Thinking about Blogging
When you’re reading tips for blogging and comments about blogs, it helps to start with a good sense of why you’re blogging. There are many reasons to blog, but most tips seem to assume you’re aiming for a huge, influential audience or plan to make money through ads. Ten reasons I can think of to have a blog:
Ø You’re in a class or workshop that requires starting a blog.
Ø You’ve read that every librarian (or library) should be blogging—and who are you to doubt the wisdom of social-software gurus?
Ø You’d like to jot down notes on some aspects of your work, or your life, or a hobby or some area of expertise, and think a few other people might find those notes interesting.
Ø You want to start conversations on certain topics of concern to you.
Ø You have things to say that you believe aren’t being said as well as you can say them.
Ø You need to document a specific project and a blog seems like a good way to do it.
Ø You want to improve your writing and think a blog will provide practice and feedback.
Ø You want to be famous.
Ø You want to be known as an authority.
Ø You want to make money.
In the first two cases, there’s a good chance you’ll write a handful of posts and stop, unless it turns out you have other reasons to keep going. That’s OK; you probably used a free platform and didn’t make extravagant promises for your blog. In the last three cases, well, lots of luck. Miracles can happen.
The five middle cases are where the fun is and where I believe most lasting libloggers fit. Think about your own blogging (present or future) and where it fits. Knowing the answer (which can change over time) will help you judge blogging commentaries—such as the first one here.
The title is “Top ten blogging tips from a novice blogger”; the post is by Avinash Kaushik, posted October 2, 2006 at Occam’s razor (www.kaushik.net/avinash/). It’s a tight three pages, expanding these ten tips—which, as with any blogging tips, are more or less applicable depending on your motives for blogging:
1. Nobody cares about you, they care about what you can do for them
2. Have a personality, reflect your core beliefs, be honest, have fun
3. Blogging is a very serious time commitment
4. Pick a subject matter you are passionate about and that you are good at
5. Respect the intelligence of your audience
6. Blogs need constant promotion, participation and evangelism
7. Being “digg’ed” is great exposure but traffic builds gradually over time, one person at a time
8. Have goals, whatever you want them to be
9. Be nice, save your hidden agendas for other uses
10. Nobody will read my blog
The expansions are well worth reading, and appear in the more typical #10-to-#1 order. Thinking about my own blog and most typical liblogs, I’d say tips #3 and #6 may be wrong for most of us: Blogging needn’t take much time and certainly doesn’t require promotion or “evangelism” in many cases. If you’re out to make your blog a Force, maybe so. If you’re out to converse with a few people with similar concerns, not so much. In Kaushik’s commentary, he makes that point clear: “If you want to have a popular blog then you need to be a[n] evangelist of the blog, you need to be something of a humble self promoter.” Many of us don’t necessarily want a “popular” blog—we just want to reach an appropriate audience, which might be tiny.
I wish more bloggers—and more of those who tell us how to blog—would pay attention to #5. People can read multisentence paragraphs and multiparagraph posts; even big words work once in a while.
Reading the explanation for #3, it appears to be a matter of your blogging style and writing abilities. Consider this paragraph:
I only do two posts a week (late Sunday night and Wednesday night). Yet according to my wife (who keeps track of my life better than I can) I am putting at least 15 – 20 hours a week into this. The breakdown is six or eight hours in writing and refining the posts themselves and around the same time in replying emails from readers or replying to comments on the blog or doing web analysis of my blog data or reading and participating in the ecosystem.
I don’t spend 15-20 hours a week on Cites & Insights—well, maybe some weeks, but not most. Walt at Random? Maybe two hours average, four in special cases. I can’t imagine spending six or eight hours writing and refining two posts; if I did, I’d give up blogging as a bad use of my time. Different people work differently, to be sure, and I’m sure there are libloggers who send more than ten hours a week carefully polishing each word of their posts. I’m not one of them—and I suspect most of aren’t in that refined crowd.
I also disagree with #8, but that’s partly because of a personal orientation: I favor vectors over goals, at least partly because it’s too easy to reach goals and then wonder what to do. You can’t reach vectors—they’re always stretching out ahead of you.
Otherwise, I think the tips make sense—starting with #10, which is another way of saying “there’s always room for one more blog, but don’t expect miracles.”
Who is this person and how much of a novice was he at the time? The latter question’s easy enough: The blog began in May 2006, so he really was a novice. But it started out with polished essays reflecting extensive background—”expert” blogging even if by a novice. He has a substantial audience; a quick Popuri.us check on October 5, 2007 shows 507 Bloglines subscriptions and 7,636 Technorati links; his Technorati “authority” is 1,038 and he ranked 2,153 at the time. He mostly writes about use analytics—and that’s also what he does for a living, currently as Google’s “analytics evangelist.”
That’s the title of Nicholas Carr’s November 10, 2006 post at Rough type (www.roughtype.com), discussing a Technorati “state of the blogosphere” report.
One thing struck me… It wasn’t that the total number of blogs in the known world had leapt once again, to something like 837.4 trillion. Rather, it was the rapidly shrinking presence of blogs among the top media sites as ranked by Technorati. To put it in popular terms, blogs are being squeezed out of the short head and pushed ever deeper into the long tail.
He looks at Technorati’s list of 35 “most influential and authoritative media sites” and sees that 45% of them were blogs in October 2004, down to 37% by March 2005, 31% by August 2005, 11% by February 2006—and, in October 2006, 6%: Two of 35 slots. Where three of the top ten were blogs in October 2004, the current total is zero. For that matter, only 12 of the top 100 sites are blogs.
It’s worth remembering that the last two years have been a time of remarkable growth and even more remarkable publicity for blogs – almost certainly the peak on both counts. Yet, still, blogs’ share of the top media sites – the sites that set the public agenda—has been shrinking rapidly. Even as the blogosphere has exploded in size, its prominence in online media has been waning.
