Climbing Narc: Harbinger of a Post Mag Era?

The Climbing Narcissist, aka Brian Runnels
The Climbing Narcissist, aka Brian Runnells. Photo courtesy of Brian Runnells.

Climbing Magazine was founded in 1970, and for most of the forty-two years since, print media has been the primary means of tracking the people, places, gear, and ascents of the climbing world. But no longer.

Today, print magazines are just another source amidst a rising flood of climbing media. The Internet is positively awash with information by climbers, about climbers, and for climbers, to the extent that, if one is so inclined, one can consume thousands of words, hundreds of pictures, and dozens of videos every week. For free. (In the months and maybe even years to come, this is one topic I’ll be returning to.)

But is it quality? you’d be wise to ask. The answer is the same here as with the Web in general: Some of it is, and some of it ain’t. Either way, it’s all out there, and you can search it, share it, comment on it, and more. There are videos, photos, podcasts. There are gear junkies, training nuts, and high-on-their horse pontificators. There are perspectives from pros, companies, moms, and everyone else in between. (Some people are excited by the diversity; others, not so much.) Thanks to the communicative powers of the Internet, climbing, like every other topic, is now displayed and picked apart in minute detail from a hundred different angles on a constant basis.

In this brave new world of climbing media, an unlikely hero has come to the fore: The Climbing Narcissist.

When he’s not wearing his blogging cape, the Climbing Narcissist is known as Brian Runnells, a twenty-eight year old software developer born and raised in Wisconsin. He started climbing twelve years ago and started his blog five years ago. In the beginning, says Runnells, he never expected the blog to take off the way it has. Today, he estimates his blog receives around four-thousand visits on any given weekday. Recently, Brian was named the number-one climbing blogger by Outside Magazine.

And as a surefire sign that The Climbing Narcissist has moved beyond the realm of pet project, the Narc has recently launched his very own iOS app. Below a quick Q&A with the Narc himself, a brilliant yet reclusive computer dork (that’s how I imagine him, anyway) with his finger on the pulse of the climbing world.

It looks like your new iOS app is basically a slicker way for people on an iPhone or iPad to get their updates. Is that correct?
That sounds about right.

Is there anything about the app that really changes the experience of browsing your site’s content?
As a native app, I think it provides a much more responsive experience and it makes it easier to really dive in to all the content I’ve built up over the years.

What was the motivating factor behind the app?
The main impetus behind doing it in the first place was a desire to broaden my skill set as a software developer.  I actually started working on the app over a year ago, but various factors led to it taking much longer than I initially expected.

Do you have middle/long-term plans for the app? Features and functionality you’d like to add?
I have a pretty long list of things I’d like to do with the app, but it’s difficult to come up with content for the site and work on the app at the same time, so we’ll see how that goes.

Who actually developed the app?
Much like the website itself, I did all the work myself.

Do you think this app will increase feedback on your site, since people will be able to read from anywhere (the bathroom for example, where there’s nothing better to do than weigh in on a climbing debate)?
I’m actually curious to see how that goes. I would hope that it would increase interaction, but typing on smartphones tends to lend itself to shorter responses. And commenting on the internet is already a perilous experience for moderators (me), so I’ll be keeping a close eye on that.

You’ve been voted Outside Magazine’s No. 1 Climbing Blog; how do you keep stardom from going to your head?
I whisper the words “stay brave and humble” to myself one hundred times each night before bed.

But seriously, how do you feel about that designation? Do you feel that you deserve it? Do you think the idea of a “top climbing blog” makes sense yet? Have we come that far?
I do put a lot of energy and passion into the site, so it feels good to have people recognize that in any manner. I think the idea makes sense, but like any good list one could argue endlessly about who/what deserves to be included. That’s ninety-five percent the point of those things anyway, isn’t it?

Since you are No. 1, does that mean you make enough money off of ads to quit your day job?
If the topic of my site were anything other than climbing, that might be true. If you know anyone that might want to advertise or needs help working on a web-related climbing project that pays actual money, please inquire within. Have computer, will travel.

Does your blogging ever interfere with your day job?
Almost certainly, but I’m a pretty good at multitasking.

