Saturday, September 26, 2009

How I Flunked Blogging 101

My first foray into social media was about as inauspicious as you can get. It still amazes me that I went from there to making it the basis of my livelihood. The year was 2005, and I was one of a small handful of Columbia journalism students who sat in on a 3-hour session about "new media" with Dean Sree Sreenivasan. (That seminar is now a full-on, semester-long course.) Dean Sree covered a number of topics, but none caught my attention so much as the one about how to start your own blog.

He showed us the Blogger template on his laptop, going over the features and then pointing with his mouse at the rather conspicuous, orange button that read "PUBLISH POST."

"You see, it's really easy. You write your post, then press the 'Preview' button to look it over," he said, his brown eyes twinkling with upbeat humor. "After that, you hit 'Publish' and there it is, live on the Internet. It's that simple. The real trick with blogging is to stop thinking in the old way, with a long cycle of edits and fact-checking. Just jump right in."

That's the trick? Write something and publish it, just like that? No editors? No copy desk? No... deadlines? It made my mouth go dry just thinking about it. Yet a little voice in my head whispered that this could be something akin to freedom.

Later that afternoon my classmate Adrienne and I made a bold plan. We would start a blog together about life in J school. The thought of doing it all by myself was too terrifying to contemplate. But with her joining me I sensed I could handle it.

She and I had heard that some bloggers -- in their crusade against the "MSM" (mainstream media) -- had dubbed Columbia Journalism School "the cathedral." This meant that it was the central training ground "priests" of the media who went out and pronounced mightily on the goings-on of the world. We decided to name our blog "Inside the Cathedral" as a way of thumbing our noses at this whole thing. But the sarcastic retorts I imagined I'd be putting up on this blog of ours never happened. In fact, nothing at all happened. I was unable to bring myself to write a single word.

I did try. On several evenings I sat in my tiny dorm room, sweating over the possible posts I could write. I was housed in the Theological Seminary building--a giant stone behemoth which while majestic from the outside, was a maze of tiny winding corridors and parapet-like windows on the inside. The interior courtyard and hallways were used frequently by the show "Law and Order." The atmosphere clearly lent itself to a sense of mystery and death. My room was the size and character of a monk's cell. The room was so small that if I lay down on the floor, my feet would hit the bed and my head, the door.

There I'd sit at my fake wood desk, which was covered in scratches and ballpoint ink stains left by previous grad students. I'd fire up my HP laptop and logon to the page. For several minutes, I'd sit in a state of intense concentration, staring at the screen in the hopes it would give me some idea as to what I was supposed to write. But it uncooperatively stared right back at me. The ridiculous irony of this is that I was writing upwards of 1,200 words a week for various freelance projects and grad school papers. Yet the idea of plunking out 150 for this little blog made me freeze up like nothing else.

I asked Adrienne to contribute. At first, she agreed, saying she would "get us started" by putting up a few posts when she "had a few spare minutes." I secretly wished I had her confidence and resolve. Time went by and no posts every appeared. We were both busy, I told myself. Still, it seemed to me that between the two of us, one of us should be able to clear out 20 minutes to write a few lines.

Pretty soon, she wasn't even trying to pretend she was still interested. "Yeah, well, if I do find the time I'll let you know," she'd say, and then vanish into the crowd of backpack-laden students who were heading for the monthly wine and cheese hour in the lobby.

The semester came and went. Then winter break. Still the blog sat, postless, unfindable on Google or anywhere else. By the time of graduation, I took one last stab. I opened the screen, looking at the now familiar orange and blue interface. I knew a little HTML and so told myself it might be more amusing and challenging to work from that screen. Perhaps I would get the  nerve and gumption to write one long post that summarized all I'd done and learned at my year at Columbia Journalism School.

I began to type.

Well, it's been quite a ...

That's as far as I got. I never did hit the "PUBLISH POST" button.


sree sreenivasan said...

Thanks much for sharing this. Would love to keep in touch and know more about your consulting work.

Sunshine said...

Thanks for the comment, Dean Sree! I'm so glad to see that you're continuing to push the envelope at Columbia with your course on social media for journalists. It is amazing to look back and see how much has evolved since 2005.