Twenty years ago today, I posted the first entry on this blog. As I’ve recounted, I wrote some blog software as an outgrowth of a book project I’d been working on. The book purported to teach people how to program websites, and a blog seemed like a good exercise to test that.
It’s hard today to remember how exciting the idea of blogs was 20 years ago. Before then I’d contributed some articles to a couple of specialized publications, and I was proud to see those in print. But dang, with blogging, you could sit at your desk and draft something, press a button, and presto, anyone in the (connected) world could read it instantly.
In the early days, there was handwringing and skepticism about blogs. “The blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought,” according to Alan Jacobs. And in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Rago dismissed blogs as “written by fools to be read by imbeciles.”
Despite these Insightful Thoughts from pundits, somehow blogging survived. (haha) In my world—software documentation—blogs turned out to be perfect for a niche that otherwise could be filled only by conference presentations, or occasional articles, or books. Blogs became a way to get news and information out fast. They were also unfiltered, as compared with company-created documentation: authors could provide personal and opinionated information. And in blogs like The Old New Thing (about Windows) and Fabulous Adventures in Coding (about programming languages), to name only two, readers got all sorts of insights into how and why software was developed as it was.
And it was all free!
Once blogging overcame the initial doubts, people and companies were keen to learn how to do it. In the mid-oughts, I was teaching classes in Microsoft Word and in editing at the local college. The woman who ran the department called me up one day and said “I think we need a class about blogging.” So I put together a curriculum and taught that class for a couple of years. Which naturally I blogged about.
A bit ironically, in my own blog I didn’t follow some of the advice I was dispensing. My subject matter was (is) all over the place, as the Categories list on the main page suggests. I also was not very disciplined about adhering to a strict schedule, about planning my posts around specific dates or events, or about optimizing for SEO. (In my defense, I’ve never thought of my blog as a commercial project, so I wasn’t very concerned about maximizing traffic, building a corporate or personal brand, etc.)
And here it is, 20 years on. Counting this entry, I’ve made 2,648 posts. A rough count tells me that I’ve written almost 900,000 words. The pace on this blog has slowed considerably, but the process has been valuable to me in many ways:
- Blogging is writing. Putting together all those blog posts has given me lots of practice and I’m sure it’s improved my writing skills.
- It’s a resource. Countless times I’ve reached back into the blog to look something up that I wrote long ago.
- It’s helped people. Perhaps the high point was when some Microsoft documentation pointed to one of my blog entries as the quasi-official story on something. Per my reckoning, the blog has gotten about 2.5 million hits, so hopefully some folks have gotten some value there.
- I "met" many people via blogging, and some of those in real life, even.
- It’s helped me in my career. I’ve used the blog to (in effect) draft things that were later turned into “real” documentation. I’ve used blog entries as writing samples when applying for jobs.
But over time, a couple of things changed. One was that Google killed Google Reader, a tool for tracking blogs, citing declining usage. This seemed to indicate that the popularity of blogs had crested, but I think that that change itself also contributed to making it harder to keep up with blogs.
The real change, of course, was social media. In particular, Twitter, which sometimes has been referred to as a “micro-blogging platform”, really took the air out of blogging. (For example, you're probably reading this because of a link on a social media site, not because you saw the post in your aggregator app.)
Although Twitter isn’t a good way to capture long-form posts, its immediacy became the default first-reaction medium for breaking news. And it was a perfect way to post from a smartphone; Twitter’s original 140-character limit was dictated by the constraints of the SMS protocol that was used with phones. Some will remember that as with blogging, early Twitter faced skepticism—“Why would I want to know what someone had for lunch?” for example—but it, too, found its footing.
But, gee, what goes around. In 2012, right about the time that Google Reader went away, the Medium website was launched. “Williams, previously co-founder of Blogger and Twitter, initially developed Medium as a means to publish writings and documents longer than Twitter's 140-character (now 280-character) maximum.” (Wikipedia) And there’s also Substack at al., platforms that let authors publish newsletters, as they call them, and push them to your email. Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but the difference between a blog entry that appears in your aggregator and a newsletter that appears in your inbox seems pretty small to me.
Although the software that originally inspired this blog (Web Matrix) is long gone, the blog persists. For about 19 years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll rewrite the code to modernize it. We’ll see.
It’s had a good run, this blog, and I think it still has value to me and who knows, maybe to others. I’ll check in again in five years. :)