What happened was, my manager organized an internal Google panel on blogging and asked me to join it. Other panelists were Matt Cutts, Don Dodge, and Chris Messina.
Back in the day, meta-blogging was a big deal, one of the things the Internet talked about when it talked about itself. Not so much now; it’s been a while since I actually thought about blogging as such, let alone held forth in public.
In preparation for the event, I thought I’d jot down some helpful tips and tricks, and in no time at all I had more than twenty. I ran through them real fast in the hope of provoking some conversation — it worked — and got a laugh by saying “I guess I should write these up in a blog post”. Well, then.
For those who don’t know, I’ve been blogging since February 2003 and have written over a million words in this space, it’s been a boost for my career and my life, and I flatter myself that I’ve been involved in some conversations that mattered.
Blogging is Healthy · It’s no longer the white-hot center of controversy it was in 2005; now it’s part of the establishment, and if you look at the numbers from the popular platform providers like WordPress and Blogger, still growing quite nicely thank you.
Freshness Matters · When you don’t update a blog, it gets stale fast. The natural tendency of the human mind to favor what’s fresh is reinforced by search engines leaning the same way.
Write For Yourself · Don’t try to guess what people want to read; you’re the only person whose interests you really understand. In particular, don’t thrash around trying to appeal to a larger audience; the only surefire way is pictures of celebrity breasts, and the world already has enough.
Spellcheck · Seriously, act like an adult and treat your audience like they’re grown-ups too.
Self-Hosting · It’s a good idea, particularly if you’re ever controversial, because your service provider might just take you down without notice if somebody important doesn’t like what you’re saying.
One defense against this is to find a good hosting provider that’s in a country with a robust culture of civil liberties.
There are lots of good products out there, but for self-hosted blogging in 2011, it’s really hard to beat WordPress.
Two Minds Are Better Than One · If you’re heading into dangerous territory, get someone else to have a look before you hit “publish”. It doesn’t really matter who, as long as you respect them: spouse, colleague, parent. First, just the act of watching someone else react to your words will help you see them in a new light. And they quite possibly will see problems that you didn’t.
Get Yer Ha-Ha’s Out · Writing that’s funny is categorically better than writing which isn’t. Also, if you plan to cover controversial territory (and why wouldn’t you?) it’s harder to get mad at someone who’s funny. And if you’re really mad at someone, no attack is more devastating than one which directs laughter at the target.
Be Intense · The world is full of safe committee-approved overedited textual pablum. Don’t add any more. Write about things that are important and that you have emotions about, and expose those emotions. You owe this to your readers.
Cache · Most blog publishing systems have an option where you can serve static files or run with a cache. Turn this on and leave it on, because the worst thing that can happen is when you write something that turns out to be really good and a few thousand people come to look at it and can’t read it because the server has melted down.
You Don’t Speak for Yourself · No matter how many disclaimers you have and how many times you emphasize that you’re just this guy, people are tribal and think tribally. It is impossible for me to write anything without it being considered as representative of Googlers and Canadians and males and parents and Pentax owners. Deal with it.
Predictable Controversy · There’s something about making predictions that gets attention. Now, usually, getting attention is not a bad thing for a blogger. But, combine this with the point above about tribal thinking, and you may want to think twice about having made a controversial prediction when a substantial proportion of your audience is going to assume you’re speaking for your employer or your gender or whatever.
Competitive Controversy · I currently work for Android; can I write about Apple? Or, when I was at Sun, could I write about Dell or HP or Microsoft? I do and I did. But very carefully. The one thing people like better than tribal thinking is a ringside seat at a fight.
I’ve been advised by people I respect to just stay away from this. And Robert Scoble has pleaded for years for the community of bloggers to just be nice, not say bad things about people or companies.
I don’t buy it. For example, the single most interesting thing about the mobile-tech space right now is the struggle for market share at the top end of the market, Apple and Android elbowing each other for the leader’s position while Nokia and Microsoft and HP and RIM chase furiously to get in the game.
I care about this. I think about it every day. I know a whole lot about it. I just can’t see any way I could censor the subject out of this space without leaving what would feel like a vast gaping hole.
And I’d really like to read more first-person reportage; the only thing better than a ringside seat is a report from in there on the canvas. I think this is what blogging is for.
