In search for a new home to personal essays.
11 years. Next month will mark 11 years since the creation of The Julipedia, the personal blog that got me started into this writing journey. 11 years that have brought 690 posts (yeah, yeah, not that many for such a long time).
And after all this time, it finally hit me: personal blogs have lost their original appeal. It is time for a change. But a change to what?
Is Medium the answer?
Circa 2004, the Blogosphere blossomed. Everyone had to have a personal blog and everyone was expected to post frequently. Each personal blog was its own independent island on the Internet, but there was a social community around them all that took the form of blogrolls, trackbacks, and planets.
Of course, being the geek that I am, I had to try having a personal blog and, during peak exam season, set myself up in LiveJournal as “jmmv’s weblog”. There I started writing pretty much daily—again, exam season!—but beware: writing in a personal blog at the time was pretty much like shouting into the void. What do I mean by that?
There was no Twitter to spread the word around new posts and Facebook was a very new product, so “all” you could do was link to your blog in email signatures, hope to get people to click, and then hope harder for them to subscribe to the RSS feed. This kinda worked for me because I was part of another online community that extensively used mailing lists and whose mailing lists were composed of geeks with interests similar to mine.
About a year later, Blogger had become a nice alternative—in particular because it finally offered a built-in commenting system (ORLY? Yes. The web is so much nicer today). Blogger’s customization options hooked me so I migrated and, along the process, renamed the blog to “The Julipedia”, which is the name it has kept until today. Not a name I’m very pleased about but it’d be stupid to change it at this point.
Were there no other alternatives to LiveJournal or Blogger? Sure there were. For example, Wordpress already existed but “the cloud” was not yet the fad that it is now so there were no hosted instances of the software: if you wanted to use Wordpress, you had to run and maintain your own server— something I was not willing to do for various reasons.
Fast-forward to today
Things have changed a lot since 2004; it has been 11 years after all! To mention some examples:
- the ubiquitous support for RSS and Atom that we once had in web browsers and sites is, for all practical purposes, gone;
- few people know what blog aggregators are—remember them? Reader remembers;
- users nowadays get links to articles though social media, say from Twitter or Facebook, by subscribing to publisher accounts or to the individuals they are interested in.
Heck, I’ve tried going back to that model by setting up Inoreader and I am unable to enjoy it any longer. I’m getting better-looking and curated content in different ways these days, say from Flipboard, Google Play Newsstand or from links I get in my various social media accounts.
In other words: people discover new content in a different manner today. It is no secret that people socialize online in different ways today and sticking to old models is not going to get me the results I’m looking for. Personal blogs, with some very notable exceptions (The Old New Thing being a favorite of mine), are not “the cool thing” anymore—and they haven’t been for years; I am just late to the party.
Even after 11 years of “regular” writing, I have so far failed to attract the levels of traffic I’d like for my blog. It’s true that I have not tried hard enough but I fail to see how anyone would be interested in regularly visiting a personal blog on their own.
For the most part, all traffic to my personal blog is organic: i.e. visitors that reach an individual post through a search engine. These visitors would not care less about the blog, and it shows because they do not stay. The other kind of traffic is spiky and results from me posting announcement links to new articles in social media.
Can non-organic traffic be improved? Certainly, but it requires a ton of effort and time, and I do not have much of the latter. Regardless, I gave certain techniques a try in 2013: I set up an editorial calendar and scheduled two posts a week, worked on various article series to attempt to hook readers, and set up email subscriptions. None of these turned in additional non-organic traffic to the blog, which in turn caused me to give up on the approach.
However, there is one thing that has worked much better in increasing engagement: more elaborate posts—who would guess, right? Those are the posts I spent hours on tweaking their content; posts in which I put the significant effort to search for and include pictures; and, more interestingly, posts that offered personal opinions and not just “technical how-to"s.
These more elaborate posts got increased traffic to themselves. And, honestly, increased engagement in individual pieces is precisely what gives me joy in writing: tracking the number of visits each article gets, the number of “+1"s, the referrer sites, etc. I do not care so much about the blog itself because, in the end, a personal blog is no more than a disconnected collection of stories of varying topics and degrees of quality. I can now count two handfuls of posts in my blog that I’d call superb—those that have gotten thousands of visits in a short period of time. The rest? Noise.
