Lessons Learned after 5 Years of Blogging

This Fall, I celebrate five years of blogging. I have written tons of web development stuff at Perishable Press, lots of helpful WordPress stuff at Digging into WordPress, some creative/artistic stuff at Dead Letter Art, jQuery stuff at jQuery Mix, and some business-related web-design stuff at Monzilla Media. Plus a bunch of interviews, guest posts, and other blogging projects. So yeah, lots of blogging and writing during the past five years. And they just flew by.

Despite what the haters may say, there are some tangible benefits to blogging. As I write, I continue to learn a great deal – not just about the fine art of writing, but also about the nature of the audience, social media, and the Web in general. There’s a lot to it, more than you may realize. Looking back during my recent hiatus, I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on the past and contemplate lessons learned, future goals, and what it all means. Here are some of my thoughts, strategies, and lessons learned after five years of blogging..

Original Goals and Strategy

Getting into the blogging game around five years ago, I really had no idea what I was doing. Back then, there were a few “pro” bloggers that paved the way for a lot of folks (mostly big-money bloggers et al), but for the most part the frontier was wide open. When I first jumped in, it was because I was completely smitten by the web-design/WordPress/blogging bug. I loved web design, and found blogging about my experiences quite rewarding. As I first delved into the online game, my goals were rather simple:

  • Get in the game and build-up and establish my first blogging site, Perishable Press
  • Share as much knowledge as possible about creativity, graphic design, web design, etc.
  • Become a better designer in the process of writing about and doing web design/development

Now keep in mind that these were intuitive goals that just seemed like the right thing to do. Most of the content I read on the Web back then was focused strictly on web-design, web-standards, and specific programming langauges – not a lot of stuff on how to blog, how to make money, how to be a rockstar, and all of that BS. A lot of that crap didn’t really begin to hit the scene hard until a few years later, and by that time I knew well-enough that it wasn’t how I wanted to do things. I wanted to do it right from the beginning: build a strong foundation, help as many people as possible, and continue to improve my skillz. All of that “make-money-blogging” and “be-a-rockstar” crap was just too superficial and pathetic. So, to generalize my initial strategy for working on the Web, here it is:

  • Work hard
  • Learn much
  • Share much

Anything less than that and I would be cheating myself from really getting the most out of the experience. I think this strategy is ideal for any activity, whether online or off. Unfortunately, the mainstream is not interested in any of these practices, unless you count hard work motivated by greed. So you’ve got 90% of the online game doing the exact opposite:

  • Avoid work
  • Avoid learning
  • Share?! Are you kidding me?!

Fortunately, hard work, education, and generosity always pay off. It may take longer than cheating, lying, and stealing, but the rewards are infinitely more beneficial and rewarding. It can get frustrating, however, watching complete and utter sellouts flying past you on their way to the top, but once the fame and fortune is gone, they have nothing. Meanwhile, you gain the experience, education, and wisdom that will enrich your life long after your time on the Web.

Lessons Learned

Perhaps the most profound thing I have learned while working on the Web is that virtual social skills definitely translate into tangible, real-world social skills, despite what they may tell you. Ask any seasoned blogger: the key to social success is maintaining diplomacy and understanding in all situations:

  • Responding to comments
  • Dealing with attacks
  • Engaging other blogs
  • Providing feedback

You’re gonna get some wicked comments, evil people who have nothing better to do than troll your site and try to bring you down. You learn quickly the best way to deal with trolls and diffuse potentially degrading situations is by maintaining a level head. Keep your cool and it’s possible to turn even the biggest haterz into complete fanz. The same principle applies in the real world, where there are just as many if not more haterz and villainz to deal with. Thankfully, the years spent dealing with people on the Web have helped me understand how to deal with them in “real-life” – people are people whether online or off. When dealing with an irate neighbor, I just slip it into “comment-response” mode and turn the situation around.

