Blogging and the Grateful Dead Show Economy

I really liked that bit on carpooling, man.

This time last week, I was at the Mom 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. A while back, Jason Avant (DadCentric founder) had asked me to join him on a panel to discuss the evolution of dad blogging. Appropriately enough, the panel, itself, would evolve. Jason had to cancel. So, too, did our original mediator, Tanis Miller of Redneck Mommy fame. Nonetheless, the final lineup was formidable, indeed, consisting of BetaDad, Whit Honea (both of whom write for DadCentric in addition to other sites) and yours truly. Our mediator? The incomparable Catherine Conners (aka HerBadMother).

There was only one problem: how was I going to discuss the evolution of dad blogging when I wasn’t even sure I understood what dad blogging was to begin with?

For this is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago.

See, I never intended on becoming a dad blogger. The only thing I ever wanted to become was a writer (whatever the hell that means) — an aspiration I carried with me to the first ever writing class I took in 2003. Much to my surprise, my teacher, Katie Allison Granju, really believed in me. Yet, she also felt I was all over the place and told me that if I ever wanted to have success, I’d need to find my voice.

“How do I do that?”

“By writing what you know.”

Sadly, it would be years before I’d ever write again. Six, in fact. My countertop business (which I sold to my former business partner in October) was growing by leaps and bounds, and the life of a blue-collar principal, complete with grueling 12-hour days that were filled with manual labor, stripped me of whatever creativity had previously encased me, and left me covered, instead, with only a thin film of stone dust I’d diligently wash away each and every night before bed.

But the dream of writing never died. It haunted me through the years like a beautiful ghost. I thought of Katie’s advice often, yet never put it into practice.

Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.

When I met Caroline, everything changed. It didn’t take long before I fell head over heels in love with her, and though she seemed to good to ever love me back, she somehow did just that. (Thank you, God.) And in the span of 13 months, I went from consummate bachelor to father of four, thanks to marrying that beautiful single mom, then quickly conceiving triplets.

My mom once told me that stories happen to people who could tell them, and I had suddenly found myself at the center of a compelling story, indeed. It dawned on me that if I just followed Katie’s advice and wrote what I knew, I just might have found the perfect starting point in the journey to becoming a writer (again, whatever the hell that means). Hence Tales from the Trips, a memoir about my experiences.

Once the book was in production, I was faced with a daunting question, however. How was I going to promote it?

That’s when a buddy told me “You should start a dad blog.”

“What’s a dad blog?”

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore.

I made my initial foray into the dad blogging world 18 months ago when I pushed “publish” on a post called What Happens in the Bathroom Stays in the Bathroom. I did a lot of hard work in those days to establish my readership. I opened a Twitter account and followed others who wrote about parenting. I visited their blogs and always left comments in hopes each blogger would reciprocate. I pounded Facebook and Twitter and networked within the blogging community. And, most importantly, I did my best to crank out posts that were excellent, not just in content, but in calibre of writing as well.

Before I knew it, I had built a modest little readership, and what I estimated to be the hardest part of blogging, namely the beginning part, was behind me.

I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same.

But shortly thereafter, I realized something. Though my readership was growing, I essentially had little more than a cadre of commenters who happened to be the very same set of folks whose blogs drew comments from me. Sure, I’d gain a new commenter every now and again, but more often than not, it was someone whose blog I had recently started reading and commenting on.

Young JCO was NOT afraid of Dead Shows. (note the multi-colored cloth belt and hiking boots held together with duct tape to back up initial claim before this lengthy parenthetical.)

What’s more, a lot of the comments were along the lines of “Totally, great post, man!” I sometimes wondered if people were even reading my posts, or just trying to build their own readership by dropping their link.

To me, blogging was like the economy of a Grateful Dead show. The bracelet guy buys pizza from the pizza guy who buys a t-shirt from the t-shirt guy who buys weed from the weed guy who buys…

a bracelet from the bracelet guy.

To be a legitimate economy, I felt I had to attract customers who weren’t merely attending the same concert I was.

Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you got nothing new to say.

I wanna call a quick timeout to express the following: I’m not saying anything new here. More importantly, I’m not airing a universal grievance. Nor am I airing a grievance at all, for that matter. Some folks who blog are in it for the community. It makes sense to me that kindred blogging spirits often travel in cyber packs, if you will. So I’m not condemning anything.

But what I am saying is that all behavior is motive driven aimed at a desired result, and my motive-driven behavior had led me to an unanticipated result. Even so, I wouldn’t do anything different if I launched a new blog today. It’s how you have to start.

But it’s not how you have to continue.

Directory don’t have it. Central done forgot it. Gotta find a number to use.

So I decided to switch gears in search of a different way — one in which blogging would work better for me. I read less and wrote more. I also eased up on the anecdotal, kiddie-related posts which were my initial bread and butter. Sure, I’d still do my fair share of them, but I also wrote several posts which were stories told from the perspective of a father. These stories, unlike my anecdotal ones, could be about anything, and I liked that.

By September of last year, I had increased my readership exponentially, and suddenly, I was getting what I wanted out of the deal. And I was also getting something else: invitations to write elsewhere.

Jack straw from Wichita cut his buddy down, and dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down.

I had transcended the Dead show economy. And in October, I began to write at other sites, chief among them, Babble. But between writing commitments, business obligations, and my ever-expanding brood, I had less time than ever before. And, accordingly, this very blog got the shaft. It ultimately turned into a ghost town, serving as nothing more than a link service to the other entities for whom I write.

But just two days before I left for New Orleans, I decided I wanted to change all that. I decided I wanted to lift JCO dot com out of the shallow grave in which I had laid it, and attempt to breathe life back into it. And what’s more, because I’d written first (albeit accidentally) for engagement, then for numbers, this time, I was just gonna write. No definitions. And no expectations.

Goodbye, Mama and Papa. Goodbye, Jack and Jill. The grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter, either side of the hill.

My time in New Orleans was incredible. (Serious props to Mom 2.0 for putting on a first-class event.) And I’m proud to say that our panel went over quite well in large part thanks to a back-and-forth session my fellow panelists and I had before it began. Through that conversation, we identified that the dad blogging community had evolved to include different prototypes: the community guys, the PR / swag guys, the anecdotal guys, and, for lack of a better phrase, the literary guys.

But how our community would continue to evolve was difficult, if not impossible to say. Because, the community is a sum of all parts within it. And just as it would have been impossible for me to predict what twists and turns my blogging would take over the past year and a half, so, too, is it impossible to predict what twists and turns all of the individual bloggers in our community will take in the year and a half to come. We’ve not codified into predictability yet. And that’s okay.

So whether folks write exclusively about fatherhood, or place a premium on community, or draft off the mom bloggers, or even say goodbye to elements of both the mom and dad community all together and simply write whatever their hearts tell them to, it really doesn’t matter.

Because the grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter, either side of the hill.

Ultimately, I left New Orleans with three takeaways.

First, every blogger must decide which side of the hill he wants to occupy. Fortunately, there are many. More fortunately, still, it’s okay to switch.

Second, our community is a collection of all those hills. And because of society’s need to label in general, and marketers need identify demographics in specific, those hills have names which apply to all of us, regardless of where we’ve landed. Those names, for better or for worse, are mom bloggers and dad bloggers.

And third?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Even so, I wouldn’t change a single step of it.

Image: Wikipedia

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About john cave osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as DisneyBaby, Babble, YahooShine, TLC and the Huffington Post. He was also referenced by Jezebel one time, but he’s pretty sure they were making fun of him. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their five children and spastic dog in Knoxville, TN. Nothing annoys him more than joke-heavy bios written in the third person, with the possible exception of Corey Feldman.

  • Whit

    I was thinking about writing something similar, the whole Mom 2.0 giving me a second wind on my blog angle, maybe a stare into the future. But, I don’t think that I could say it any better than you did, so I’m just going to tell people that I wrote this post. I hope you’re cool with that.

