Why you should blog

This is something I tell everyone I run into (because I think everyone has an interesting story to tell), so I wanted to outline my thoughts once and for all.

If there is any area of your life (professional life, hobby, future career) that you care about and of which you want to improve your understanding, you can do no better than to blog about the topic as regularly as you can.

Now, this isn’t the golden age of blogging, when you could be the only tailor/wine merchant/banker/etc blogging, and blog your way to fame, conferences, and riches.  There are countless blogs out there now (almost 1.3 million, according to technorati).  But you can still differentiate yourself from most by blogging.

I believer there are many many reasons to blog, but the strongest are:

  • you demonstrate tremendous credibility when you blog.  This credibility isn’t earned immediately, but after you invest some time (a year or so), you’ll have credibility when someone searchs for you on the web, or when you tell a prospective employer/customer/client “oh, I encountered that problem, let me send you an article about that” and you do.  A blog works for you even when you are sleeping–I’ve had random people contact me about a blog article, and I’ve had people I know say “I was searching for topic yyy and ran across your blog”.
  • you will learn more about the subject you are writing about than you thought possible.  I never know something so well as when you can explain it to someone else.  In addition, as you write post after post, you’ll find new dimensions to your subject, new people to interview (a great way to build content for your blog and to make connections), new questions to ask, and new organizations or companies relevant to you.
  • it is free, except for your time.  Other than opportunity cost and some thought, a blog doesn’t cost you anything.  This makes it a low risk marketing effort.

One bonus benefit: you own all the content you create!  Unlike what you post on twitter, which is ephemeral, or what you post on facebook, which is hard to export, most blogging software lets you import and export with relative ease.  There are services out there that will help you package your blog as a book.

Here are three objections that you may have to blogging.

  • Aren’t I giving my knowledge away for free? — Well, yes, if you solve the exact same problem that someone else has.  In my experience, it is much more likely that someone will have a similar problem, in which case your post is an advertisement for your services instead.  And if you solve someone’s exact problem and never see a dime for it, that’s good karma.  Now, I wouldn’t encourage someone to blog about a trade secret or an entire idea for which they are trying to get a patent, but they might blog about the process of getting there, or about a similar idea that they investigated but found lacking.
  • I can’t write — This is a two part answer.   One, you should get better at writing, since it is a key part of business today.  And practicing on a blog is one great way to do it.  Two, if you can’t write or don’t feel it is applicable to your skill set (you are, say, a photographer) and I can’t persuade you that it is *still* a good idea to write well, then you can blog using other media.  Video blogging, photo blogging and audio blogging are all options to which all of the good points I’ve made above apply, and none of them require you to write a word (I don’t have experience with those typs of blogging, but a quick search should help you find a platform).
  • I don’t have the time — Ah, finally, a good objection!  A blog does not have quick payback; it can be a year of writing a post every ten days before you get 20 visitors a day.  If you choose to invest in your career in another way (writing open source, if you are a programmer, toastmasters if you are a salesman, volunteering at a daycare if you are interested in childcare, etc, etc) I admire you.  I think these other investments shine in other ways, but they lack the scalability, reach and timelessness of a blog.  So, consider your priorities, and if blogging’s benefits aren’t enough to justify a time investment, I wish you well.

Ok, I have convinced you to blog, right?  Three next steps:

  1. Sign up for an account on blogger or wordpress.com.  Spend 10 minutes picking a look and feel and setting up an about me page, but don’t spend more than that.  It’s very easy to get obsessed with how your blog looks and ignore the content!  (You can always go back in six months and change your look.)
  2. Write your first blog post!  Don’t have it be an ‘about me’ post; jump right into the meat of what you want to explore, be it Tanzanian politics, the economics of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ or space technology.
  3. Decide how much time you want to spend on your blog going forward.  How much time should you devote?  Enough so that your blog is active, which I define as a post a week (your mileage may vary).  More if you have time.  Also, realize that you will have good months and bad months.  I’ve been blogging for over 8 years and have had months where I struggled to get one post up (and sometimes failed–I’m looking at you, November 2011), and others where I posted every other day.  I also suggest writing a bunch of posts when you have the time and/or urge.  These you can then schedule so that when you don’t have time, you can still be putting new content out there.

And a bonus step: find other bloggers out there, using Google or your search engine of choice, and comment on their blogs.  This brings you into a conversation and avoids ‘shouting into the wilderness’ syndrome of a blog that no one but you visits, which can be so disheartening.

Go do it!


Own your social media–install Storytlr

I guess I’m just not very trusting, because I like to have copies of my data.  I host my own blog, rather than use blogger or wordpress.com.  I host my own email (or at least one of my two main accounts).  I prefer to document interesting things on my blog, rather than a site like Quora or Stack Overflow (though I do have an account on the latter).  Heck, even though I use an open ID provider, my own domain is the master, and I just delegate to myopenid.com.

