A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Sunday 1 January 2017
The Bohemian Blog started five years ago as a travel blog, featuring short, relatively superficial posts about curious places. Since then, I think it’s fair to say the format has evolved. I struggle to know how to describe it now, and the same goes for myself – in the last year, newspapers have referred to me as a travel blogger, a dark tourist, a researcher, a daredevil, a photographer, a writer, an urban explorer, a historian and even a ‘Pokémon Go enthusiast.’ Whatever you might call it though, TBB certainly doesn’t seem to fit the standard definition of a ‘travel blog’ anymore.
That’s not to say that I haven’t done a lot of travelling this year. Unless I’m forgetting somewhere, I make it 15 countries that I visited in 2016: Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, England, Wales, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
I haven’t written about them all though, despite having plenty of experiences (and photographs) to show for it. Increasingly, my articles are getting longer and more infrequent. It’s not a conscious plan, so much as the result of my ever-growing desire to offer something meaningful.
The average blog post, web-wide, is roughly 500-700 words. Medium.com – one of the largest and fastest growing blog platforms – recommends 1,700 words as the sweet spot for a long-form article (or around 1,100 words, in a picture-heavy post). My shortest post this year (excluding content on The Exclusion Zone) was more than a thousand words longer than that.
Of the 18 picture-heavy articles I published on TBB in 2016, my average word count was 4,100. But I wrote 5,000 words about digital psychogeography in Chernobyl. My post about the Kosovo War was 5,400 words. My post about the Bosnian War was 7,000 words, and I wrote 7,200 about Yugoslav memorials (though none of these come anywhere near the 12,000+ words I wrote for my 2015 article, An Occult Psychogeography of Hawksmoor’s London Churches).
Most web professionals would say I was shooting myself in the foot here… and from a marketing perspective, they’d be correct. My website traffic is lower now than it was three years ago. For me, it’s historically low. But I’m aiming for quality, not quantity – and that goes for readers as well as content. Meanwhile, I’ve watched as countless other websites veer in the opposite direction: shorter articles, more video, the removal of comments sections, catchier click-bait titles and ads (not to mention ad-blocker blockers) everywhere you look.
Particularly in the case of online news media, I have definitely grown more cynical over the course of 2016.
On Experts & Fake News
Back in June, British politician Michael Gove famously commented, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Taken at face value it’s a laughable yet somewhat alarming sentiment; but the more I think about it, the more I’ve begun to sympathise with the idea. It makes me think back to the time when The Guardian brought in an expert on North Korea to claim that an experience I reported having in the country couldn’t possibly have happened. The problem is it did and so that contradiction, for me, served as a caution against being too quick to trust ‘experts.’
Here’s the thing – there are a lot of experts in the world. For any opinion you can imagine, there are qualified experts who’ll back it… and for every expert, there’s another expert who disagrees. Write an article arguing the existence of Bigfoot, do a quick Google search, and I guarantee you’ll find a PhD scholar willing to put their name to a quote. (Incidentally, a colleague of mine recently enjoyed a spree of publicity after making the deliberately sensational claim that humans will be hunting other humans for sport by the year 2200.)
Sometimes, I have played that game myself. Just recently I launched a new tour route, which I coincided with the intentionally provocative article Hunting for Pokémon in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; sure enough, both The New York Post and The Independent approached me for comments. In my personal experience of these scenarios, the journalist will fish for quotes – the more sensational the better – then run them in the article without fact-checking. This method is quick, it’s easy, and if any assertion is later challenged then the expert can be saddled with the charge of misinformation. Quotation marks are the lazy journalist’s best friend; they allow for both sensationalism, and plausible deniability.
Back in 2015 I was invited to write a guest article for Foreign Affairs, about an unfinished city in Cuba. The editor kept pushing me for information that I wasn’t comfortable to provide without resorting to speculation – and their edits put words into my mouth that I didn’t always believe to be true. They added text in one draft, I removed it in the next; but ultimately, the editor had the final say. The finished article is packed full of facts, opinions and figures that don’t come from me, and some that I have never seen a shred of evidence for… but the piece is certainly more marketable now, than it was in my initial draft.
In 2016, ‘Fake News’ became a popular buzzword. But this isn’t a new phenomenon – the more I travel, and the more I talk to real people in real places, the more I’m stumbling into stories that contradict mainstream media narratives. Some examples from the past year:
✪ In April I met a Bosnian who described the Siege of Sarajevo as the best years of his life; citing the sense of freedom, of agency and of brotherhood that it engendered amongst those who dropped their differences to fight alongside one another in the city’s defence.
✪ In Ukraine, I talked with proud Ukrainian nationalists from Crimea who had been quick to vote for Russian citizenship in the 2014 referendum. “We’re still Ukrainian in our hearts,” one of them told me – but with their new Russian citizenship, local wages had shot up overnight. They were convinced that voting for Russia had been the best thing for their corner of Ukraine, and they considered it a mostly fair referendum. Meanwhile, they dismissed the new, NATO-approved government in Kyiv as “Western-facing thugs replacing Eastern-facing thugs.”
✪ Then there were those Syrian refugees I met in Slovenia… who, although thoroughly likeable, were nevertheless doing all the kinds of things that politically correct Western newspapers maintain they don’t do.
The world is complicated, messy, and the notion that history – or news – can be simplified to one linear, digestible narrative is a fallacy. Too often, Western news media chooses one truth at the expense of many others.
