I’ve had a few friends ask about blogging this week. They have the same questions: is blogging worthwhile in an age of social media? What if no one reads? Which platform is the best? Isn’t WordPress complicated? Well, I have opinions and answers and a desire to help out. This post might be a long one — hold on tight.
I’m hardly an expert at blogging, though I’ve been doing it in stops-and-starts and in various places since the early 2000s. I didn’t have a lot of help and learned as I went along. I stumbled a lot. And I’m still stumbling. It’s from this student perspective that I offer some advice.
Why blog? As I wrote here previously, blogging is “an exercise to notice more, to observe the day with intention, to create firmer opinions and ideas, and to cope with the fears of uncertainty and of time passing.” It doesn’t matter if no one is reading — the act of putting your thoughts down in a public arena is medicine for gathering ideas and inspiring confidence. Bonus: it will make you a better communicator, too.
Social media is a tempting place for posting your thoughts. But don’t give in to convenience. The content you post on, say, Facebook not only becomes corporate property, but you’re enhancing the social media product to appeal to its real audience: potential advertisers. When you post to Facebook, you become part of a product designed to collect advertising dollars and please shareholders. I find that troublesome.
Even more troublesome is how these social media companies operate and the damage they inflict in pursuit of profit. And they actively imply their necessity, giving rise to questions like, “Why should I blog outside of Facebook?” It’s the commercialization of our thought-space and precious attention, something Jenny Odell talks about extensively in her terrific book How To Do Nothing. Odell says, “I will participate, but not as asked,” framing the refusal to contribute to the corporate product as a form of #resistance. “I want this not only for artists and writers but for any person who perceives life to be more than instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized.”
The other problem with a social media platform is that you lose control over what you’ve written. This dilemma is real in a legal sense — read those terms of service agreements — in that the platform can exploit what you post without your permission. But it also means that if you decide to move your content to another platform or even archive it for safe-keeping, you’re out of luck. Social media platforms make it nearly impossible to collect or move your content.
Here’s a confession: in the mid-2000s, I used MySpace as a blogging platform. Some of my favorite things I’d written were posted there, including diary-like tales of travel and the DJ life. When MySpace’s future looked shaky, I fruitlessly searched for a way to export the posts. And then I discovered older posts were deleted already. Now all of that writing is lost forever. Who’s to say something similar won’t happen with Facebook?
Now I use WordPress. I was hesitant at first, as I assumed there was a steep learning curve. I used the platform in the very early 2000s and found it frustrating at the time. But a couple of years back I decided to charge in head-first and was pleased with the improvements made to WordPress. It is now a cinch to set up, and the back-end is a breeze to navigate. I’m also a fan of the Gutenberg editor recently added to WordPress — posting
I did use Squarespace for a while. It’s a good platform. After a few years, I found myself outgrowing its limitations, so I moved to the much more flexible WordPress. I was also taken aback by an announcement that CSS editing would soon only be allowed at a higher price level. Squarespace backed down on that, but it made me realize the platform could change its features and fees at any time. And, though you can export your content from Squarespace, it’s done in a way that’s not easy to move to other platforms. When I did this export a little over a year ago, images were not included, which was disappointing.
I enthusiastically recommend blogging, and I recommend WordPress. You’ll get a lot out of the writing practice — I honestly think it makes life better — and WordPress ensures the content is yours to keep. As for social media, the key is posting links to your blog posts (and you may have found this post via social media link). Sending people to your blog is like welcoming them to your home, rather than having them meet you in a rented hotel room.
Here are a few tips and recommendations about setting up a blog on WordPress:
- Grab your domain/URL. Finding something unique and sticky isn’t as hard as you think. Be creative. I use Namecheap for my domains, and I’ve heard that Hover is good, too. A domain is around $10 a year. Before purchasing a domain, search for the company name (like “Namecheap”) and “coupon code.” These companies are always running promotions.
- Next, find a hosting company. You could use the same company as your domain, but I think it’s good to keep the hosting separate. You could use wordpress.com for hosting, but explore other options for the best price and features. I use Hostinger and appreciate the customer service and bang-for-your-buck on the pricing, which is generally below $5 a month. Here’s a list of other recommended hosts.
- Once you have all of that sorted, it’s super-easy to get WordPress active on your domain. All hosts will have instructions for how to do this — here’s Hostinger’s process to give an idea of how painless this is. If you’re still feeling gun-shy, many hosts will do this for you for a small fee or even no cost. But I recommend doing it yourself to learn a little about how WordPress works behind the curtain.
