A student in the class I’m teaching for San Jose State University asked me the following the other day:
How did people first learn about your blog? Do you have a previous blog post on how it became popular? It would be an interesting read!
It’s a good question and one I thought I’d post here instead of just on the class site. At the time, it all felt like it was happening without me really doing much, especially since I wasn’t particularly savvy about how to gain an audience. Even now, looking back, I see where luck played a huge part in this blog becoming a popular read for people in our profession. But I think it also helped that I was writing for the love of it and not just to gain an audience.
I started Information Wants to be Free on November 16, 2004 with a rather uninspired first post. I’d had a blog for a single class in grad school (my policy class) where I wrote about open source software. It was called Code Wants to be Free (yes, I have a one-track mind). I found that I really enjoyed writing my own reflections on the things I was reading about open source software, but, at the time, there was no topic that really grabbed my interest beyond the assignment.
That all changed when I started reading blogs myself. In the Fall of 2004, I started following blogs like The Shifted Librarian, Tame the Web, Free Range Librarian, Library Stuff, The Librarian in Black, and Librarian.net. Back then, those were the major blogs in our profession (and, if you look at subscriber stats, things haven’t changed too much since). I started learning more about library technologies and especially about social software. I started playing with new technologies and found that I had a real passion for emerging tech. I started to drive my husband crazy talking about library technologies, since I didn’t know of anyone else who was interested and he was a semi-captive audience. He was the one who suggested I start a blog, perhaps because he was sick of my yammering on about the stuff or because he realized it would be a good way for me to connect with kindred spirits.
For the first couple of months, I posted almost every day, if not more. Most of my posts were just re-hashes of news I’d found online with a bit of commentary, but mixed in were some of the more reflective posts I write almost exclusively now. I wasn’t particularly strategic about getting an audience, since I wasn’t very blog savvy at the time. I didn’t know about TrackBacks, so it didn’t occur to me that linking to A-list bloggers might get their attention. I didn’t realize that when you comment on someone else’s blog, they might check out your blog to see who you are. Those things are probably pretty obvious to people who start blogging now and if it isn’t, you should realize that it’s a good way to make connections and build an audience (as long as you’re writing something of substance and not just gratuitiously link-doping).
Early on, I’m sure the only person who was reading my blog was my husband, Adam. Somehow, though, Jessamyn found my November 24th post about the bleak job market for new librarians and linked to it on her own blog. How she found it is beyond me, but the link from Jessamyn was crazy good for my blog and got me on a few more people’s radar. In a post three days later, I actually wondered what it takes to become an A-list blogger:
But how does one break into this core group? Will having interesting and relevant content and updating frequently do it? Or is it impossible to join their “clique”? Frankly, I’m just happy to have an audience beyond just me and my husband. I actually got giddy when I saw that Jessamyn had referred to my blog entry of the same name that I’d written earlier that day (meaning that she actually READ my blog). Good lord! It’s like high school all over again, isn’t it?
I wasn’t really sure of myself as a blogger back then. I often forced myself to write things because I thought that posting a lot would get people to read me. So nearly every vaguely interesting thing that came across my radar would merit a post. I actually wrote 63 posts in the month of January (probably helped to take my mind off not having a job)! As I linked to people’s blogs in my posts, I started to notice that those same people would often comment on my blog. And sometimes they’d even link to me, which would make my web stats shoot up. I looked at my web stats obsessively back then — don’t think I’ve checked them in a year or so now.
By February, my posting had slowed down a bit and was getting more focused on the things I was really interested in, like the so-called librarian job shortage, impressions from my job hunting (and interviewing), usability of library middleware, and social software. I noticed that the posts I wrote that were really from my heart or where I felt like I was taking a personal risk in writing it, were the ones that got the most comments and links from other bloggers. By mid-March, I noticed that I had reached 100 Bloglines subscribers, which had seemed impossible just four months earlier. And as I hit my stride with blogging, where it began to feel effortless, things just snowballed from there.
After four months of blogging, I had a pretty good sense about the sort of blog I wanted to write. It wouldn’t have a specific focus. It would be a professional blog with a personal bent. My posts would be medium to long, because I just don’t know how to say anything succinctly. I would be just as opinionated on my blog as I am in real life. And while I’m sure there are people who hate my style, there were others who enjoyed what I wrote. I’m grateful to the people who engaged me in blog conversation back then, who encouraged me to keep it up, and made me feel part of a community during a very frustrating time of my life (finding my first post-MLS job).
If I had to give advice to anyone trying to make a name for themselves in the blogosphere, I’d say that the number 1 thing to do is write from the heart. Write about things you’re passionate about. Put your personality into your posts. Good writing will come from writing about the things that interest you in your own unique voice. Also, link to other people’s blog posts that interest you and comment on them. This will bring those bloggers to your blog (since probably 95% of bloggers have ego feeds) and if they like what you’ve written, they might start following you. Also, comment on blogs that you like (or don’t like). I got to know a lot of bloggers (some even before they had blogs of their own — Ryan!) because they commented on my blog (these days, you probably could also do this on sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, which are great for networking). I usually will check out the blogs of people who comment on mine. However, don’t write comments or posts with the sole purpose of attracting attention to your blog. Those usually are pretty transparent. Just be yourself, write what you love, and love what you write. Good things will flow from that.
I’m actually curious to know how other people got started with blogging and I’ve never really started a meme before. So I’m going to tag Sarah Houghton-Jan, David Lee King, Michael Porter, and Jason Griffey. How did you get into blogging? How did you gain an audience? What advice would you give to new bloggers who want to make a name for themselves in the biblioblogosphere?