So, since I recently have been putting a bit more effort into my social media presence (you can find me on twitter here), I looked around to find a backup solution.  I did find one–Storytlr–via this article on backing up your twitter feed.  It apparently used to be a hosted service, but now is open source–code here, install instructions here.  (There’s at least one for pay service too, but then, you don’t really own your data, plus I’m cheap.)

It was pretty trivial to install.  I ran into this issue with Storytlr not recognizing that PDO was installed, but the fix (hacking the install script) worked, and I didn’t run into the Zend error also in that bug post.

I also ran into an issue where I chose an admin password of less than six characters on install.  Storytlr was happy to let me do that, but then wouldn’t let me enter the exact same password when I was logging in for the first time.  To fix this, I had to update the password column in the users table with a new MD5 string, created using this tool.

So, what does Storytlr actually give me?

  • Access to my data: I set up feeds to be polled regularly (requires access to cron) and can export them to CSV whenever I want.  And I keep them as long as I want to.
  • One single point of view of all my social content.
  • Really easy way to add more feeds if I join a new social network.  Here are the sites/networks Storytlr supports right now.

The issues I ran into are:

  • Technical issues, resolved as documented above.
  • No support for facebook.  (Well, there’s this experimental support, announced here, but nothing that is part of the project.)  This is big, given how bad Facebook is with respect to privacy.  I am not sure what my next steps are here.
  • Not wanting others to have access to my lifestream.  This was easily fixed with a Auth directive.

If you are depending on social media sites, have some technical chops, a server to host it on, and want to ensure a historical archive, you should look at Storytlr.


What did I ship in 2010?

In the spirit of this post, I wanted to outline what I shipped this year.  (Shipped in the sense of software–building something and putting it out to the world.  Personal achievements in the past year, not least of which was getting married to my lovely wife, aren’t in the scope of this list.)

  • 41 blog posts on this blog, and 95 posts on two others I run.
  • Many, many releases (over 20) of COhomefinder.com.
  • Released version 2.0 of a dating site for the mentally ill.
  • Rewrote my Colorado CSAs directory and vastly increased the number of CSAs contained.
  • With a team, researched and presented a plan for a local Boulder currency.
  • Scoped, built (with a team), and launched an ecommerce website.
  • Set up a scholarship for a permaculture course.

As Seth said about his list, there were other projects I didn’t have the guts or follow through to launch, but I’m pretty happy with this list.  Here’s to 2011!


Shuttering a blog

Not this one!  But recently, as part of an effort to simplify my life, I’ve shuttered a couple of blogs I had been running for a while.  Here’s my list of best practices to do so:

  • Forgive yourself.  Running a blog is a lot of work, so if you don’t have time to do it adequately, it’s better to admit it than to do a poor job.
  • Try to find someone else who is interested.  If you’ve built up a following (you know how many visits you’re getting a day, right) and want to continue to see whatever topic you are blogging about more fully explored, you may be able to find someone else.  If you do, make sure to add them as a contributor, and discuss where they see things going from there–do they want to fully take over the blog, just write the occasional post, or what?
  • Announce the hibernation on the blog.  Feel free to phrase is as a long pause, or a hibernation, or whatever, but make sure you tell your readers.
  • Leave the content up for as long as you can.  Consider moving it to a different server if you need to consolidate, but if you’ve put up useful posts, people will continue to visit via search engines.
  • Leave up your contact info as well.  I’ve had several emails about my shuttered blog, and they’ve actually spiked my interest to start writing again.
  • Shut down your CTAs; for instance, I had a newsletter signup on one blog.  To me, it’s not fair to ask people to give their email address if I’m never going to send them useful content.  Along with the previous two suggestions, this is really about being respectful of your readers.

Do you have any tips for shutting down a blog in a graceful manner?  Here’s an interesting post on the topic, but written from the perspective of a more professional blogger.


Blogger adds support for pages

I’m a big believer in simple websites that users can maintain–I wrote about how to set one up in less than two hours.  Snarky comments from Ralph aside, it’s a great way to get onto the web and add that much more credibility to any business you’re doing.

Blogger and WordPress.com are the two big options for easy, free web sites.  Blogger gives you more freedom in most ways, but until recently, came with a big downside–you couldn’t create standalone pages (for contact info, ‘about us’, etc)–everything had to be a post.  That’s changed: blogger now lets you create up to 10 stand alone pages.

Awesome!


Upgrading WordPress is shockingly easy

I was all set to write a post about my experience with the most recent BDNT, when I got distracted by an excellent post from Josh Fraser about never using captchas–excellent post well worth the read. After reading through the comments, mollom seemed like a great way to avoid captcha and comment moderation, and I decided to give it a try. However, mollom didn’t work on my ancient version of wordpress (2.0). This being a weekend I’m heading out of town, it seemed like the perfect time to upgrade my wordpress site (the backend–I hope you’ll notice that the soothing front end look and feel hasn’t changed).

I browsed through the releases list to find the oldest one with automatic upgrade functionality, and then followed the quite painless upgrade guide. From there, it was a pretty simple matter to automagically upgrade to 3.0. Shockingly easy.

