Monday, September 03, 2007

The State of the Blog

Seal of the Presidency

There were a grand total of sixty-nine new posts last month. To understand why this is a significant fact, consider that there were only sixty-four posts in the entire year of 2006. To be sure, 2006 was the least productive year for Unstructured Musings but even the best year, 2005, only have a total of one hundred and forty-seven posts. The reason for this proliferation of posts is that I've made some deep changes in the methodology and philosophy behind the blog.

Before I explain the changes that I've made, and the reasons behind them, I'd like to explain a bit about how I make content. There are two major categories of blog content: derived and original.

Derived content, as the name implies, is content which is derived from other sources. In the simplest case, it's simply a post pointing to some other content with a short blurb attached to it ("Check out this site!"). The advantage of derived content is that it's fairly easy to produce.

The problem with derived content, however, is that there's always the possibility that you'll have already seen it. Any day you come here and there's nothing interesting for you to see is a reason for you not to come back, so any time I put up something you've found on your own, there is the potential that I've driving you away. In order to minimize that possibility, I need to go out of my way to find content that you probably haven't seen before, which means, among other things, that I need to avoid so-called viral content (which is content that rapidly spreads by way of word of mouth). So things like the Dramatic Chipmunk videos are something I need to avoid. This is something of a paradox, though, because viral content is viral precisely because people like it, which means that I'm deliberately avoiding the very things that are most interesting on the web, which means that I need to expend some thought and effort in order to find things that I think you'd enjoy.

One thing that I can do so increase your interest in derived content is by trying to add value to it. A good example of this is something I call a mosaic post which is a post where I tie together several different pointers with a theme. The recent Elven Tattoo post is a good example of that since it has links to cool Elven tattoos, another link to how to translate your name into Elven, a third link to how to write in Elven, a link to some software (along with a font link), a link discussing dialects of Elven, and finally a link to an Elven wedding invitation. This method provides you a kind of one-stop shop for cool content. Unfortunately, mosaic posts have their own drawback which is that they take me a fair amount of time and energy to put together which goes a long way towards negating the main reason to post derived content.

Original content is just that: content that I create, more or less, from scratch. Although it is possible to create a blog with such a niche theme, using derived content, that it's stands apart, most blogs (including this one) rely on original content to distinguish themselves from other blogs. Original content can take many forms from simple journal posts and poems all the way up to full blown essays and stories. Naturally, the longer and more complex the original content, the more effort it takes to create it.

When I created Unstructured Musings, blogs were just starting to go mainstream. As a consequence, I really didn't have a good template for what a blog should be. Most of the blogs at that time were basically online diaries. An online diary can be interesting is the author has a sufficiently interesting life. If I spent my days travelling to exotic locales, or if I had just won the lottery, it's entirely possible that people would be interested in knowing what was going on with my life on a day to day basis. The majority of people, however, live lives that are really only interesting to them and their inner circle of friends and family. Given that my days mostly revolve around work and reading, I knew that this wasn't what I wanted my blog to be about. I decided that the primary focus of the blog was going to be essays. My goal was to write an essay a week on any topic that I desired (hence the "unstructured" part of Unstructured Musings).

My frame of reference, at the time, took the form of traditional web pages. The big difference between a blog and a web page is that the latter is much more static. A personal page can go for months, or even years, without updates or new content and that's just fine. A blog, however, is dynamic and temporal. Although I had some sense of that, I didn't really appreciate how important it was to regularly post new content.

Within a few months (May, to be exact), I realized that weekly updates weren't cutting it so I went to an ironically structured format where I'd post new content three times a week: an essay every Sunday, a poem every Thursday, and a "fun" link every Tuesday, which means that I had committed to a structure where 2/3rds of all my content was original and that half the original content took a very long and involved form.

Just writing the essays proved to be grueling. An average essay runs about 2,000 words and the majority of them required a fair amount of research on top of the original thought that went into them. Add to that the fact that I was also producing original poetry every single week and that I had to dig up a fun and interesting link in my spare time (to say nothing of all the background administration that goes into running a blog). What started out as a labor of love swiftly became a chore. The miraculous thing is that I kept up that pace, unabated, for more than a year.