What this seems to indicate is that the mainstream media is successfully making the leap from the print world to the online world. The old mainstream is the new mainstream… The real A List of online media is made up almost entirely of the sites maintained by mainstream media companies. Bloggers seem fated to be, at best, B Listers.
Seth Finkelstein’s comment nails a point that has struck me about the supposed A-list: They’re mostly professional media, not the blogs that mere mortals like you and I produce. Engadget? An online magazine in post form. Boing Boing? Same thing. Looking at the 100 most popular blogs according to Technorati, I get down to #15 before I see something that looks more like a blog than like a bloggish professional publication. Finkelstein also notes that Technorati changed its algorithms in September 2005 (it now measures only the last six months), making earlier and later comparisons difficult. He raises an interesting question that’s hard to answer:
The blogger question I’d really like to know is whether the Big Headers have more audience/influence in absolute terms or not. That is, do they have a relatively smaller slice of a much bigger pie but much larger in absolute value (like 0.1% of a big public company rather than 10% of a small startup), or have they been pushed out entirely by big media (VisiCalc, WordStar)? Obviously, the answer can be different for different people.
I could say “none of this applies to libloggers,” but I’m not certain that’s true. On the other hand, one commenter offers this quandary: “I don’t know if the blogosphere as a whole has less influence on the public opinion than the mainstream media as a whole.” I think I know the answer to that. I believe the “blogosphere” considerably overestimates its relative impact on public opinion as a whole—that the mainstream is still, by and large, the mainstream, just as the audience is still, by and large, the audience.
While this two-part conversation appeared in liblogs, it’s not specific to library issues. The title above appeared on Meredith Farkas’ November 12, 2006 post at Techessence.info. Farkas discusses the ease of moving content with RSS and other tools, including the ease of mixing content from different sources to create a new source. Sometimes, that ease leads to content being reused in undesired and possibly illegal ways. Two key paragraphs:
While most people syndicate other people’s content for educational/informational purposes, there are also people who use the content of others for their own profit. Spam blogs--or splogs--resyndicate content from popular Websites to drive people to their blog where they usually have set up Google AdSense or some other pay-per-click scheme. They use the popular content to draw traffic to their own site so they can make money. This would be considered a commercial site and would violate many people’s Creative Commons Licenses. But how do you get a splogger to take your content down? There may be no way to track down the creator of the splog and most individuals are not going to jump through the hoops of seeking legal recourse.
Another interesting issue arises when someone uses your intellectual property in a way that does not violate your license, but you don’t like the context in which it is used. For example, librarian Michael Sauers has a Creative Commons license governing his online photos. Recently, a PBS blog used a photograph of his -- with the appropriate attribution -- in an article about cell phones and banning them in libraries. While the article appeared to be in support of banning cell phones, Michael does not agree with that stance. This is a fairly mild example, but it could easily get more serious. What if an anti-death penalty individual’s Creative Commons-licensed photo is used on a pro-death penalty Website? Would it look like the individual is promoting something they don’t agree with? This is a risk we all take when we allow our content to be used by others.
These are two different issues (as Farkas recognizes)—one legal, one possibly ethical. Violating a Creative Commons license is copyright infringement (unless the violation constitutes fair use): That’s a legal issue. I’m guessing that people who set up splogs aren’t particularly concerned with legality or ethics.
The second paragraph is never a legal issue and frequently not an ethical issue. Fiona Bradley commented on that in a November 13, 2006 post “Derivative, works?” at Blisspix.net. She also discusses some of the problems with current copyright law, but here’s the relevant note for this particular discussion:
This is an issue that has been around for as long as we’ve been able to critique, cite and discuss the work of others. When people cite, we don’t get to choose whether they are quoting us to support their argument, or to provide a point of criticism. Or, they may selectively quote and make it seem that we support or oppose an issue.
Quoting out of context may be (and frequently is) unethical. But that wasn’t the issue with Michael Sauer’s photograph. He put it out there in a manner that allowed legal reuse. There is no Creative Commons sublicense that says, “This can be copied, but only if I agree with the argument you’re making.” Nor would fair use generally allow such a limitation. To do so would be the death of argument in many cases—”No, you can’t quote me if you’re going to disagree with me!” Actually, RSS generally improves this situation, as it is less likely to result in out-of-context selection.
I’m discussing two of Dorothea Salo’s Caveat lector (cavlec.yarinareth.net) posts from late 2006 that may not really belong together—and I’m a little embarrassed, as the second post is one I really should have included in Perspective: On the Literature (C&I 7:9, August 2007).
The first, “Liminal librarianship,” appeared November 20, 2006. In it, Salo discusses the fuzzy boundaries between work, off-the-job professional, and “other” life when it comes to blogging. Salo considers CavLec a personal blog—but there have been periods (in this case, October and November 2006) where almost all the posts relate to her work and the profession. That happens. I anticipate doing more of that in my new position, when it feels right.
This leads, however, to some tricky social/professional negotiations. It might seem obvious that an existing blogger is the choice to head up a library’s blogging initiatives—but what if that blogger is profane, coarse, prone-to-fly-off-handles me? What library wouldn’t think twice? Even though I believe I’ve demonstrated to MPOW’s satisfaction that I know where the appropriate boundaries are, the mere fact that CavLec is a hybrid beast creates perfectly legitimate worries about whether I’ll forget in future.
Moreover, what happens if I say something professionally, socially, or politically beyond the pale here? Is MPOW obliged to take notice? Is MPOW obliged to take action? What about any professional societies I happen to belong to? Remember, CavLec is theoretically and actually my space—but I’ve assuredly muddied the waters by talking shop here; CavLec is a liminal space, sprawled over both sides of the personal/professional fence.
Restricting ourselves to the biblioblogosphere just for a moment, I note a range of responses to this difficulty. The purely professional blog, written in purely professional voice, as the blogger’s unique public face is perhaps the most obvious, because it is the easiest and most welcomed. Nearly all biblioblogs about open access take this approach, though the degree of editorialization varies from almost-entirely editorial to link-and-comment to just links.
