Someone finally said it. Maybe, we’re doing it wrong. But perhaps not in the way that we think…

Bloggers = mainstream media
At this year’s Eat. Drink. Blog. conference in Perth, one of the highlights for me was Thang Ngo’s presentation on mobile and the future of blogging. In it, he warned us that if we’re not careful, bloggers could be dethroned by a more tech, mobile and analytics-savvy crew. He pointed out that our success, whether measured by google rankings, page views or the less tangible ‘relevance’, is in many ways a happy accident, whereby traditional media dropped the ball – they got online too slowly and we were already there. But complacency and failure to move with the times could leave us straggling behind.

Every day, it seems we are becoming more and more like traditional media, and they are becoming more and more like us. Could punchy, short, media-rich content save us? Certainly it would drive traffic and increase unique views. And then?

There’s more to blogging than numbers
As bloggers, what’s the aim of the game? Is it to be seen by as many eyes as possible? Of course if we write, we want to be read, so it makes sense to know how to ‘be seen’, but as I write this, the top story on News.com.au is ‘Box Office Bombs: the 15 worst movies in film history’, so clearly numbers are not all there is to blogging.

Saying ‘no’ to PRs
Then something significant happened. For the first time since I first attended Eat. Drink. Blog in 2011, somebody got up and talked about working with PR companies and said something other than ‘just do what feels right to you’ or ‘full disclosure’.

Phil Lees, the blogger behind ‘last appetite’ and Social Media Manager for Tourism Victoria, said that in his opinion, food bloggers shouldn’t write sponsored posts, because sponsorship influences the kinds of things they write about, and that will influence their readers.

This was hardly revolutionary, but all hell broke loose in our little corner of the twitterverse. As Phil himself tweeted:

You are an expert
Let me put it this way. PRs contact you because you are an SME; a subject matter expert. You are an ‘influencer’, with a strong brand. But how did you become an SME, how did you build that ‘brand’? Probably through hard work and dedication. Probably through your unique voice. Probably because you were good at finding something or saying something or doing something in a way that others weren’t. In a nutshell, you knew something they didn’t, and you were willing to share it.

So you’re approached by a PR company, and they basically want to co-opt your brand, grab some reflected glow from you SME status. They offer you whatever they offer you to get you to say something about what they are trying to sell. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is also nothing right with it.

Your blog is your space
As Erika wisely said in her recent post, your blog is your blog much like your home is you home. If someone wants to provide you with a product or experience that you wouldn’t otherwise be interested in and you wouldn’t recommend, your rejection of their offer should be a forgone conclusion. And if you do write sponsored content, one thing that you can never say is “I write what I want, I don’t let anyone else influence my content.” That’s impossible. That’s impossible anyway, none of us are un-influance-able. But it’s certainly impossible if you’re writing sponsored content.

WTF does that mean?
I’m not saying that if you do PR posts, you are an idiot or your readers are idiots; that you say you enjoyed x brand of cocoa and suddenly your readership is rushing out to buy it, and your blog becomes an value-less platform for product spruikers nationwide.

What I’m saying is, brands are paying to take up space in our ‘neighbourhood’, to be part of our conversation, a conversation they may have no right to be a part of. On a micro level, sure, you can do ‘what feels right to you’. On a macro level, a broader trend develops with outcomes we may not yet have anticipated. Brands may have presence and prominence and power that, frankly, they may not deserve.

Check out another presentation that blew my mind back in 2011, Journalist Simon Marnie on why authenticity and diversity of opinion is so important in blogging (apologies for the picture quality of the video).

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I for one am rewriting my editorial policy this week.

I’m gonna say it. I’m not a fan of substitutions. For example, you know those lil’ break-out boxes in those terrible women’s magazines you pick up to read on the plane sometimes? They kill me. ‘Want a handful of m & m’s? Substitute….a handful of sultanas. Want a slice of pepperoni pizza? Substitute ¼ of a piece of mountain bread with low fat cheese and a slice of lite ham. Profriterole? Granny smith apple. These are not substitutions, any more than a frozen banana put through the blender is ice cream.

Even things that are similar are not. the. same. Brown rice may be a replacement for jasmine rice, but they are different in many ways. Brown rice doesn’t have the heavenly scent, soft texture and marry with south-east Asian food in a perfect union the way jasmine does. A glass of rice milk is nothing like a frosty glass of full-cream Jersey goodness. Cocoa nibs are not as delicious as a hunk of proper chocolate. And nothing, NOTHING is a substitute for butter, I don’t care what anyone says.