    • Anonymous

      what i’m really cool with is that anything i come up with might be something you’d even think about claiming. Whit, let’s stay in touch. hit me up anytime you’ve got something you think i should read. it was such a pleasure finally meeting you. i’m betting we meet again, soon.

  • The JackB

    And I’m proud to say that our panel went over quite well in large part thanks to a back-and-forth session my fellow panelists and I had before it began. Through that conversation, we identified that the dad blogging community had evolved to include different prototypes: the community guys, the PR / swag guys, the anecdotal guys, and, for lack of a better phrase, the literary guys.

    I am sorry that I wasn’t there because it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. I am not sure that I would say that there is a well defined dad blogger community. That probably sounds strange considering I have been pushing and pumping the idea but I am sort of uncertain about it.

    It is late and my brain is mush but part of this comes from a feeling that there are hundreds if not thousands of dad blogs and the representation at a few conferences has been from a very small group. The same group more or less each time.

    Anyway, always good to read your words.

    • Anonymous

      i don’t think it sounds strange. that’s pretty much what i was saying. there’s no definition. there are subgroups emerging. but no definition. also, yes, the representation at these conferences has been the same few, no question, but the sup groups that are evident aren’t ones that have been noticed IRL. they’re ones that have been noticed on line. and i dare say there are WAY more than thousands of dad blogs.

      thanks for stopping by.

  • Loukia

    See how fabulous Canadians are? Yay! I’m so going to Mom 2.0 next year. Meantime, I’ll be in San Diego in August! :) Yes, each blogging conference is different, and I take something away from each one. Well, I’ve only been to two, but you know what I’m saying. I just love this community SO much. :)

    • john cave osborne

      @Loukia—i do see how fab Canadians are. i LOVE catherine. she’s SO smart. this will be my last one for the foreseeable future (i probably wouldn’t have attended this one were it not for the panel thing) but it sure was fun. and, yeah, i totally encourage you to get to Mom 2.0. there were a TON of brands / PR professionals and impressive folks there.

      thanks for the commment, Loukia! jco

  • Perfecting Dad

    I appreciate the story from a more seasoned blogger to, probably us less seasoned ones. I am in month three of my journey, following your story line. Trying to make connections, commenting a lot, supporting others. I broke 40 visitors in a day once, a nice little milestone. You said something very interesting to me:

    “To me, blogging was like the economy of a Grateful Dead show. The bracelet guy buys pizza from the pizza guy who buys a t-shirt from the t-shirt guy who buys weed from the weed guy who buys…a bracelet from the bracelet guy. To be a legitimate economy, I felt I had to attract customers who weren’t merely attending the same concert I was.”

    I view blogging, and the whole world, as the economy of the Grateful Dead show. We’re all buying and selling from each other. Do you know how you attracted customers who weren’t in the same concert? I view the niche like a pack of lawyers: Lawyers exist because there are other lawyers. How did it come about that non-lawyers came to a lawyer-party? People always come from somewhere … where did they come from?

    Thanks for the help.

    • Anonymous

      @PD — everyone’s different, right? so i started blogging to promote a book which got written b/c i wanted to be a “writer” (same disclaimer of whatever the hell that means). so are you blogging to connect w/ dads or b/c you have a passion to write for public consumption?

      see, when i use the grateful dead analogy, i mean this: i wanted to get readers who weren’t just into dad blogs or parenting blogs. i wanted to get readers who weren’t merely visiting for the communal aspect of it. again, not that there’s a single thing wrong w/ that b/c there’s not. it’s just not what i wanted, though, it’s (initially) what i ended up getting.

      so what’s happened since? well, writing primarily for Babble, i suppose you could say that i’ve not quite accomplished my goal yet. though, i am writing for a much broader audience than ever before and i do get compensated to write. and writing for Babble is (hopefully) opening other doors for me.

      so, the whole purpose of my (rather self indulgent) post was to say this: no matter what i do from this point fwd, i’ll always be considered a dad blogger to many. and i’m a-okay w/ that b/c i feel like i am figuring out where it is i fit in all that.

      may you do the same, my friend. thanks for the comment…

  • R_Mattocks

    I’m glad you wrote this. It seems to have really hashed out the full range of feelings you’d been going through. I’m glad Mom 2 gave you that burst again – you really have a lot to contribute to the conversation as this post (and many others) give testament to.

