on the purpose of blogging

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My first weblog was on the Victoria Freenet in 1995. It was a date-listed series of entries with an archive page and then some other resources on some other pages. It wasn’t a great website by any stretch of the imagination, but that concept of a steadily updated page with entries with some other resources was enough for the Victoria Telecommunity Network to give me their first (and only as far as I know) best website award for that year. It was very maintenance heavy and as a result, entries were short and relatively boring with the maintenance being a subject of many posts. My two thoughts were: this was too much work and is no longer interesting. I stopped after a couple years. I was not to be proto-blogging material.
I took a 4 year break and returned when a friend introduced me to some new software named Movable Type. It was called a “personal publishing system.” It addressed several of the issues I had with maintaining a dynamic online presence, many of which were technical. Ultimately what you need to know is that it became easy and fun instead of tedious hard work.
Before I get into some of my observations, I don’t want this to come across as a stab at businesses or educational institutions that are trying to get into blogging. It’s something as plain as a pencil and it can be for everyone, if it is approached in the correct way. I believe that blogging as a technology has already integrated itself into larger software, and people don’t find the concept all that compelling by itself. It used to be a big deal to know how to do this – now it’s not. We are way past the point of being amazed that you can do it – now we want to know what it is that you have to say.

Types of successful blogs

There are a few different types of blogs that I have seen become successful:

  1. Personal – anyone who has a perspective can share it on their personal blog. It might not have anything to do with current events or things relevant to anyone but themselves and their own lives. That’s fine. A lot of these are private, and then they’re called journals – such as any private blog on livejournal.com
  2. Theme drivenHCwDB, Failblog, Brusheezy, Ilovetypography, Stuff White People Like, etc – these have specific goals for each post and are driven by interest on a particular subject. They can serve as resources or entertainment. They’re pretty popular right now.
  3. Subject driven – Much like Theme driven, but broader, less creative, and can relate to real news on a subject. Sites like Engadget, DPreview and Techcrunch fit into this category.
  4. Expert or authoritarian – This is like the personal blog since it is centered around a person, but where the emphasis is on perspective, the subject is usually external or gives insight into a person or occupation you might not otherwise know much about, but might be curious about. Yule Heibel, Dave Winer, Malcolm Gladwell are examples of this kind of blog.

Ah – you say – where are photoblogs? To me, that is a supertype along with the hideously named “vlog” (video blog). Any of the above can be photoblogs or vlogs – meaning they are photo driven in addition to or instead of the written word. The “resource” blogs bow out at this point – you can’t download an audio sample or photoshop brush from a photo, or at least not intuitively. At their barest, photoblogs are updated galleries, organized and archived by date. When tied together with something else, they both become part of a larger commentary and effect that commentary and vice versa.
I am certain there are many other types, but these are the four most prominent kinds that I have seen. What is common in all of these scenarios is that the impetus belongs to the writer, and it is their own initiative that finds them on the web. They all have something to share – knowledge, perspective, news, humor, commentary, ideas, Illustrator brushes or other digital resources.

Institutional Blogging

When it comes to corporate application for blogs, sometimes people find themselves thrust in front of a publishing system and they’re not exactly sure what to say. Same with educational blogs – why are we talking, and what on earth are we supposed to say? Educational institutions are telling people that they have to blog simply because its part of social media, which is a big deal. Corporations are very guilty of playing “me too!” when it comes to blogs.

Frankly, not everyone is ready to grab the microphone and make a speech. How interesting can a blog that is written simply to be a blog possibly be? At best it is an exercise in typing and using the internet in a general sense. Inspirations and insights are not commonly found in such scenarios. This is like wearing a swimsuit to the swimming pool, flapping your arms around but never really “swimming.” Remember your purpose.

You’re hired!

Lets pretend that you are in accounting at a Pipe manufacturing company. Your CEO has just gone to a CEO conference and has come back, hearing that blogs are “really great.” On top of that, the rival Piping business has a blog. He/She has heard of your skills with computers. The CEO requests that, since you are good with computers and software, you need to start a Pipe Engineering blog. Great news, except that your background is not in piping – you are an accountant. You know the idea is a good one, but you aren’t so sure that they’ve got the right person for it.
What will happen to you is a sequence of:

  1. not knowing what to say
  2. creative paralysis from not wanting to say the wrong thing
  3. possible misinformation
  4. at worst, a blow to the reputation of the company through possible published misinformation

This was a bad idea, and in these situations it is appropriate to say “No, I don’t know the subject well enough. This will effect our reputation in a neutral way at best and a negative way at worst.” Your perspective is always important, but it has to be truthfully relevant. In these situations it is definitely worth finding the right person to do the writing – someone with expertise in the given field of the business who has reasonable writing skills, and who isn’t afraid of working with a communications manager to collaborate on messaging. Sometimes this may even be the CEO, like the case is with Marriott. Perhaps you can simply collaborate with a pipe engineer.

