Wheres and Whys of Blogging

Last Friday my girlfriend and I drove to Northern Virginia to see family, leaving just before the “Blizzard of 2005” hit and returning just after the snow finished falling. Before I left, I didn’t get a chance to update my weblog with one of those “Gone fishin’” posts to let readers know I was going to be away from my keyboard for a few days. I’ve never liked those kinds of posts, especially the times I’ve gone back over them while performing housekeeping tasks on my archives — they seem irrelevant and superfluous beyond the immediate present. I’m a bit precious, I suppose, about the idea of making my archives readable, free of that kind of cruft.

Where in the World Is Khoi?

That got me thinking that it would be nice to have a little module that I could use to update my whereabouts, a simple little peripheral blog integrated into the right column of the home page that I could simply update and say “Visiting mom in Northern Virginia. Back to blogging early next week.” Or something. That’s easily enough done with some PHP includes, though I know there are more complicated solutions out there that use Flash to graphically map such data. I’m not sure I need that.

In fact, I’m not sure I need even a little text display of my whereabouts. After I started brainstorming this, I got to wondering whether I was attracted to the idea of supplying data on my whereabouts as a useful and illuminating supplement to the main content of my weblog, or whether I was just attracted to the small technical challenge and the moderate bells ’n’ whistles quality of making such data available. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

The All-Inclusive Weblog

Which in turn got me wondering what the true purpose of this weblog is, whether it’s an online record of my every action and thought or simply a forum for my completely unqualified opinions on design and Macs and shit. It made me think that, sure, I could easily create the means to regularly update my location, but should I?

For me, I know there’s a real tension between being explicit about the details of my personal life and being guarded about my friends, family, job and even my whereabouts. Most times, I try to respect the people that I know personally and professionally, and the proprietary events and occurrences that happen in my life, but I often feel that I am unnaturally withholding information. For a decade now, I’ve been nurturing this fantasy of having everything in my life cataloged and archived in a huge database, and this weblog is the closest I’ve ever come to doing that, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I still don’t feel as if I’m writing to my full potential here.

What Sells

Part of the reason is that I don’t think that personal content is what readers come to this site for. By and large, the posts I’ve written from a personal perspective have been the least popular, while the ones that deal squarely with some combination of graphic design, the Macintosh and/or the Web have been the most popular. I almost know which ones are going to see the most number of remarks added to them, though I am occasionally surprised by the popularity of other, less likely crowd-pleasers.

To some extent, I feel now that I should be writing more or less within a selective area of focus if I want to continue growing the readership of Subtraction.com — specialization seems the surest way to achieve notoriety. I’m not saying that’s bad, because specialization can still produce some wonderful weblogs full of genuinely surprising content — 43 Folders is but one example of a specialist’s weblog being about all kinds of things wide and far. But it’s definitely a trend that I’m seeing as weblogs become more and more prevalent in popular culture — the days of creating a new weblog about any old thing seem to be behind us. I mean, you can still do it, but it’s unlikely you’ll become a celebrity blogger. Not that that was such a huge aspiration.

Anyway, for the time being, I’m back here in New York City.



  1. Yeah, I agree that posting personal stuff willy-nilly is generally not of interest to readers. The way I look at, you’re shooting off a certain amount of signal and a certain amount of noise with every entry you post. As soon as the noise becomes noticeable, people tend to delete you from their aggregator. I know I delete people all the time who have gotten “too loose” with their posting.

    That said though, I think that as long as you stay on topic, you’re allowed several posts about McDLTs and the beer habits of the homeless. A whacked out post here and there won’t kill anybody.


    More good times.

  2. I like the sound of those feeds Mike. I’d have to agree though with Khoi though in that most of the blogs I read are blogs which aren’t from a personal standpoint. Occasionally I read the odd personal post, but not many.

    But Khoi, you’re right, why blog in the first place? I’ve asked myself the same question a few times and i’ve come to the conclusion it’s because I think i’ve got something to say, not about myself, but about stuff that interests me.

  3. And, another interesting question that comes along with your decision about the “Where is Khoi?” module is whether or not it is acceptable to do things just because it’s a challenge and just because it’s a cute little bells and whistles bit. Does everything need a practical purpose, or is it acceptable to do some things just because they’re fun and just because you think that they’re cool?

    And of course, I suppose that really just ties into the issue of what the purpose of a weblog is.

  4. I’m on the opposite end – I like the personal entries. I like knowing about what makes a person who they are. If I’m genuinely interested in what that person has to say, as a person, then anything goes. Then again, I come from a supposedly different school of weblogging, or rather, from the journal keeping school – before weblogs became specialized.

    The thing is this: how many people wrote about the newest Apple products? Hundreds. I’m guilty of that too. The real question is: how many of those voices do you actually care about? There’s going to be John Gruber who writes succinctly and concisely about these things. Then there’s going to be somebody in their blogspot or livejournal saying something akin to “Oh my gawd! Those iPod Shuffles are so cute! I gotta have one!”.

    I’ve been reading Subtraction for a long time now (two/three years maybe? back when you had the small tiny blog and the frameset action going on – the Blogger days). It’s without a doubt, my favourite weblog ever. No shite. I enjoy the ruminations of just about everything – design, technology, macs, but also the stuff about Mister President or just life in general.

