Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Truth About IT Columnists: Some are great but Cringely is not.

This column is in response to Cringely's inane April 18th, 2008 column, found here.

These days everyone in IT is a columnist, a blogger, or both. Is there a difference any more? Easy to use content management systems, the proliferation of tools like blogger and wordpress, and third party advertising networks have led countless thousands to realize that they too can combine a top ten list and a hoary "there are only three types of" trope and kick out a column in less time than it takes to re-heat some leftover pizza. This has led to the production of some of the laziest and obtuse IT commentary in the 38 years I've been reading. It's scary. I'm scared. Aren't you?

So here is my advice on how to select and read an IT columnist followed by a grim list of the 10 most common lies told by bad columnists.

What led me to write this column were the troubles of a DC-based public television network -- PBS -- a storied maker of children's programming, nature documentaries, and pledge drives. Several years ago, PBS spun off a web site and hired a columnist whose name rhymes with "C-R-I-N-G-E" to pen a weekly opinion piece for them. Fast forward several years later, and PBS suddenly has no idea what the hell their columnist is writing about. PBS's good name is sullied with the total lack of insight and formulaic writing that one typically associates with Cosmo magazine. At least if Bob were writing about orgasms and how to pluck your eyebrows the website might actually garner a few readers.

Who does YOUR IT columnist work for? Why did I write that? What does it have to do with the rest of the column? I don't know, and neither shall you, for I will not return to this theme again in this column.

My editor tells me I still have several hundred words to go, so here is my guide to the various types of IT columnists and how to read the most good and the least bad for your invested time.

There are generally three types of IT columnists because that's how much space I need to fill this week. I'll simply label them A, B and C because after Good and Bad I couldn't come up with a third name that made any sense.

Type A columnists are the good ones. They typically know something about what they're writing about. Maybe they have a background as a programmer, or designed chips for a living. Because they have actual experience in the field, they are able to more accurately identify important trends and game-changing technologies amid the overwhelming deluge of breathless enthusiasm and paid hype that characterizes the IT industry.

Sometimes, however, people want breathless enthusiasm. That's why we have columnist B. I already tipped my hand here, but just to make things clear: these are the bad ones. Columnist B is supposed to open readers minds to new ideas about how technology will change absolutely everything absolutely any day now. They also keep a highly sensitive finger to the wind, and serve as an early warning about when the direction is changing. This is called taking a contrarian position.

These days it is doubtful that any Type B columnists can provide any good ideas. They are mostly expert at dinner table conjecture and bong-inspired delusions of profundity. In the early days -- back when your dad was deeply confused by that strange PC jr. sitting on his desk -- people would believe whatever Type B columnists would tell them. Now that the computer industry is mature, people understand Type B columnists for what they really are: some guy living in Charleston who knows how to edit the Windows system registry. Useful if he's your neighbor, but nothing that especially qualifies him to predict the next moves of Google or Apple.

There is another class of columnist that isn't really a columnist at all -- they're editors. But for purposes of my word count, I'm going to refer to them as Columnist Type C. Type C columnists don't actually write columns themselves. Instead, they manage other columnists and tell them what to do. The best ones are like Attila the Hun. Or maybe Ghengis Khan. I'm not sure which cliche is more apt here, really. But you get the idea. Tough. If you get one of the good ones, they can sometimes turn bad Type B columnists into good Type A columnists by making the columnist work hard and refusing to publish sub-standard work.

The best Type C columnist I ever knew was Harold Ross, who is now dead and no longer does columnist work at all. A key part of his success was to carefully read the work of columnists he employed. He was merciless about sloppy thinking, reliance on cliche, and misplaced commas. As a result, columns produced for his magazine were insightful, logically consistent and erudite (look it up). Why do I bring this up? Not sure, but hey -- 81 more words. Now it's 84. 85. Roses are red, violets are farts, I hope I can wrap this sucker up before Lost starts.

I never would have put up with a boss like Harold Ross.

OK, home stretch now. Time for a list and we'll be done:

10 Most Frequent Lies Told by IT Columnists

1) Thirty years as an IT journalist makes one qualified to tell IT developers how to do their work.

2) It doesn't matter where I live. There's plenty of inside dirt to be learned if you know what parts of Charleston to frequent.

3) I slaved over this for hours.

4) No, really.

5) We never, ever simply phone it in.

Ah, hell. Let's just stop at 5 and call it even. My torrent of Too Trusting Teenage Babes #8 just finished downloading. Now both of us have better things spend our time on than this drivel.