A Portrait of the Blog as a Young Child: problems and solutions

This blog is now a month old, and is still very much in its infancy. Like any infant, it is developing at a rapid pace, and its father (i.e., me) is still trying to figure out how to raise it. One problem I’ve encountered as I try to shape this little creature is the dilemma of how often to post, and how high to set the bar for whether a particular subject is blogworthy.

The flexibility inherent in the blog form, which allows bloggers to post as frequently or infrequently as they want, at whatever length they want, with as much or as little substance as they want, allows for a great sense of freedom and possibility. No copy editor will demand that 200 words be chopped from a post to fit the alloted space, and no email will arrive telling you that we are very sorry, but your piece is not quite right for our publication, and we wish you the best of luck finding a different outlet for it.

Such freedom and flexibility is, however, a curse as well as a blessing. A form of analysis paralysis can occur, in which the large number of options actually makes it harder to choose one. Studies suggest that when people are given a limited number of choices (for example, when shopping in a supermarket for laundry detergent or orange juice), then they have an easier time making a decision and they will be more likely to be satisfied with their decision afterwards. If they are given too many choices, then they have more trouble coming to a decision, and they are less likely to be happy with their decision afterwards. This, I believe, applies to a lot of things in life; for example, it may help explain why so many people in this land of opportunity have so much trouble settling on a career path and end up dissatisfied with whatever they end up settling on. (Or maybe I’m just projecting?)

The blog form demands that bloggers make a lot of choices. First of all, how often to publish? Some blogs are updated dozens of times a day, with link after link to funny videos, indignant rants, newsworthy articles, pretty pictures, etc. Other blogs are updated once a day or even once a week, with considered, essay-like posts about a specific topic, or personal memoir serialized in blog form, etc. Neither style is better than the other per se — it all depends on the preferences of the blogger, the preferences of the particular readers that he or she is writing for, and the preferences of potential readers that he or she hopes to attract.

How often to post isn’t the only dilemma, or even the hardest one. There are many other choices to be made: what topic or set of topics should I write about, and how limited in scope should I make the topic or topics? How trivial does a particular post have to be in order to fail the Elaine Benes “blogworthiness” test? Should I write short and sweet posts that communicate my points in distilled form, or should I elaborate my thoughts in short essays? If I see a clever or wise or outrageous video on YouTube, should I share it with my audience, or should I restrict myself to (mostly) original content and leave the YouTube linking to others?

To make things more complicated, different readers will have different needs. To return to the metaphor that began this post, some people — the infant’s grandparents, say — will eagerly welcome any new information about the baby. Other people — acquaintances and neighbors, say — may roll their eyes if they are asked to look at yet another set of pictures of the baby.

You can’t aim to please everyone, of course, and the best solution to these dilemmas is probably to forget about what your audience wants, and simply post what you want to post. If you lose some readers because they don’t like the subject or style or frequency of your posts, then so be it. If new readers come to your blog because the like the subject or style or frequency of your posts, then so be that too. That’s excellent advice, but all I can say is: easier said than done — I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t hope that people would read it, so I can’t help but think about whether a post I’m writing will excite the crowd or bore them to death (including metaposts such as this one).

To a great extent, the blog form allows these issues to resolve themselves. It might annoy an acquaintance to receive 10 emails a day with updates about the baby’s latest activities. It might annoy a neighbor to be accosted on the sidewalk every day and asked to look at a new photos of the baby. One wonderful thing about the internet is that is allows readers to define their own parameters for how often they want to look at a blog, how closely they want to peruse the posts, whether or not they want to click on the links that are offered, or play a YouTube video that is displayed. The burden of decision-making falls on readers as well as blogger, so the blogger can feel some of that weight lifted from his or her own shoulders and go about his or her blogging without worrying (at least not too much) about playing to the audience.

All of this is a meandering way of explaining that this blog is still very much a work in progress, and I am groping somewhat blindly for a style that works for me, and will, I hope, work for readers as well. All of this is also a long windup for saying that I have decided to address some of these issues by adding a section to the sidebar at the left of the blog, labeled “Marginalia.” It is a kind of compromise: If I want to write something, but worry that it is not blogworthy enough to turn into a full blog post, then I might write it there. Or if I read an article, or see a video, and think that some of my readers might get something out of it, then I might put a link to it there. If I’m out and about away from my computer, but have something to say, then I can might post something there from my mobile phone. “Marginalia” is just  a Twitter stream that I have created for this purpose, so if people who read this blog through a feedreader want to see what I post under “Marginalia,” they can follow my Twitter feed or just check back here occasionally — as I write this, there is only one thing there, but “Marginalia” will show the previous five or so items in my Twitter stream. (And the single Twitter item only seems to be showing up sporadically on the blog, so I may have some technical problems to work out before this works reliably.)

Now that I’ve gotten all that metablogging out of the way, it’s onward to month two, and I promise that this blog won’t become a blog about writing a blog, which would be too recursive even for me.

13 Responses to “A Portrait of the Blog as a Young Child: problems and solutions”

  1. Gene says:

    Happy anniversary! You’ve got two weeks on my Oakland blog 🙂 The beauty of a blog is you can write what and how you want. Unless you’re trying to do it for a living, it doesn’t really matter how many other people read it. If you write when you have something to say, and say it well, people will find it and read it.

  2. wordnerd says:

    With all the talk of minimalism nowadays, it was amazing to me how high a proportion of the praise of Updike centered on his volumniousness.

