So, big life update: Last weekend, I accepted an offer from ESPN to start and run a TrueHoop website about the Brooklyn Nets, the surprisingly awesome basketball team that just moved here during the off-season. With a lot of help from some wonderfully talented people, I’ll be building, curating, writing and editing this brand new website, to hopefully create a personal, interesting look at why you should give a fuck about this team.
I wasn’t going to take it at first, but everything sort of flipped upside-down in a frantic 72-hour period in which I consulted a ton of my media friends and even placed a call to my favorite journalism professor, whom I hadn’t spoken to in nearly two years, to get his ear. Without being specific, I potentially had another terrific job offer from another dedicated online media enterprise as a staff writer, which involved an entirely different line of work and would’ve had me giving up more or less all of the regular freelancing I’ve accrued thus far in order to work out of their office. Given the team, salary and pedigree, I assumed I was going to take that automatically if the offer came through, but after some gentle prodding I began to think about the ESPN job as a chance to do something much grander and satisfying, inasmuch as I’m getting to use the name and access of the world’s most recognizable sports conglomerate to create the type of sports website that I’d like to read, and that hopefully other people will like to read too. It’s going to be a lot of work to get this up and running, which was part of my initial worrying, but I eventually realized that I shouldn’t bet against myself if other, experienced people seem confident enough in my ability to get it done. Rise to the challenge lest you get complacent with where you are or something like that, right?
I’ve been back in New York for about two months, and it’s been a much better experience than the last time I was around. For most of 2011 I was terribly unemployed and mostly broke, dipping deeper and deeper into my savings and grinding it out for a job offer that never really came; my last weeks were spent in a roach-infested room, firing off dozens of emails and job applications and charging groceries to my mom’s credit card while waiting for the opportunity to cancel my flight back to Chicago. That didn’t happen.
I was — and am — beyond all expected luck to have had the safety net of being able to move back to Chicago to live with a parent who was still invested in seeing me through this writing thing instead of pushing me down a more conventional path; it’s still something that I’m not really capable of analyzing or appreciating beyond some facile recognition of “privilege,” which is technically true but feels like it goes much deeper. It’s exactly like what people say about comparing good parents to winning the lottery, because you did nothing to deserve it. It was one of the things that kept me going when my job prospects seemed a lot shittier: “Things could obviously be so much worse, so quit your bitching and do what you have to do in order to get it together.” (This after I allowed myself to spend a day in bed, pajama-clad, reading Game of Thrones; after that, it was all business.)
I got officially hired by the Wall Street Journal the day I unpacked all of my suitcases in my adolescent bedroom. I was brought back by MTV a month and a half later to do writing for their Splash Page website, and in a jaw-dropping moment of synchronicity, was asked by BlackBook on the same day to become their night blogger, a position that I held in varying capacities for a few months. I could go into all of the little things and unexpected coincidences that had to happen for all of this work to align, but I’d be here for a while. Work with other places like The Classical and Forbes Travel Guide and BULLETT came as the months went on and my connections with out-of-town media people deepened in ways that had never happened when I was actually in New York. After appraising how much I was making I decided fairly quickly that I was more than happy living at home to save up in order to come back, and made plans in the summer to finally get it together by the fall. I found my roommates, found an apartment, signed a lease, had another going away party where I played “Alex Chilton” on the jukebox a few times, and shipped out at the beginning of October, just shy of a year spent back in Chicago.
Which sort of brings me to today, and whatever might happen with this new website. I’m going to excerpt a big chunk of something Mike Barthel wrote last week that’s been stuck in my head (if you’re reading this you’ve probably already read that, but bear with it):
If a new website (or other online tool) fails to attract a large audience, it’s considered a failure, and is abandoned by its backers, who have moved on in search of something more profitable. And it it does attract an audience, then it becomes official, a place where people come to do serious business, and you are expected to do the same. Your actions there are no longer considered experimental or “virtual” but are instead inseparable from your actions anywhere else. They become an expression of your core identity.
The result is the awful kind of congenial politeness you find in offices with low-to-moderate morale, or neighborhood newsletters. Just as you don’t talk about your personal problems at work, you studiously erase any stray lines of personality on these serious-business sites. You post a headline with a link; you say how excited you are to be in a city; you share some small annoyance during your day. You don’t do anything confusing, or playful, or expressive. No weird shit. Keep it light. Everyone’s watching.
The monetization of online space is a big part of this, of course, but the web’s fundamental openness, generally a good thing, is also to blame. You could do these things on a closed e-mail list, or a private Tumblr, or a rigidly friends-locked Facebook account - though not really, and ultimately everyone will want to know why they can’t friend you on the big new social thing - or you could go anonymous or pseudonymous - but then of course if you’re too good at it someone will want to “unmask” (fun term there!) you and you might as well have posted under your real name. Unless you take extraordinarily elaborate precautions, these actions are still tethered to a stable, professional identity you’ve developed, and if they get out into the wild could complicate the image you’ve spent years making hireable.
I’m under no illusion that I’ll be able to keep tweeting excessively inane nonsense as time goes on and my responsibility to ESPN becomes larger. (You should see my Twitter when it was private and no one followed me; just a steady stream of 3 AM drunken koans about trying to find the nearest taco cart.) But an explicit part of why they approached me is because they wanted a writer who could bring more of a voice to this untapped territory of a team with no real history, and synthesize something fascinating out of the micro and macro things that make people love sports. Something halfway between The Classical and The Wall Street Journal, nicely enough, with a hat tip to Edith Zimmerman’s Hairpin and Will Leitch’s Deadspin as examples of how a site can grow around its editor’s personality. (Wildly aspirational, I know, but that’s what’s up!) It’s going to be a learning effort, figuring out how to infuse a website with my philosophy without losing sight of the larger effort, which is to cover this team for this entity. Again, it’s a task I’m pretty excited to tackle while hopefully learning from the pitfalls of websites past.
I mean, here’s the deal: Tons of people in my generation are over-educated, under-worked, wracked with insufferable, unsolvable existential angst unconsciously heaped upon us by every previous generation; we were raised by our baby boomer parents to expect the world, but universally derided by everyone for reaching adult age and Thought Catalog-ing our way through the reality of hitting double-digit debt to become another jobless English major. I’d get it, too, if I didn’t live in New York and caught an episode of Girls. The result is that it’s really hard to me to imagine some life track that follows along a typical path of work, marriage, children, suburban living, etc., because I’m only sort of sure of how everything is working out now. And so it seems almost necessary to take a slightly bigger, unknown risk regarding something that could pay off wonderfully or fail miserably, because it’s not like anyone really has job security, anyways. I’m hoping that you, dear reader, who has sort of followed along my little hero’s quest for the last few years, through good and bad, can sort of see what I’m getting at, and why it has to go down like this. I’m hoping you’ll follow along a little longer, at least to see how this website is going to go down. Updates soon.