- In my opinion, the toughest thing about WordPress is choosing a theme. There are so many out there. I’d suggest looking at other blogs and finding layouts you like. Then apply this tool, which will tell you what themes those blogs are using and where to find them.
- There are many high-quality free themes out there (especially if you want a minimalist look), but you may find a paid theme has the best appearance and features. It’s often worth it to go for a paid theme for the support alone — most theme designers I’ve encountered are super-helpful with questions about setting up and customization. And, another good thing about any WordPress theme is if you grow tired of your current one, it’s easy to switch. For the most part, your content won’t be affected by a change in theme.
And here are a few things I’ve learned about blogging in general:
- Don’t worry if your traffic is slow or non-existent. That’s not why you’re here. If you’re consistent and honest in your writing, you’ll gain an audience, especially as organic SEO kicks in after a few months. And regarding SEO, read my post on the subject from a few weeks ago.
- For inspiration, carry around a small notebook and write down cues to remind you of thoughts that come up, things you see, conversations you have, and what you’re watching or listening to. Consult the notebook when you sit down to write. These cues will spawn writing topics.
- Another way I get inspiration is to look at other blogs. I have a bookmark folder of blogs to look at if I lack motivation or am doubting the practice of blogging. Seeing others doing it well, and having fun with writing always sparks my motivation. A few of my ‘inspiration blogs’ belong to Austin Kleon, Warren Ellis, and John Gruber. These three blogs are entirely different from each other — which is the point — but all spot-on in approach. It’s inspiring to see how different bloggers individually tackle their platforms and make fine-tuned magic happen for their readers.
Let’s talk about Medium for a minute. I do like Medium — it’s a sharp and simple blogging platform with a strong sense of community. Though one of those pesky corporations (it was founded by Ev Williams, former CEO of Twitter), Medium doesn’t have a corporate vibe and lacks the vitriol and manipulation of the social networks. Its heart seems in the right place, as writers can get voluntarily paid through its partner program. It’s easy to export your content, too — you can download your articles as HTML documents collected in a ZIP file.
But it’s still someone else’s platform, with the impression that you’re writing for (and building) Medium rather than your own identity. Josh Pigford of Baremetrics summed it up nicely in his article Why We Transitioned from Medium Back to Our Own Blog:
I realized Medium is really great about surfacing content, but it removes the face of it. It neutralizes all content to basically be author-agnostic. It’s like Walmart or Amazon in that you can buy from thousands of different brands, but you rarely actually know what brand you’re buying…you just know “I got it from Amazon.”
contenton Medium. Sure, you can see who the author is or what publication it’s on, but ultimately your takeaway is “I read this article on Medium”, and that’s not what I wanted.
But I do use Medium. I crosspost the longer, more evergreen articles after posting on this blog. I use Medium’s import tool, which makes this seamless and also removes any SEO conflicts caused by identical articles. I do this because I’m reaching a different audience through Medium, one that might be interested in discovering and reading my blog.1The overwhelming majority of my post views are still directly on my blog, not on Medium. I’m also in the partner program, and a couple of articles have gone mildly viral, paying out about $50 each. Why not, right? But this blog is the focus, and I wouldn’t create exclusive content for Medium.
So there it is. I hope this post is helpful. Nothing would make me happier than inspiring you to start a blog. Seriously, give it a go. Write about what’s precious in your life, your obsessions, and what you’re trying to do better. It might be frustrating at first, but once you get in the writing rhythm, wonderful things will happen. Be consistent, be honest, have fun, and, to paraphrase Timothy Leary, “Let the others find you.”
Update: As I was writing this, I kept recalling an outstanding piece from a few months ago also on the subject of blogging. After racking my brain I finally remembered and located it. So if you’re still on the fence you should immediately read this post by Disquiet’s Marc Weidenbaum. Here’s an excerpt:
And don’t concern yourself with whether or not you “write.” Don’t leave writing to writers. Don’t delegate your area of interest and knowledge to people with stronger rhetorical resources. You’ll find your voice as you make your way. There is, however, one thing to learn from writers that non-writers don’t always understand. Most writers don’t write to express what they think. They write to figure out what they think. Writing is a process of discovery. Blogging is an essential tool toward meditating over an extended period of time on a subject you consider to be important.
[…] I continue to recommend blogging (in essence: writing a public journal), and have been happy to see activism in favor of blogging on the upswing […]
[…] that I look at for a glimpse at how others are managing in tough times, something I mentioned in my guide to blogging. Kottke is a good one to look at as Jason continues to post about topics ranging from meaningful […]