BEST PRACTICES, a repost of 12 YEARS OF WEBLOGGING.
These items were originally posted piecemeal – paragraph by paragraph, section by section – in 2011, on the 12th anniversary of my personal adventure in blogging using Userland Manila software. They exist as such in my archives at dangerousmeta.com. Now that I’ve shuttered my blog after eighteen plus years, I’d like to give newbies a leg up. In reading some current startup/best practices books, I realize the below post contains experiential lessons you’ll pay many a $20 bill for. Save the cash and read this.
This post has remained one of my more popular items, well over 100k views now.
I've done a mild edit here (adding some clarifying titles), removing some really aged, out-of-date info and rearranged a bit. I'm leaving the software mentions in the RSS sections intact, as a record of what we were using at the time.
December 22, 2011, Santa Fe, NM.
And so, this weblog comes to another anniversary. Twelve. Good grief.
There’s subtle pressure that grows as each year gets torn off the calendar to write a ‘definitive’ post about weblogging when one celebrates significant anniversaries. Personally, I think it’s often a free load of horse manure, because so many can swim in rich environments like the internet and come out with neither remarkable knowledge nor well-earned wisdom ... but some seem to find delight in dregs of demagoguery when duly dished up each decade or so.
What the hell. You’re my regular readers. I owe you something better.
Let’s rip the roof off this place.
WHAT I'VE LEARNED FROM 12 YEARS OF BLOGGING.
These are in no particular order, really. Subjects came to mind as I was reminiscing, and readers suggested some topics.
Read blogs and doubt, for God's sake. We are largely editorialists without the pedigrees you find at the major news outlets. The news media considers us vultures picking meat from the bones of intrepid journalists who collect the information first-hand. It’s a cute metaphor, but it points up something vitally important. We’re making judgments second, third, fourth-hand from the actual originators. Read us, yes. Then go on and test our statements as hypotheses, not declarations of fact.
Never accept a single blogger opinion. Never. Probe, question, pursue, poke, prod, compare, contrast, doubt. Our reality is not yours. I’ve linked stories and commented based on my memories, only to find my memories have been flawed. Or found my sources have not been the best. I am far from perfect. A weblogger is neither a clairvoyant nor a deity. Lots of bloviators around these days, sure. But deities, no. As a blogger, I’m just another schmoe trying to figure out life, love and the universe. My weblog is not a pious sermon from a pulpit — more the rabble-rouser on a soapbox on the street corner. Even more, any of my blog posts are an invitation to join me in the quest for knowledge. I like to drill down to new material, no matter if it is self-sourced or added by my cherished commenters.
If any blogger does not allow you to approach them as a fellow human being, rather requiring worship from you, their peon audience — don’t give them the benefit of your readership. They don’t deserve it. Weblogs were intended to be a democratizing medium, not one to build an aristocracy upon. Hold your favorite bloggers accountable, and wield that guillotine on the aristocratic necks with abandon. Cut the self-important individuals from your blogrolls and aggregator lists.
Read blogs and get ruddy pissed off. Don’t just read weblogs that agree with you, or that you agree with. Curiousity is a huge driver of my own blog-reading, and that curiousity drives me to dive into political, religious, environmental, psychological and other blogs whose opinions I oppose. It’s a painful experience oftentimes, downright bruising, annoying, maddening. In just about every case, however, it's been invaluable to refining my own outlook. So mix it up. It is a habit I highly recommend. Take those deeply-held beliefs of yours, drag them out into the light, rip off their comfy sweatpants and slippers and test the buggers. Shove them into the milieu and make them hold their own. Oh, I know it’s painful to have to shift beliefs. But with enough evidence, enough contemplation, enough personal integrity, you’ll find your opinions can indeed improve, get better, over time. Facts stay the same, but truth shifts around.
