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