Other bloggers split their blogging between professional and personal blogs. Still others (among whom I place myself) split between public blogging and (semi-)private blogging, often at a site that offers access controls such as Vox or LiveJournal.
Salo discusses a DSpace situation, where logging a conversational channel among developers didn’t happen partly because people felt that logging might chill conversation.
Clearly separating personal from professional spaces makes life easier for everyone; employers can genteelly ignore the personal, while employees can extract whuffie from the professional, and since the line is roughly the same as in regular non-virtual space nobody’s expectations are violated and nobody’s nose has to go out of joint. Why do I have a LiveJournal? Because I force enough noses out of joint as it is; I’m all for MPOW not even seeing a few things, rather than forcing themselves to genteelly ignore them!
The thing is, the whole “genteelly ignore behavior in liminal spaces” model is at best a figleaf and at worst an illusion. As a professional librarian, I can’t ignore liminal spaces. Can you? Does all the information you need come to you through the strictly professional literature? Really? Do you feel not the slightest twinge of worry about your service population turning to liminal spaces for their information needs? (Then you’re the weirdest librarian I know. Google sprawls over all sorts of spaces.) Have you not even once considered how to place your library within liminal conversation spaces? (Again, if you haven’t so much as considered it, I wonder where you’ve been the last two-three years.)
There’s more in this post that’s worth reading. As Salo notes, “liminal spaces” carry costs in freedom of behavior; we’ve seen signs of those costs. (She’s been bitten. So have I. So, I suspect, have most people who blog with any degree of frankness.)
We can’t shut our professional selves out of liminal spaces; we impoverish both ourselves and the profession thereby. We can’t expect to treat them as purely personal spaces, either, which means a lot of unpleasant uncertainty and second-guessing, as well as regret; we all behave badly sometimes, and it’s frustrating to see venues where folks used to cut us a little slack turn into the same guarded, buttoned-down places we used the slacker venues to escape from.
At least we can talk about it. We can do that.
Why put this here rather than later, under library-specific stuff? Because these issues aren’t unique to librarianship. Any field where people blog has similar issues, although some may have better-defined norms for separating personal and professional.
Come December 12, 2006, Salo posted “Blogging and the ‘social journal’”—and I’m cherry-picking in this case, ignoring much of a thoughtful post. (See Farkas above: Sometimes people quote in a manner that changes context, even with the best intentions.) Briefly summarizing the thrust of the post, Salo thinks about her professional network and how it works…and notes that while a journal article may be read, valued and recommended, “the journal is not the unit of recommendation.” I think she’s right—and in earlier days it may have been more true that “the mere fact of publication was sufficient recommendation.” In 1976, I was thrilled to say, “I had a refereed article published in Journal of Library Automation” (now Information Technology and Libraries). Now, if I wrote scholarly articles, I’d point to the article itself, with its inclusion in a first-rank journal being (at most) secondary to the content of the article.
Salo discusses journals and community—noting that peer-reviewed journals really can’t build communities both because there are just too many of them and because double-blind peer review tends “to obstruct loyalty of authorship and readership.” I’ll suggest that traditional non-refereed publications can build connections to some extent: Standing columns form connections, as I’ve seen from time to time. But not so much as blogs—and here it gets interesting, since Caveat lector is less conversational than most liblogs, given that Salo doesn’t allow comments. Excerpts:
Even considering the potential disadvantages of oversharing…blogging stacks up well against journal publishing as a tool for integration into a given professional community. And I don’t even have comments enabled here!
I hear a lot about journal “branding,” but I don’t think community is a brand that journals (including society journals!) are working for these days, usually touting “quality” above all other considerations. Maybe that’s how it’s had to be. I don’t know; I wasn’t in the business very long, and I was never privy to this kind of strategic discussion. I don’t know that matters need to continue this way—but that’s up to societies and journals.
Journals are losing face to other knowledge-distribution mechanisms because of speed differences, access differences, quality-of-service differences, cost differences, social-networking differences, all sorts of differences. What they’ve kept, kept a stranglehold on in many disciplines, is the perception of career advantage: “if I publish in journal X/a peer-reviewed journal/any journal, it will advance my career.”…
What if blogging, performed well, represents a viable alternate route to career advantage? Sure, no academic in a field that requires journal publications is going to survive tenure hearings without them (for now). But if blogging introduces a young scholar/professional to more people who can help that young scholar or professional advance than does slogging through one or a few more journal articles, I expect young scholars and young professionals will figure out for themselves the most profitable avenue of action. And if tenure continues receding out of reach for young scholars, journals have even less to offer; visibility and networking will inevitably become a better career tool…
Go read the post. It’s excellent, making an interesting case that big pricey journals may go away not because they lose subscriptions but because authors find better ways to communicate. That’s a fascinating discussion, one I don’t need to get in the middle of (and shouldn’t, as I’m not qualified). The points Salo’s making ring true to my “On the Literature” commentary: For me, for now, the most relevant literature in the field is no longer in the refereed journals. Maybe that’s not how it should be; maybe it can’t be that way in hard sciences. Maybe I’m deluded. But that’s how it is. And it’s absolutely clear that I’m not alone.
That’s the title of an April 27, 2007 post by Jason Kaneshiro at Webomatica (www.webomatica.com/wordpress/). He notes numbers showing that more blogs are becoming inactive and comes up with an active blog count of 15 million. That may be low, but that’s not the point. Then there’s this curious sentence, given the blog on which it appears: “I think any blogger would agree: it’s not exactly a cake walk to blog for the long term.”