That being said, not every opinion deserves an ear. The shifting moral relativism you see on the internet these days can easily slide you into the ooze. You can spare time to hear the opposition, but there’s no reason to voluntarily wade into the malarial crocodile-filled bogs of bullshit.
Approach political commentary with reasonable caution. Our modern world has slowly become more binary, liberal/conservative, with little crossover between either. One can’t even play Devil’s advocate without getting a sharp stick in the eye from one of your compatriots. If you’re ever going to try building a startup, don’t — repeat DON’T – blog on political subjects. You won’t, for the most part, see a single A-lister of the blogging past doing so other than for great popular humanitarian or human-rights causes. If you impetuously post spicy political prose, at any time in your blogging career and someone finds it in the Wayback Machine or just Google itself — you’ll be abandoned at the Church of Capitalism's altar if your opinion doesn’t exactly jibe with your investor(s).
[Addition, 2018] This is a veritable minefield you in specialized niches really don't want to touch, esp. these days. I've seen everything from parakeet aficionado sites to popular mommyblogger sites devolve into cagefights over a throwaway political comment. Often audience numbers and overall saturation never recover. Never mix business and politics on the open internet, unless politics is indeed your business.
Risk. You know, simply waking up and swinging out of bed entails a certain amount of risk. How much are you willing to bear? How much risk do you take daily, without even knowing? I’m assuming everyone knows about the comparative risks between driving and flying.
I think of my earliest days, staring at that blank TEXTAREA and powerful little SUBMIT button, wondering what I dared to say in public. I expected any statement I made to bring an instant cascade of judgment and opposition, and I risked very little. Once I began posting, noone came by to look. I realized I was just another tiny fish in a huge pond. This encouraged me to risk more. Eventually intelligent people began to take notice of my posts, and I ran into the now-familiar situation where my mouth ran ahead of my brain, and I ended up in a flame war on my own weblog. Instead of being scorched, I came to realize something key.
Readers care about what’s being said, yes. But even more, they care about who you are.
You can hear them asking, “Are you REAL? Do you have INTEGRITY?”
I believe my answer to these questions has always been “Yes.”
How much should you risk revealing of yourself? Only you can answer this. The only thing I can do to help is to give you my rough-and-ready rules — if it shouldn’t be said in public, if it shouldn’t be said at a gathering of friends and family, it shouldn’t be said at all. What I post here is exactly what I will express to anyone’s face without hesitation. If you post outside of the courage of your convictions, then you’re better off dead if you haven’t yet died.
How much should you reveal creatively? If your competition reads your blog, you’d be a fool to expose trade secrets. The new ethic of ‘personal branding’ requires creatives to strut their stuff, to brag a little. In this I’m a little old-fashioned — I don’t crow and strut unless I’ve got something devastatingly successful to brag about. The inner perfectionist wars with the weblogging spluttergut. You’ll have to go elsewhere to get better takes on this, I’m afraid.
There is risk for people in business. Many spend too much time trying to be friends with everybody and forgetting about their primary business. I’ve seen it happen too often, esp. with the social media. I’m starting to see a backlash now, clients walking away from social media because ‘friends’ want freebies, discounts. So for those in business, monitor your time investment. Note I’m not talking about ROI, which has been poisoned by the social media promotion society — I’m talking about making sure you’re doing the real work that feeds your business, whether you’re a garbage collector, web designer or President. If you’re blogging or Twittering your edge away, losing money because you’re spending time not doing your primary business, you need to take a giant step back and consider what your priorities are.
The last risk I’d like to mention is that of social isolation. I see both social media aficionados and new webloggers falling into this trap. Your most compelling experiences will happen away from the computer or smartphone. As Groucho said, “I love my cigar, but I put it down once in a while.” I call it my “Marxist rule”. The internet will always be there when you come back. Never, ever trade interacting via computer for having a great time away from the internet. If someone tells you differently, look at them closely — very closely. You’ll often find another addicted, multitasking, frayed-at-the-edges individual trying to keep everyone happy while puffing their egos as large as possible. The effect is quite literally like seeing someone who took a laxative and a binding agent at the same time. You’ll want to keep your distance, in case they finally and completely explode from the pressure. I myself flew too close to the flame, and wised up just in time. So listen to the voice of experience. Step away from the computer. Turn off the smartphone. Go have some FUN.
