The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Blogging

I live in a small, rural town (population ≈1200) in north-central Massachusetts, so when our librarian asked me if I’d do a program at the library on blogging, I happily signed on to help fill in the calendar. With tomorrow fast approaching, I thought it would be useful to set down some notes in, naturally, a blog. And besides, what better way is there to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon than on the writing of a self-referential blog entry? Sure beats trying to keep up with Twitter or cleaning up the workshop!

I’m expecting to be discussing or asked about some variant on three questions in tomorrow’s program: what’s a blog, why blog, and how do I blog?

What’s a blog? You’d think that in 2017 that there would be no one in the world who doesn’t know what a blog is, but it’s worth remembering that upwards of 50% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to (or have voluntarily forsworn) the Internet, and even here in tech-heavy Massachusetts, there are many people who still rely on dial-up modems for email (you can just forget about loading a static web page at 300 bps).

My go-to source for all things Internet, Wikipedia, defines a blog (“a truncation of the expression weblog “) as “a discussion or informational website published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries (‘posts’).” Emerging in the late 1990s, there are now probably hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of blogs available on the web. They can be written by anyone—including professional journalists, elementary school students, amateur wrestlers, celebrities, celebrity wannabes, or your next-door neighbor—on most any topic. They may be open for comments or not, monetized or not, or consist of all text or a mix of text, images, video, etc. Simply put, they reflect, in some way, shape, or form, the personality of the blogger.

For me, blogging is long-form, stream-of-consciousness, often sloppy, prose. And sometimes poetry. Since I’ve not yet been invited to write for The New York Review of Books, I don’t know where else to I can publish things like that in this era of Tweets masquerading as information.

Why blog? One could rephrase this question as why write? or why communicate? Blogging is just another vehicle for communication. Everyone has their own motivation to blog. For some, like journalists, it may be part of their job. For others, it’s a way to make connections with people they might not otherwise know or meet (think 21st-century pen-pals). And for still others, it’s like writing a diary, only a lot more public.

I set up my own blog in March 2016 when I was a few months into a year-long sabbatical. I was traveling a lot and wanted a way to share ideas and observations with family, friends, and colleagues. I refuse to use Facebook (Ivy League alumni/ae of a certain age should be aware of its unsavory, sexist origins, and if that’s not enough to keep one off its platform, its recent behavior with respect to alt-news and alt-facts should), and was also looking for an opportunity to do more creative and expository writing than is allowable in the standard scientific/technical paper that is my daily bread-and-butter.

And of course, if you’re going to blog—our put your creative work out to the world in any form—you have to have a healthy dose of ego, or at least a sense that you have something to say that someone else might, conceivably, care about. Hope springs eternal.

How blog? One of the great technological improvements that has gone along with the World Wide Web is the existence of tools and templates that let anyone build a website without any knowledge of the underlying code (HTML [hypertext mark-up language] in any of its myriad flavors, Java or Javascript, etc.). Many of these come free, but be sure to read the fine print about what information or data about yourself you’re giving away in return (which also applies if you buy “premium” versions of the tools).

A quick search of the Internet returns tens of millions of hits on how to blog. The three basics steps include:

  1. Decide on your topic or theme. If you don’t have one in mind, you’re not likely to blog about it.
  2. Sign up with a blogging platform. There are dozens.
  3. Start blogging.

There are a few more-or-less optional things to do, too:

  1. Identify a “host” (where in the web your blog will live). Since many of the blogging platforms will host your blog for you, you may be able to avoid this step.
  2. Create (sign up for and buy) a domain name. Most blogging platforms will let you use their domains, but you might want your own.
  3. Think about whether your blog is going to stand alone or be part of a more comprehensive website.
  4. Let other people know you’re blogging and hope they start following and reading your blog.

You don’t have to do these things in any particular order. I certainly didn’t. At the beginning of my sabbatical, I decided that it was time to create a personal website for my creative pursuits (I already had a professional one on my employer’s website), and so I started by buying a domain name: https://unbalancedecologist.net/. As with blogging platforms, there are lots of websites that will sell you domain names. I use NameSecure because when I bought my other domain (https://NEants.net/) there weren’t so many options, but now they’re but one vendor among many.

Because I was interested in creating a full website, I searched for hosts that would allow me to do that. Actually, I didn’t. What I really did was look at websites of some of my friends and colleagues, saw some I liked, noted that they were all hosted on WordPress, and signed up there (I opted not to self-host, but to let WordPress be the host – easier). Only then did I realize that WordPress defaulted to creating a blogging site and that it was going to take me a little more time and effort to build a full website on WordPress. But not too much.

Once I had a domain, a host, and a potential website, I started populating it with a lot of material, except for a blog. It was five months after I built the website that I posted my first blog entry. And five months later that I posted my second. By then I was watching the US elections unfold from halfway around the world, and I had decided on adopting two personas (personae?) for my blog. One (The unBalanced ecoLOGist), I use for blogging about things that bridge my personal and professional activities (science, writing, art), and the other (Dispatches from Abroad), I use for commentary (and photography) on politics, travel, and food.

Once I started posting blog entries, I also started publicizing them. Basically, when I write a blog entry, I post a link to it on Twitter. Only once per post. Which is probably why I have less than 50 followers after a year of blogging. But WordPress keeps track of views and traffic to my site, which is, satisfyingly, substantially better. At the same time, having even one follower is a subliminal prompt to keep posting.

Caveat scriptor! Two final things to think about before you embark on a blog.

First, don’t forget that anyone, anywhere can read your blog. And someone might take offense. Wikipedia reports instances in which blogs raised significant and unpleasant legal and social consequences for the bloggers, and there is an informal Blogger’s Code of Conduct. Remember that the Internet doesn’t confer legal protection or anonymity so don’t blog anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in person or for which you are unwilling to accept potential consequences. In short, think before you post.

Second, don’t underestimate the time involved to write and maintain a blog. In addition to my actual job, which occupies at least 60 hours/week, I spend a few hours each day maintaining (or not maintaining, as the case may be) three websites, sipping from the fire-hose that is Twitter, data-basing hundreds of digital photos, and satisfying a few dozen followers with a new blog post; writing this post alone took me about two hours.

And now the rain is past, the sun is shining, and it’s time to leave the computer and enjoy the rest of the day, out of doors.

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