Blogging as a Way to Till the Internet

Of late my wife has been creating videos about parenting and fitness, and one of the things we’ve been discussing is the best way for her to share her content. Should she primarily use Instagram for photos, and YouTube for videos? Should she always cross-post to Facebook and Twitter? What hashtags should she use? What kinds of updates work well, what precautions should she take, and what sorts of obnoxious updates should she avoid?

Naturally the subject of a blog came up. Maybe she should start a blog as her main platform, and then push her updates out to other social media channels? Which then led to the next question: Is she ready to commit to setting up and maintaining a blog?

Aspiring authors such as myself have been asking themselves the same question ever since social media took off. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are not just seen as viable marketing engines, but as technological forces which have created a new expectation among readers who, presumably, want to know more about the authors whose books they buy.

There are different opinions about how necessary a blog and a social media platform is for authors, with the general consensus being that a blog is more or less essential for non-fiction writers, whereas it’s optional for fiction writers. Just this past February, for example, the literary agent Rachelle Gardner asked, “Should All Authors Blog?” Answer: Not necessarily. She then gives some criteria to help you choose.

For authors I think that’s a safe way to answer, and yet I differ from Gardner in one respect. Towards the end of her post, she writes that if you really don’t want to blog or have the time for it, you can always keep to shorter posts on Facebook and the like.

I would suggest a different way of looking at the matter: if you want to get a message out on the Internet, you should consider a blog as your best option—and that all other channels should be secondary to it. To make my case, I will lean heavily on a scholarly article, “Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future,” by author and English professor Alan Jacobs (who, by the way, wrote a book on the art of thinking which I highly recommend).

Right from the start, Jacobs introduces a forward-looking dimension to the question of blogging: as users of the Internet, do we have a responsibility to the generations of users who come after us? He argues that we do, and he quotes Gandalf, of all people, as an example of the kind of responsibility he is referring to:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

~Gandalf in JRR Tolkien’s The Return of the King

He then argues that we can best apply this line of thinking by un-mooring ourselves from the “walled gardens” of the major social media platforms. And the way to do that is by creating our own digital spaces (i.e., blogs and personal websites) for tilling.

To be clear, Jacobs isn’t saying that you should stop using social media tools (although he is no big fan of it), but rather to reduce your dependence on them as your sole means of publishing. He gives two important reasons why.

First, it is possible (though unlikely) that one or more of the major social media platforms will one day go away, in which case you would have no way to recover your content. Think of all the photos, posts, videos, article shares, and links you have on social media. What recourse would you have to copy it all if Facebook or Twitter were to be liquidated? Probably none.

Second, having a blog allows you to be more or less independent of the terms and conditions of the walled gardens. The products are free, but not really: your personal data is being analyzed, collected, sold to third-parties, and used in questionable ways (a subject I have blogged about before). Moreover, while you can post pretty much whatever you like, you must do so within the constraints of the tool. If you don’t like the way that your content is packaged and promoted, there is little you can do about it.

And of course this is to say nothing about how social media has become notorious for how it can enable toxic online behavior: trolls, flame wars, constant craving for validation, constant comparison against others, etc. A blog will not eliminate these problems, but at least you can disable comments and likes, and thereby put up some guardrails against the temptation to reduce so much of what you write to a metrics-driven game of popularity.

So I tend to agree with Jacobs. The walled gardens of social media are strange, volatile environments that are ever encroaching on our privacy, and whose effects on our well-being are increasingly alarming (see here and here and here for just a few examples); and the way we engage with and promote these tools today will have far-reaching consequences for the shape of the Internet to come. That’s why (contra Gardner) I would contend that if you are going to publish content on the web, that blogs are a wiser investment and a more responsible means of tilling the soil.

Sower at Sunset, 1888, by Vincent van Gogh. Source: www.vincentvangogh.org

Now, having said all that, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start a blog. Here I think that Gardner’s list of criteria for why or why not to do so are spot on. Two of those criteria are particularly important: “You have something important to say and it seems people want to hear it”; and “You find blogging contributes to your creativity and enthusiasm for writing your books, rather than sucking all the energy out of you.” I certainly recommend reading the whole thing.

