Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Content: You Blog What You Are

I have heard this from a number of people who start blogging and after the introduction they ask


My response to this is the same thing I say when I'm editing:

What do you want to say here?

Because blogs are freeform, we can say, do and be anything on them. You don't have to be nice, or even particularly honest, or remotely like yourself in a blog. I do find, however, that the best blogs reflect their author - not just their interests but how they express those interests in real life. For instance, I have a graphic designer friend who posts little more than paragraphs from whatever book he's reading that have something to do with color. This seems like a rather esoteric restriction, but in it, his personality is perfectly reflected, and the posts work - they make me want to go read the books he's reading.

Another is a poet who has a chattier blog (or roman-fleuve as she calls it) about her life and family, but all the characters are obscurred by nicknames. The prose with which the examines her life is carefully wrought, occasionally breathless, but always highly contoured and this also reflects her personality.

My own blog centers on three subjects with the appropriate weights

Because, this is what I find interesting, the lenses through which I like to look at life. I have toyed with the idea of separate blogs for each interest, thinking the mix blurs teh narrative, but I came to realize that this mix is my narrative.

Once you find what you want to talk about, then its important to start talking, and the format for your conversations will evolve. In my case, when I want to just talk about soem random thing that happened, I will make a post that is 5 things about ____________ followed by bullet points. If I feel like honing in on something, I will do 100 Words on __________. Sometimes I just want to write, so I'll do an abecedary, or alphabetic list, with a word of idea for each letter of the alphabet.

Lately, my favorite thing to write about is the music I listen to, so I post the album covers in a row and then just talk about them, as if I had some interested party begging me to tell them "Why Alex, are you listening to Wishbone Ash today?"

The thing about a blog, especially your own blog, is that it should not be forced, but allowed to form its own discipline through doing, and it should be flexible enough to change as you change.

Stats: Is there anybody out there?

When I was a college DJ, I operated under the thinking that there were potentially half a million people listening to me at any given moment on the air as I spoke. This is delusional; the numbers, were they readily available, would likely reveal the number in the tens and not millions, and a significant portion of those tens would have likely remarked that they wished I would stop talking already. But potentially...

The truth is, unless someone I knew caught my show and said something, or I got a caller requesting something other than what I was playing, it seemed like no one was listening and this was, like many artistic endeavors, a largely onanistic one. But one evening I got a mysterious call at my apartment from "a fan" saying to meet her and her friends at a nearby restaurant at 7. I was a little weirded out because someone at the radio station gave a stranger my number, but I figured what the hell. It turned out to be the entire 1990 Architecture Studio class who had spent every Friday evening in the lab laboring away at blueprint drawings listening to my radio show. One of them mentioned the mini-set of polka songs I played as mocking runoff from the dance music show as a highlight of her semester, another said something like, "I usually don't like weird music, but I got used to it." but still - vindicated.

The blogging experience is not dissimilar to this.

Comments were once the most immediate measure of reader responase. Quite simply, if you touch a reader, they would touch back. The RSS feed phenomenon, which allows readers to blaze through hundreds of blogs without ever actually going to them has unfortunately severed that contact. I have discovered that my only responses are those who know me personally and respond ina chatty way, or people who have something to promote. For instance, any time I mentioned Sly and the Family Stone's landmark album There's a Riot Goin' On in my blog (which for a while was often) I got a response form a guy promoting a book he'd written on Sly and the Family Stone. Nothing wrong with that, in fact I admire that sort of moxie, but was it a meaningful response to what I said, or just a blib on his Google Alert radar that said "opportunity?"

So don;t rely in the messy falabilities of human interaction to determine if the word is getting out. That's what your stats are for. They detail not only how many people, but where they are and how often. There are number of services that can provide this data, but my choice is Google Analytics.

Google Analytics gives one rather pleasing histographs of readers, page views, geographical breakdowns of the viewers to your blog - frankly more information than I know what to do with. When I started tracking it, I was shocked to find I hit around 50 readers a day, half from my own town and the rest scattered across the world. I discovered a reader in St. Helier, Jersey UK spent about 10 minutes on my site once, which prompted me to find where Jersey was (it's way down there, off the coast of France in the Channel islands.) I discovered that my father reads my blog on weekdays from his office in Tulsa. I have found that teh word "sex" in the subject line brings them in, but not the word "porn." Plenty of meaningful data can be extracted from this service.

Caveat: the driving force behind blogging is often obsessive behavior. Adding checking stats into the mix only exacerbates things

Monday, September 29, 2008

Important Aspects of Blogging

The most important thing to a good blog is regular contributions. Writing at least three posts a week is going to help you develop your voice. After a few weeks you'll notice your blogs start having a particular style.

Once you write a blog and you're used to how it's done and what your own style is, you'll want to eventually start finding ways to A:) promote it, and B:) engage your readers.

The best way to promote your own blog is to visit other blogs regularly and post intelligent comments; not just "hey, I like your blog" comments, but comments that show you actually read what was said, and you have your own view about it; there's a good chance people will see that comment, click on your name to see who you are and find your Blog (which is listed in your profile).

To engage your reader you simply want to occasionally write blogs that gets response. Ask open ended questions in your blog, or simply say "What does everyone else think about this?" You can also do this by posting controversial material--don't be afraid to talk about politics or religion; just don't do it offensively...unless that's the voice you're going after.

Is Anyone Watching

Readership is one of the most important things to consider when blogging. Knowing people are actually reading your blog is what encourages you to blog more; it's also important, however, to know why they are reading the blog. If, for example, half of your audience comes to your blog after reading your sports column, you don't want your blog to focus extensively on things that have absolutely nothing to do with sports.

