Could Blogging Be Hazardous to Your Health?

By Kieron Murphy

Over the weekend, an item in The New York Times (please see In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop) caused a bit of a buzz in the technosphere by pointing out that some of the best known tech bloggers around had experienced severe health problems recently. Out of three exemplars, two had died. Now, that's how to grab the attention of other bloggers.

In his column in the Times Sunday Technology section, Matt Richtel, who covers the Silicon Valley beat, wrote that the stress bloggers experience trying to keep up with the global news cycle may have had a deleterious impact on the lives of three prominent commentators in the tech sector: Russell Shaw, Marc Orchant, and Om Malik.

Shaw covered technology and politics prolifically from his own site, russellshaw.net, as well as freelancing for some of the top online outlets in both fields, including the Huffington Post and ZDNet. His site's motto reads: "Explaining technology to non-techs." Last month, Shaw died suddenly at age 60 of a heart attack in San Jose, Calif.

Orchant blogged about technology and productivity for an equal number of impressive online publications, such as BlogNation and ZDNet. He also passed away from a heart attack, in early December, at age 50 in Albuquerque, N.M. Obituaries relate the sad news of his illness and death here and here.

Then there is the case of Malik, perhaps the best known of the three for founding his GigaOM technology site. Only 41, he experienced cardiac problems in late December but managed to seek care at an emergency room in San Francisco. Malik, a columnist for publications such as Business 2.0 and Red Herring, survived and has posted a blog on his own site about his recovery (Off Topic: What the Past Three Months Have Taught Me).

So, other than being tech bloggers, what did these three gentlemen have in common?

Richtel of the Times thinks that it might be their lifestyle: sitting at a computer all day, eating poorly, and stressing about their status in the online world. He wrote:

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

When asked for a comment for Richtel's column, Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of the TechCrunch blog site, said: "I havenâ''t died yet... At some point, Iâ''ll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen."

"This is not sustainable," he added.

Richtel notes that blogging may have an allure beyond just trying to break stories first (and the ever-present siren call of earning more money by gaining a reputation): the always-on connection. He wrote that this dynamic might have more of a "downside" than obsessive bloggers care to think about.

But does Richtel's column stand up to serious scrutiny? Are his three examples significant or just a statistical cluster?

An online colleague of Shaw and Orchant's thinks Richtel is off-base. After the Times piece appeared online over the weekend, Larry Dignan of ZDNet posted a response in his own Between the Lines blog on Sunday -- Anatomy of a â''Blogging will kill youâ'' story: Why I didnâ''t make the cut.

Dignan said he had been approached by Richtel for comment in the Times column but he was hesitant to cooperate. "When I talked to Matt the theme of the story was clear, but I had doubts about the premise," he wrote. Then he put Richtel in touch with other colleagues who knew Shaw and Orchant better and perhaps could offer more-informed insight into their lives.

Then he offered a contrasting point of view under his own byline:

And that brings me to my point with Matt. Yes, blogging is stressful. Yes, it can be insane. But is it any worse than being a corporate lawyer? How many of those folks dropped in the last six months? How about mortgage brokers? Hedge fund traders? FBI agents? Any job where you gnash your teeth together? We write for a living, yap all day and donâ''t have to wear suits. You could do worse than blogging.

That is a much clearer picture of the lives of bloggers, as well as everyone else, than we are likely to receive from reading more about the "blogged to death" meme in the echo chamber of the blogosphere this week.

So, thanks to Dignan for calling it like he sees it with a modicum of common sense.

Our belated condolences go out to the families and friends of Shaw and Orchant; and our heartfelt wishes for a speedy recovery go out to Malik.

As for bloggers everywhere, we can only suggest that you take this opportunity to push away from the keyboard for a while and do something healthy for yourselves (which I think I will do now).

The Web will still be here tomorrow.

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