I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed a closeup view of the evolution of what we now call “blogging”, pretty much from the beginning. In 1994 my son, then age 10, put up a web site (they weren’t called blogs back then) aimed at pressuring Marvel to bring back a Spiderman character that they had killed off, and had 40 or so subscribers from places as far away as Eastern Europe (Marvel, sadly, was not swayed). I’ve had my own web site pretty much continuously since 1997, which was the year I started teaching programming (including web stuff) in a community college. Back then I thought of it mainly as a way to make a personal connection with students and prospective students, especially in the online classes that we were in the early stages of developing.

As online media evolved, blogging gradually went mainstream, and became a viable way to make a living for a few talented writers. But, in the process, it also became big business, as giant media outlets correctly perceived that bringing popular bloggers under their corporate umbrella was a good way to get well written-content, complete with a following of readers, for far less than the cost of paying salaried journalists. That has led to an inevitable change in emphasis and thrust, shifting away from bloggers writing because they have something to say, toward bloggers writing whatever will draw readers and build a following, which isn’t the same thing. My friend Tom recently sent me a link to a lament by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones entitled “Blogging Isn’t Dead. But Old-School Blogging Is Definitely Dying.” On reflection, I don’t think I agree — I think old school blogging is on about the same trajectory as always, it’s just less visible amid all the commercial media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and other sources of noise. Old school blogs may not have many readers, but that’s okay, I think. It just depends on one’s reasons for doing it.

Many blogs nowadays are of course nothing but unvarnished marketing hype, and an entire industry has sprung up giving advice and instruction on how someone with no expertise, no reputation, and no clue can establish themselves as the go-to online authority on whatever niche topic they can find that scores well with Google Ad Words. Usually this seems to involve obnoxious popups or sliders that demand your email address before allowing you to see any of the site content. (Does this actually work? Personally I keep a separate email address for such things, so that I don’t have to wade through the resulting spam.)

But the blogs that I most respect and read — and aim, albeit very imperfectly, to emulate — are the ones where the authors are doing interesting things and/or thinking interesting thoughts, and writing about whatever is on their mind. Bloggers like Phillip Greenspun, a software engineer who belongs to the MIT faculty in some mysterious capacity, founded a $50 million software company which was acquired and then driven into ruin by the acquirer, and now seems mostly to divide his time between giving helicopter flight instruction and co-authoring a book on the travesty of American child custody laws. Or Cal Newport, a theoretical computer science prof who writes mostly about how to effectively study difficult subjects and do deep mental or theoretical work. Or Josh Mittledorf, another MIT-associated professor currently working on theoretical/computational evolutionary biology, who writes a blog mostly devoted to aging research. Or Jeremy Kun, a mathematics PhD student whose blog Math ∩ Programming is a work of art, with a continuous stream of lucid and elegant tutorials on various math topics. I could go on, but you get the idea — people who have something to say, as opposed to something to sell.

Many blogs of the kind I’m describing get relatively little traffic and few comments. Not all — there are some very good blogs written by authors who have gradually built up a wide following through the quality of their subject matter (Mish Shedlock’s blog on financial and economic topics, for example), or who are already well-known from their books or other accomplishments (Peter Woit’s physics blog, Not Even Wrong, for example).

But pretty clearly, what we might call “non-commercial” blogging usually isn’t a money maker, and most blogs of that kind aren’t doing anything to try to monetize them in the first place — no affiliate links, Google ads, or other commercial distractions.

So, no money, tiny audience (usually) — why do it? I can’t speak for others, obviously, but here are a few motivations that I find relevant:

  1. To maintain a writing habit. My initial motivation for resuming more frequent posting had to do with writer’s block. I have been trying to write a book on patent strategy, and was having quite a bit of difficulty making progress. My son suggested blogging as a partial cure. It does seem to help. The idea is that blog pieces are a way to lubricate the writing gears in a lower pressure setting — just write something, regularly, it doesn’t really matter what, because, as my son likes to remind me, the First Law of the Internet is: no one cares.
  2. To find out what I really think. There’s no better way to hone one’s thoughts than trying to bludgeon them into some semblance of coherence in writing. I write out what I think I think about something, then I read what I wrote, then I realize that what I just wrote is stupid — the logic is flawed, or I’m assuming things without really verifying, so start over and try again. I find I learn a lot that way (it’s also part of the reason why the patent strategy book project keeps stalling).
  3. To finish things. Particularly with software projects, I have a tendency to take them just up to the point where they work well enough for whatever it is I wanted them to do, and never bother to post them on github or otherwise try to do something useful with them. Blogging provides a motivation to do that last 10%.
  4. To signal accessibility and encourage contact. I find that if I’m thinking about contacting someone online, I’m much more likely to do it if they have a blog — it makes me feel as though I’m communicating with an actual person, who I’ve already found interesting and agreeable from their blog, rather than just engaging in a cold anonymous business transaction. Since my patent law practice is online, and I live on another planet, I don’t have a practical way to actually meet most of my clients, so I want to be perceived as approachable.
  5. Maybe, to make a few interesting connections. Some people blog to build large audiences and email lists to market to — essentially a broadcast model. I prefer blogs that follow more of a “conversation” model. Instead of the guy making speeches from the stage, I’d rather be the guy off in a corner having an interesting chat with a few people of similar interests.

 

 

 

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