The folks out there telling you that they are sooo looking forward to that second plate of kale chips? Trust me, they’re not. And if you *are* looking forward to these kale-y snacks, please don’t call them chips. Call them dehydrated kale chunks and be done with it. If you’re looking forward to your quinoa salad, by all means look forward to it, but *as* a quinoa salad, not as a substitute for prawn risotto with lashings of parmesan. They’re not even in the same league.

So. I want to eat some cheesecake this week. And even though I still have a few kilos I would like to lose, I am going to have some. This is my actual cheesecake recipe, and it is actually a cheesecake. It doesn’t have a crust, but in all other respects, it is what it appears to be. The secret to making it ‘healthy’, whatever that means, is portion size. Make this into 6 tiny cheesecakes. Oh, and it’s piss-easy. So get baking.

Lau’s tiny baked cheesecakes for non-crazy people

This recipe serves 6 and is best made a day ahead.

250g cream cheese (room temperature)
2 eggs (room temperature)
1/3 cup caster sugar
The juice of one lime or lemon
The zest of one lime or lemon, grated
1 cup of appropriate fruit – I used frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 150°c. Beat the cream cheese, sugar and zest together until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until well incorporated. Add the juice and beat for about 30 seconds. Split mixture between 6 individual ovenproof dishes and sprinkle with fruit chunks.

Boil a kettle. Place the six dishes into a large baking tray and fill the tray with boiling water to halfway up the outside of the dishes.

Bake for 35 minutes, turn off the oven and leave to cool with the door ajar. Remove from oven and, once cool, refrigerate 3+ hours (I made them a day ahead and we ate them over the course of a week).

Whaddya say, chums? Got any legit substitution suggestions?

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Disclaimer: I am not qualified in any way shape or form to give weight loss advice, this post draws from my own experience of balancing food writing and health. It should be taken as the egotistical ravings of a food and coffee fanatic and nothing more.

If you picked up my phone right now and scrolled through my instagram feed, I’d say 90% of what you’d find would be pictures of food, and the same goes for the people I follow. This is not surprising when you consider most of them are food writers, food bloggers, and the food obsessed. Food blogging is the ultimate excuse for gluttony, because every meal can be written off as ‘research’.

Consider if you will, exhibit A – me. I’ve never put on more weight in my life than when I’ve been writing about food. And I’d tell myself, based on meeting up with other food lovers for regular feasts or scanning through my instagram feed, where the world looks like one, continuous, envy-inspiring picnic, that everyone I knew was living a life of gluttony sloth much like mine.

But one day, I started to notice things. Other people would get to the end of a meal and go ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so FULL!’ and I’d be sitting there going “Uh, wha?’ Or I’d notice people did other things besides eating, like going to the gym. Or I’d hear about food bloggers who baked a batch of cookies for their blog, then ate one and gave the rest to friends and family. Immediately. Before the temptation to scoff the lot became too much. Or I’d notice that most people weren’t slowly expanding the way I was.

And here’s the real kicker. I write primarily about coffee, so the majority of my pieces concern macchiatos rather than deep-fried monaco bars. Most of things I eat will never ever be used as content for this blog!

So I decided I’d had enough of this crap.

And I’ve been trying, over the last 6 months, to remedy an attitude that has led me to an unhealthy lifestyle, and to lose the resulting kilos. And reading Thang’s recent post over at Noodlies made me think perhaps my insights would be worth something to someone else. Here’s what has worked for me so far.