  3. ruth gutmann says:

    You seem to be striving for structure or a center in your blog while suspecting that structure is an oxymoron where blogging is practiced.

    Isn’t that the difference between a good, topical newspaper essay and a blog? To me the blog’s links diffuse the original theme: while they may contribute to ramify that theme, they rarely clarify it. As for the blog as “a young child:” Small children too need a combination of freedom and limits. The right proportion is often not easy to determine unless we can discern what the child seems to crave.

    As for Updike: I was struck by another aspect of Updike’s life: If anybody set himself limits, it was Updike. How uneventful his life was. Did he substitute seeing and judging and describing the lives of his characters for his own experience?

  4. Carol says:

    1. I’ll read your blog if you promise not to use meta- as a prefix except in the word metaphor (other exceptions may occur to me).

    2. (this mostly to Ruth) As you suggest Updike’s life looks uneventful to some. I think he found it extremely full. He had severe psoriasis, a most unfortunate and painful disfiguring ailment, the occasion for his various travels to sunny shores, where he found grist for his fiction mill. He was a practicing Christian, not that I get it myself, but it clearly mattered a great deal to him, the source of solace and anxiety in equal (perhaps equal) measure. He won major literary awards was lauded by many and excoriated regularly by some critics who wanted him to write different books than the ones he wrote. I would consider both of those experiences eventful. He had several children, and later, stepchildren, never an uneventful experience. He was, presumably, unfaithful at least to his first wife; infidelity is a principal expression of human moral frailty in his books. As far as seeing and judging and describing the lives of his characters, perhaps that was not a substitute, but the transformation of his seeing the lives of his fellows. into something he could share with others.

  5. dc says:

    Gene: You’re right, but as I said in the post, not thinking about how many people are reading it is easier said than done. A wise man advised me that he has never checked the traffic numbers for his blog. I don’t have that kind of sense or restraint. I don’t have any big ambitions, but it is always nice to see that new readers have come along.

    Wordnerd: You can get a lot of credit from a lot of people by volume alone. Just look at the outsized praise for David Foster Wallace when he died. As far as I can tell, he acquired his high status mainly because he wrote an oversized book and packed too much stuff into it. Smart guy, I’m sure, but I couldn’t make it more than 100 pages into Infinite Jest. Updike was at least more readable, and probably more read, and more prolific too, although in more manageable pieces. I think the only Updike book I have ever actually read it Rabbit, Run, which must not have inspired me to read any more of them. Seemed like a cheerful enough guy when I saw him in interview clips after he died, but I didn’t read the obits.

    Ruth: I think you’re onto something about structure being an oxymoron when it comes to blogs, and yet many of the best blogs seem to acquire a kind of structure and shape as the posts accumulate. As I said, I am still trying to settle on a style that works for me, although I do enjoy being able to mix things up a bit in terms of topics, formats, length, etc.

    Carol: Okay, you have a deal. I promise that I will only use “meta” as a standalone adjective from now on, as in, “Dude, this post is so meta!” Since I probably won’t write about metaphysics very often, your single exception might suffice. By the way, I did notice that I had used “meta” twice in this post in that annoyingly trendy way, and I considered changing one of them to something else, but I decided to leave them as is. I do usually edit or at least proofread posts before I publish them, but I often let infelicities like that go. It is a blog, after all.

  6. eric says:

    Ruth–I would say that Updike didn’t “substitute seeing and judging and describing the lives of his characters for his own experience,” but rather the reverse.

    DC: The blog’s going fine. You HAVE set up a style, even if you don’t see it.

  7. nnyhav says:

    You’re the top hit for http://www.google.com/search?q=blogworthy+elaine — thought you should know …

  8. jessica says:

    I love this blog.

  9. wordnerd says:

    From the Globe obit of (Updike): ‘The novelist David Foster Wallace consigned Mr. Updike, along with Mailer and Philip Roth, to the authorial category of “G.M.N.s” (Great Male Narcissists), condemning his “radical self-absorption.”‘ And I thought it was the contrast between Roth and Updike that was interesting.

  10. dc says:

    nnyhav: Excellent news! I’ve had my sights on the Seinfeld-referencing demographic, so that will help.

    jessica: This blog loves you right back.

    wordnerd: DFW has a point there, doesn’t he, at least when it comes to Mailer and Roth? (I know less about Updike.)

  11. m says:

    I have always posted when I felt the urge to write. That’s the only factor I use to decide on frequency. But as for what to post and how to organize it all, I’m still struggling with it.

    In the past I had numerous blog on various topics and one personal blog with a kitchen sink approach. That blog was probably the most interactive and better read though the others were much more focused and I’d given much more thought and care to their organization, content, etc.

    In the personal blog I just said what when and how I wanted to with no or close to no regard to readership. I still don’t care or check numbers but I do struggle with who am I writing for (the answer is usually me but then I fear writing for me first and foremost means others will be bored to tears reading what is essentially my diary and record keeping…).

    Anyway I had a similar post up on my own new blog (after keeping others for about 5 years prior) trying to figure out what and how I was blogging and who for.

    For a new blog with no specifically stated topic (and for any blog too) your blog is engaging and interesting and readable. And you have a good number of comments too. (I’m in the middle of starting and ending and not knowing what I’m doing with so many blogs, that I don’t know which to link to in my username here…)

  12. ht says:

    totally agree with the idea of too many choices making people less satisfied. we’re all lost in the supermarket.

  13. dc says:

    Joe knew whereof he sang…

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