Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
Observations From a Weblogger
When I write, I think that I'm writing to peers and to friends who are regular readers, as well as to people who are looking to learn something from a link they've followed provided by someone else whom they trust.
In the last few weeks there has been a lot written, both online and in print, about blogs, journalism, etc. Here are some of my thoughts.
I've learned that there is more to understand about the world of blogging than is obvious to those watching from the outside. This shouldn't be surprising, since many human endeavors may appear less than they are from the outside: Why would you want to risk life and limb sliding down a hill in the cold on snow? (Ask any avid skier.) Running hurts...what's this about a "runner's high"? This list goes on and on.
To help those of you who haven't participated, let me tell you what it feels like in my position since I don't think it's that unusual, even if my background as an inventor is unusual.
About me: At this point, I've been maintaining a weblog for about 2 1/4 years, and just helped some friends start another one that appears to already be pretty popular. Prior to that, I had been putting up thoughts about various topics on somewhat less chronologically-oriented web sites for another year and a half, though many of those posts were listed chronologically and had repeat readers. In addition, I've been reading many weblogs for years, as well corresponding with some of the authors. I've also spoken with many web site creators as part of my work with Trellix. Finally, I have kept careful watch of the server logs for all of my web sites over the years, and have a good idea of how readership works, who links to my work and what it says on the linking page, etc.
First, let's talk about web sites in general and their readership.
When I write something and post it on the web on a new web site, I immediately go and tell people I know about the web site. They give me feedback. Let's say it's a web site with pictures of a wedding. I usually let the parents of the bride and groom know first. (The couple is probably away for a while so I hear from them later...) They tell me how wonderful it is and thank me very much, which encourages me to do it again at another wedding (with usually a different family). In addition, they email many of their friends and relatives, people who were both present and absent from the event. Readership of the web site blossoms, peaking over the first week or so. Within a few weeks only an occasional person reads it. Total of about 50-100 readers.
If the web site has more general interest, such as the "Good Documents" one I wrote years ago about business writing for the web, or even a web site about an event that is more public, some of those readers add a link to my web site on their web site. Sometimes, one of those web sites is a very popular one. That drives more readers, and a certain ongoing proportion of the new readers of those web sites. An example is a link on Jakob Nielsen's Useit.com web site to GoodDocuments that brought in hundreds of readers when first created and which still brings in 5-10 readers a day even though that link is itself a few years old.
The next source of readers comes from the search engines and directories. If others link to my web site, or if I tell the search engines about it, there is a good chance it will eventually show up as a search result. If my pages are deemed "relevant" enough, I might even get a high ranking in searches or placed in a popular category in a directory. Here again, such listings bring in a constant flow of additional readers, who might then link to the web site, etc.
Finally, when I speaking with people in person, a topic sometimes comes up where the answer is "I have a picture of him on Joe's wedding's web site" or "I wrote about that last year..." In that case, giving out the URL is part of a physical conversation or speech.
So, readership comes from personal relationships, personal referrals, or active searching. The person reading has some external reason why they want to read my stuff, but no prior relationship to my writing. Readership of my static web sites ranges from 5-10 visitors for a pictures from a very private event, to a few hundred readers a day years after the last change to the web site for GoodDocuments.
A weblog is different. It starts out the same. I create a web site, write a few things, and then tell some friends. They send me feedback. Some link to it. Perhaps a search engine finds it. Nothing much different.
Then I do a second posting, and then a third. Unlike with my more static web sites, some of the readers come back. Since I know some of my friends might be interested in a new posting (it may be about them) I tell them and find out which are reading it and which didn't know about it. I get more feedback. Suddenly, I get feedback from someone I didn't expect. From out of the blue I get a thoughtful comment from a stranger. An email conversation then follows, and now this stranger is an online acquaintance. I read another weblog and see comments about what I wrote. I write comments back on mine.
I analyze my server logs to see which URLs have referring links to my web log. I go to those web pages and read the comments. These are the most revealing, almost like eavesdropping at a party. Some people like what I've written: "Bricklin gets it right when he says..." Some are more critical: "If you can get past the poor writing, you'll find another opinion from Bricklin..." Sometimes it's even weirder: "Here's a guy who looks like Osama and posts pictures of himself brushing his teeth...Get a life!" (Somehow he found my purposely boring "Day in the life of a weblogger" web site but knew nothing else about me except that I have a beard that needed trimming.)
Each time I post something, there's a chance I'll hear from some of my readers. I learn what they like and what they don't. They correct my errors and give suggestions for additional material. When writing, you now have that feeling that you are really talking to real people who will hold you responsible for what you write. If they don't email you, they may stop you in a store and say "I saw what you wrote and told the guys in my firm who actually worked on those patents and..." There's nothing like posting something late one night and then minutes later getting an email with a spelling correction from a reader in France. Ask a question, and you often get responses. (See the series of postings I made about "Big Planes" on March 23 and April 10 of last year.) My mother, brother, and other relatives read my weblog regularly so I use it to communicate more personal material than I might otherwise to an "arms length" audience.