Math is Hard · The math of tracking subscribers, I mean. Mostly because of Atom and RSS feeds, which get syndicated and re-used and repurposed and so on in ways that make it very difficult indeed to answer the simple question: How many people have read that?
Google Analytics is good as far as it goes, and Feedburner can be useful too; but be careful, it can also get your blog blocked in China.
My conclusion is not to worry. Write, as I said above, for yourself, and if you do a good job and synchronize with a few fairly mainstream interests, the audience will take care of itself. And worrying about audience size is a good way to corrupt your writing.
Tagging and So On · I put the articles here in categories, but then I don’t use them, hardly ever. Over at the Android Developers blog I’ve pretty well given up on tagging. My employer seems to have successfully taught the world that the right way to organize and find things is with sophisticated brute-force full-text search of everything. Why fight it?
Lighten Up · During the first onslaught of the social “Web 2.0”, there was a horrifying tendency to fill up white space either side of your message with widgets and gadgets and readouts and ads and so on. This still happens, as witness the popularity of Safari Reader and the Readability product. But I have a feeling that the wave of crud is ebbing.
Cluttered margins are disrespect: For your readers who didn’t come here to see that shit, and for your own content, which deserves to be set apart and given some space to make its case to the people who have cared enough to drop by. So don’t do that.
Long or Short · Normally, when you’re trying to make a case, fewer words are better. Anyone who’s written commercially for magazines knows the raw rage you feel when a heartless editor commands a 50% cut in the word-count; and then the sober realization that yep, it’s better that way.
On the other hand, if you’re writing joyfully, being funny, or riffing on a hot groove, the bits are free! This is the Web, go long if you want to. [Like you’re doing here, you mean? —Ed.]
Or, go short, if that’s what the situation calls for. Length matters, but in a deeply different way than it used to in the days of dead-tree publishing.
Very Short Form · If you’re blogging seriously, you pretty well have to tweet also. Lots of people have given up on RSS and use their tweetstream to replace it; they rely on you, when you’ve written something you think might interest them, to tweet a link for them to look at.
And anyhow, Twitter is fun; there may be people who have the writing bug enough to blog but still don’t enjoy broadcasting sound-bites and annotated links and bon mots and so on, but I can’t imagine there are too many.
And when you’re tweeting, keep the tweets short. Don’t fill up the 140 characters, because that means you’re not leaving room for people to answer and quote and repost and so on.
[Disclosures: First, I’m a Twitter shareholder. Second, I think it’s a bug that microblogging is owned by any single company.]
You Can’t Unpublish · The search-engine crawlers and feedsuckers and so on are incredibly fast these days. You can take a post down, but if it contained anything that mattered, it’s out there in the Internet ecosystem and you can no more make it go away than the US government can shut up Julian Assange.
You Can’t be Anonymous · The Internet, thankfully, still allows you to read anonymously, and to comment that way and join in discussions and so on. But if you write seriously and build an audience and discuss things that people care about, eventually the world’s gonna find out who you are, so don’t try to fake it.
When You Screw Up · Deal with it. Which means, apologize to anyone that got hurt, and correct the error, and leave a note where the error was, acknowledging that you screwed up and corrected it.
The ability to do this is one reason why blogging so totally beats dead-tree publishing for current-events reportage.
And, by the way, you will screw up, sometimes.
Comments · They’re good, but they’re not essential. They’ve made this blog better, but there are better blogs than this without them. There’s no free lunch; hosting comments does add work.
Trolls · The Internet has plenty. For example, anyone who writes strong stuff about Apple, pro or con, quickly attracts slime, people who delight in being mean and hurtful.
There’s no point trying to talk with them.
That leaves two anti-troll strategies, the most obvious of which is simply silence; don’t respond or acknowledge in any way. Another, which I learned from John Gruber, and which works well on Twitter, is to shine a harsh light; which is to say, repost without comment.
There’s this guy I won’t bother to name here who occasionally tweets along the lines of “Google mouthpiece Tim Bray yadda yadda what a moron”. I actually quite enjoy reposting his venom; while I acknowledge that the pleasure is perverse, he does seem to do it less these days.
What Lewis Carroll Said · And I quote: “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”