Only after you’ve gone out and kicked up your heels and are basking in the afterglow, bring it back and share it.
Monetization. Cha-ching, cha-ching. Not everything needs to be, or should be, monetized. Virtually all ‘blog’ related articles nowadays are focused on turning your weblog into a money generating device right from the get-go. None of the folks I know got into weblogging for the money – we did it because we loved the form, the community. Big plans for startups came after the love of the medium. Blogging gave birth to ideas — and that's one of the things I so love about weblogs.
What particularly drives me crazy is bloggers so desperate for cash that they stuff ads interstitially between posts. I’m reading, dammit. Don’t disturb the flow. I don’t care what kind of knickers are on sale.
I’m not against people who make money from their weblogs, mind you. Just how it’s being done. The passion must come first, the monetization later. If the former’s missing, the beautiful alchemy that is the internet will never reward you with the latter.
False optimism. Happy-happy, joy-joy, everywhere you look! I don’t buy into this whole ‘optimism’ schtick that’s being marketed on Twitter, and bleeding over into other social media and weblogs. Life is life – sure, you want to make the best of things, but endless posts and tweets oozing with unctuous insincerity, never acknowledging challenges in life, just serve to stretch my credulity to the breaking point. Just what the internet needs – a blathering class of earnest used-car-salespersons. They are everywhere you look. I find it unbelievable, really offensive.
With the economy the way it is, consumer shizz being made so badly, people are looking for authenticity in all things. I hear it over and over again from commenters, fellow bloggers, clients. It’s worth saying again: Authenticity. Capital ‘A’. We ain’t seen it much lately. I get grouchy, get mad, bleed. I can be a terrible cynic (gee, what am I doing right now?). I share these things online. I presume my audience is adult enough to deal with these realities.
I can’t really wrap my head around any particular event that encouraged this behavior, but now everyone seems to want to portray their life and work as a bottomless box of Sugar Puffs. After just a day of following tweets, my pancreas is pinching something awful. After a week, I’m projectile-vomiting from the glucose overload. Am I the only one? I suspect that, in the absence of an individual having any real character to share, optimism is the second-easiest thing to score some followers with (the first-easiest being sensationalist baiting).
The internet’s all the poorer for this situation — share your warts. There are plenty of us nobbly nincompoops to appreciate it.
Procrastination. An anonymous individual asked me to address this. I feel I must be candid: Procrastination? In weblogging?!! Are you kidding me? I have the hardest time not weblogging.
If writing for a blog is an Himalayan mountain climb, or having your appendix out sans anaesthetic – you’re in the wrong biz. Give it up. Find another schtick. For the rest of you, dive in. Follow the Nike recommend: Just do it. Act. Get it written down, get it linked, save it as a draft. Ruminate, but not too long. Post. Take the accolades and the flak. Do it again. Learn. Trust serendipity, it comes more frequently than you think. Remember to enjoy the journey.
Add value. If you’re writing a weblog, this is the MOST IMPORTANT piece of advice I can give you. Value can be as simple as giving context for those too lazy to type ‘g-o-o-g-l-e-.-c-o-m’, perhaps adding enlightening photos, or it can be as entertaining as crafting your own tartly-phrased opinion.
I like to find extra information, a second link for a link-and-comment post, that gives more than just context — something that twists the common preconceived notions and causes a reader to question their own viewpoints. We are still a culture of stereotypes and archetypes, and these are terribly fun to demolish with a few well-chosen words and links. The comments you’ll receive will, I guarantee, be even more entertaining. Be ready with your flame-proof suit.