  1. Walk everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. To work. Home from work. To dinner, to coffee, to your friend’s house, to the gym and back if you go to the gym. Anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours is fair game. Rain or shine, convenient or not, there’s no better way to stay active than to use your legs as your primary form of transport.
  2. If you can’t have ‘just a taste’, you can’t have it. Know your weaknesses. I believe that there are foods that cannot be part of your routine, or they BECOME your routine. So these foods become special occasion foods. But for actual special occasions, because when life is a feast, every meal has the potential to become a celebration, and that’s not always a good thing.
  3. Drinking your calories is for chumps. A recent study showed that our body ‘thinks’ liquids have a low caloric value, so don’t fill up on juice/soft drink/cappucinos/beer because your body doesn’t ‘know’ that a pint of cider is actually food. Eat your calories as solid food and suddenly, you’ll notice what you’re eating.
  4. Develop your own ‘default setting’. Willpower is finite. The reason making the same choices over and over again gets easier and easier is that you build habits, and habits are hard to break. This means that you don’t have to make a zillion tiny decisions every day, relying on willpower when you’re tired, distracted or hungry. You can still have sprite, or fried chicken, or sleep in and skip your morning jog, but the choice you have to make becomes the conscious one of opting out of your good habits, rather than the fraught one of ‘doing the right thing’.
  5. Variety over quantity and quality over cost. Try new/different/more/tiny slices of everything you can get your hands/mouth on. Don’t let your taste buds doze off, life is waaaaay too short to subside on porridge and carrot sticks. Smaller servings of delicious and interesting things does make eating more enjoyable and exciting, and means that you will miss the feasting/stuffing yourself mentality (that can be, let’s face it, such great fun) less and less.

What about you? Do you have any tips for healthy eating when surrounded by delicious food?

Writing a blog is by and large a solitary activity, and social media, paradoxically, can be anything but. But lately I’ve had the pleasure of becoming, dare I say it, part of a community. It’s a loosely-bound, organic kind of community, but a community nonetheless.

In a time when it’s commonly assumed we’re all living nutso, hectic, increasingly isolated lives, with the breakdown of family values, declining influence of religion, lack of moral fibre and increasing technologification (not a word) of daily life, I find this quite heartening. So I thought I’d take a break from writing about food and coffee today and turn instead to the food blogging community.

How to become part of something
Having an interest makes you interesting, at least to people who share that interest. This is why women’s mags will always tell you if you’re having trouble meeting people, join a club, take a class, or get a hobby. It sounds lame but that’s because they leave out two important ingredients:

1. The interest has to be genuine (verging on obsession helps), and
2. It takes time.


Photo courtesy of Food Scene Investigation

Genuine Interest
Most people can spot a faker from a mile off. I know I can, especially if what you’re faking is my bread and butter. It’s hard to have genuine interactions with people who are liars. But not only that. Say you want to become part of a community based on an interest in… nail polish. You want to really *love* nail polish. To death. Because everything you do in that community will be defined by nail polish. We see this all the time in cults. If you don’t want to drink the kool aid, you have to leave the cult. Your bible study group won’t have much to say to you if you stop reading the bible. I dread to think what I’d do with friends if I stopped drinking coffee. Senhor R and I have often turned to each other and said ‘What would you do with someone who didn’t love food? What would you talk to them about? How could you be in a relationship with them?” That’s it. Right there. That’s why I’m a food blogger and not a nail polish blogger.

Doing the time
This goes hand in hand with the genuine interest thing, because if you aren’t obsessed with something, how the hell are you going to be part of a community based on it for years to come? But more importantly, it takes time to make yourself known. In the case of blogging, no one’s really going to read you that much at first. On social media, conversations, building up rapport, all that stuff – that can’t just suddenly happen. Even meeting people you’ve chatted to online can be weird and awkward, you may not get on. You may not ever meet. But when you’re present – online, at events, wherever, you’ll be seeing the same faces and names popping up over and over again, and yours will be too.

A Community doesn’t have to mean BFFs 4-eva
This is a really important point. I’m not saying you’re not going to meet your BFF food blogging or bible studying or nail polishing – you very well just might. But I am saying that it doesn’t matter if you don’t, and that being your aim is…lame. Because an interest-based community is by definition, based around an interest, it’s fine to meet your community just for dinner, or bible study, or nail polishing, or things related to or based around that. Anything else is just icing on the cake and not everyone’s a fan of icing (or so I’m told). The aim of the game is not to make friends by having an interest. Pursuing that interest is the aim in and of itself.

Why become part of something?
Study after study has shown that being part of the herd makes us want to kill ourselves a little less. It gives our lives meaning, we feel connected. Note I’m not encouraging you to join a clique, with rigid rules, a reluctance to let in new people and a tendency to shun those who don’t follow protocol. I’m talking about a group where people come together to do something, together, that they are interested in, and that gives them a feeling of purpose. But the main reason to become part of a community is IT’S FUN! And yes that warrants caps and an exclamation point.

Are you part of an interest-based community (or as I am now calling it, an IBC)? What’s been your experience?

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