By mid-2005, however, signs of strain were beginning to show up. I started missing my essay deadlines. In order to compensate for this, I switched to a bi-weekly essay format where every other work would be an off-site essay. Even this wasn't enough to eliminate the stress of producing the blog. By the end of 2005, I was writing essays that I weren't able to finish (which was utterly unfair to you, my readership).

2006 was the year that nearly broke the blog. A series of health and personal issues drained me of a significant fraction of my energy. The amount of original content dropped to nearly zero and even the derived content only came out as a trickle. By 2007 I was seriously considering shutting the whole thing down. This urge was compounded by Blogger going to a new style sheet format. Although it was possible to me to continue using the existing style sheets, if I wanted to make any changes, what so ever, to the formatting of the blog, I would need to convert it, which meant redesigning the style sheets from scratch.

June was Unstructured Musings' Rubicon. For the first time ever, I didn't post anything at all. I spent the entire month wondering if I should just pull the plug. On the one hand, there really is something I love about Unstructured Musings. Even though my readership is small, the quality of the commentary I've gotten from you has been amazing. There is also the fact that it's a creative outlet, for me, which is something I do need in my life. On the other hand, if blogging caused me more grief than happiness (especially in the form of guilt when go a long time without posting), perhaps it would be better to give it a quiet burial.

So I sat down and thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it some more. Ultimately, I decided that I would like to keep the blog alive but that that I would need to change the way that I'm managing it, and whether I still wanted to.

I decided that the first decision was going to be whether or not to update the style sheet. If the blog was going to continue, I didn't want to keep clinging to the old sheet. Conversely, if I didn't think that it was worth redoing, then it wasn't worth continuing. Obviously, I did decide that it was worth it. The new look went live on July 25th. This was a reboot both symbolic and literal.

The first, and biggest, change to the blog, beyond the cosmetics of the new style, is the way that I produce content. I've created a folder in my bookmarks called "Blog Fodder". Whenever I come across a link that seems cool, I bookmark it into that folder. Every so often, I'll take a chunk of the links I've bookmarked and then write up posts that link to them, saving those posts to draft, in Blogger (which means that they don't show up on the public page). This means that on any given day, I can just change the status of one of the queued posts from "draft" to "final" and I have a fresh post.

This has two benefits: 1) I have the ability to create fresh content on a daily basis and 2) if I'm not in the mood to work on the blog on a given day or week, I don't really have to beyond the minimal effort of getting something out of the draft bin. This also means that on those days when I do feel like blogging, I can put a whole bunch of things into the queue all at once to use in the future.

Naturally, this means that there's been a shift in content away from original and towards derived content. That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be any more original content; however, even there the focus is going to shift away from essays and towards shorter forms such as reviews, poems, and things like the archetype posts. I will still write essays and stories but those are going to be published on the order of several times a year instead of several times a month. Not only will that be considerably less exhausting for me but I think that it will result in a higher quality of essay, which will be good for you.

August was a deliberate experiment to see what sort of pace I could set for content generation. On average, I put up about 2 ¼ new posts a day. I was glad to discover that I could keep up that pace without exhausting myself. That said, I don't think you'll be seeing that many posts in a month again. Even though I didn't feel myself burning out in August, I could sense that I was pushing the limit. I would like to give myself more of a buffer so I'll be throttling back. Most days, I'll be limiting myself to a single post and, most of the time, that post will be something that's derived. I will try to have an original item on average of once a week but that item will usually take a short or medium form (i.e., under 500 words).

Change is always risky. Most of my regulars have stuck with me for some time and, judging by the poll I did on the subject, the thing you like most about the blog is when I do long and complicated posts such as essays and stories. I realize that by moving the emphasis away from those kinds of things, I risk losing your interest. Unfortunately, I just can't produce that type of content a frequent basis without destroying my own love for this place, which is also something I don't want to do. It is my sincere hope that the change in direction won't be too jarring and that I will be able to make it worth the while for you to keep me in your bookmarks.


Kyle said...

I'm really glad you didn't decide to pull the plug. :-)

ron smith said...

me too. !!!!

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