sacrifice some things very dear to me, like sleep, and some aspects of my personal ethics.
Authority and power dynamics are weird, intangible variables that are very rarely considered when someone starts a blog. When everyone has access to tools that allows them to have a bullhorn, then what distinguishes one person with a bullhorn from another? Some use technology to gather more hits on their sites – this is where SEO and publicity and marketing come into play. To extend the metaphor further, this tactic is little more than turning up the volume on the bullhorn. The risk with this tactic is that if your loudness is the only arrow in your quiver, then eventually you will come across as shrill and/or vapid.
No, writing has to be more than the size of the readership. Quality of the writing needs to come through at some point. Now quality means different things to different people. For some, as long as the content created by the writer is entertaining, that’s enough. For others it’s being informative, and still others it’s grammar and spelling. It’s in this aspect that a good writer will consider many of these variables and address them to one degree or another. In my experience, the less variables considered, the less chance the writing has of being any good.
I could go on about this all day. But my point here is that good writing and good blogging comes down to how well the writer considers their role in the power dynamic they have with the reader. If all the writer is considering is how well their food looks on their screen, or how to shape their posts to get the most readership exposure, or how many posts they have to make in a given day to please their editor, then the trust they have with the readers is minimal to non-existent. Good writing comes from somewhere else. If blogs, and by extension food blogs, want to break out of their stasis, they need to find ways where they are communicating with their readers, not communicating at them. Because if they don’t, then they are doing little more than adding irrelevant data to the fire hose that is Internet.
More importantly for myself, I have to hold myself to the same standard.