I used to blog.
For nearly half a decade, I mused about technology and design. I had a few hundred readers. I built up a tiny bit of notoriety in my little corner of the tech community. Important people linked to my blog. It was a nice hobby.
But there were so many things about my blogging hobby that just never clicked. I never knew what to write about. I couldn’t find my voice. Maintaining my blog’s tech stack was a chore. And although my blog got some traction, I didn’t see the real-world value it created.
So I shuttered that blog.
Ten years passed.
This year I’ve noticed more interesting ‘post-blog blogs’ appear. Full of good long-form writing. Useful information. Unique information. Different than the usual fare on social media, Medium, and their ilk.
I was inspired. I felt I had something to add to this new mini-movement.
So I decided to start up my personal blog again.
But the news about personal blogging is, uh, not encouraging…
‘Blogs are dead’. As dead as cargo shorts. All the experts say it is so.
Yet, like a digital Ishmael, the allure of blogging pulled at me.
So I ignored the prevailing opinions. I started writing again. I rolled my own static blog engine.
What happened was a pleasant surprise.
Blogging had gone from chore to joy. Things had changed since the good old days of blogging. Things are better now.
No need to apologize - we understand the downsides now
Perhaps the biggest blight the blog unleashed upon the world was the “content treadmill”. The chronological order of posts made it abundantly clear when a blogger had ‘neglected’ their writing for some time. Being conscientious, most bloggers felt bad about falling off their rhythm.
You see the evidence of this in all these guilt-ridden mea-culpas in every blog that goes stagnant for some time. In the sad farewell posts on blogs that cannot be maintained for all the usual reasons: life events, lacking inspiration, career changes, starting a family, etc.
Life is complex, we get busy. We don’t owe it to our audience to post like robots. Especially if we care about quality more than quantity. Especially if we’re blogging for free.
Some time ago, this wasn’t as widely understood. But now we get it. Blogs go dark. For years at a time. It’s no big deal. You’re free to ignore anyone who has a problem with it.
Inconsistent blogging is better than no blogging.
The ‘blank page problem’ is solved
Blogs came with another problem: the perennial question “what should I write about?”
We’d all experienced this challenge with offline writing before. But blogs magnified the difficulty. The medium was different. It was new. We didn’t know how to use it yet. But an even worse problem was that the stakes were higher online. Now, the entire world could read your blog.
As a blogger, you now had to thread multiple needles:
- Write interesting content
- Craft a public persona
- Mould your content to fit the medium
- Stay on top of ever-changing blog tech
With all those problems to solve (simultaneously), it’s entirely understandable that so many of us abandoned our blogs for other platforms when social media took off.
But after two decades of this whole experiment, we know how to make those problems tractable. You can learn the ins and outs easily now. There’s an endless buffet of how-to articles, YouTube tutorials, books, and courses. No matter what aspect of blogging is challenging you, there is abundant learning material to help.
It’s easier than ever to find your style, find your voice, and express yourself with less friction. Just study what’s already out there. There are billions of examples to learn from.
High-quality blogs are anti-bodies for low-quality blogs
If you randomly sample the universe of blogs, you’ll find it’s made up mostly of SEO junk. The sad trush is that most blogs are…not good.
I’m not even talking about harmless blogs with less-than-average writing quality. No, those are fine. My beef is with all the me-too blogs that exist as a heavy-handed pitch.
Blogging has a bad rep because it picked up quite a bit of the hucksterism of MLM.
Popups, email subscriptions, calls-to-action, ebooks, money-making schemes, clickbait.
Meanwhile, much of the content on older platforms like Blogger have style-rotted due to neglect. It’s gotten to the point where Blogger blogs are the new Geocities.
New platforms like Medium solved the style-rot problem with slick layout and typography. But the content on those platforms is often so similar that it all blurs together as one big swamp of self-help, self-promotion, and thinly-veiled content marketing.
In other words, blogs as a whole have as much charm and appeal as a strip mall.
In real life, you can avoid strip malls entirely. Drive down different roads. Shop elsewhere. Don’t vape.
Online, it’s a different situation. Google sends you where it sends you. You probably landed on at least a few “strip mall-style” websites in the past month, unwittingly. Sometimes you don’t know until you see a few pages on the site.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can improve this situation. With more high-quality personal blogs. With more people reading those blogs. Making those SEO eyesores less visible, less likely to turn up in search results.
Lots of smart people do it, and it raises their profile
Here’s an exercise:
Think of some semi-famous people in your field.
How many of them have written several long-form pieces?
Take a few minutes to do the exercise. You might be surprised at what you find.
Here’s my answers (in no particular order):
Eric Haines, Gwern Branwen, Paul Graham, Scott Hanselman, Joel Spolsky, Derek Sivers, Scott Alexander, Jeff Atwood, Derek Yu, John Carmack, DHH, Sean Barrett, Casey Muratori
For most of the folks on my list, their notoriety came from their work itself – the work is so strong it generates its own fame. For the others, their fame was a product of their writing.