    The big takeaway for me this weekend – don’t write for the Grateful Dead crowd anymore – write for everyone outside of that. Blinding flash of the obvious that blew me away.

    Had a flippin’ blast with you, dude.

    PS – nice pic. I blew that thing up and was shaking my head.

    • Anonymous

      pic is solid, no? back in the full-bonnet days. cloth belt. bracelet. earring. the whole beach vibe (that was taken during the summer when i was a pizza deliverer for this hip little trendy pizza joint…)

      thanks for reading. had fun w/ you, too.

  • Patrick (yeah, that one)

    Totally, great post, man!

    Yeah, I’m an ass. But you already knew that. :-p

    • Anonymous

      no one likes a wise-ass, patrick. OH. except me. i like a wise. you fucking wise ass.

      • Patrick (yeah, that one)

        Thanks man, I love you too. :-)

  • Aaron Gouveia

    I’m going to have to start attending some of these conferences. Sure for the networking and to glean valuable tools and knowledge, but I want to hang out with you guys. Get drunk, swap stories and fight Jack to the death.

    When’s the next one??

    • Anonymous

      @aaron — it’s been too long, buddy. i think the next one is in Asheville this summer, though i’ll prolly be out for the foreseeable future. something about our fifth child. how are you? hope you’ve been well.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, man!

    haha, I kid. But it really is. I am doing a lot less reading these days: much of the reason is book-related, but it has to be this way. I can’t worry as much about leaving a comment for every comment I get, unfortunately. Although I ABSOLUTELY appreciate every single one of my readers and I love the community that surrounds my blog, it’s one part of me, and I hope to continue my other writing gigs alongside Suburban Scrawl.

    • Anonymous

      hey, buddy. yes. book-related. i so hope that’s going well! you have a great community around your blog, and that’s a good thing, indeed.

  • Seattledad

    I like this John, thanks for writing it. I have been wondering about where my own blog fits into the bigger picture and whether I should be changing gears a bit as well. Bottom line is that I write what makes me happy right now, and wheter or not that brings readers shouldn’t matter. I am probably as ‘daddy blogger’ as they come, but I consider all the dads in my reader dad bloggers too, whether or not they write much about thier kids.

    • Anonymous

      i’ve told you this a million times, SD, but yours if one of the first dad blogs i ever read (quite possibly THE first), and it’s beyond excellent. this post of mine was quite self indulgent, but i’ve been going through the grind lately and trying to “figure it all out.” it’s weird how much i’ve lost touch of my personal blog, and i’m a-okay w/ it to a certain extent.

      all that said, i think i had a breakthrough where i kinda saw things from 30,000 ft at least as they pertain to what it is i’m trying to do.

      now all i gotta do is do it, right?

  • Dawn

    I confess, the title grabbed my attention because I went to I don’t know how many Dead Shows in the late 80’s/early 90’s, but what you have to say is right. I guess I’m a “mom blogger” but I don’t think of myself that way. There are so many different facets to this whole blogging thing, so many different personalities involved, that really anyone can get into it and find a spot on that hill. Your Dead Show economy is dead-on though (pun not intended). It seems like everyone feeds from the same pool or circle that they land in, and most stay there. I’m also doing a lot less reading and even less commenting these days. Still working on finding a good balance between online & offline, and my blog and others’. It’s a process.