One other thought I would add is that if you find yourself writing long and thoughtful posts or threads on Facebook or Twitter, then blogging is definitely something you should consider. I recently reached out to a friend of mine to make this very suggestion. He regularly writes hefty posts that invite healthy dialogue, and it struck me that his writing would fit well in a blog format. Of course, blog posts don’t have to be long. They can be as short and sweet as what you see on social media. Alan Jacobs’ own blog is a good example.

I also like Gardner’s reasons for why you shouldn’t blog, and would add a few more of my own:

  • You shouldn’t write a blog to gain social approval from your tribe (whatever you consider you “tribe” to be).
  • You shouldn’t write a blog to state opinions that you’re unwilling to research as fairly, politely, and humbly as possible. (If you’re tempted to blog your disagreement with some thesis put forth somewhere by another person, here’s a helpful flowchart from Jacobs to guide your response.)
  • You shouldn’t use a blog to address issues or conflicts without a concomitant willingness to be the change you want to see, and to resolve any issues or conflicts you have in person. In other words, blogging is best done not in some isolated ivory tower, but in a community that values telling the truth and engaging in respectful disagreement. The question is, do you have peers who don’t just pat you on the back for what you say, but who can challenge you and hold you accountable—peers whose criticism you’d be willing to learn from? Put another way: don’t write a blog if you’re unwilling to be criticized (or, in the case of those who blog about theological matters, to be held accountable by the church community of which you claim to be a part).
  • You shouldn’t write a blog if you’d be crushed when no one notices you, or obsessed when people do. (Unfortunately, because humans are exceptionally prone to narcissism, and more than a little conditioned by the dopamine hits of social media, this is a lot trickier than it sounds.)

Lastly I will mention some objections to the prospect of blogging that I don’t think are terribly persuasive.

Objection 1: You shouldn’t write a blog because it’s difficult to set up and operate.

Compared to social media, setting up a blog does take extra effort. Zuckerberg makes it so easy: all you do is sign up and post away!

Interestingly, this gets to one of Alan Jacobs’ points in his article: If we want more people to free themselves from the corporate constraints of social media, then we need to do a better job of teaching them how to set up their own websites. He thus proposes an agenda for the sorts of things to teach students, such as how to secure your own domain name and server, find and edit a theme, and maintain content on your own terms.

Yes, blogging takes some extra time. But it’s worth it if we’re talking about the future of the Internet; and anyways I would argue that it is not that hard.

Objection 2: You shouldn’t write a blog if you’re not a trained writer, English major, or whatever.

A lot of bloggers are average people who have a problem to solve or a story to tell, and they just dive into writing about it. Being specially trained in writing is nice, but it isn’t an absolute requirement. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t try as hard as possible to write well. It simply means that you shouldn’t shortchange yourself just because your degree is in some field other than writing.

Objection 3: You shouldn’t write a blog because it’s presumptuous to believe you have anything worth saying. 

It is one thing to object to blogging because you have nothing to say. It is quite another to believe that you shouldn’t blog because doing so would be presumptuous.

Here’s the thing: people presume to state opinions on social media all the time—opinions which are often very long-winded and sophisticated, I might add. Why should stating opinions on a blog be seen as any different?

Objection 3: You shouldn’t write a blog because no one reads blogs. Everything is on social media now.

Well, not everything — and you can always share your blog posts on social media. If you’re still concerned that no one will read what you have to say, how is that any different from no one reading your social media posts? “But at least people would see my update on their newsfeed!” Which, sure. But again, roughly the same would happen if you shared a blog excerpt.

“But what if people don’t even click on my link?” That is a very real possibility, and not necessarily a bad one. See point above about how you shouldn’t blog to get adulation. If that’s what’s driving you, then blogging will just be one more thing in life that eats you from the inside out.