Read between the bloglines

Lets say you are a student and you’ve been told to blog. My first suggestion to these folks is: do it from your own perspective. Do not pretend to be someone other than who you are unless that is the theme of your blog. Role-playing on a public space is just weird unless you’ve spent some good time in drama class, and unless you’re completely comfortable with the idea, you will have trouble taking your insights and translating them into something that you think this character would say. No one is interested in internet posturing – there are countless forums for that where you can safely become a face in a crowd.
The reasons why people read blogs are numerous and varied, but the at the top of the list for reasons usually lays a common one: people are reading your blog because they want to know what you think. You can’t always predict who is going to find you or you perspective interesting, and frankly this idea may intimidate or simply not interest people. That is fine. It’s only when you are interested in putting your own thoughts out there and opening them up to others that you’ll find the exercise at all fruitful. The comments should always be gravy at first – that is, to say, don’t count on anyone to comment for gratification. A lot of the time, you will get what you give. The key here is to jump into the pool and delve into a subject or event that interests you, and hold back only where it is common-sense to do so.

Blog tips

If you have no idea why you are blogging, here are a couple suggestions as to how to make things a bit more interesting for yourself while you are writing:

  1. Be yourself and speak your mind
  2. Write about something you are good at, or something that you are confident about
  3. Remember what matters to you and use it as inspiration
  4. Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to – this will serve both as an invitation for comments, and also as a lead for a future blog post
  5. Reference things that you want people to know about
  6. When you talk about the news, say what it means to you

By matter-of-course your reader will also find things more interesting just because things are filtered through your lens. Remember, for some reason, they have come to read your thoughts so you should brush the hair off your face and look them in the eye.
So for anyone that’s actually made it this far, I have two questions for you that I can’t answer on my own:

  1. If you maintain a blog, why do you write?
  2. Why do you read blogs?

Enough lists – that’s what I think. Good night!

6 thoughts on “on the purpose of blogging”

  1. 1) It’s like there’s this big pool of information out there, and I think I have something to contribute that is no less valid. It’s very interesting to go back and compare your creations to others, and in a way, you learn about what makes yourself unique.
    2) I read blogs like supplements, to fill the gaps in information that I wouldn’t normally get in the day.

  2. 1) the mandate, if you will, for my blog is three-fold. A) To allow friends in distant places to stay in touch with what I’m up to; B) to allow myself the opportunity to hear what I have to say about things. I believe that writing down my thoughts is a great way to think, resolve personal debates, cleanse, and bounce ideas. “Putting it out there,” to me, hardens my opinions and allows me to better understand myself and how convicted I am about what I think. It’s a big step to share thoughts and my thoughts are often less dramatic once I’ve written them down and clicked “publish.” C) To practice and hone my writing skills.
    2) To gain perspective, stay in touch with, and generally satisfy my interest in what’s going on with the people whose blogs I read. Your question alternately proposes that people identify what styles or types of blogs they read: I read personal blogs – very rarely any other type.

  3. Well said, and thoroughly, though for the sake of semantics I’d exchange the definitions of “theme” and “subject”. That’s Just Me, and I don’t mean to take anything away from the definitions themselves, with which I completely agree. This is a great expansion on my “so you’re thinking of writing a blog” page. Will add a “continued reading” link back here. As for your questions:
    1) I can’t seem to stop. Also, if you read, then you are assaulted with my opinion by your own damn choice.
    2) I only follow the blogs of people I actually know. It’s a bit of a one-sided way to keep in touch, but it’s usually all there’s time for.

  4. 1) I don’t maintain a blog; mine’s a phlog. I’ve never intended to truly ‘blog’ ’cause a) I don’t anticipate I’d be able to write consistently enough to keep readers based on general life kraziness, and b) my industry is privacy-thin, even with my backstage position, so my insights will stay my own for now.
    1a) I maintain a phlog for the self-discipline to keep shooting. General life kraziness constantly threatens to push photography down the list of priorities, so having a weekly deadline to post a photo is always in my head. Not as a negative, mind, but as a gentle reminder of how much fun I have finding and capturing the ‘moments’ which pass in front of me.
    2) Personal: to keep up on the lives of people I know (majority), even in periphery. The blogs of folks I don’t know (minority), I usually read for the humour and writing style.
    Theme-driven: ’cause I’m smack-dab in their audience of (typically) easily amused or free stuff moochers. =)
    Subject-driven: I’m able to keep on top of tech (by far, the most prominent subject of my blog reading) efficiently. They do the research, I scan the headlines. I’m lazy.
    Expert/authoritarian: admiration for the person or interest in the subject matter. I’m not getting any smarter, so clearly I’m not reading enough of these.

  5. I don’t blog regularly because it’s so hard to find the time. But now and again there are views I hold and observations I’d like to share — or force myself to be really clear on what I really think. A blog helps do that. And then there’s taking the time to express those views in writing it requires more discipline, thought and creativity than a tossed-off comment.
    I read blogs because I’m curious about what and how other people think.

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