Are blogs still relevant as personal sharing platforms?

This is a repost from my Tumblr blog and was originally published on 11 February 2013

I’ve been thinking about blogs’ relevance again. My Squarespace subscription for my main blog is about to come to an end and as awesome as Squarespace is as a platform, I don’t use that site nearly often enough to justify the $80-something cost to renew it for another year. Particularly when I could set up a WordPress site for almost nothing on a server I already have available to me for hosting. Update: As you can see, I completed the migration to this blog anyway. There are a number of broken links and images after the export from Squarespace and I’ll sort those out in time, probably.

I have my blog archive going back to 2004 when I started blogging and I want to locate that somewhere so I started migrating my blog content yesterday and redirecting my domain to my hosted space. It’s a bit of a process and there are definitely glitches in the migration process. The hassle of the move has brought me back to a few stray thoughts I had about current social services like Google+ and Facebook and about a blog’s relevance as a personal sharing platform.

One of the things I love about using Facebook (and, to a lesser extent primarily because so few friends and family members are using it, Google+) is that it is possible to share selectively with specific groups of friends/connections. That makes Facebook and Google+ really useful. There are times when I just want to share something with friends and family and other times when I am happy to share stuff publicly (even though many of my connections probably wish I wouldn’t). The lists and circles functionalities in Facebook and Google+, respectively, make that really easy.

Blogs don’t really support that sort of selective sharing. You are either sharing publicly (and possibly replying on obscurity for some privacy) or you resort to posting stuff that users with passwords or access to restricted posts can see. Lists and circles are far more dynamic and flexible but the disadvantage of relying on Facebook and Google+ is that we really don’t have all that much control over those platforms and years of contributions and shares could disappear for a number of reasons ranging from a big crash to an exploit to the service provider cutting you off for even more reasons.

At least with your own blog, you can have more control over your content, back it up, move it around in a meaningful format and set up shop elsewhere. Sort of. That said, unless you have your own server in your house in a secure space, the risk of your data disappearing one day exists in varying degrees anyway. My host could take my site down one day. Tumblr could remove this blog and if I haven’t backed my data up, well I would be a bit upset at losing all my stuff.

So, if control is truly an illusion, are blogs still relevant as personal sharing platforms in a digital world which lends itself more to selective and flexible sharing? Is it worth going to the effort of relocating my blog or should I just archive my digital tracks from the last 8 years or so and share in the distributed moment?

My not so great Tumblr versus Google+ debate

Never mind the Google+ vs Facebook vs Twitter debate, there are pretty strong similarities between Google+ and Tumblr and Posterous. I used to use Posterous and Tumblr depending on my mood and closed down my Posterous site when I realised I didn’t really have a need for it given my preference for Tumblr anyway. Besides, I have a long standing WordPress blog which seems to keep ticking along and I keep thinking that is a wasted resource I should be tapping.

And then along comes Google+ and I lost myself in it for a couple weeks before emerging with a new appreciation for Twitter and Facebook and their different roles in my social Web experience. I posted a couple more times to Tumblr, tempted to finally just migrate there fully but then I would be abandoning this blog which has a larger following and has a history to it. It is basically my first real blog which I created in December 2004 and took through various incarnations in the last 5 years. That said, I still wonder just how important a long form blog is where so much sharing is on a much smaller and more dynamic scale. I haven’t exactly blogged consistently so my blog’s value to my readers has somewhat diminished in comparison to Twitter, Facebook (for personal stuff) and Google+.

Anyway, back to Tumblr. Tumblr appeals to me pretty strongly. I follow a number of blogs which I enjoy and its really easy to share posts I come across and which appeal to me. I haven’t really felt motivated to work at my Tumblr blog because its been more of a hobby to me than a serious blogging tool. Its fun, creative, inspiring. When it comes to meaningful engagement, Tumblr is a metaphorical dusty street in an old Western town complete with tumbleweed.

Aside from the lack of the sort of formatting options that are available to blogging platforms like Tumblr, Google+ has proved to be almost as capable as Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook (combined) for sharing and engagement. Granted you are pretty much locked into the Google ecosystem unless you use 3rd party browser extensions to share beyond Google+, you can still share stuff pretty easily and enjoy pretty active engagements at the same time. What Google+ does do that you can’t really do with Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter is export your Google+ data using what appear to be open standards and theoretically import that data into a compatible system. In Tumblr’s context, that is a big deal for me. I never liked the virtual lock-in you have to accept with Tumblr (thank goodness for WooThemes’ tumblr2wp service which enables you export your Tumblr blog to WordPress very effectively).

So here I am having a relatively meaningless (in the grander scheme of things) and very 21st century debate about whether I should bother maintaining my better looking and relatively independent Tumblr blog? Or should I just use Tumblr purely to consume content and switch to Google+ for the non-personal/family oriented sharing (Facebook still has that side of my social experience locked down because all my friends and family are there, not on Google+)?