As with most statements about blogging, my first response is “that depends what you mean by blogging”—followed by “what does long term mean to you?” I’ve been writing Walt at random for more than 2.5 years, which I do not consider long-term. Librarian.net, Shifted librarian, Scholarly electronic publishing blog, Infomusings, Caveat lector, Catalogablog, eclectic librarian, The aardvark speaks, EngLib, Confessions of a science librarian—those and others have been around for a while (more than five years at this writing). Kaneshiro? “I’ve been at this for under a year, and several times thought about throwing in the towel.” I can’t think of any definition that would call him a long-term blogger—but I’ll go along with part of the next sentence: “Surely an inactive blog means the writer found something better to do.” (“Something better” may not mean “something more pleasurable”—sickness and family crises trump blogging even more definitively than more interesting hobbies.)
I like Kaneshiro’s list of reasons he almost quit blogging (with expansions and how he got past them):
Ø Nobody reads my blog
Ø Writing quality content is challenging to do over the long term (apparently Kaneshiro feels you have to post daily to be a serious blogger)
Ø Lots of time is spent not writing (reading, commenting, etc.)
Ø I get too much spam
Ø Too many rude comments
Ø Hits are easy but consistent traffic is harder
Ø The money just isn’t there
Ø The blogosphere is a fish bowl
“The money just isn’t there.” Well, that’s certainly true. He says “I’ve heard it takes about a year of consistent blogging to make a substantial amount.” For many of us, blogging will never earn any direct revenue no matter how long we do it—and I’m naïve enough to believe that in the long run, those who are blogging to make a buck will fail, as readers will desert them. (I’m almost certainly wrong there for the top of that crowd, but probably right for everyone else who’s doing it for the dough.)
Some of them are a little silly. He admits Akismet catches his spam, so the fact that spamments considerably outnumber legitimate comments shouldn’t be an issue. Spam Karma 2 does the same. My numbers are worse than his (he cites 7,000 spams in comparison to some 1,000 legitimate comments; Spam Karma has caught more than 23,000 spams in comparison to some 2,200 legitimate comments on Walt at random)—but dealing with spam takes me very little time or trouble.
Reading the comments, I begin to wonder just how many people do blog because they think it’s a way to make money or think it’s the In thing? Apparently there are bloggers who know they have nothing original to say (one apparently just reposts Digg content); several seem burdened by the need to blog every day without apparently asking why they think it’s necessary to blog every day. That’s sad.
Andy Havens commented on this post in “Blogjoy” on May 5, 2007 at TinkerX (www.tinkerx.com). I’m almost reluctant to excerpt Havens’ post, as you lose the flavor of his writing—and Havens is a writer. In this post, he thinks about blogging and why people write. He supposes (correctly, I believe) that many people blog for the same reasons people keep journals—and Havens is one of those who never kept a journal. His overall thought on Kaneshiro’s post:
A long, well thought-out blog post about how you almost quit blogging is like when beautiful people complain about how they used to have damaged hair or skin problems.
He also notes the oddity of a blogger who’s apparently become high profile talking about not always being high profile. He does a number on Kaneshiro’s motivational bullets (which I didn’t quote), noting that “Think long term rather than short term,” “Be prepared for the long haul,” and “Don’t expect instant success” all say the same thing—and that “Don’t quit your day job on day one” is bizarre given that most bloggers never make a living (or a dime!) from blogging. (Havens also notes the oddity of a post about not getting real comments—which has 39 real comments attached to it.)
That’s not the post title. Mark Lindner used “A plea to those who output their del.icio.us stuff to their blog” for this August 22, 2007 Off the Mark post (marklindner.info/blog/). The post runs a little more than two pages (followed by several pages of interesting and sometimes argumentative comments), but could be shortened to the first two-word paragraph:
Now that Mark’s out of the way, we’ll move on to…well, no, there’s a little more to the post than this straightforward request. (If there wasn’t, I’d do a followup post on Walt at random, “A plea to those who send their Twitter tweets to their blog,” having the same two-word post body.)
Lindner isn’t saying you shouldn’t make del.icio.us posts public. He’s not even saying you couldn’t have a blog devoted to them—and he’d be interested in reasons for doing such a blog. But he’s not thrilled when blogs he already reads suddenly have this stuff showing up.
He deals with the natural response: You’re probably reading via aggregator and can just ignore the del.icio.us posts.
Well, ignore may well become the operative word. The issue is that, despite what some think, dealing with all of this stuff does take real physical and cognitive labor. The physical labor is not generally the kind that makes you sweat, but it is the kind that may very well lead to overuse injuries.
You can avoid overuse injuries with the right equipment, but it’s still a nuisance. The cognitive issue is different and it’s one I’m thinking of as I realize it’s time to start trimming the Bloglines list:
On the cognitive front, just like you, I have more than enough to slog through and I try to subscribe to information sources from people whom I truly want to read. This is not to say that I am guaranteed to want to read every word that you write. Certainly not. But if I have kept your feed around then a conscious decision has been made that I find what you post of value, at least generally.
Adding your del.icio.us stuff to your general blog is a guarantee that—for me—you have just significantly impacted that decision in a negative manner.
If you rarely add stuff to del.icio.us then I probably will barely notice. But if you add stuff almost as frequently as you post….
Like any sensible person, Lindner says you should do what you want—it’s your blog, after all. Then again: “I also realize that generally part of the point is to have folks read it. So, be sure to consider whether this additional content also serves as a useful and appreciated bit of content for them.” For him, del.icio.us posts almost never are.
For me, Twitter cumulations are never useful or appreciated—to the point where I’ve come very close to unsubbing one blog, even though I find the substantive posts interesting and worth reading (maybe the more so because I frequently disagree with them). Tweets are bad enough on their own; when they’re clearly one side of some conversation with another Twitterer, they’re even worse. I’m not the only one who feels that way. The second comment (from Karin Dalziel) says so up front; a bit later, Jennifer Macaulay notes that she “especially find[s] the Twitter dumps excruciating.” Kirsten notes that she’s unsubscribed from blogs just for this reason—and Angel’s glad to see it’s not just him.
