Me and the Mustard

Mmm...mustard on daikon/carrot pickle (do chua)
Image by Jeffrey W

Much has been said good and bad about using the first person singular — me, myself and I — in social media and other forms of writing. It’s a voice of free expression or the epitome of narcissism.

So what should an aspiring writer do?

The first person voice provides a narrative view or discussion with the author as a keep participant in the post. The author’s point of view is clearly presented. But because of grammar weaknesses, traditional writing courses still frown upon me, myself and I, and encourage third person pronoun usage.

Initially, when blogging became popular first person singular usage was viewed as a breath of fresh air, infusing personality into a world of stiff, formal business writing. The new perspective was delightful, offering unprecedented insights into corporations with well manicured images and boring messaging.

But then Internet fame happened. Some bloggers took the acclaim seriously, and the “Is” flew more and more liberally. Sharing personal experiences became excessive, and writing became an act of self embellishment.

A backlash has begun. Cries of narcissism and even self loathing of narcissistic behavior have arisen. Studies show that while initially popular, narcissists lose traction in deeper meaningful relationships over time. In that sense, blogging provides the perfect cover for the narcissist. The relationship with readers is shallow, yet the admiration is public and highly visible. So close, yet so far away.

Does that mean the word, “I” is the tip-off, a sign of the self-centered soul? No, not necessarily. The first person singular can be used well, to share personal experiences of value, to highlight what one person did, and how those events turned out. It can even be used to express the opinion of the voice, which can be highly entertaining if they are a bonafide subject matter expert.

Like all things, if one intends to partake, healthy moderation makes it go down easier. Since it’s the Fourth of July, consider the traditional hot dog. How good is a hot dog drowning in mustard? It’s not (of course, some reader will protest). Basting a hot dog with too much mustard spoils the taste of the meat, the roll and other condiments. It’s all mustard and that’s no good.

If one intends to blog first person, it takes a deft hand. Like the hot dog, first person is best done in moderation. It should present a point of view, rather than becoming the center of discussion. Frequency is a big tip off. An average of one I per paragraph or less shows an experience, but an average of one I per sentence is pretty blatant in its self centeredness.

What do you think of the first person singular?

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  • http://toddrjordan.com/thebroadbrush tojosan

    Great read! Good reminder for those getting started these days.

    • http://twitter.com/geoffliving Geoff Livingston

      Thank you, Todd!

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  • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

    People have grown overly scared of using the first person. Some fear is good, because we should always be wary of becoming navel-gazers, but on the other hand, as you say, conversation is what we’re here for. 

    A lot of it comes down to uniqueness…what can you offer that no one else can? You’re always justified in using the first person then. Still, it takes courage…

    I love the metaphor. Reminds me of a post from one of your recent guest bloggers about planning social media the way one plans a meal (http://bensonhendrix.com/2009/09/18/entrees-and-appetizers-%E2%80%93-social-media-iron-chef-style/). I don’t know that he ever got around to the condiments … but mustard’s the perfect example of one where a little is all that’s needed.

    Great post as always, Geoff! Keep up the good fight.

    • Anonymous

      All I can say is my traffic picked up by about 50% after I stopped blogging with the first person on a regular basis…

      • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

        First person definitely turns off a fair number of people. Also, what tends
        to get codified (by being rewarded in search engines, Quota, etc.) are
        “authoritative” articles (ie, not fluffy solipsisms), so point well taken
        there. It’s partially my journalism background and knowing well the myth of
        objectivity that just makes me wish more of our individuality was reflected
        in our posts and makes me suspicious of things written in the third person
        simply to avoid being a target (to be clear, you walk this line
        beautifully–thinking more here of the content farmers and such). I’m
        agreeing, though, really–it’s definitely not the fashion for writers to be
        visible in their work, and I say that as someone who has been called a
        “douchebag” for writing about myself. If we’re not here to hear each other’s
        voices, though, then what are we here for? Provocative questions here–will
        definitely hope to hear others weigh in. Thanks!

      • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

        Quora, anyway. #darnautocorrect

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    Danny would like Geoff to know he thoroughly enjoyed this post and he has instructed his robot Colin to advise of this via the comment section. 

    Danny would also like to agree that too much “me, me, me” makes one sound needy and in need of a good kick to the gonads. Danny may send Colin to do this deed to those deserving of it, if Danny remembers to oil Colin before going to bed.

    And no, that is not a sexual allegory, although Colin feels Danny would make a passably attractive robot.

    But that’s another story and Colin it tired. :)

    • Anonymous

      LOL. Say high to C3pio for me.

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  • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

    Good food for thought, sir. Thank you.

    In a similar vein, I tend to focus less on writing in third person than I do on avoiding the second. It bugs me to share ideas in terms of “You need to do this,” or “then you want to do that.” Who am I to tell YOU what to do or how to do it?

    To that end, I really like thinking in terms of WE.

    • Anonymous

      I like plural first person. It is a strong approach, a community approach. Agreed!

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  • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

    I’m late to this, but agree completely with Brian. It’s offensive to me when a blogger states their opinion as fact, or speaks to their readers as if they are school children. In those cases, a few “I”s would be welcome! But as with anything, moderation is key.

    • Anonymous

      I can see that. How do you feel about opeds in the newspaper?  What’s the difference?

      • http://soloprpro.com KellyeCrane

        Great analogy. Interestingly, sometimes opeds get on my nerves, too (for the same reasons). Perhaps it’s a personal problem. :-) But seriously, I think it’s all in the delivery. You’re one of the good ones!

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