You will never find a more wretched hive

Despite my best efforts at maintaining a positive vibe, it is hard to ignore all of the wretchedness and wickedness on the Web these days. There are waay too many scumbags who couldn’t care less about anyone else. Most of the time, these lower lifeforms manifest as relentless spam, scraped content, and adsense profits. The Web is flooded with shallow, mindless worms who just want the money. Sadly:

  • There is too much empty, shallow, echoed, meaningless, pointless, worthless content
  • There are waay too many ads, and 90% of them are completely transparent and awful
  • There is waay too much noise – getting a good signal is becoming exceedingly difficult
  • There is too much misinformation, deception, ignorance, intolerance, and empty nonsense
  • There is too much ego – apparently, it’s all about hyping up the latest loser
  • There is too much selfishness – whatever happened to linking out to other sites?

Given that, it’s a miracle that any decent, sharing, honest people would have any interest in the Web at all. I mean, if you are a decent person and just starting out on the Web, there is a lot working against you. 90% of the people on the Web won’t blink twice before stealing from you, sticking you with a fee, or spamming you to death. Seriously, if 90% of the people on the Web want you to fail, why even bother? I’ll tell you why: because of the other 10% of people who are honest, hard-working, decent folks making the Web a better place. I love to meet and work with the good guys – they indeed make it all worthwhile and enjoyable.

If there is a bright side to the Web

Not all of my “lessons learned” are focused on the negative. Despite what you just read, there are plenty of positives involved with blogging, social media, and online work in general. The main thing you have to keep in mind is that hard work pays off. Always has, always will. And the Web is no exception. Now, I’m not saying “build it and they will come,” but if you are determined, persistent, and motivated enough, success will be yours.

Another old saying is that “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” As much as I absolutely hate this notion, I cannot avoid the inescapable fact that it’s true. Take the time to network with your peers, your fanz, your family, friends, and anyone else worthwhile. It really is important. I have seen people go from zero to rockstar in less than a year by networking with the popular folks. Just do your best to keep it real – nobody likes to be used.

Success is not a linear progression

The further you go, the harder it gets. When you first start out, everything is wiide open, fresh and new. Possibilities are virtually endless, and there is nothing to lose. Going forward, you are shaped by your successes and failures. You do more of what clicks and less of what doesn’t. As you continue doing what works, you take fewer chances, limiting your possibilities and locking yourself into “safe” ways of thinking and doing. To make things fit with what works, your goals will change. For example, I started off writing at Perishable Press about anything and everything that had anything at all to do with creativity: art, photography, painting, web design, and so on. After little response to the artsy-fartsy stuff and a huge response to the web-design and WordPress stuff, I began focusing more and more on, well, web design and WordPress. Today, I am largely defined through that particular lens.

Popularity is a double-edged sword. When you first start out, you can blog about whatever you want because you know that nobody is listening anyway. You still blog your best blog in hopes of attracting attention, but ultimately you can feel free to write stuff that sucks. As you earn a following online, expectations keep you blogging for your audience. If you fail to provide what’s expected, chances are high that your readers will go elsewhere to get it. For example, let’s say I write about CSS and gain a huge following. Expectations keep me writing about CSS, because if I stray too far from it, *poof* – there goes my audience.

Also as you move up the ladder of success and popularity, you’re going to find that the competition gets extremely fierce. This is what I mean when I say that “success is not a linear progression.” It’s more like logarithmic or exponential or something, especially where competition is concerned. Think of success and popularity like a hill. There is tons of room at the bottom, where the circumference is largest. But as you climb, the hill gets increasingly smaller all the way to the top, where “there can be only one!” Naturally, along the way, as you climb along with everyone else, you’re going to meet bloggers and rockstars that you once admired climbing up with you. You may pass some of your peers, and discover that others are complete assholes aren’t worth your time. Because, you know, they are already halfway up the hill – it’s their spot, their success, their ego: “look how far I made it up the hill! Look how popular I am! Look how amazing and ..” You get the idea. Ego is a trap that will keep you from climbing further. When I meet someone with a giant ego, I love to feed it while passing along – it works to my advantage.

