Pieces of Thinking

Jan-Lukas Else recently asked the Hacker News community why most of them don't have blogs, and published his thoughts on their answers to his own blog. The conversation was interesting and got me thinking about my own motivations for maintaining this site.

The first thing that stands out for me in the responses is the number of people who said that they quit blogging because they didn't have any readers. It was more than I expected. I don't think I fully realized how important readership was to some people in the technical community, probably because I think can safely say that it's not of great importance to me.

That is perhaps a somewhat pretentious thing to say, and at first blush it smacks of that line in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe where Ford Prefect runs into Hotblack Desiato, lead singer of the band Disaster Area, and reminisces over how bad a singer he was:

And you said you didn't want to be a star...and we said...that we didn't think you had the option.

Is this a description of me? Do I only say I don't care about having a large readership because, well, I don't have a large readership?

The only thing I can really say is that I don't think this is true. I do want people to read my blog, and I'd love it if more people did. I like getting comments. I'm genuinely happy when people find my writing useful and interesting. But it would be wrong to say that these interactions are the reason I write because the simple fact is that I write for myself and myself only. I suspect I would blog even if I had no readers at all.

Ted Chiang recently published a short story called "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling". It's structured as two parallel narratives. The first one tells the story of a device which allows people to record and retrieve every event in their life (reminiscent of the Black Mirror episode "The Entire History of You"). The second one tells the story of Jijingi, an adult member of the Tiv tribe, a West African ethnic group with no written language, being taught to read and write by Moseby, a visiting missionary.

Both stories are good, but the second one stands out for me. At one point, Jijingi comments that Moseby must love all of the sermons he gives, because he writes them all down beforehand and Jijingi assumes that the only reason one would ever do this is to preserve it for posterity. Moseby explains that it's more complicated than that; writing things down actually helps him to think, something Jijingi has trouble understanding:

“How does writing help you think?”

“That is a good question,” he said. “It is strange, isn’t it? I do not know how to explain it, but writing helps me decide what I want to say. Where I come from, there’s a very old proverb: verba volant, scripta manent. In Tiv you would say, ‘spoken words fly away, written words remain.’ Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” Jijingi said, just to be polite; it made no sense at all.

Later on, when Jijingi tries to write his own sermon, he understands it much better:

As he practiced his writing, Jijingi came to understand what Moseby had meant; writing was not just a way to record what someone said; it could help you decide what you would say before you said it. And words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.

I think this passage is gorgeous.

The fact of the matter is that I just enjoy the process of writing. Moving words around a blank page like so many Lego bricks is fun. Skill and readership have very little to do with it. I write to clarify my thoughts. I write to try see if any of my beliefs contradict each other. And, sometimes, I write to discover what I think.

In a rough sense, I know what it would take to garner more readers to my blog (better attention to SEO, targeted subject matter). But I also know that if I took that too far, this blog would cease to be about me, and I don't think I want that to happen.

The Fear of Being Wrong

One of the other themes that crops up with the Hacker News thread is the fear of having a public record of opinions that are likely to change later or - worse! - being dismissed as an amateur. In other words, people are afraid of being wrong.

And, as before, I find myself not being able to fully relate because, while I don't actively enjoy being wrong, I don't appear to mind it as much as some people.

I mean, I went through a half-hearted libertarian phase in college and actually went to the trouble of writing a piece defending private health care. It wasn't very good, I'm embarrassed to read it now, and I don't think like that anymore, but what's the point of hiding it? Most of the stuff I wrote in my twenties is embarrassing.

You're allowed to grow, you know? I like having a record of my old essays so I can see how my thoughts have evolved over the years. I think I'd be suspicious of anyone who's opinions haven't changed at least a couple of times in twenty years, and I'm really not interested in getting to know someone who's offended by that idea.

As for being dismissed as an amateur, who cares? Most of the technical articles I write are primarily for my own consumption anyway. Not everyone learns the same way, and I often find myself having to pore over several articles on a subject before everything "clicks" sufficiently for me to judge that I've absorbed something relevant. It's useful at that point to write an article summarizing the bits of information that were salient for me. If someone else gets some use out of the article, so much the better, but it's not why I do it.

Finding the IndieWeb

I'd like to finish off with a quote by Sarah Drasner:

I miss the useless web. I miss your grandpa’s blog. I miss weird web art projects that trolled me. I miss fan pages for things like hippos. I wish I didn’t feel like the web was collapsing into just a few sites plus a thousand resumes.

The fact that I find this quote genuinely inspiring tells you a lot about me.

As you will no doubt be aware if you've been following my blog at all (which, given the theme of this post, is unlikely), you know that I'm part of the IndieWeb, an online community basically dedicated to preserving this "useless" aspect of the web, while still taking advantage of all the myriad benefits of social networking.

It's a worthy goal. I enjoy the web as a medium. I love the fact that the barrier to entry is so low. I love the fact that anyone can have their own personal soapbox, under their own personal control, and that it's practically free. I'm old enough that I still think this is amazing, and I enjoy participating in the resulting cacophony.

And I think, ultimately, if anyone asks why I blog instead of just keeping a diary, that's my answer.