[2018 addition: A new priority. Emphasize 'signal' over 'noise'. Are you simply posting overpopular memes, or are you generating some curiousity, encouraging deeper understanding, spurring lively discussion, etc.?]
Attribute. Always. Religiously. Scrupulously. It’s the coinage of the realm, the grease in the gears of the metacosm. If you don’t, you’re killing the very voices you love to read. So many great character-filled bloggers of the past are gone, from dying on the vine. They gave their best, never got attributed, and subsequently lost interest, lost faith, lost the thread ... and left. When’s the last time you saw anyone do a two- or three-source attribution? Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. Even folks who preach attribution don’t do attribution to the extent it should be done.
You’ve got to care, you’ve got to share.
Always answer commenters. Whether positive or negative. They came all this way and spent the time to compose a reasoned response into your weblog. The least you can do is thank them by answering. Regular commenters are my pride and joy.
For the ugly, angry commenter — engage. Wade in and entangle while blocking. Rephrase the argument, and serve it back to them to be sure you understand their point(s). Their anger can make it difficult for them to be clear. If you're wrought up over it, take a walk, then answer. Through the back-and-forth, you’ll often find common ground. You might even pick up a new regular reader.
Few today are taught to consider the tone of their online comments, and as such, most only know how to insult when their deeply held beliefs are crossed. I’ve run across quite intelligent, eloquent people who betray unbelievable potty-mouths when crossed. Out of their insecurity, they make their angry rejoinders permanent, pervasive and personal. You’ve crossed their line, and they want to hurt you with words as much as they've been hurt. Precious little nuance these days. Pity them, do what they cannot – empathize. I am not including those who wish to be educated through outrage. There is a subset of commenter who, in their self-recognized ignorance, approach a blog post with a spew of invective which is really a desire for no-commitment effortless education. They want someone they respect (funny way of expressing it) to tell them what/how to think about a subject.
Then there are those in their self-absorption and egoism determinedly talk past you or any point you're making. I keep in my arsenal of comment-recommendations one useful rule: Any argument in my comments can be settled by agreeing to disagree. Simple, elegant.
Lastly, when you’re wrong, say so. Clean, clear, unequivocal. Doing so has won me more faithful readers than most would believe, and I've learned absolute gobs more than I would have being a stuck-up righteous prig. Modern blog advisors of my acquaintance want bloggers to seem omnipotent — they’re doing you a disservice, IMHO.
Never, ever be afraid to express character. I'm going to re-emphasize authenticity. What are we, but a complex beautiful messy amalgam of wishes, hopes, wants, desires, dreams, psychoses, fears ... all these things and more? What makes you unique? What makes you different? Strut. Wax eloquent. Moan and groan, if necessary. People love Eeyore, A.A. Milne’s chronically depressed donkey. Surely they’ll at least like you.
All the best webloggers are profoundly effective conveyers of their character. It is not a kilobyte-accurate copy of their lives and personality, no — we all edit ourselves, censor the more private parts of ourselves. But it’s as close to authentic as you’ll get across a fiber optic or copper wire.
And writing in authentic character is sure as hell fun.
Popularity is, as popularity does. You will be popular, at some point in your blogging career. How will you bear that popularity? Will it go to your head? Will you be magnanimous and share the success? I have been popular in the past, and spent all my time trying to hoe my particular row faster, better. I spent so much time digging, my ‘niche’ grew away from me, before I even realized it. Others are branding eclecticism and curation. This blog is not a business, yet I need to adapt to the metacosm as it exists now.
If there’s anything my experience can advise you on this, it’s to keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t ignore trends. If you’re diving in the ocean of your niche, pop that head up once in a while and look around. Popularity will come and go, ebb and flow – and keeping a weather-eye open will allow you to ride it to best advantage. You need to keep moving and changing. Staying still makes you food for the carrion-eaters.
Always, always, always know your reason for weblogging, and stay true to that reason. When you do that, the lulls in popularity will bother you less. My reason for weblogging is to fulfill my boundless curiousity for all things. What’s yours?