Here’s what surprised me: nearly everyone I thought of had written substantially more than I would have guessed. And most of them have maintained a personal blog for decades - and continue to do so now.
Clearly there are benefits to personal blogging.
Because we can survive without Google Reader
In terms of legendary tech products, Reader ranks up there with HyperCard.
Nothing’s come along to fully replace Reader. The highest level of praise for current crop of RSS apps is that they’re “almost as good as Reader”. They’re great, they just aren’t as great as Reader was.
The death of Reader arguably helped usher in the decline of independent blogging. There were other factors of course. But when Reader died a whole chunk of the audience for independent blogs disappeared overnight. And with it the incentive to continue the unpaid toil of blogging.
But blogging is coming back, little by little. Thanks to better blog readers, better (and simpler) blogging engines, and a richer ecosystem of more savvy Internet consumers and producers.
We may never have the full power of Reader at our disposal again. But savvy users have found ways to use social media as a sort of ‘exoskeleton’ to find and share great blog content. By combining social media with blog readers and other tools – like a digital Voltron – it’s possible to reconstruct some of Reader’s functionality.
Blogging lives on without Reader.
Offload the hard parts of building community to social media
Early in the life of blogging, it was difficult to build community.
Comments and trackbacks solved part of the problem. Badly. But then spam, bots and trolls overwhelmed all the helpless blogs, making comments and trackbacks useless. Many blogs disabled these ‘social’ features, going back to square one.
Solutions appeared. Captchas. Software patches. Manual moderation. Disqus. But these required time to maintain. Personal blogging is an oft-neglected hobby. So dealing with comments was a neglected sub-task of a neglected hobby…
But now we’ve got mature social networks. You don’t need to support comments and trackbacks on your blog anymore. You can offload the hard work onto Twitter, Reddit, Discourse, Slack, Hacker News, or even (shudder) Facebook.
It’s a common pattern now: blog core with a social shell. A popular blog will often have its own sub-Reddit, a Twitter account, YouTube channel, etc. Yet the community remains focused around the blog, because the unique long-form content the community consumes can only be found there.
We’re all adept at switching between social media tools to communicate now. So it’s safe to assume that your audience can juggle reading your blog and participating on related social media.
A personal blog is a place to express ourselves, away from the peanut gallery
It’s easy to forget that long ago you could spend all day on the Web without being assaulted by drive-by harassment.
There was a time before social media sites took over the Web. You could share your thoughts without getting repeatedly dunked on by axe-grinding edgelords. You could go weeks without experiencing unconstructive criticism, unsolicited advice, and corrections from (well-meaning? misguided? unsocialized?) strangers.
Comments and feedback serve a vital purpose. But most of the time, they’re just low-effort noise: “typing to read themselves type”.
It’s difficult enough to write high-quality material without accounting for the spin that comments will inevitably put on your writing. And social media is basically one giant comment section…
Having your own blog lets you set the rules for discourse. Which lets you express yourself with more freedom and enjoyment.
Blogs are liberating.
Blog tech is better now
Self-hosted blog tech went through this really odd evolution - it started out very complex, and then it became simple.
In the early days, self-hosting meant you ran a complex, unstable tech stack that you barely understood. A SQL database, a PHP app server, and a ton of static files for the frontend. And then you’d pile plugins, widgets, calendar, comments systems and trackbacks on top. Which made the stack even more unstable. And you’d often be managing your stack through FTP and a strange webhost frontend.
The whole thing was complex, fragile, unsustainable. Even a small change could overwhelm you - and take your blog offline for days, weeks, months, forever. Upgrades were a nightmare. Blogs often went dark as their owners tried to fix hasty changes made in production.
In a single step, we went from writing HTML by hand to maintaining a complex tech stack just to push out some HTML and JPEGs.
I’m glad to say that the outlook for self-hosting is much brighter. Simpler blogging systems exist. You can write your content in markdown. You can keep your blog’s tech stack super-simple. You can bypass the lock-in, upgrade difficulties, and migration problems of olde.
If you can use a command line, you owe it to yourself to use a static site generator. Heck, you can even roll your own in an afternoon like I did for this blog.
Trust me, it’s a different world of self-hosting out there now.
Start a personal blog. You won’t save the world, but you just might enjoy it
It would be great if a whole new crop of personal blogs appeared. A tide to turn back the excess of SEO and social media.
I’ve been in technology to know that this probably won’t happen. I’m a realist.
Grassroots movements are always co-opted. The strategies of revolution inevitably become subverted by the counter-revolution.
We may always have ugly strip malls, online and offline.
But the winds of fate shift unpredictably. The world is a chaotic dynamical system. We shouldn’t give up now just because favor has turned against the humble personal blog.
If we can create just a little bit of sanity and beauty in our tiny corner of the world, then it’s worth it.