On Beginners Helping Beginners and the Paradox of Expertise
[image via Thomas Hawk]
It's been over two years now since I began cycling as an adult and writing this blog, and I still think of myself as a novice: Two years isn't much. Looking at some of the other female-authored cycling blogs that appeared around the same time as mine, I see a similar pattern: The authors start the blog not to give advice, but to share their experiences as eager, clueless beginners. And over time they become more knowledgeable - helping their readers along the way just as much as their readers help them.
This approach tends to evoke polarised reactions. On the one hand, I've noticed that beginners - and particularly female readers who are just getting into cycling - respond to blogs written by other beginners more than they do to blogs written by experts. On the other hand, there is a great deal of scorn aimed at such blogs in some internet circles - mainly on male-dominated cycling forums. The other day I received a link to a venomous thread where the forum members basically take turns quoting snippets from my posts and mocking my writing. It might have upset me, if I hadn't witnessed a near-identical thread attacking another woman's blog on a different cycling forum several months earlier. The bashing we get from these guys is predictable: We are silly, we are consumerist, we know nothing about cycling yet presume to advise others, and our writing is annoying. Whether they have a point is not for me to judge, and it's useless to defend myself against grown men who get off on mocking other human beings. But I'd like to explore the question of why a beginner's writing about cycling can be more compelling to some audiences than that of an expert.
[image via acme59]
Beginners are enthusiastic.
When we are in the process of learning about something new that excites us, we tend to be more interested in that thing than once we already know everything there is to know about it. The eagerness to learn is what drives us to research and experiment, and then to share our discoveries with others. Once the learning is done, that eagerness subsides and we become less motivated to discuss the topic. We become jaded, we know it all. Why bother write about something that is old news to us? Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is jadedness. That is why a beginner's blog - that gushes about things that seem boring or even silly to experts - is more engaging for those who are trying to learn about the same topic.
[image via simplybike]
Beginners offer documentation.
Blogs written by novices are a bit like note-taking sessions made public. When was the last time you felt compelled to take notes on a process you already knew by heart? There is no motivation for it. Doing things like taking pictures of yourself on your bicycle and describing short rides in elaborate detail seems ridiculous to someone who has done it all thousands of times. But to those for whom cycling is a learning process, documentation is helpful. Novice readers seek out blogs that provide detailed documentation, and those blogs are usually written by other novices, precisely because experts wouldn't bother.
[image via mtwash125]
Beginners are more relatable to other beginners.
Today's post from Dottie on Let's Go Ride a Bike provides some great insight into this one. Dottie describes a commute to work that to her was "just perfect," yet to a novice cyclist was an absolute nightmare. It was a funny discrepancy, but also a telling one. After several years of cycling for transportation, we no longer even notice things like exhaust fumes, vehicles blocking the bike lane, car doors suddenly swinging open into our path, and cars cutting us off. Our methods of dealing with these problems become so automatised that we take them in stride: Overall, it is still a great commute, because nothing unusually horrible has happened. But to beginners who are just mustering up the courage to cycle for transportation, other cyclists are no longer relatable once they reach that level of comfort. And this goes for everything - from transportation cycling, to roadcycling skills, to understanding frame geometry, to being able to work on our own bikes. Little by little, we begin to take stuff for granted and stop bothering to explain it, losing the readers who find our very ineptitude relatable. Paradoxically, while experts know more, they also come across as less approachable and they often write about things in a way that is difficult for non-experts to understand.
[image via Bart Omeu]
Beginners are unselfconscious.
As we gain knowledge in any given topic, there is often a degree of self-cosnciousness and competitiveness that sets in. We want to show that we are not "newbies" anymore and so we become more careful about what we write and how we present ourselves - lest the "cool people" make fun of us. But the nice thing about blogs that haven't reached that stage yet is their sincerity. They don't even know what the right vs the wrong thing to say is, so they express what they actually think.
Despite my two years of writing Lovely Bicycle, I feel that I have somehow managed to remain in that state. I am so remarkably uncool as far as "cycling culture" goes, that I cannot even fathom the full extent of my uncoolness. That's one of the things that keeps me going and allows me to continue writing this blog, so as far as I'm concerned it's for the best. I enjoy novice cycling blogs of all types. And I hope that beginners continue to feel motivated to document their growing love of bicycles in their unique, authentic voices without worrying about coming across as silly. Beginners helping other beginners can be of greater value than expert knowledge.