Blog Beyond Rules

tl;dr:1 Blogging is the most powerful publishing environment created in human history – anything goes! This is why we don’t seem to get it. Even more people would cherish blogging, though, if it wasn’t for the vanguard pundits and probloggers out there who try to force it into a corset. As a remedy, I’ll be eating my own (vegan) dogfood: Take blogging beyond rules, think in public, embrace dilettantism, build trust.

By now, I guess my main mistake in attempting to make sense of blogging was attempting to make sense of blogging. But while many people have pondered and discussed this problem, the obvious solution somehow never got to me: Just blog beyond rules.2

Let me elaborate.

At minimum level, a blog is a series of “posts” displayed in reverse chronological order. Beyond that? Pretty much anything you want it to be. Like a river, a blog can be fast or slow, deep or shallow, calm or fierce. Here are some approaches to blogging:

  • Link posts and list posts.
  • Science and fiction.
  • Rational and esoteric insights.
  • Jokes and product reviews and ramblings and short stories and advertorials and spam and instructionals and commentary and news pieces and rants.
  • Text and photos. And sound files. Music. Movies.
  • Pirated or self-made, curated and original, futuristic and conservative, monochrome and technicolor.
  • Speaking of color: Blogs come in any combination of them, ranging from text in black and white to pink on green (yikes!).
  • There are single-author and group blogs.
  • Most blogs allow comments, but some don’t.
  • Many allow trackbacks to other blogs that have linked to an article. (But, again, some don’t.)
  • Almost all blogs can be subscribed to by RSS or email – and you’ll get most updates for free!
  • Some blogs make money in a direct (advertising) or indirect way (drawing an audience to sell some sort of product or service).
  • Many don’t, and many don’t even want to.
  • A lot of blogs are personal and akin to public diaries (or work-logs).
  • Some are temporary and intend to cover “my year in Kyrgyzstan”, only to stop abruptly after the first three weeks of homesickness, when the writer notices it’s more fun drinking kumyz with the shepherds than posting updates for his mum and highschool friends.

Shall I keep going?3

Senseless Sensemaking

I’m in good company when it comes to flawed atempts of making sense of blogging. An army of self-proclaimed thought leaders still doesn’t get tired to either celebrate the publishing revolution we’re witnessing or to lament the downfall of printed journalism (and society as a whole). Probloggers continue to emerge who smell their opportunity and start selling “fail-proof formulas” to “grow your audience” and “make a six-figure side income”.4

Yet somehow, all these attempts to define blogging seem to reduce its potential rather than to augment it.

When Nassim Nicholas Taleb drops “the straightjacket of the 750-word op-ed”5 in favor of writing books, many of his readers might consider a blog to be an even worse outlet for your thoughts. But the opposite is true: A blog can be used just as well to archive your tweets as to publish your next novel.6 It can be anything you want: A business, a braindump, a book, a blackmarket. It’s not that the platform isn’t able to do stuff, it’s that our imagination doesn’t catch up with its possibilities.

With blogs, we’re taking publishing where Paul Feyerabend was heading with scientific methods:

Anything goes.

And no matter how many snake oil salesmen want to sell us their potions and insights, we’ve barely even touched the surface of what’s possible, both in terms of form and content. Millions of bloggers are pushing the boundaries as you read this.

Thinking in Public = Dilettante Media = Trust

It’s true, of course: Some approaches have indeed been “proven” (in so far as they help to achieve certain results) – but I’m personally much more interested in exploring unknown shores over copying the latest “blogging success strategy” that gets hyped on Twitter. Today’s successful experiment will be the hype of the next season.

The pity is that I forget about this stuff. I forget eating my own (vegan) dogfood, especially as it’s so meta that it easily falls into oblivion. I tend to lock myself into my own “proven” ways to blog. In the transition, I’d like to end this and reclaim The Friendly Anarchist in three ways: By thinking in public, leveraging the power of dilettantism, and deepening the trustful relationship with my readers.

Thinking in public is where it all begins. It’s central in so far as it helps me to avoid dead-end streets in my thought process, as Clive Thompson explains:

For years, this blog helped me avoid getting stuck in precisely these sorts of intellectual culs-de-sac. I’d find an interesting scientific paper or report, get an idea, and start blogging about it. Then — yipes — during the process of writing the ideas would move in a surprising new direction, and I’d figure out what I was really trying to say. […] It scarcely matters whether two or ten or a thousand people are going to read the blog post; the transition from nonpublic and public is nonlinear and powerful.

I’ve had my fair share of “intellectual culs-de-sac” over the years. There was a good reason not to think in public, of course: I was hesistant in putting fresh ideas out there not so much because I fear copycats, but because I wanted to avoid being half-assed and stealing your time. And still – at some point, we have to ship. The only thing worse than a half-assed intellectual dinghy in your blogging river is the half-finished genius battleship that never leaves the dockyard.

Thinking in public means to further embrace experiment as method. Which entails the occasional failure. Experimentation in the public sphere will always be scary and somewhat dangerous. It provides the proverbial look in the kitchen, and that’s not always pretty. But it comes with a reward for readers and publishers alike. Here’s Seth Godin’s take:

Amateur media tends to be a lot more personal, unpredictable and interesting.