Writing is painfully difficult for the Narc, as is climbing...yet he does a lot of both.
Writing is painfully difficult for the Narc, as is climbing...yet he does a lot of both. Photo courtesy of Brian Runnells.

I assume you started your blog out of personal passion — did you ever expect it to grow into something bigger like it has?
Not for a second.  I still remember the early days when I was super psyched to get ten, twenty and then one hundred visits in a day (even if eighty percent of them were me refreshing the page).  Even though the readership of my site is still small in relative terms, I do feel very grateful that it has grown the way it has.

What do you see as your role in the climbing media world? What are you offering that the climbing mags and their websites do not?
My main focus has always been to provide a personal perspective on what’s happening in the climbing world. Through that effort, I think I’ve been able to capture something many people identify with, which is why the site has achieved some modicum of success.

Do you think that print magazines are becoming less relevent as blogs grow in number and popularity?
Magazines everywhere have been marginalized by the internet — climbing mags are no different. I’m not sure what they need to do to keep up with the times, but I know I will be closely following what they do end up doing.  I do think they will always have a place though, but probably not as many of them as there are right now.

Have you encountered any issues with image-use rights? I have had several discussions about what constitutes acceptable use in the age of embedding and linking, and there are a lot of different perspectives. For example, do you feel there is anything wrong with citing a climber’s blog and embedding an image (that they did not take) from their blog in one of your posts?
I actually spend a lot of time thinking about this and I don’t know what the right answer is. I could go on about this for a while, but in general I try to limit my use of other people’s images, crediting them as much as possible when I do.  Whether it’s right or wrong I think most people recognize at this point that if they put a picture online, it’s likely to be used anywhere and everywhere. It sort of turns into one of these “everybody’s doing it” scenarios…

How do you keep track of all the news out there? Personally, I use RSS feeds, among other things, like IFTT.
RSS feeds are obviously a big tool, but social media has increasingly been a place where people are talking about climbing, so I spend a lot of time perusing those outlets as well.

Which of these terms/roles do you most closely identify with: Journalist, Aggregator, Blogger? And why…?
I don’t know what would be a good term, but the one I am most uncomfortable with is “journalist.” I’ve never pretended that what I’m doing abides by any tenets of journalism, and the reality is that little of what happens in the online climbing news sphere has much to do with actual journalism.

Having seen a ton of climbing news come and go in the past couple of years, where do you think the “sport” is headed? Climbing in the Olympics, for example…
The more I read about it, the more unlikely it seems that climbing will make it in the Olympics, but that would certainly be an interesting development on multiple fronts. Otherwise, I think there will likely be a lot of changes with regard to access issues, kids crushing, consolidation of gear companies and the like that should be very interesting to follow.

What do you see as the future of the Climbing Narc blog? Do you see it growing to include other writers, kind of like an Adventure Journal for climbing? Or will it always be you and you alone?
I think about the future of the site all the time, but I haven’t really come to any conclusions as to where it should go. I think the fact that the site has always been a solo venture has given it a lot of flexibility, but this has also limited the kinds of things I can do because one person can only do so much.  Do I try to press ahead and make the site into something more, do I keep the status quo or do I move onto something else?

Do you think it makes sense for bloggers like you to band together and sell ads across multiple sites, as a way to increase advertiser interest and reach a wider audience? Is this a direction you find interesting?
I’ve had discussions about this sort of thing with a few people over the years, but not much has come from it as of yet. I do think there is a lot of value a site like mine (and others) can offer to potential advertisers out there, but trying to frame the message and reach the right people in the industry has been difficult. The Internet in particular is a place where the industry is a bit behind the times in how content creators and companies can work together to create value for both parties.

What blogs and sites do you frequent most?
It’s hard to make a list since I actually visit very few sites directly on a daily basis. I try have as much information as possible pushed directly to me in one fashion or another. is probably the only site I actually go to regularly, although that might change if they make it any harder to browse their site. 

Anything else you’d like to add?
I think people might find it ironic how much I dislike writing given how much of it I’ve done the past five years. It’s almost painfully difficult for me and I’m not very good at it, yet I keep on doing it. Sounds kind of like my climbing career now that I think about it…