Essays on Technology and Culture

Beyond Obsession Times Voice

I’ve found myself thinking back to the Gruber-Mann Theorem of Obsession Times Voice (see also Gruber’s essay), and my work. For those unfamiliar, the Gruber-Mann Theorem of Obsession Times Voice is a strategy towards creating good, and successful content on the Web, and elsewhere. Find your obsession, find your voice, and combine the two in whatever you make. Don’t worry about the money—worry about making something good. The money situation will sort itself out, assuming the stars align in the right way.

This is valuable and true advice. I don’t disagree with it in the slightest. I’m thinking about the Gruber-Mann Theorem, and how it relates to my work, in a different way. After ten-plus years of making stuff for the Web, I’ve found a voice, but I’ve come no closer to determining exactly what my “obsession” is. Over the decade, this site has gone from a personal blog, to writing about books and literature, to a focus on “technology and culture”—which is to say not a focus at all. I do have obsessions, the band DEVO being one, but I’ll need to get in line behind Michael Pilmer there.

In the SXSW talk that defined the Gruber-Mann Theorem, Merlin suggests not just starting “a blog about Star Wars,” but a blog about “the third Jawa from the left.” It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek advice. The’s only so much you can say about one Jawa in one scene. Though you don’t need to give consideration to reaching the widest audience, you need to give consideration to whether you’ll have enough steam with your theoretical obsession to make a go of it in the long-term. Part of why the lit-blogging period of SansPoint ended when it did was that I just ran out of steam. I didn’t have much else to say about books, writing, or literary analysis. There’s certainly people out there who have that covered, though. More power to ’em.

How many of us have a driving obsession that we can continue to make stuff about, day-in, and day-out? I don’t know if it’s that many. I think about Patrick Rhone, as an example. He’s a man of multiple passions: technology, theater, and handwriting and notebooks, and splits his online presence among a couple of silos for these obsessions. The silo approach works for him, but I’m not sure it works for me. I care a lot about technology, but only in certain sense. I care a lot about culture, but only certain forms of it. I could split my writing and thoughts on both between two silos, but I don’t like the idea of spreading myself out that thin—it’s part of why I cancelled Crush On Radio. For those of us with multiple things we can claim as our “obsessions,” we need some other theorem.

“Obsession Times Voice” is just one strategy towards creating great work and building an audience, but it is not the only one. We can ask ourselves questions about an ideal audience, though all-too-often, audience is bogged down in “monetization,” which leads to clickbait and viewing your audience as mere vehicles to clicks. It’s nice to be like Myke Hurley and not care about the numbers, but when you’re out there trying to put your name, face, and your thing in front of people—and when you’re trying to find the right people to put it in front of, the numbers are going to matter. Even if you’re not trying to necessarily make money. Just the satisfaction of knowing you’re reaching people, and that they’re coming back for you, goes a long way. And, yes, it can help you make money if you want to. (I do, but not by compromising what I want to write about, which is a tricky balance to find.)

There’s other things we can consider instead of just “obsession.” “Purpose,” for example, and to Ben Broeckx. It’s one thing to write about technology, and even if you have a distinct voice, the space is crowded enough that a voice alone is not enough if you’re just writing about the same five topics the big sites and big names are covering. If you’re trying to change how people think about technology, on the other hand, you may have a chance to be spotted. There’s “experience” or “knowledge,” which is a big part of the value add of both a Dr. Drang, and a Ben Thompson. People come to you to learn something. Perhaps there’s more, and these are all multipliers to Obsession on top of Voice. I’m going to keep thinking about this in the back of my mind, and try to find, if not the Obsession, Purpose, or Experience that I can multiply with my voice, I’ll find the other noun that fits the equation.