Interestingness and unpredictability are the rewards for seeking dilettantism as a reader. I have reaped these rewards for years now as an avid reader myself. And I find myself moving more and more towards personal blogs. Professional blogs become boring over time (mostly due to repetition and marketing bullshit), while personal blogs often get more interesting (because, if the author keeps up with it, she’ll get better and better over time).

But there’s also a reward for the writer. Quoting Seth Godin again:

…those three things [personality, unpredictability and interestingness] make it far more likely that you will earn attention, connection and trust, which of course makes it more likely you’ll earn a living.

This is confirmed by CJ Chilvers:

It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally gotten my blogging mind on straight. I take in just about all content I care about now from individuals I trust, not collectives of any kind. So, it’s about time I build that trust with readers as well.

Trust is crucial to my friendly anarchistic life philosophy, and the trust generated through a one-man dilettante shop is the core of my business ethics. It is this relationship between public thinking, dilettantism and trust that I want to deepen here on the site. That means leveraging the power of my individual approach to writing, blogging and connecting. It also means forgetting about “success strategies” and “proven formulas” once and for all – and taking blogging back to where it belongs: Beyond rules.

  1. TL;DR stands for “too long; didn’t read” and is my executive summary of longer blog posts. I hope you’ll still make it through the text, but I want to give you some idea what’s it all about. []
  2. How ironic to discover this 2+ years after writing a book of that title. D’oh. []
  3. As incomplete as it is, this list already gives some idea of how diverse blogging is nowadays. From it, I can identify several continua on which blogs seem to operate: There’s one continuum ranging from the quick thought in tweet-length to the elaborated essay with thousands of words. There’s another one ranging from any kind of true statement (e.g. a software review, a research report, a comment on current politics) to a completely invented story (e.g. a sci-fi short or a poem). A third continuum ranges from content that’s merely entertaining (a weird story from life, a comedy post, a good rant) to content that’s extremely actionable (e.g. a how-to).

    There are certainly even more continua in play. For example, the difference between original content and curation/aggregation. Or the quality-quantity relationship: Some blogs aim to provide few but stellar posts, others publish “a constant stream of work in social media to ride atop the wave in viewers’ newsfeeds, or else become the wave itself, overwhelming them with material.”

    For me personally, the most interesting blogs jump between these extremes: I like to see many shorter posts mixed up with the occasional longer essay, and I love to read an entertaining story from life that entails some sort of lesson for my mind and soul. More than anything, I like to see bloggers creating a narrative with their writing – a narrative that owes much to the truth of life, but that’s partly fictional nonetheless. (Here’s why.) This is something I try to do here on The Friendly Anarchist as well. []

  4. I won’t link to these places here, but feel free to post some cringeworthy examples in the comments for our entertainment. []
  5. Quoting from his newest (and, so far, excellent) book, Antifragile. Interestingly, a web search for that phrase brings up a Counterpunch post from 2003. Tough being original in times of blogging. []
  6. Sometimes, the former can even lead to the latter. []

Comments 19

  1. ben_ July 13, 2013

    A lovely Article! And the truth. I would go even further, but I’m sure, you are already aware of this. I’m still looking for ways to unleash more potential within my blog. My latest Inspiration are Ray Bradburys Martian Chronicals, which themselves were inspired by Pascals Pensées

    • Fabian July 13, 2013

      Oh yes, and your blog is of course one of those personal blogs that are getting more and more interesting the longer you read it. So I *hope* I’ll be able to follow your example a bit.

      I loved Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Weird and wonderful. That’s another point: Drawing inspiration from literature, philosophy, the arts. I cannot understand how some people only read non-fiction.

      • R July 15, 2013

        Both you and I found the same one, so I think all the typos are covered.

        You cover a lot of the why behind blogging beyond rules and pushing the boundaries. Since I started reading blogs in 2006, I found myself transitioning from pro-bloggers that are kind of just centralized forums,
        telling people “I made money by telling people how to live their lives! Now, you can, too!” to more personal blogs, too. Good ones are hard to find, and rarely do they have more than a thousand readers, which may cause for infrequent updates. I think the biggest personal blogger I follow these days is Raam Dev. Oh well, better to post quality than quantity.

        Although I already consider your blog to be pretty broad and personal, what concrete questions do you plan to take towards blogging beyond the rules?

        Also, very excited with the newsletter idea. I hope you don’t just retell everything you say on your blog and we get real exclusive content.

          • Fabian July 15, 2013

            Yes, Raam’s writing is excellent. For me personally, blogging beyond rules means making The Friendly Anarchist my living room again. I want to be free to decorate it and discuss stuff here freely – I knew I always did that somehow, but it didn’t feel like it in recent times – and I hope that the right visitors will feel well around here. This, for one, means more interaction and even more openness: I want to ask more questions and publish content that might not have been a hundred percent developed yet, in order to put the ideas up for debate and see what comes out of it. This is what I mean by thinking in public.