Opportunity. The blog form remains pregnant with opportunity, IMHO. I remember back, oh, about five years ago I was discussing the metacosm with Rebecca Blood, and I was predicting that the future of blogs might end up in ‘self-selecting groups’ of bloggers, and emphasized the importance of local blogging. It seems for once I was correct — only there’s a much simpler terminology for it. ‘Niche blogging’ has taken the internet by storm. Each niche has their stars, their own A-listers, their own ‘beauty pageants’ to celebrate their best and brightest. And everyone knows ‘local’ is now ruling the search engine game.
Just because I got one or two right, doesn’t mean I have any guarantees of being right again. I’ll venture a guess, however: the intersection ebooks and weblogs seems a match made in heaven. The ebook form-factor is an artificial barrier to what a weblog already can be — an interactive book. Also, the potentials of video/audio/text mashups is terribly exciting, especially once HTML5 gets fully vivified.
I think attention spans are going to continue to shrink, ebooks will become bite-size to accommodate the market. I see a confluence. Eventually, writers will finally get comfortable with the blog format, and readers will wise up that they can get the same information as an ebook without a middleman — by finding it in blog format.
Noone will really need an ebook reader, I suspect it's a temporary form-factor. Tablets, in many different forms, will rule.
Time will tell if I'm right once again.
Search Engine Optimization, the indulgence of 'pro blogger' sites all over the world. This last little gripe gives me a rumbly tummy. SEO and all the psychoses that go along with it. "Search Engine Optimization", for those of you who've been living under a rock for the last couple of years. Let’s do this fast, to reduce my intestinal distress, because I’m sick of hearing about it:
I post an item on this weblog, Google and Bing pick it up inside of 30 seconds.
How did I achieve that? Backlinks? Keyword stuffing? Spraying chicken blood over my keyboard? Black hat SEO? Nope. My site isn’t even programmed to current standards (anymore). I don’t go out of my way to stick tasty carrots in my code for any of the search engines. So what’d I do? Didn't spend a moment thinking about SEO. Ignored search engines, search engine marketing and created content – frequent, consistent, attributed, linked, valuable content presented with a modicum of character.
This isn’t bragging. I don't give a damn about SEO here. I’m trying to make a point:
I've never needed Google or any other search engine to remain popular.
That's going to crack some craniums. Google came to me, I didn't conform to them.
The bloggers I see having problems with search engine rankings either lack passion for their subject, try too hard to make a buck, or can’t write their way out of a paper bag. I write for myself and my consistent, contributing readers — not the hundreds of quick-scanners. If I post something, I care about the subject – that feeds back into one of my previous points about authenticity. My audience recognizes this, and responds with comments and linkage. The search engines respond to that activity. Simple as that.
If your blog isn’t compelling enough to draw the crowd you want, leave the blog behind and get better at what you actually do (job/hobby/whatever). It matters. Bring back that enthusiasm, passion, expertise — that love (for that’s what it is) — and share. Spend your time working on your 'voice', how you're conveying character. I've found that is infinitely more valuable than other investments.
Otherwise, you’re welcome to waste time and money gaming the system.
Archives. (Added in 2018, because it's a vital bit of info.) Recently, I've seen some 'pro blogger' sites (cough) recommend altering your archives if they do not jibe with your current marketing or philosophical goals.
I want you to do two things in that case: 1) Never visit those websites again, and 2) Never EVER alter your archives. Revisit "Risk", above.
Altering your archives is tantamount to lying under oath. It's unethical, one of the worst things you could ever do to your readers - or yourself.
Font size. I’ve done a lot of redesigns on my blog. Not so many lately, but in 1999 and 2000, I was redesigning the blog at least weekly – just because it was simple, and I could show off a little. Out of all those dozens of designs, the most consistent complaint was over font size. As most designers, I love little pixel fonts and using smaller fonts than are usually encountered. Before exposure to the internet, I used to get grief for my font choices because my background was in speaker support (can you say horsey?).