The Pros and cons of having an audience

Ultimately, when it comes to blogging, your audience defines you. There are pros and cons to having an audience of your own. Without an audience, you can do and say pretty much whatever you want with no issues. The larger your audience becomes, the more scrutiny your words are going to receive. This is both good and bad: you want people listening to what you have to say, but there will be more drama if you say something disagreeable. You also have much more to lose with a larger audience. A good name is more desirable than gold, so if you screw up and say something stupid, you may lose whatever reputation you have managed to build. The smaller your audience, the less you have to lose, and vice-versa.

Also, the more widely known you are for doing a specific thing, the more requests you’re going to get for help. Again, this can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on what it is that you do and your reasons for doing it. Web development is a perfect example. I get tons of emails asking for help with HTAccess, PHP, and JavaScript, but 90% of the time it is clearly implied that free help is requested. I don’t mind helping people for free when I have the time, but it would be nice to be valued. If someone asks for help and isn’t willing to compensate for it, they’re basically telling you that your service is not valued and not worth paying for. If you’re on your way up, be prepared for beggars, freeloaders, and leeches.

Perhaps the biggest problem most bloggers run into is trying to please everyone. Don’t even try – it’s impossible to do. No matter how hard you try, there will always be somebody that has a problem with what you are saying. Most of the time you’ll find 30% of your audience agrees with you, 30% disagrees with you, 30% doesn’t care either way, and the other 10% insists on freaking out and making a scene. Don’t feed the trolls, as they say. The key is to embrace that 30% of readers that actually “gets” you. Write for yourself first and them next. Along the way, keep in mind that people change and move on.

The Mainstream vs. Your Stream

We each have our own stream of consciousness, activity, and so on. On the web, as in life, certain topics are more popular than others. When you have a popular topic such as Megan Fox, you are getting into the mainstream. The more people like a particular subject, the more mainstream it’s going to be. Thus, if you are blogging about “making money”, it’s going to be much easier gaining a large following than if you were to blog about, say, differential equations. The more your blogging interests coincide with popular, mainstream topics, the easier it is to be popular.

That doesn’t mean you should run out and jump on the “Twighlight” bandwagon just to be popular. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The mainstream is where the numbers are, true, but it’s also where the least-common denominator resides. The mainstream is where the sheep swim. In my experience, the mainstream is the most dumbed-down, uninteresting, lowest-value content available. It’s there for one reason and one reason only: to make money by giving the masses what they want, which is typically entertainment, sex, drugs, and violence. You know exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s the reason Hollywood continues to churn out such pathetic garbage – because it sells.

Contrast the mainstream with your own stream. How much overlap is there? Using myself as an example, I see that certain interests of mine are very hot within the web-design community, at least for the moment. I like what most all web designers like: jQuery, CSS, and WordPress. But I also like a lot of other, less-popular things, like HTAccess, site security, and error logging. If I wanted to rise to the top, I could sell out and just write articles about CSS and jQuery, maybe throw down a few million top-10 lists, give away some free stuff and watch the traffic surge. But that’s not what I am all about. I like writing about esoteric topics, even if that means a smaller audience and less popular blog.

When I come to your site and see a million advertisements, a sidebar full of social-media crap, and a post containing a few weak-ass paragraphs about something that’s already been blogged about to death, a little part of me dies. Don’t be like that. Get a freakin’ clue and try a little harder not to be such an absolute sellout media whore. That’s what everyone else is doing – that’s what the mainstream is doing. And the mainstream sucks.

Success, prosperity, and satisfaction is possible by doing your own thing, swimming your own stream, being yourself. Know who you are, know what you like, be yourself, and share your experience. It’s better to enjoy a small audience that likes your stuff than to cater to a large audience with mainstream crap.

Assuming you achieve your goals, what would you rather have: a huge audience of pathetic, mainstream dittoheads or a smaller audience that actually shares similar interests and listens to what you have to say. For me, the answer is obvious.

The Narrow Way

To wrap things up, let me summarize my lessons learned after five years of blogging and working on the Web:

  • Be yourself
  • Be honest – no hype
  • Be real – no fluff
  • Be sincere, genuine, unique
  • Don’t be lazy, selfish
  • Think for yourself
  • Take advantage of criticism
  • Control temper, be patient
  • Work hard, learn much, share often
  • Be yourself

It’s a narrow path, but for me, it’s the only way to go.