Scott Alexander seems to be on the verge of achieving one of my fantasies, of becoming a famous essayist just by posting interesting stuff on his own blog. No help from editors or journalistic insiders, no self-promotional stunts, no celebrity gossip, just writing about serious topics in a way people want to read. This is extraordinarily difficult. There was a first wave of bloggers who got famous largely by being first – Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, etc. – but even some of those had previous and/or parallel careers in journalism. I can't think of anyone who has achieved fame as a sociopolitical blogger – on his or her own blog, I mean, not as part of Slate or the Corner – in the seven years I have been doing it.
Timing, as they say, is everything. I love blogging and reading blogs, which just fit perfectly into my intellectual world, but it seems that I actually came to it rather late, as its glory days were already fading. Now you read all the time that blogging is dead or pointless, and most of humanity seems to have moved on to Facebook or Twitter or something.
But that hasn't stopped Scott Alexander. He emerged from a small internet world of "rationalists" and people who play games like "Dungeons and Discourse" (which mashes up D&D with philosophy and puns), and back in 2011 his posts got only ten or so comments. Now his posts get 1,000 comments and he is regularly cited at Vox and occasionally at the NY Times. He has done all his writing in his spare time, while he has attended medical school and gone through his internship and residence in psychiatry. So I guess it can be done.
I have been thinking lately about why Alexander has been successful at this and I have not. Setting aside questions of talent – in particular, he is a lot wittier than I am – I come up with several reasons. For one thing, he writes passionately about controversial topics. I tend to see both sides of everything too well to believe very passionately in one side or the other, and whenever I write a post with much vehemence I feel embarrassed about it later. As Alexander explained in a great essay, it is controversy that draws attention; this was by way of explaining why things like the Michael Brown case from Ferguson or the Duke lacrosse rape case get really famous, rather than clear-cut examples of police misconduct or campus rape. What elevates something into the public eye is argument, so it is murky cases where partisans can passionately argue both sides that get the attention. ("The less useful, and more controversial, a post here is, the more likely it is to get me lots of page views.") Alexander is plugged into a more youthful internet world than mine, where people passionately debate whether Bernie Sanders is liberal and revolutionary enough to be worth supporting and fling cruel insults at each other like "Nice Guy" and "White Bro". So he takes sides in arguments that lots of people on the internet care about, especially all the war of the sexes stuff that swirls around feminism, "Nice Guys" (aka "Fedoras"), whether nerds are sexist or women are too snotty to date nerds, polyamory, and whether there is such a thing as "rape culture."
For another, Alexander has been very revealing about his own personal life. This I refuse to do, partly from disinclination but mainly because as a husband and father most of the important stuff about my personal life involves other people. Two of my friends, after reading private emails from me about my children, have told me that I should be a parenthood blogger because what I write about my kids is so interesting. No thanks – my children deserve better than to have me broadcast their struggles and foibles across the internet. Ditto my marriage; whatever right I have to reveal my own darkest moments does not extend to my wife. Because of the semi-public nature of my career, which involves lots of work for the National Park Service, there are things I think about archaeology and history that could get me in serious trouble. A little thing I posted about Memorial Day in one small town, which I thought was cute, got me blacklisted by the local historical and archaeological community, and they have since refused to meet with me. So one of the main tricks of the essayist, self-revelation, is largely closed to me.
In a way that is related to both of the above, Alexander has made himself a spokesman for a particular sort of people, nerdy guys who are good at abstract thought and wordplay but can't get a date. I am not at all sure for whom I would be a spokesman, and anyway have never tried.
Plus, he just writes an incredible amount.
Over the past few months I have read through everything Alexander has written at his current blog, Slate Star Codex, and I worked my way back to 2011 in his previous blog, Squid314. I found this fascinating. I don't agree with everything, but then who could write two or three times a week for five years, often about controversial subjects, and always be right? There are some things Alexander says that I think are just wrong (see the nonsense about monarchy in Meditations on Moloch) and others that I think are products of being young in a way that looks silly from past 40. Alexander suffered from being mocked in high school and had little romantic life until he was well out of college, and that certainly sucks to live through, but on the other hand by the time he is 45 he will be a well-paid, respected psychiatrist who probably has a monthly column in some prestigious magazine, having vaulted about twenty rings up the ladder past the jock who was his nemesis at 16, and this makes things look a little different.
(Why is high school so awful? How could we do it differently?)
Anyway, here is a list of some of Alexander's most interesting posts.
Politics and general stuff:
I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Out Group (his most famous post, the one that has been repeatedly cited at the NY Times; my response is here.)
The Control Group is Out of Control (What's wrong with modern science; this has recently been cited in scientific journals)
Meditations on Moloch (Are we trapped in an evil system over which nobody has any real control?)
Superweapons (and here)
Against Dystopian Fiction
Race and the Criminal Justice System
Social Psychology is a Flamethrower (If we took the findings of social psychology seriously, what would we do?)
Social Justice and Words (certain words – racism, privilege, etc. – are not tools of communication but weapons, and we should treat them accordingly)
Why I Defend Scoundrels
About medicine and being a doctor:
Medicine as not seen on tv
The effectiveness of SSRIs
Poverty and Psychiatry (some patients are really suffering from being broke)
How Bad Are Things? (from the psych hospital, they look pretty bad)