I use StatCounter (www.statcounter.com) to keep track of my readers. This let's me see not only how many people are reading my blog, but also what search engines they are using, what blogs they're interested in, what state they live in, and even what kind of computer they're using.

StatCounter also gives me a way to thank people who have given me promotion. I've got as many as 3000+ visitors to my page because of a blogger I've never meant on the East Coast, who wrote a couple blogs about my book; he's now one of the first person to know whenever I publish a new article, and has been a very loyal supporter to anything I write.

Who the Heck Am I?

I am an accidental blogger; I never meant for it to happen, but like so many things in my life I just stumbled in that direction.

Back in 2003, I was just another wannabe writer submitting articles and short stories by the dozens to various magazines and journals. I had become of fan of the literary journal McSweeney's after reading Dave Eggers, "A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius" and had become a regular visitor to their website, McSweeney's Internet Tendencies (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/).

I began submitting several little web articles to John Warner, the editor there at the time; he always sent back encouraging rejections, but I never had any luck actually publishing anything with them. One day, John rejected a piece, but added at the end a question--because a lot of my submissions were about working in libraries, why didn't I submit a proposal for a series of dispatches about working in libraries. I, of course did, and it became "Dispatches from a Public Librarian."

The dispatches weren't blogs in the traditional sense; I submit them to an editor and they are not posted instantly (it can take over a month before it hits the homepage). The opportunity, however, not only opened several doors, but also gave me my first dose of what blogging was all about.

Sense then I have started two blogs: "Christian Humorist" which I started when I was contributing regularly to "The Wittenburg Door Magazine" to host some of the rejected humor stories I had submitted; and "Speak Quietly," which was started last year to promote my first book "Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian." It has grown into more then a place for shameless promotion, and in less than a year has got nearly 50,000 visits. The theme of the Speak Quietly blog is quite random, although most blogs are about technology and library trends with a pinch of humor whenever possible.

Cogito ergo bloggo

I have had a web presence since 1996 when I put together my first GeoCities pages. I was working as a software developer creating mainframe COBOL reports for the Louisiana Department of Revenue and had convinced someone that I should spend some time learning HTML, since that's where "the future" is going to be, so I started a life-long habit of updating web pages on company time. I wasd an atrist back then, heavily under the influence of Robert rauschenberg who "operated in teh gap between art and life" and I wanted to do that too. My catchphrase for my shallow adoption of his techniques was "I want art to be a precipitate of life."

This habit went dormant for a number of years when I started actually working on the web, now generating reports in HTML and ASP pages but picked back up in 2002, after my daughter was born and finally started sleeping throughthe night. My first LiveJournal post was

Introduction 12:51 pm
Howdy! My wife is a Live Journal devotee, and she got me hooked. I recently turned 34 and am embarking on my mid-life crisis. I have a steady job, lovely, loving wife and the best baby girl in the world. I have been a self-taught visual artist for many years now. My life is very good my anyone's standards, but lately, I have been wanting more. More what, is the thing I haven't figured out yet...
I am listening to: Willie Nelson - Teatro

The mid-life crisis I was referring to was a Vespa that I really wanted that my wife wisely, to this day, dissuades me from getting. No matter that I am not riding to work everyday ion low CC mock-Euro splendor, oblivious to how ridiculous a man of my age and body shape looks on a scooter, because that day blogging became my ride.

I started it to talk about music and art and food, which, six years later, is what I still talk about in a blog. And in blogs, I refer to it as talking for a reason, because even though it is writing, blogging invites a certain intimacy, an unabashed I as the narrator - people know that this is all you, or some form of the you you wish to portray.

A post about the death of Clash singer Joe Strummer turned rather fortuitous for me; a read came forth a year or twio later saying he really liked the post and asked if I would consider writing about music for a web magazine he was starting, and so my longtime ongoing relationship with Outsideleft began and with a post about Daniel Johnston I became a music critic.

I started getting some notice from PR agents anyway, and the stacks of promo CD's started coming in, fueling the habit. I kept up the LiveJournal throught all this, letting it and Outsideleft serve as a way to talk about music on the obsessive level I wanted without having to bore some innocent person to tears who mistakenly asked me "So, what bands do you like?"

Three years down, my blog writing began to formalize and I was limited by LiveJournal's friend oriented format, so I started a blog called ChickenFried which was to be a repository of my online material from outsideleft as well as something that could grow. Unfortunately, it never did. No fault of its own it just didn't take.

Around this time, a book culled from my LiveJournal and outsideleft posts was coming to fruition and I decided to embark on print journalism, namely covering local music for an upstart lifestyle publication in Baton Rouge called 225. That led to a weekly local music blog for them called The Record Crate, which led to a monthly music/travel column for Country Roads Magazine and suddenly with a book and periodicals, I was a writer, a real writer. in October of 2007, I landed pieces in both The Oxford American and The Wire, and I needed a portfolio spot where I coudl readily link to all this, and considered starting up ChickenFried again, but I thought that I needed something people could immediately find through my name, so was born AlexVCook.com.

That blog has gone under transformation with time, as all blogs do. I still drop everything there, but I also have found a way through it to talk about my life and express the things in it I want to express - I talk about the albums I listen to, the things I'm doing, the places I'm going etc etc. Recently I've fused it with Facebook and Twitter's status-oriented microblogging, tied in feeds from social networks like GoodReads and last.fm so it becomes a more organic version of what I want to express, slowly becoming that precipitate I was shooting for back in 1996.

Friday, September 26, 2008