In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen posted the article IT’S TIME TO BUILD (and yes he did capitalize the title). The article was a call to arms, not only for Silicon Valley – where Andreessen is a living legend – but to all of Western civilization.
Andreessen’s article was long on American self-reliance and go-gettism (“The problem is desire. We need to want these things.”), but short on details about what exactly to build. He was rightly mocked for the latter in some quarters, most notably by Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera:
But overall, I enjoyed reading Andreessen’s article and applaud its sentiment – that society as a whole needs to start building and innovating again, rather than continue to accept institutions and companies that have clearly failed us and have the wrong driving forces (e.g. are overly focused on stock market price).
This got me wondering about my own role as a builder. In my career I identify as a writer and digital media professional – but would that qualify me as a “builder” in Andreessen’s eyes?
I’ve always loved this quote from a founding father of the US:
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.Benjamin Franklin
I’ve had that quote pasted on my Facebook Favorite Quotes section for years (btw that part of Facebook is seemingly impossible to navigate to on the mobile app).
What I take from the Franklin quote is that as a writer, I must always strive to add value – to make it “worth reading.” That’s easier said than done, of course. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes it’s hard to find the value proposition in your writing.
Equating this back to Andreessen’s article, a writer’s role is to build something thoughtful and/or delightful that is of value to people. It should help readers do their jobs, or help them understand the world, or help them cope with the world (by providing entertainment or comfort).
A much greater writer than I, Vladimir Nabokov, put it this way:
There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.
(obviously add ‘she’ and ‘her’ to the above quotation)
Writing for the web has more emphasis on appealing to the work roles of your audience, at least in my experience. With ReadWriteWeb, for instance, I started out writing for – and learning from – web developers and entrepreneurs. My initial goal was to explore and make sense of the emerging ‘two-way web.’ I hoped my writing would provide some value to my readers, as they built the new web companies of that era. I like to think I was mostly successful in this over my time building up RWW (2003-12).
That reminds me of another quote from a great writer, which again is on my Facebook quotes page:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.Joan Didion
That’s been my modus operandi as a blogger from day one. If you do it right, and actually create meaning, it gives value to your readers too.
I also love this quote, expressing a similar sentiment, by one of New Zealand’s best authors:
The whole of writing is expressing an emerging pattern and shape.Janet Frame
All that said, I haven’t always succeeded in building things of value as a writer. My subscription newsletter project from last year, Cybercultural, was focused on the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. Here’s how I described the target audience when I launched the project:
My goal is to make Cybercultural a must-read daily newsletter for people who work in the cultural industries; in roles like business development, marketing, audience development, or indeed any role where digital transformation is a key part of your job.
I did reach some of those people, but ultimately not enough were willing to pay a subscription for my writing on this topic. Which, I concluded, meant that it wasn’t providing sufficient value to people. I thought the content was fine (and am still proud of many of my posts from last year), but frankly I wasn’t providing enough usable insights to my target audience. Well, it was an experiment that didn’t work – which reminds me of yet another of my favorite quotes…
All of life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.Ralph Waldo Emerson
In my current writing projects, I’m more than ever focused on providing value to my readers. With my weekly column at The New Stack, for instance, my goal is to explore and explain the current ‘cloud native’ era of the internet. I’m getting back to my RWW roots and writing for developers, IT professionals and entrepreneurs.
I’ve also not given up on writing something of value at the intersection of tech and culture. This year I’ve been working on a book project in this domain, which is currently at 30,000 words. While I’ve had to press pause on this project due to work and family commitments, I hope to find time to work on it again later this year.
So back to Marc Andreessen’s call to arms. I’m not sure if what I do as a writer lives up to his exalted image of a builder, but I reckon I’m doing my part by exploring, explaining and chronicling the very world of technology he describes in his final paragraph:
Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.