Reflections on the End of RBC, Part II: A Personal Perspective on the Pains and Joys of Blogging

This is the second of my three reflections made during this, the last month of RBC’s existence. The first was devoted to Mark Kleiman as a blogger. This one is devoted to my own experience as a blogger. I stipulate at the outset that this reflection may only be of interest to me, but one of the joys of blogging is that you can write posts even if the only person who will benefit is yourself.

How I Got Here and What I Did

I am not sure when I started reading RBC, but it was likely around 2008. Mark already had a strong stable of contributors then (Michael O’Hare, Andy Sabl, Jonathan Zasloff, and Harold Pollack were regulars), in addition to indefatiguably producing his own content. I learned things about public policy regarding crime, drugs, and health from reading RBC that were helpful to me in my work as Senior Drug Policy Advisor in the Obama White House. During my Washington days I also fed Mark some stories and trial balloons that he riffed on in these pages.

When my sabbatical year ended and I moved back to Palo Alto, Mark generously asked me if I wanted to join his crew. He described RBC as a “blogger’s blog” that had a medium sized following — way more than most blogs but way less than the big beasts. But he also said, correctly, that RBC’s work was picked up frequently by national bloggers and traditional media outlets (i.e., in the emerging politics and policy-focused blogosphere, RBC was The New Republic or The Economist rather than Time Magazine or the New York Times). My first post was in August of 2010 and explained my decision to accept Mark’s invitation.

I got into the rhythm of blogging pretty quickly and was active here until Spring of 2014, when I largely moved to Washington Post’s Wonkblog. One thing I worked out over my time at RBC was that more posts = more visitors to the blog. Given that, and the fact that I enjoy writing and even find it relaxing, I wrote a lot during my time here: in one 12 month period, I penned 60% of all RBC posts (to be clear, no one else was skiving off, I just wrote a lot). Despite the fact that some of what I wrote was hot garbage, the expansion of content in that period translated into a significant growth in readership. With I hope pardonable vanity, I am proud to have been a part of the crew that gave this site its biggest audience, not least because that readership growth helped attract Washington Monthly magazine to partner with us in a co-publishing arrangement beginning in 2012 that increased our readership even more (although as I wrote in my reflection on Mark, building an audience from scratch as Mark did is infinitely harder than growing the audience of an existing platform).

Pains and Joys of Blogging

One widely-cited pain of blogging didn’t bother me as much as it does some bloggers: To blog is write some lamentable content, some of which is embarrassing in retrospect and some of which is embarrassing almost immediately (e.g., a sharp-eyed reader points out a basic factual error that undermines your entire piece). But the compensation is that unlike an academic journal article or newspaper op-ed, you can revise immediately to make the writing better, or, if it isn’t salvageable, bin the whole post and move on. When I started out I annotated revised posts to make clear any changes since my initial post. But I eventually abandoned that practice because I realized blog posts are always drafts at some level — you never perfect a post, you just stop working on it at an interesting point.

A pain I did experience was the asynchronous nature of the conversation. RBC readers would sometimes post brilliant comments and questions after I had gone to bed, or when I was consumed with some other task, and by the time I could respond thoughtfully the commenters had moved on. I overcame the guilt of having not fulfilled my responsibilities as a writer by concluding that the comments section was a community of its own and that readers could always engage with whoever else was commenting at the same moment. Those exchanges were valuable even if I never participated or even saw them.

A more significant pain was abusive/bad faith comments. These came almost entirely from dark triad males and would too much of the time divert a really intelligent, informative thread into acrimony. They also made people (including me) less likely to read the comments, which meant good comments from our better-behaved community members sometimes didn’t get the attention they deserved. RBC was nowhere near as bad in this respect as most blogs (e.g., we had way fewer overtly racist comments) but it nonetheless was a chore to repeatedly have to edit the dross out and was tragic that some of our best commenters stopped engaging with posts because threads become so toxic.

But to turn to the joys of blogging, the many, many, smart, informed RBC readers have a prominent place on the list. I wish I knew all their names to thank them publically. It was particularly precious to me how many of you had relevant expertise upon which to draw, whether in politics, law, economics, health, or any other number of fields. I am grateful not just because you all made my writing better, but because you made my thinking better. I carry that gift with me everywhere and always will.

Similarly, blogging also sometimes brought me into intellectual debate and dialogue with prominent people I didn’t at the time know personally (and many of whom I have not met to this day), and from whom I learned even if I disagreed with them: Stephen Bainbridge, Nancy LeTourneau, Megan McArdle, Ryan Cooper, Austin Frakt, Kevin Drum, Jonathan Bernstein, Alejandro Hope, and the entire Outside the Beltway crew are examples. I want to single out Andrew Sullivan for particular thanks because he brought my work to his massive audience many times (again, even when he disagreed with me).

But the greatest joy of blogging was the personal relationships I deepened or developed entirely within the RBC blogging team. I grew closer to my long-time friends Harold and Mark in part through our shared experiences here. Though I have never met them in the flesh, I am happy to this day any time I get to swap emails with Kelly Kleiman, Lowry Heussler, or Andy Sabl. I also remember a lovely summer garden party kindly hosted by Michael O’Hare, which Mark attended and at which I finally met James Wimberley. And over the past eight years I have had the blessing of being close friends with Johann Koehler and have also become close to his wife and parents, none of which would have happened had I not asked him based on reading his blog to join the RBC crew.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

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