When I write, I think that I'm writing to peers and to friends who are regular readers, as well as to people who are looking to learn something from a link they've followed provided by someone else whom they trust. When I write about people and events, I know that those people will possibly read it and comment back to me (I often tell them about it to make sure). My writing is part of relationships of all sorts that continue. Some of what I write may only make sense in light of past writings or knowledge of past parts of my relationship with my readers. To take one of my postings out of context sometimes seems as silly as hearing just the punch line of an in-joke at a party. (In actuality, this is a more general statement about weblogs. For mine I try to provide a little background, though for something I think will attract a large number of new, one-time readers, I write a more thorough, standalone essay like this.)
When I read the weblogs of others, I slowly get a sense for that person. It's like hearing a commentator on the radio day after day, or seeing sitcom "friends" week after week. Even though I may never have met that person, I feel the background of a relationship. Some of the response they react to is response I was thinking of but didn't write. I start to remember events or themes that recur in their writings. In some cases, I actually have met the person, and the weblog just fills things in, like phone calls between yearly visits to a relative. This feeling of "knowing" the person shows through in the tone of much of the email you get.
Weblogs like mine aren't traditional "journalism" in the sense used to describe an Associated Press news feed. They are individuals, sometimes individuals with particular knowledge or background, describing something or commenting upon things as they see them. They are closer to the source material used by press and historians. (See my "Pamphleteers and Web Sites" essay.) Letters from soldiers aren't the same as reports from correspondents, but they are valuable none the less for understanding what's going on. (Think of the value of something like Anne Franks' diary, even if she wasn't such a good writer.) The Internet lets others read these in almost real time and form their own opinion of things. Other weblogs serve as editors for those first-person reports as well as more traditional reports on news site, helping make sense for their readers. The informal nature of many weblogs, the fact that the writer views it similarly to talking to friends over dinner, lends itself to open, somewhat unedited, and far ranging material. Who knows what any given reader will find most interesting, especially when that reader months later may be the author themselves?
Finally, since some of my readers have their own weblogs, our reactions can be part of what really is some sort "conversation" -- that is, people making statements and others with whom they have an ongoing relationship reacting.
What about those "silly" web sites of kids writing "I called Jane for a date again and..."? Think of their readership as a community that cares. As one who has found it fulfilling for some of my web sites that have a readership of just a few people (a few family members), I can tell you, with the ease of posting with tools like Blogger and Radio being similar to that of email, it's worthwhile even for something that others might make use of an email going to one or two people. It gives you a log you can read yourself of material and a better control of layout than individual emails. (In an email when you say "like last week's fiasco with Joe" can you depend upon your readers to have a copy to read to remember what you're talking about?) In fact, if I could justify the time, I find my weblog valuable to myself as a personal diary of work-related stuff. Most diaries are not read by much more than the author, yet they are considered "normal" to do for just this reason.
Journalists that evaluate weblogs on the basis of other motivations for writing can be misled. Not everybody is writing for a wide audience. Not everybody is writing "objectively". The "Hey! What's Up?...Oh, GTG, bye!" of Instant Messaging is akin to the "Hi! How's things? Fine!" of two people passing in the hallway. Some weblogs are more like the cellphone calls people make on the way home. Others are like the calls from a person at the scene of an event. In most cases, though, there is a feel for a relationship with the readership. In psychotherapy, I understand, there are various styles. Some therapists have a "blank wall" style where they try to completely keep their own feelings and reactions from the relationship with the patient. Others, to the horror of the first style, tell their patients of their own experiences and express opinions. Both styles have their place. Some journalists send their reports from the field, never even knowing if it's printed or in what form. Others hear from their readers immediately and may even write about the interactions. I believe that blogging gives a journalist a chance to have additional valuable conversations with an audience that would be otherwise unavailable. It's not the only way to communicate, but it sure is a valuable one for both readers and writers. Just ask my mother or my readers around the world or any weblogger. (Don't minimize the value of making your loved ones happy -- after all, "Honor thy father and thy mother" is one of the Ten Commandments, before "Don't bear false witness", and there's no "Be a reporter".) The main reason to stop, from my viewpoint, is that writing takes time. Just like weekly telephone calls with our close friends, colleagues, and loved ones, we don't always have time for everything. Stopping doesn't mean it's not valuable.
- Dan Bricklin, 26 Feb 2002
Here are links to some other articles on the subject (which link to yet more):
Dan Gillmor: A journalist who's been blogging for over two years comments.
Glenn Fleishman: Another journalist who blogs commenting on the NYTimes article about blogging.
Dave Winer: Lots of comments and links. Start with the date I linked to, and go backwards in time.
Megnut: One of the creators of the original Blogger comments on the fact checking of publications like the NYTimes vs. the information available from weblogs.
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