Blog Beyond Rules

tl;dr: ((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.)) 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. ((How ironic to discover this 2+ years after writing a book of that title. D’oh.))

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? ((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.))

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”. ((I won’t link to these places here, but feel free to post some cringeworthy examples in the comments for our entertainment.))

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” ((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.)) 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. ((Sometimes, the former can even lead to the latter.)) 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.