In the end, of course, Mark Lindner is no more telling you what to do and not to do than I would. (Yes, Mark, I basically skip over your “what I’ve read this week” posts as well—but there’s only one a week so it’s no big deal.) What comes out, though, is the flipside of the curious finding that blogging popularity seems to rise in the absence of posts: I suspect more and more of us are starting to unsub blogs when we find the noise:signal ratio getting too high. “Blogging” that isn’t really blogging generally reads as noise.
Speaking of unsubbing, here’s an interesting post, written by Fiona Bradley and posted October 2, 2007 at librariesinteract.info (that’s the URL), a group Australian liblog. She offers some suggestions for paring email overhead and social software excesses, but I’ll focus on her suggestions for “cutting shamelessly” from your aggregator (she says to export the OPML file first, just to be safe):
Blogs that are no longer relevant to your current work
Newspaper feeds—I find these are the most difficult to keep up with. They update several times per day and can quickly spiral out of control.
Blogs or feeds that update too frequently. They are often not much more than linkblogs—causing you to spend more time reading as you click through to each link.
Blogs or feeds that update too frequently—how times have changed, from the days when frequent updating was supposed to be essential for a blog! What does Bradley suggest keeping?
Blogs with few subscribers—because you won’t be rereading their comments on everyone else’s blog
Analytical, thoughtful blogs—they’re worth the time
Blogs outside librarianship, or with a higher ratio of original content
Feeds you actually read, if you use Google Reader use the statistics feature to work out which you read the most
I think that first one particularly bears repeating (and I’ll second it). As for the last—well, with Bloglines at least, there are dozens of posts that I read fully and appreciate without ever clicking on the post or the blog. How could Bloglines or Google Reader tell that I’d read the post? (If you expand blogs individually, that’s different—but I always touch on every blog with new posts every day I use Bloglines. If I can’t be bothered to even glance at a blog’s posts, it doesn’t belong in my aggregator. Period.)
Marylaine Block writes “A Human Voice” in Ex Libris 292, December 8, 2006. It’s about library blogs. It’s worth reading, as she offers a range of library blog examples and some of their virtues. And yet…
One reason I like blogs so much is that the format virtually compels you to talk like a person, not like the official voice of the library. Most official library prose is careful, neutral, restrained, and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring beyond belief... The grayness of our prose is odd, considering that librarians are readers who know what sparkling prose looks like. And all the odder when you consider that most librarians are really pretty interesting people.
Would that it were true—that blogging really did compel a human voice. It doesn’t. It’s just a lightweight publishing mechanism. As I was preparing Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples, I encountered dozens of wonderfully human voices (including some of those Block cites)—but I also encountered a fair number of blogs that consisted of dry announcements. As I write this, I’m halfway through the set of academic library blogs I’m studying—and I’d have to say that, so far, probably a majority of them are sets of news items in reverse chronological order, in typical official prose. That’s because so many of them are news items, nothing more: The posts aren’t signed and don’t represent any particular voice.
Do the most effective blogs have more personal prose? That depends on your definition of effectiveness. Personally, I believe so—but I can certainly see the uses of impersonal blogs. Sorry, Marylaine, but the medium itself doesn’t compel a human voice any more than using Microsoft Word compels correct spelling or grammar or effective writing.
A library blog does need to be approached with commitment, as a library service that like any other requires daily or at the very least weekly attention—people won’t click on a blog that rarely gets updated (though to some extent that can be mitigated by making the blog available as an RSS feed). Somebody has to keep supplying content.
One way to do that is to require several library staff members to contribute regularly to the project…
Finally, a blog is a place where your community can talk back to you, because blog software automatically permits comments. The fact is, people don’t like top-down communication: we all want to talk back. Allow your users to contribute to the site, and you’ll have a nice informal feedback mechanism to find out what your users think about your existing services, website, collections, and recommendations, and what they’d like to see added or changed.
That middle paragraph (the statement is followed by an excellent example of a multicontributor blog, MADreads from Madison Public Library in Wisconsin) is troublesome: requiring staff to contribute to a blog is rarely the best way to get lively, personal, interesting blog entries.
As to the first and third paragraph—well, during the period March-May 2007, most public library blogs examined had slightly less than one post a week (the median was 12.0 posts in 13 weeks). As for comments, blog software only automatically permits them if you configure it to permit them, and many libraries don’t. Even when you do allow comments, it’s wishful thinking to assume your community will use the feedback mechanism: The median number of comments during that 13-week period was zero, with only 118 of the 252 blogs having any comments at all (and 25 of that 118 having one comment over 13 weeks). Thirty out of 252 averaged at least one comment a week; almost one-quarter of all comments for all 252 blogs were gaming-related comments on one blog. Again: The audience is still mostly the audience—and while inviting public feedback and participation is certainly worthwhile, librarians should not be too surprised or disappointed if it doesn’t happen very often.
On the other hand, when I wrote “would that it were true” earlier, I meant it—I do believe library blogs can be more effective when they’re more human. Jill Markgraf was one of the students in this year’s spectacular Five Weeks to a Social Library course. She posted “Blogs: it’s not so much a change in technology as a change in thinking” on February 16, 2007 (go to www.sociallibraries.com, blogs, participant blogs, Jill Markgraf). She wonders whether libraries may be a “little too ga-ga over this blog-ability” and thinks she sees one reason why:
Maybe more than anything else blogs have changed the way we think about communicating with our patrons. When I look back on years of working on library websites, I am flooded with memories of committee meetings where we spend untold hours choosing individual words, placement of words, images, buttons, colors, sizes, etc., to have everything just so. Blogs free us up a little bit to be more, well, real. The blogosphere seems just a little bit looser, a little more relaxed, a little less perfect, more natural, more conversational, more spontaneous. And maybe that in itself makes us a little more inviting, responsive, interesting and human. Maybe that’s the big deal. (The word “ga-ga” never would have made it past the web committee).