            Concerning the newsletter, I will be sending the blog posts to it, plus extra emails/content about once per month. If you’d only like the extra content, you can update your subscription preferences with two mouse clicks. Just use the link at the bottom of each mail! :)

  2. ben_ July 15, 2013

    Thanks for the compliments, although I am pretty sure, that I don’t earn it.

    I am really looking forward to reading more Stuff from you here. Most importantly because your perspective is so valuable and – in the best sense – good. And on the other hand … nothing is more encouraging and pushing than blog-neighbours, kicking forward. I mean … wearing your heart on your skin makes the difference. Regardless of the form or content.

    So yeah! “Damp the torpedos. Full steam ahead!” like McLuhan put it.

    • Fabian July 16, 2013

      Thanks Ben! I agree on the importance of blog neighbors and wearing our hearts on our skin. I still have to get better at this online, but I’m working on it.

      Full steam ahead!

      P.S. And sure you earned it! ;)

  3. Paul July 16, 2013

    There’s so much good stuff in this post that I’m not sure my brain can comprehend it all at once! I particularly like the third footnote (and there are not many blog posts about which that sort of comment can be made!).

    I’m still stuck in my ‘sporting analogy’ mode, so the line about a personal blogger getting “better and better over time” really caught my eye (not least because I hope it holds true for me!). It is generally accepted that sports stars/athletes will generally get better, to a peak, before setting into an irreversible decline.

    Mostly, this is a matter of age and physical condition, which doesn’t/shouldn’t impact the more cerebral output of a writer (though healthy practices contribute to *what* they write and the attitude they bring to it). What I wonder, then, is can a writer/blogger reach a peak, before a decline sets in?

    Clearly, a mental decline could set in. Some athletes peak early and cannot cope with it; as if to support that, I listened to an interview with a successful writer and comedian the other day who said, “It is bad to be discovered too early.” But does the possibility exist that a writer could get better and better, without decline *ever* setting in?

    • Fabian July 16, 2013

      Hey Paul, thanks for reading my posts up to the footnotes! :D

      Concerning your question, I genrally agree with Ben: In theory, the sky (or Alzheimer’s) is the limit. That’s why I don’t worry too much about pensions and stuff: Whatever happens, I’d still want to keep writing until I’m old.

      But on another level, “peaking early” certainly can become a problem. Not that I ever got famous or anything, but when I had a series of strong posts (and one of them got syndicated by Penelope Trunk), I honestly had a bit of a hard time of coping with the wave of attention this triggered. I received dozens of emails of people asking for advice, and I didn’t really feel in the position to help them in a way that seemed legit. Now, if you’d get featured in the NYT, things certainly could get difficult. That’s why I prefer slow growth – even though that of course depends on your character (and diligence).

  4. ben_ July 16, 2013

    @Paul: To answer you last question: I am pretty sure about that. I like to remember my old Professor, who was at the peak of his abillities, when he had to retire from university at the age of 65. He was so brilliant in though and a titan in the use of his language. I assume that there will be a time, when his mental powers will begin to decline, but certainly it wont be before he got 70 or 80.

    • Paul July 18, 2013

      Thanks for your responses, Ben and Fabian. I’m inclined to agree with you. My thoughts were leaning toward authors who get criticised for (supposed) declining standards of their work, though that is not to say the quality of their writing stagnates or declines. Presumably their ideas change and simply appeal to different people, which can be true of almost any type of writing.

  5. Lourenco Azevedo July 16, 2013

    Very good all-in-a-box about blogging.

    And a lot to digest too.

    I’ve been blogging in the last five years and it’s like the surfer that catches a wave – to post an article is still trilling and unique every time i do it.

    Regards Fabian.

    • Fabian July 16, 2013

      Yeah, that’s what happens to me as well: It always feels amazing to publish a new post. Thanks for dropping by, Lourenço!

  6. Greg July 17, 2013

    Fabian, one of the many things I like about your blog and your writing is the interconnectedness of your thinking with what stimulated it, like other blog posts, articles from periodicals, scholarly research, etc. Each link gives me an opportunity to discover a new outlook, voice, or piece of knowledge. It echoes with Ben’s reference to blog-neighbors. Your readers can comment on your posts, but we also have the opportunity to further the conversation on our own platforms.

    When you speak of sharing your thoughts, especially when they are not polished for “publication” in the traditional sense, it gives us an opportunity to interact with you and your ideas. I hope it gives you the opportunity to explore, test, and flesh out your ideas that can be presented in something substantive, like your next book.

    • Fabian July 17, 2013

      Greg, that’s exactly what I aim to do more. I think that I have underestimated (or at least under-used) the opportunity blogs provide to test and discuss ideas. So as I’m reading (and also digesting/taking notes/thinking) a lot, I’ve always had a hard time to come up with a concise statement that might be worth blogging. From now on, I’ll be trying to also publish thoughts I’m still struggling with, and hope to be able to use that process (writing down + getting feedback) to work on my next books or larger, more complete posts. This comment thread has been a very promising beginning, and responses on your own blogs are more than welcome!

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