This isn’t the fault of the journalists themselves. They’re all just doing their jobs, I’m sure, but the very nature of the news industry is changing. It used to be that they made the bulk of their money through long-term newspaper subscriptions; a model that rewarded deep and thorough investigation, meaningful stories with longevity. But now it’s the online advertising that brings in the big money. Advertisers typically pay out for every click, for every set of eyes that fall on their banner… and a click is a click, no matter whether visitors stay for a second or an hour.
At the end of 2016, there aren’t a whole lot of mainstream news outlets I trust anymore. The more I deal with them – the more I see of their methods – the more convinced I become that authentic reporting is ultimately incompatible with the fast-paced, superficial online culture through which the news is disseminated. It’s not that journalists are out to deceive; but when they’re underpaid and given tight deadlines within which to create attention-grabbing, quick-read articles on incredibly complicated subjects, the results, in my opinion, are very often worse than useless.
The fake news phenomenon didn’t start with Russian hackers, or some kids out in Macedonia. It started when a catchy title became more profitable than a quality story, and it has been snowballing ever since.
On Flirting with Fame
There’s a funny kind of irony in the fact that most people will never know how hard I’ve worked to remain un-famous. The more I get to glimpse behind the scenes of the whole media circus, the harder I fight to stay out of it; and in the last couple of years I have turned down a handful of invitations that many people in my position might have considered their ‘big break.’
I was invited to star in the Red Bull TV series Urbex: Enter at Your Own Risk, for example. I said No. I tried one radio interview but I didn’t like it – so I’ve turned down another three since. I refused a four-figure paycheque for featuring in a TV ad for an energy company (the premise: “our new app lets you control your home heating on the go, and even while exploring creepy abandoned buildings!”). The team behind Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop also approached me for a documentary once, while as for VICE Media… well, that’s a long and bizarre story for another day, but it ends with me saying No.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting this whole thing wrong. My viewer count is dropping, and I still take on freelance copywriting work to keep paying for my travel (yes, I know I could be making more through Patreon if I posted more often – but again, it comes down to my stubborn agenda of quality over quantity).
I do sometimes imagine where I’d be if I had taken every chance I was offered. A friend of mine went down that road – it led to TV talk shows, book deals, and a hell of a lot more money than I have ever earned. But 2016, for me, was the year I finally realised that I wanted this website to be authentic even at the expense of it being conventionally ‘successful.’
However, TBB and its associated projects have become a full-time job; and so inevitably, it needs to generate some kind of income or else I just can’t keep it going. Some travel bloggers sell advertising space, they write hotel reviews or become ‘brand ambassadors’; but I feel such approaches risk turning my baby into a corporate satellite, and so to avoid that I have had to be quite creative in brainstorming more palatable modes of monetisation.
Selling my own creations seems like a noble way to go. For a long time I’ve wanted to get into books, and it might yet be my major breakthrough of 2017; in the meantime, tours have proven to be an excellent idea. And then of course, there’s Patreon.
It was a writer friend who originally suggested the Patreon platform to me, despite the fact that it had never taken off for him. I was dubious, but I gave it a go… and the experience has been quite remarkable.
I know I don’t post as often as I should. I know I sometimes promise an article, but then take months to deliver it. I worry, too, that when I write some stock phrase like “thank you for your ongoing support” on a new Patreon post, it might come across as ever-so-slightly robotic; but the truth is I’m just running out of ways to express my gratitude. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this platform has been life-changing. The money is always helpful, of course… but even when I’m not posting, just the knowledge that I’ve got supporters – to think that 50-or-so people like what I’m doing enough to go out of their way to help me do it – has been a boost to morale on a scale that I never anticipated.
Sincerely, thank you.
Some Resolutions for 2017
I can be a really terrible communicator at times. It can take me weeks to reply to an email, months to reply to comments. I post sporadically on various social media platforms, but not with any routine or regularity. It’s the same here, on the blog – I’ll have a sudden burst and upload a handful of new posts in the space of a few days, followed by silence for a month.
In 2017, I want to get better at this. My life doesn’t lend itself well to schedules, but I know I could be quicker at replying to people. So that’s my first resolution – at least with friends, patrons, the people who matter, I’m going to try and get faster at writing replies.
By ‘work less’ I don’t mean ‘write less.’ I have an awful habit though, of turning everything I do into ‘work.’ Even though my job now consists mainly of planning tours and writing about subjects I find fascinating, I still manage to drive myself to the point where it often feels like an arduous, gruelling task. I need to stop doing that. This next year, I’ll try to use the word ‘work’ less, when talking either to myself or to others about what I do.
…and no new projects.
After all the progress I’ve made this December, setting up new projects, I already have my road map for the year ahead. I’ll be managing the Buzludzha website and writing on Rasputina, in addition to running this blog. Sometime soon I’ll think about self-publishing Eternal Glory – and that’s in addition to various tours I’m leading throughout the year.
It’s a good plan for 2017, and it’s already a busy one. I need to resist the temptation to add more to it.
I will finish this post by wishing you all a very happy and successful New Year. Be well, be positive, and try to stay sane… even as the world sometimes appears to be going completely mad. And keep in touch, too. A few of you I have regular email conversations with, and even if my replies are sometimes slow, I really enjoy it. I would love to get to know more of you in 2017, so don’t be afraid to send me a random email sometime.
The Exclusion Zone.
The Bohemian Blog is bigger than it looks. In fact, there’s a whole restricted area hidden away behind the public pages… a space where patrons of the site can access exclusive content, book previews and private image galleries. It’s called The Exclusion Zone. Just sponsor me the equivalent of a cup of coffee for each new article I post, and I’ll send you the password. Check out my page on Patreon to find out more about the perks of getting involved.