  • Pingback: How Parenting Blogging Is Like A Dead Show Economy | mamapundit

  • Anonymous

    Thanks John for letting us in on your personal struggle to figure out the big picture. I started writing in the Dad space as a means to channel my creativity. I felt isolated from the world in my role as a stay at home father. My life prior to having children was filled with art, late night brainstorming, theater, film, and a fierce independence. Being homebound ran completely contrary to the existence I thought would last forever. Nearly 5 years in as a father, I’ve grown into my role and so too has my writing with all the inherent peaks and valleys. Like you, I’m looking forward to what happens next while not dwelling on the labels of now. Thanks for the inspiration sir.

  • beta dad

    I’ve always loved your Grateful Dead analogy since I first read it in an email about six months ago. I’m glad you finally wrote it down somewhere. It seems like the kind of thing that could use a graphic or animated video too.

    Great finally meeting you in person in NOLA, although I totally felt like we had known each other for ages. I hope you can make it to more conferences in the future, or find some other excuse to hang out again!

    • Anonymous

      beta dad, i, too, felt as if i had known you for ages and greatly enjoyed hanging out. thanks to Grand Finale, i’ll be out on the next coupla conferences, but maybe we can convene at dad 2.0. and thanks for the comment and Grateful-Dead-analogy props. the only reason i hadn’t written it down earlier is b/c i was fearful it’d be taken as a condemnation, which it was not intended to be. nor was it intended to imply that you can’t build a large readership *and* have a huge sense of community. you, my friend, are a prime example of that. keep up the great work, BD, and i’ll see you in cyberspace.

  • Cleaningupclutter

    I so needed to read this right now! My blog is at that very same point, except with my topic (housecleaning), my comments and followers tend to come and go in waves. People comment regularly for few months and then drop off the scene (I think, as they get bored with the topic, though I try to approach it from many different angles). Most of my comments come from people whose blogs I comment on, as well. I’ve been struggling with taking it to the next level. I’d love to get noticed by Babble or other on-line writing communities! How?! What specific things did you do that changed things for you? I’d love your feedback on my blog. (Just throwing that out there in case you do that sort of thing.)

    At any rate, you’ve given me hope to keep plugging away at it. Thank you!

  • muskrat

    Glad to see you flesh this out even more on your blog…I liked hearing the analogy at the session, but I like how you’ve further explained it, and organized your thoughts around it, here even better!

    Besides the debauchery that I obviously love, I enjoy going to these type of conferences because it renews my enthusiasm for writing and blogging, and I always feel inspired and challenged by the folks I meet and the sessions I attend. This one was better for those goals, in fact, than is BlogHer…perhaps because it was smaller, and perhaps because there is a defined “dad group” instead of just a smattering of attendees who stand to pee. Plus, the few dudes who did come are all folks I consider to be friends.

    Good seeing you again…hope all goes very smoothly and painlessly with the birth of #5 shortly!

    • Anonymous

      i agree that these conferences do a good job of helping us find enthusiasm and inspiration. same thing happened to me, here. had a blast, seeing you, buddy… i trust our paths will cross IRL one day soon. maybe, if we’re lucky, you’ll “Talk Dirty to Me.” (inside joke, y’all.)

  • Kate

    John, it’s about time I came out and said hey to you. It’s Katie from Mt. Rainier (remember me? Chipper’s friend? massage therapist to NY Vinny?). I stumbled across your blog via mampundit last year when Henry was in the hospital and you wrote your post “The Trail.” Been meaning to write since.

    Congrats for all that’s come your way! Lovie, Pookie, the trips, new baby on the way, a writing career, … awesome. :)

    • Anonymous

      DUDE. no way. like i’m gonna forget you, Kate. McConnell. how incredible to hear from you. how are you? where are you? i still have my mt ranier pics. was in touch w/ Duncan via FB and didn’t chipper recently visit your brother? it is so great to hear from you. about to check out the link you left behind! (also, weren’t you a masseuse? b/c if so, you may enjoy my most recent post. pls forgive me if i got that part wrong…)

      hit me back w/ an update. and email me any time.

  • Michael George

    Miss Jerry.Love the dead. Great post, keep up the good work.
    Thanks. IStillGotMyGuitar

  • Graham da Ponte

    Thanks for sending this–very helpful.