This is a fine description of what blogs can do for a library’s communication (and sometimes conversation) with its patrons—and when that happens, it can be a big deal
Sharyn Heili posted this at Libraries and librarians rock (sharynheili.wordpress.com) on December 18, 2006. It’s mostly a list of “great reasons” that libraries should blog—seventeen in all, including these:
Meet users where they are in their space, which after all is our space too
Generate conversation/discussion/dialogue with customers and increase awareness of library
Highlight parts of the library’s collection and staff’s expertise
Get the word out–tell the library’s story
Create trust–staff blog freely and informally
Partner with city/county/museums/chambers of commerce and tourism
We can go back and forth as to whether blogging connects with “customers” in “their worlds,” but that isn’t the most interesting item in this post. I was fascinated by the following statement, attributed to Robert Harbison of Western Kentucky University Library: “Blogging has become not just fashionable but mandatory in today’s business world.”
Really? Mandatory? So every small business must be blogging, not to mention every major corporation? Hmm. I wonder where the local hardware store’s blog is… Sorry, but I just flat-out don’t believe this statement. I suppose it makes a good preface to asserting that libraries must have blogs (which Heili doesn’t say in so many words, but she comes close), but it’s just not true. If you believe Wikipedia (it’s sourced in this case), 5% of Fortune 500 corporations have external blogs—a very odd version of “mandatory.” (The source actually says 8% as of October 2006—and, through a link, a list showing ten of the Global 1,000.) For that matter, there’s good reason to believe some “blogging businesses” aren’t really blogging: One of the comments on the list of blogging Fortune 500 corporations is from a professional business writer who has “been contacted several times by firms seeking to outsource their blogging content.”
Want something more up to date on how mandatory blogs are in corporations, given that there are millions of corporations in the U.S. alone? The NewPR Wiki (www.thenewpr.com/wiki/) has a CorporateBlogsList, international in scope and open to nonprofits as well as traditional corporations. As of this writing, it includes some 140 organizations, all the way from IBM to the 92nd Street Y. Even if you add the 280-odd names on the CEOBlogsList and assume that each of those CEOs represents a corporation not on the other list (clearly not true, and for this list CEOs also include heads of universities and associations), you’d have a little over 400 corporations worldwide. Is that one-tenth of one percent of actual corporations? Probably not.
I’m certainly not saying libraries shouldn’t blog; I’d scarcely be putting in serious time on the two books if I believed that. I am saying that libraries should not feel compelled to blog—and that “mandatory” is a strange word to use in this case.
This note could appear in the “general” section or in the library section—but it may be easier to address within a relatively small field such as librarianship (although I’d guess librarianship has more than its share of bloggers relative to the size of the field). Rachel Singer Gordon posted this at The liminal librarian (www.lisjobs.com/liminal/) on March 18, 2007. In part:
A couple of the respondents to the alternative careers survey mentioned that they keep up by reading library blogs, but added parenthetically that they find the well-known blog/bloggers to be too inbred, too repetitive, and too busy patting each other on the back. I’ve heard people say this before, and I’m wondering how prevalent this feeling is.
I usually like seeing several bloggers take on a given issue, because each tends to have different insights and bring in different links. But, I also try to subscribe to a variety of blogs, as well as to less well-known blogs, to avoid becoming my own filter. While I dearly love my Bloglines… I try to be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias as I note myself jumping to the bloggers that I most agree with and skimming over those I don’t.
She asks what we do to overcome our own “confirmation bias” and whether we still read the “big name” bloggers. I’d say there are two related issues: confirmation bias (where we read things that support our own viewpoints) and the echo-chamber effect (where a group of bloggers are busily patting each other on the back).
I’m not sure the comments responded to her question. Dorothea Salo asked for a list: “Who are the big-name bloggers in libraryland?... I can’t answer for sure until I know who they are.” My studies were suggested as a rough guide (Salo correctly pointed out that the larger 2006 study deliberately excluded the most “popular” blogs—and didn’t name those excluded). A handful of blogs was mentioned more than once, with tiny differences between the two mentions. Since then, to be sure, there has been one external effort to identify the biggest liblogs and an internal effort to identify favorites.
Given my curious position (and Dorothea Salo’s) within some of those lists (not listed in the handful mentioned in comments on this post, but fairly high in the two recent efforts), I can legitimately say that not all widely-read bloggers are inbred or form an echo chamber. Do some of them? I leave that exercise for the readers. As for confirmation bias—that’s nearly impossible to track externally and I’m sure it happens to some extent. But it’s clear that the hundred or so most widely read libloggers don’t always agree on everything; there’s a healthy amount of dissension on most issues within that odd crew.
Nor, for that matter, are all libloggers taking part in a common cause—or, if we are, it’s a cause we define in many different ways. Laura Crossett wrote “bibliobloggers at the round table” at lis.dom (www.newrambler.net) on March 21, 2007. She’d like to think that libloggers constitute a group, all “working toward the same end, or at least a similar one.” Skipping a lot:
We want better libraries. We want better librarianship. We want to discuss our ideas with others who may have wildly divergent ideas but who are similarly fired up about them. We want to be around others who are as passionate as we are. And, perhaps frivolously but perhaps most importantly, we want to be colleagues, comrades, friends….
The biblioblogosphere isn’t working with a list of demands or even a list of points of unity. We’re just firing rockets into the night, hoping they ignite something and that that ignition causes a conflagration, and that that fire is the kind that does not simply destroy but also makes way for new things to be born. I’m eager and interested to see what will happen.
I believe there are a few (a very few) libloggers who don’t really want better libraries or better librarianship, who mostly want to cry doom and celebrate the downfall of libraries. I’ve learned to unsubscribe from those blogs. I don’t look for confirmation, but I’m impatient with that level of desperation or hopelessness. I can count the number of such blogs I’ve encountered on one hand and have fingers left over; that’s a very good thing.