Overall, it looks like there are a few snafus–the home page didn’t have a sidebar because of post content for a bit, my tagging plugin doesn’t appear to be compatible with this version of wordpress–but it looks like all the content is there. If you see any content that looks broken, and you feel charitable, please post a comment on this entry.


Why Are You Following Me on Twitter?

Don’t you know that I’m a web developer posting geeky stuff and you’re a bar posting specials?

I joined the Twitter movement a while ago (not a first mover by any means) but have been actively using it more in recent months.  I find it useful as well as diverting.  However, I don’t want to discuss how I use it right now; what I want to focus on is a behavior that interests me.

It seems if I follow someone, mention anyone by name, or tweet on a topic of interest once, there’s a reflex for people to follow me.  This doesn’t happen all the time, but happens often enough that it bears examining.  Why would someone do this?

  • if I posted once on a topic of interest, I might post again
  • it’s easier to follow and then unfollow than it is to read my twitterstream and see if I’m actually worth following
  • I might follow someone who follows me, and followers are good
  • Someone might know me (online or offline) and a tweet might have alerted them to my presence on twitter
  • Someone might have seen my tweet, clicked through to my profile, and thence to my website, read a couple (or all :)) of my posts, considered whether or not I might have more of interest to say, and followed me.

Those are the main reasons I can think of.  Did I miss any? Oh, and the last couple are improbable, based on my web stats.

I think it’s early in the Twitter game, especially for the pragmatists (Twitter having crossed the chasm), and it feels like the early days of my RSS reader (when I first discovered the wonderful world of blogs).  Any time I stumbled upon a blog that had an interesting post, I added the blog’s feed to my RSS reader.  Eventually, I was following hundreds of blogs.  For a while, I kept up, reading the new posts diligently, but because of real life and work, I fell behind.  Now, I rarely open Bloglines–I know which blogs I want to check out and just visit them directly.

I think the same thing can happen to your twitter home page–if you add people indiscriminately (or even slightly discriminately) you risk polluting it and decreasing its value.  Note that I don’t use any of the tools built around Twitter.  They may help manage this issue–and I hope they do.

Because it is so easy to follow people on Twitter (easier, in fact, than determining whether it would be worthwhile to follow them), it’s also easy to clutter up your experience.  In the end, I believe this clutter will either drive you away from Twitter, or force you to spend time unfollowing (or, as Dion put it, “gardening”).

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Four year blogaversary

It’s been four years and a few days since I started writing this blog. It’s been a great experience. I’ve had good months (15 posts) and bad months (1 post), but I’ve written 352 posts over the last four years. I’ve learned a lot from this blog–how to shoot my mouth off, how to acknowledge mistakes in public, and how to write a post that gets hijacked by others for their own purposes. I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight four of my favorite posts.

  • Business Process Crystallization: This is a nice little post about how software is both shaped by the business process it will assist and shapes that same process. It’s one of my original thoughts–at least I haven’t seen too much literature taking this view of software.
  • Installing the median user defined function on MySQL: I always enjoy step by step tutorials, and this is one of the better ones I have written. I also enjoyed the challenge of making a mysql user defined function work when I’d never done any significant C development.
  • The Social Life of Information: This book was a slow read, but explains a fascinating concept–that much of the information we receive is contextual and connotative. This was a revelation to me, since I’m more comfortable with denotative, explicit information.
  • Step By Step: A Mortgage Calculator using GWT: I enjoyed this blogging experience, the entire series. My client and I worked together to release a site repeatedly over a week, as well as releasing the source code and documenting the entire experience of learning, developing and deploying a new technology.

Marc Andreessen considers his blogging

Well, Marc Andreessen has been tearing up the blogging world, with prolific excellent writing including his series on the truth about venture capitalists and his ongoing series on startups, among others. But after 5 weeks of blogging, he has written about 11 lessons he’s learned from blogging. It’s an interesting read, and I think every blogger wants to be a little self referential, as the feelings tha blogging evokes are powerful. Heck, I did it myself. I hope he proceeds back to regular content, as opposed to blogging about blogging, quickly, but I do think he makes some strong points, especially #5:

Fifth, writing a blog is way easier than writing a magazine article, a published paper, or a book — but provides many of the same benefits.

I think it’s an application of the 80/20 rule — for 20% of the effort (writing a blog post but not editing and refining it the quality level required of a magazine article, a published paper, or a book), you get 80% of the benefit (your thoughts are made available to interested people very broadly).

I encourage everyone who is interested in not being a commodity to blog (and that pretty much means everyone!). Because of the widespread distribution, if you have something interesting to say (and I believe pretty much everyone does), you can quickly gain readership. It’s the best form of marketing for individuals that there is.

That doesn’t mean blogging is easy–there are posts I’ve written on this blog that, as I read back over them from a few years on, are rather embarrassing (technical mistakes, pompous pontifications, etc). But the benefits to having a nearly four year public collection of my thoughts and interests including some very useful and articulate posts, outweighs the less than stellar bits.



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