    Here’s what I’m getting at and this is only my opinion: Daring Fireball is not about John Gruber (peripherally yes, but it’s content is highly focused) – it’s about Macs, technology, and design related matters. Subtraction is a personal site, and it’s about Khoi Vinh. Whatever you see fit to write about here is what’s going up.

    Another thing I discussed with Robert: Comments, to some degree, have spoilt weblogs. In the sense that you start judging what you write by the amount of responses. And within that, the responses have a certain signal to noise ratio – some are blatantly inane and some are very well thought out and contribute to the discussion, providing a different view. Thus, it can cheapen the entry. Just because a more personal entry doesn’t get as many comments as say, something about IE or Macs, doesn’t mean it isn’t as good. There’s just less to contribute or to say without being inane or useful. I’d rather not feel the trigger finger of saying something just to say something. If you’re going to comment, make it relatively worthwhile.

    Mike D. –
    That said though, I think that as long as you stay on topic, you’re allowed several posts about McDLTs and the beer habits of the homeless. A whacked out post here and there won’t kill anybody.

    Again, it depends on how long you’ve read a site or what you believe it’s become or what it is when you first visit it. Again, using Daring Fireball as an example: if John Gruber started writing about his family or his pets regularly it would start to seem really odd and I agree with you there. There’s a precedent for what Daring Fireball is about, however, for more personal sites that are a mix of various things, I don’t think it matters what they want to write about. In that case, it comes down to a popularity contest.

    You start writing for the audience rather than for yourself. And in some cases, that’s completely fine. I think that’s one of the things one decides when starting a site.

    God, I’ve rambled.

  5. I, too, often fantasize about having my entire life catalogued to the point that I am now researching how this could be done on a mass scale and how it might affect society.

    It’s interesting to see that many people who blog share this dream.

  6. This all touches on the nature of writing as a medium of communication of one to many (generally). The sites I’m most eager to visit more often are those with high-quality writing. The topic can be just about anything, honestly. Dooce is a perfect example: who the hell cares about her dog? She does, and she expounds upon that very well. That, and vomit, and duct tape, and anything else. It’s Heather’s skillful writing that brings most repeat visitors back, I’d wager.

    Sometimes, I’d actually prefer the personal to the abstract, technical, or professional. The best bits of diveintomark.org are the posts where Mark recounted stories from his life. I started seriously tuning out when everything revolved around the arcana of RSS.

    The combination of extremely elegant design, interesting topics (of all varieties, in my admittedly short-lived sampling), and, above all else, clear, well-developed writing, are why I come back to subtraction.com.

  7. I have to agree with both Naz and Daniel. Specialized writing is the sort of thing I consider useful when I have a use for it. If I want to know what’s being said about OS X Tiger by people who know, I’ll visit Daring Fireball, but I won’t wait there every day. Most of the time, I want to see or read something new, about anything, and everything, especially the personal (or more importantly, thoughtful). Whether it be Dooce’s baby-infested ramblings, a friend’s daily journey, or even the occasional thoughts on art, design, politics, whatever – I want to read from someone who considers their craft.

    What is acceptable and what isn’t depends upon the author’s vision and motivation for his or her site, not mine. If I think it should be something different, great, I can stop coming back whenever I choose.

    For me, my site is selfish. I’ll admit that at times I seek a little attention (for fun’s sake), but on a near-daily basis it’s about what I’m thinking and what I want to see, and nothing more. The result is a sparse collection of comments and regular visitors. And if for every 99 visitors hoping for something about Macs there is someone who takes an interest in my personal ramblings, I’m happy to have them as an audience – and even better, they might have something useful to say.

  8. Hello hello.

    Just thought I would say hi since I seem to be a regular visitor to this place now.

    Ah huh. Weightshift (www.weightshift.com) & Subtraction are my two new favouritist friends.

    Toot. Toot.

  9. I’m just catching up after a long day, so here are a few quick replies to the all-around fantastic responses that I think have been posted here.

    First, Mike D.: those feeds sound like a good idea and I bet one could pull them off in Movable Type without much effort. Also, regarding cashing in credits so that one may post about McDLTs, well, your McDLT post was so awesome as to require no justification.

    Mark and Harris: find out why I was so cagey about asking the questions you do, i.e. what/why is a blog?, in today’s episode.

    Naz: you’re absolutely right that comments can spoil weblogs. As soon as an author starts writing for her audience and no longer exclusively for herself, that’s a loss of a kind (to take an Ayn Rand perspective). It’s not necessarily bad — in some ways it can be wonderful — but it does subvert things.

    Joe: I’m glad I’m not the only one with this crazy, life-in-a-database fantasy. There’s something about the blog medium that attracts that kind of penchant, definitely — kind of like moths to a flame, I guess.

    For those of you who like it when I blog about my personal life: be careful what you wish for. Just kidding; I appreciate it that someone out there finds it entertaining. Robert’s point about a smaller audience for those kinds of posts being just as rewarding as a larger audience for more general interest posts is a good one that dovetails nicely with the idea that blog comments can be a dangerous end to themselves. They’re the road less traveled, so to speak.

    And on and on we blog…

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