Obsession Times Voice

My friend Merlin Mann and I had a session at SXSW Interactive about two weeks ago. It certainly wasn’t a panel, and it wasn’t really a presentation. It was more like an hour-long duet rant, the main goal of which was to inspire anyone who wants to publish or write on the web to pursue their obsessions in a serious way.

We got the audio recording of the session from SXSW a few days ago, recorded short intro and outro segments, and Merlin spliced it together and has published it on his 43 Folders podcast. I encourage you to go ahead and listen to it.

I’ll just come right out and say it: I love how this talk turned out.

My muse for the session was this quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money; we make money to make more movies.” To me, that’s it. That’s the thing.

There’s one obvious way to make money publishing a web site, and that’s with CPM advertising, wherein you charge advertisers a penny or two for every page view. And if that’s your game and what drives you is the dough — if, when your web server gets a hit you think not “Cool, another reader” but instead “Ooh, another shiny penny” — it will lead you down what the good Dr. Thompson called a “cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

No one gets into something like this without an obsession, but if your obsession is with the money, and your revenue is directly correlated to page views, then rather than write or produce anything with any actual merit or integrity, you’ll dance like a monkey and split your articles across multiple “pages” and spend more time ginning up sensational Digg-bait headlines than writing the articles themselves. It’s thievery — not of money, but of readers’ attention.

What’s so great, so amazing, about this racket is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can obsess over your work, build an audience based on deep mutual respect, and eventually opportunities to earn money from it will present themselves. I don’t know how it works, I only know that it does.

Here’s Jonathan Coulton, a few days ago, on how he’s made it work as a full-time, self-published musician and songwriter:

But somewhere along the way the bottom line started improving, and I became less obsessed with tracking every little thing. Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money — I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars. […]

The state of the industry makes a lot more sense when you think of it this way, all these new business models rising and falling, internet radio choking on insanely high performance royalties, Radiohead and NIN giving stuff away and making a killing. This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop.


One of my favorite segments from our SXSW talk was this bit from Merlin:

“Topic times voice. Or, if you’re a little bit more of a maverick, obsession times voice. So what does that mean? I think all of the best nonfiction that has ever been made comes from the result of someone who can’t stop thinking about a certain topic — a very specific aspect of a certain topic in some cases. And second, they got really good at figuring out what they had to say about it.”

My only quibble is that I don’t think it’s limited to nonfiction.

There is an easy formula for doing it wrong: publish attention-getting bullshit and pull stunts to generate mindless traffic. The entire quote-unquote “pro blogging” industry — which exists as the sort of pimply teenage brother to the shirt-and-tie SEO industry — is predicated on the notion that blogging is a meaningful verb. It is not. The verb is writing. The format and medium are new, but the craft is ancient.

Obsession times voice is a pretty good stab at a simple formula for doing it right.

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