Horst Prillinger had a “Comment” on March 28, 2007 at The aardvark speaks (homepage.univie.ac.at/horst. prillinger/blog/) about changes in blogging patterns—not directly related to the “weight” issue, to be sure. Part of what Prillinger notes:
A paper that I’m currently writing has me thinking about weblogs again. One, the diminishing posting frequency on weblogs all around me… has led me to believe that the golden days of weblogging might be over. Sadly, I’m not saying this as somebody who jumped the hype, but as somebody who started a website only to discover that he was actually writing a weblog..
Anyway, in this paper I am trying to single out strategies for using weblogs in libraries, despite the fact that I see their importance dwindling. Today, I wrote some 1200 words on the significance on comments and trackbacks, and noticed how their significance seems to have changed.
Even Dave Winer, the controversial semi-guru of weblogging changed his position between 2003, when he claimed that comments were a defining element of weblogs, to 2007, when he says that they’re not really all that important.
So what about the interactivity, the writer-reader communication interface? Was the fact that a weblog allowed on-the-spot discussion of a topic not one of the things that made weblogs different from the rest of the web-based applications?
I am wondering what sidelined comments (and trackbacks, by the way) so much, and the main suspects seem to be two things:
First, comment/trackback spammers, who forced many bloggers to switch off or at least restrict access to the comment and trackback functionality…
Second, wikis and other forms of interactive web publications may have taken over this functionality from weblogs as they seem to be more suited for discussion.
But overall, the interconnection between weblogs seems to have become looser. People have been removing or reducing blogrolls, comments are often not available, and as a result the often cited “community” quality of weblogs seems to be waning away. I guess part of the reason for people losing interest in their own blog is that they are finding fewer interesting other blogs due to this symptom.
I offered the first reply (Prillinger explicitly invited responses and arguments). Nearly all of what I had to say back in March:
I’m going to suggest an alternative, at least as far as library-related blogs are concerned. I think they may be in the process of becoming more relevant--because they’re less “hot” and the frequency of posts is declining.
Let me amplify that a bit (noting that I’ll save your post and followups, because this is an interesting question that deserves thought). I’m seeing a general decrease in quantity, but I think I’m also seeing a general increase in quality. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think not. That also involves a newer breed of bloggers, people who would have either not started or given up earlier because they just weren’t ready to do a post a day or whatever--but who do have interesting, thoughtful things to say once a month or once a week or when the thought strikes.
As for comments--well, there too, I’m seeing fewer “you go!” comments and, I think, more comments that further serious discussion. At least I think I am.
As for trackbacks, I agree there: Spam pretty much destroyed the usefulness. I never allowed them and I’ve never missed them.
Another commenter suggested that increased use of aggregators may be one reason there are fewer comments—and that makes sense. I probably miss some interesting comments because I only click through to posts (when full-text aggregation is available) if I plan to save them for later reading, and I’m not likely to click through to comment on an otherwise-marginal post.
That’s the title on Chris Harris’ April 1, 2007 article at School Library Journal (www.schoollibraryjournal.com)—but I think it would be better titled “Five bad reasons to blog,” since that’s what these are. The discussion’s charming, but I’ll just give the five reasons (noting that the third may be truer for school libraries than other library situations):
Ø “I want to give them a piece of my mind!”
Ø “Oh, the stories I could tell”
Ø “I think I can find some time at school…”
Ø “Nobody will find out that it’s me”
Ø “It’s OK, I will keep it private.”
Look up the whole article; it’s nicely done.
How do your blog and your work relate to one another? I’d guess that most of us who blog at home, don’t blog anonymously or pseudonymously, and work for a living think about that at one time or another, particularly when we blog on work-related issues. If you meet all those criteria and have never thought about the blog-work relationship, well, maybe you should.
Dorothea Salo kicked off this particular discussion with “The library manager and the librarian blog,” posted August 14, 2007 at Caveat lector. Salo’s supervisor knows about the blog but hasn’t called work attention to it and neither has Salo. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She doesn’t say others should follow her example, but “I do think everyone ought to at least think about it.”
Sure, it’s possible to write a blog of sufficient quality to merit inclusion on a tenure report or annual evaluation. Especially in libraryland, though, that means putting a hefty muzzle on things. Don’t you dare write anything personal that someone else might get angry or squicked at…And don’t have opinions on matters libraryish that differ too much from your boss’s. Asking for trouble, that.
And when you get in trouble, no one will defend you…
Go there if you want to. I sure wouldn’t.
But just to look at the other side of the glass for a moment, imagine you’re a library manager and you find out one of your reports does this really killer blog. Shouldn’t you bring it under the library fold? Good publicity, 2.0ishness, and all that?
No. No, you really shouldn’t. No matter how professional that blog is, it is a function of the librarian and not the library. (After all, you don’t get to keep the blog should your report leave your library, do you?) Treat it as you would any other publication by one of your reports. Reading it is totally kosher. Talking to your report about it at the water cooler is fine. If you regularly make note of your librarians’ professional activities, it’s probably all right to point out one or two posts that got quoted a lot in a meeting or a librarian-activity report (but I’d ask first, honestly I would). It’s fine to ask that person to talk about blogging tools, or to work on a duly-constituted library blog.
But your report’s blog is not your library’s blog. That simple. Makes life easier for your report, and gives you deniability in case your report pulls something stupid.
True enough—but you also can’t separate the blog from the blogger or the blogger from work all that easily. That’s why some organizations have blogging guidelines, guidelines that apply to anyone within the organization who blogs under their own name. I believe such guidelines make sense (as long as they’re minimal and never retroactively applied); some people need a little clarification on work:life boundaries.