Hence, this has made me realize that maybe, just maybe, I should focus on publishing such unique essays in a format where the content matters more than the site itself and in a place where I do not have to worry about maintaining the site. Maybe such articles belong as guest posts in other well- established, non-personal blogs; maybe they belong in a personal website that is not a blog; maybe they belong in magazines; maybe they belong in a social site like Medium; or maybe, just maybe, each article deserves being posted in the format that suits it best—crazy thought, huh?
An experiment: essays in Google+
A thought that crossed my mind when Google+ appeared was how it related to Blogger: was I expected to post directly into the social network and bypass the blog? Obviously not, but writing directly onto Google+ is something I had meant to try for a while if only to see the kind of engagement the content would get.
So a couple of months ago, I dove into an experiment: to write internal-only essays at Google and to post them straight in our internal Google+ instance.
Why? Because, in the past, I got great rewards thanks to the exposure blogging about open source work gave me. Ergo, why would I not attempt the same at my daytime job? Broadcasting one’s work through entertaining essays is a good way of getting noticed. And why Google+? Because that’s what we’ve got internally and that’s how other people are publishing their thoughts with success. I was set to go.
The first “problem” I encountered is that Google+ is not a great content publication platform. The formatting options are extremely limited, the composer is very poor, and I am not sure how searchable or durable the content is from outside Google+. None of these were blockers for my experiment though, so I proceeded and have already written about five 3000-word long articles.
The rewards of “blogging” in this manner have been surprising.
First, because I write to be read. Writing the content directly into the social platform has shown much more engagement than writing comparable content in a separate form and then posting a lonely link to the social network. Not surprisingly though: we are all overloaded by links and our eyes get caught by “the different”—aka, actual content. So the level of activity that has followed these posts has been very rewarding.
And, second, because of the simplified formatting options. Sure, it is not possible to write beautiful articles in Google+ and that’s exactly part of the pleasure: not having to think much about formatting and just sticking to the text serves to write better. In fact, writing the “more elaborate” articles I outlined above in Blogger is getting on my nerves: the WYSIWYG editor is suboptimal when you want to paste code snippets or insert images, and typing HTML directly is disgusting.
All in all, the experiment is working: I am committed to keeping this approach for Google-internal ramblings, and I am committed to getting out one such article a month. Then, why not do the same for public articles as well? Because the issues with Google+ I outlined above may not be problems for internal-only content, but they are indeed problems for the kind of stuff I like to write publicly.
So is Medium the answer?
Back to the original question that opened this article: is Medium the answer? Is Medium the replacement to my needs for writing personal essays? Is Medium the successor to personal blogging?
To be honest, I do not know, yet; after all, this is my first article here. But things look promising so far and I would like to give this a serious try. Two considerations make me say this:
On the one hand, the Medium composer is very decent: typing in it has been a pleasure. There are some rough edges certainly—I’m getting quite annoyed by the handholding in spacing and the erratic movement of the cursor when navigating with the keyboard—but the editor is reasonably powerful, the results look clean and professional, and the editor is truly WYSIWYG. (Thought: the ability to type Markdown and import/export from/to Markdown would be awesome.)
On the other hand, Medium brings the community aspects that Blogger apparently never got, which honestly are the whole reason I write public essays and possibly the reason many other personal bloggers still post on their blogs. Funnily enough, Ev Williams wrote about exactly this topic only four days ago:
Twelve years ago, I was heading Blogger at Google and frustrated we kept losing users to our competitors, like Movable Type from Six Apart. A common phenomenon at the time was that people would start blogging on Blogger—because it was free, popular, and easy to set up—and then “graduate” to more powerful tools.
I write because I love the process of composing, editing, and publishing an article, but I like even more the rewards that later come when people read the text and engage with it—or engage with me, the author.
I have the feeling that writing in this platform can bring more joy than doing so in an isolated island of the Internet—that is, writing in a personal blog.
That remains to be seen; only time and trying this “for real” will tell.