As I type this I am leaning more towards Google+ for that sort of sharing going forward but tomorrow is a new day and I tend to change my mind a lot when debating these sorts of things. What do you think?

What blogging means to me

I blog to make the world a better place, most of the time. I am pretty idealistic and, some might say, a bit naive and I am ok with that. My hero is Superman and I believe in the ideals he represents (I even have a Superman t-shirt for every day of the week). I remember when I applied for entrance into Wits’ LLB program I said something about the legal system being a tool to improve society and wanting to be part of that process. The point is I have this notion that I can do my small bit to make this world a little better and the public tools I use are my blogs and my podcasts.

Blogs used to be almost exclusively online diaries and were still described as online diaries in the South African press until some time in 2006 when the media embraced the idea that blogs could be more than a diary. To me, blogs are the children of the principles of The Cluetrain Manifesto. They facilitate the expression of an authentic voice that the authors of Cluetrain spoke about, as well as the direct feedback from readers of the blog.

Blogs make it really easy for anyone to publish their thoughts on the Web and to have those thoughts received and transmitted to a potential audience of millions, perhaps even billions. It is probably pretty rare that billions, or even millions, of people will actually read a blog post but that is ok too. If a thousand people read something I write and some of those people do something meaningful then I have done what I set out to do. Sometimes just talking about an issue is important. The main thing for me is to make a difference of some kind, however small. Sometimes I slip up and I write in a destructive way but I’d like to think those times are few and far between.

Bloggers have received some pretty negative publicity in the last few months in response to the way certain hot topics have been dealt with by local bloggers. Responses have varied from rational analyses of the issues to wild and outrageous personal attacks on the personalities involved and more. This hasn’t helped the nascent blogosphere’s credibility with mainstream media as the gateway to the general public. Ideally I would like to see blogs embraced as legitimate sources of commentary, entertainment, news and information about what is going on in our world.

Through blogs we can publish information far quicker than the press and to a potentially broader audience because we are not constrained by geography and production schedules. A blog post can be on the Web in a matter of minutes and there could be feedback within minutes after that. I have published posts in the past, stepped away from my laptop for half an hour and have returned to find a dozen comments already and I don’t have tremendously popular blogs.

Good feedback for me on my most popular blog, Wired Gecko, is half a dozen posts (Update (2016-03-30): Wired Gecko was rolled into this blog a few years ago). A dozen posts is great and more is a runaway success for me. Regardless of the small number of readers who frequent my blogs, I see those people as my partners in helping to make the world that little bit better because the people who frequent my blogs tend to share some of my ideas and passion.

The ability to share my thoughts and passion with the people in the cloud and to do that authentically are two powerful advantages of blogging and two of the big reasons why I blog in the first place. I am becoming less and less dependent on the quantity of readers of my blogs and more focussed on the quality of those readers and to attract those readers I aim to write better quality posts rather than posts aboout topics I know will attract a bigger audience and yet fail to contribute to my overall goal of making a real difference. That being said, I still post about the popular, pointless stuff from time to time so my blogs are by no means paragons of social awareness blogging.

Members of the press have commented on the fact that they are paid to write good quality content for their papers and bloggers are not paid. Furthermore, you pretty much get what you pay for and since bloggers are generally not paid, the implication is that the posts those bloggers publish are poorly written and of little value. I have to wonder whether not being paid for my blogging means that I am free to publish posts that are aligned with what I believe and not with what sells better. How can you expect to publish something truly meaningful when your primary motivation is to publish something that will make more money? Sometimes the important issues are not the popular ones and yet they still need to be talked about.

Joi Ito published a post a couple weeks ago titled “Mindful Writing” where he took a look at the Buddhist principle of Right Speech and applied it to his blog posts and in a way it was both ironic and a synchronicity that I first saw his post on a day when the blogosphere was going ballistic about the latest attack on it. He quoted a passage from a book titled “The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching” by Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic of Right Speech which I’ll quote a little from:

“I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.”

This quote expresses ideals I aspire to. They are worthy ideals for bloggers to aspire to. There has been so much talk about codes of conduct for bloggers and the fatal flaw with all these codes is that they are external and intended to be imposed on the bloggers in some way. The only code that will have any real effect is the code we internalise, believe in and express through our actions. Perhaps when enough bloggers practice some variation of Right Speech and Right Action our blogs will have greater credibility in the eyes of our intended audience.

Blogs are vanilla these days. They can be used as personal diaries and corporate communication tools. They are really just web publishing platforms and are defined by what they are used for. They are used maliciously and they are used to promote positive ideals. I blog to make the world a better place and sometimes I have a very small impact on an issue I am passionate about and that makes all the time I spend on my blogs worthwhile.

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