Sarah Houghton-Jan used Salo’s post as a springboard for “Blogging about your own library’s experience: career suicide or honest sharing?” (August 23, 2007 at LibrarianinBlack, librarianinblack.typepad.com). Her quick answer: “I’ll go with both.” She agrees with Salo’s overall thoughts and adds (in part):
I am by no means the first person to point this out, but it is a shame that those of us working at real life libraries cannot or will not share our work experiences out of fear of reprisals. Because of this, we do not see many of the real life problems and opportunities facing our libraries. We see the happy-ending projects in our libraries reflected in the biblioblogosphere (‘cuz we’re allowed to blog about smiley face things without getting screamed at). But anything that would induce a “WTF?” response from the blogger in his/her work environment cannot see the light of day online.
Houghton-Jan has run into trouble because of things she’s said in her blog. She’s an employee and a manager, and sees both sides of the story, but…
I still feel that it is a shame that bloggers with so much wonderful at-work experience end up not sharing those things because of this fear. I do believe that much information is being lost as a result of this disconnect and clash of priorities. I think we’re not seeing as many honest opinions and evaluations of products as we would if we were more open about what we think.
She believes we’re specifically missing out on useful negative information—and she doesn’t know that this will ever be solved.
Jenica P. Rogers-Urbanek followed up with “Keep it secret, keep it safe” on the same day on what was then her eponymous blog (rogersurbanek.wordpress. com, since renamed Attempting elegance). Ms. Rogers-Urbanek feels she walks that “blurry, shifting, man-eating line between ‘it’s about librarianship, and I have something to say, so I’ll blog it as a contribution to the literature’ and ‘it’s about the daily life of my library so I can’t talk about it in public even if it might help someone to have a real example.’” More:
This blog was created for three reasons.
1. I love to write, and I want to contribute.
2. Because our profession is not ready for full disclosure from its professionals, I needed to separate the personal and the private.
3. I was told by someone in the position to do so that librarians who blogged with full attribution would not be hired by that library.
Because of #3, this is, in fact, an act of rebellion. What’s the URL? My name. Is my name common? Hell no… Why am I rebelling? Because I don’t like the attitude that Dorothea references when she writes “And when you get in trouble, no one will defend you. You shoulda known better, mate. It’s the Internet, after all.” Yep. It’s the internet. It’s the New World Of Online Communication. Get over it, and defend yourself against the people who can’t get over it. Rewrite the profession, if you have to. Stand up for yourself, fer goddsake.
So. Will I be listing this on my CV when next I apply for a job? No. But I know employers google candidates, and I want this face to come up first, see #2… And anyone who finds this and doesn’t like what’s here… well, then, I guess they didn’t like me, very much. Good to know in advance.
And I don’t write about the day-to-day, or the failures, or the internal staff issues. And, like Dorothea and the LiB, I think that’s a shame. Because my experiences as a young manager, as a collections librarian, as a woman looking to be a leader in academia… they might be useful to my peers. For now, though, out of fear of reprisal, we’ll all just have to read between the lines.
This situation isn’t unique to blogs. Sensible people in the library field have been self-censoring their posts on lists and groups ever since there have been lists and groups. Some of us have weak self-censors. Some of us get in trouble. Sometimes, that’s legitimate: It is inappropriate to blog or otherwise write publicly about confidential material or to discuss coworkers by name without their express permission. Sometimes, it’s more difficult, as in the cases stated or suggested in these posts. You feel something needs to be said. Are you ready to risk your job or your advancement over the need to say it? Most of us, most of the time, are not (and in this case, “us” most definitely includes me).
Three data points, each of interest—the OEDb “Top 25 Librarian Bloggers (By the Numbers)”; Meredith Farkas’ 2007 Survey of the Biblioblogosphere; and Farkas’ later survey of “three favorite librar* blogs.” Since I took part in both of Farkas’ surveys and was, strangely, in the top ten in both numbered lists, some brief notes may be in order:
Ø The OEDb list suffers from a wildly inadequate starting list of “librarian bloggers.” Too many important bloggers weren’t on the astonishingly short list of candidates; some of us who were on that list aren’t, technically, librarians. As for the numbers themselves, they’re repetitive but probably do provide a rough measure of readership and reach.
Ø The survey was fascinating, with an astonishing 839 people filling out the survey—more than half of whom started blogging in the last two years. Nearly a quarter of library-related bloggers blog anonymously or pseudonymously. Nearly 80% of bloggers use either Blogger or WordPress. More than half of the bloggers have published professionally—as have nearly three-quarters of those with older blogs. Women are taking up blogging faster than men, but are still “underrepresented” relative to the field as a whole. More than a third of libloggers are over 40. That’s just the tip of a fascinating iceberg.
Ø “Three favorite” is a maddening question. I answered based on momentary interest; there is no way I could name three long-tem favorites. The results were fascinating and, naturally, somewhat controversial. I was—I am—honored that Walt at random came in #9 on the list; I believe that blogs with distinctly personal voices tend to do better in “favorite” surveys. (I’d say each one of the top ten blogs on the survey has its own distinct persona; it would be difficult to mistake a Caveat lector post for one at Tame the web.)
Ø If you know why you’re blogging, your place (or lack thereof) on surveys won’t bother you…at least if you’re blogging for what I’d call “the right reasons.” Jennifer Macaulay got that right in “All about blogging,” her comment on Farkas’ survey (September 8, 2007, Life as I know it, scruffynerf.wordpress.com) Of course, Macaulay frequently says interesting things well—if she wasn’t one of my three “favorites” at the point I filled out the survey (I don’t remember who they were), she might very well be at some other point. “I’ve gotten comfortable with my blog, with its readership and with those people that I have developed relationships. It has been a wonderful and extremely successful experience for me.” What more can you ask for?
Ø Ryan Deschamps offered a charming set of liblog “types” in “A late-comer but more on surveys,” posted September 18, 2007 at The other librarian (otherlibrarian.wordpress.com). I’m going to suggest you go read this one yourself, for reasons that may be obvious when you do.
That’s way too much commentary about blogging—but hey, it’s been almost a year. Of course, I could do this as a blog post…or as sixteen of them, most still “too long for a blog.”
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