Took me a long time to finally get it hammered into my brainpan ... if you’re going to run a weblog, you want people to easily read what you’re writing.
So here’s the hard-won dangerousmeta! font rule: Make sure type’s large enough for everyone to read, but not so large that they feel they’re being coddled as presbyopic aged dinosaurs.
Typing fast is a blessing. Sure, I took typing in high school. Didn’t stick. My breakthrough came (what a choice of words!) when I was injured during one of my many blue-collar jobs trying to pay for college. I had nothing better to do, while my right leg was in a temporary cast from ankle to hip, so I sat at an early word processor and started to learn to touch-type. My mother’s talent at typing (she’s a blinding flash when she’s typing) was apparently a gene I received, and I’m eternally grateful. What really kicked up my speed was having to be perfectly accurate on a teletype at Platt’s OilGram News in NYC. Long-throw keys. Builds the finger-muscles.
When I started diving into HTML programming, back in the early ’90’s, I bought BBEdit, and learned handcoding. So I type code almost as fast as I type regular text … 120WPM+ when I’m cruising.
The longest part of the compose-a-blog-post process is the finding of the link(s). The second longest part is thinking about what to say – yet I don’t think too long (obviously). The more editing I do on myself, the duller I sound. Better you get the Chimayo chile version (hot & spicy), than the Golden Arch version (bland). Note, this is why my frequency went down when I switched to PHP/MySQL CMS software. The compose-and-save routine means I have to wait for the server to do database processing. Before, I’d just slam up a revision to a text file that was sitting on my machine. I hear some fellow Luddites who like the older style are working on some clever new implementations. I welcome them.
If your kids are fooling with computers in school, don’t have them waste time learning any one kind of software. By the time they’re grown, the entire software segment will be significantly different. Just make damned sure they can type well.
Understand, use and support RSS. I’m surprised to find myself having to underline this point — RSS is so ubiquitous, and yet so invisible to the websurfing public. Google’s recent redesign of Reader compels me to call this out separately, and underline the issue. I couldn’t maintain the quality of my postings without RSS. I use NetNewsWire, Reeder, and Google Reader (devastated over the loss of their ‘share’ feature, BTW — a couple of my regular readers used GR to crowdsource newsgathering, and it was priceless) to track hundreds of sources, thousands of articles a day. I’ve been weblogging long enough to remember when I used an extensive blogroll to do the same thing (and you can see the remnants of that blogroll on my site under ‘references’). It used to take an incredible amount of time to compose a day’s set of link-and-comments.
Twitter is NOT a replacement for RSS, IMHO — I don’t care what you’ve read, who’s told you so, who babbles at you about Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, custom searches and lists. Twitter’s great for breaking news, but rapidly devolves into meta-tweets of the same information repeated endlessly as everyone fishes for context and background that Twitter is ill-equipped to provide. In a crisis, this Twitter ‘party line’ becomes useless in mere hours from this hard-to-filter noise. We got to experience this first-hand through New Mexico's terrible wildfires - after a few hours, the spray of information becomes largely useless for saving lives. It was a huge problem, one that is difficult to manage when a crisis is at hand.
RSS is almost as fast, has no format constraints, and largely dispenses with the serious meta-post signal/noise issue.
So support, use and rely on RSS. Enable it on your weblog — and take the time to make sure it works properly. (2018 Editor's note - I used and highly, highly recommend Newsblur.).
Back up. Do I need to explain why? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, God help you.
I'll also just quickly mention, for every new web service you sign up for ... are you making sure you can get your information back out in a usable format? Been burned on this a number of times, and I still fall for it once in a while. Don't give others exclusive control over your content. Don't put in what you can't get back out.
EXTRA CREDIT: If you want to try linkblogging, learn about it here. No better place to learn it.