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Blogging in the age of Facebook

Running a blog is very different from writing in a paper-based journal. You don't need to know anything about servers, domains, hosting companies, DNS, php, databases, html, sftp, site security, interface design, web design, graphic design, operating systems or really anything much more technical than how to write with pen and paper to keep a paper-based journal. No one reads your paper journal unless we count your little sister digging up dirt on you, while anyone in the world can read your blog (and usually can comment on it as well). Your writings on a blog are constructed with a wider audience in mind which affects what you write about and how you say it. Social networking sites like Facebook made blogging available to the masses, and if everyone is using that - why continue to run a blog at all?

A short history of the rise of social networking websites including:

...opened blogging to the masses making it possible for everybody to blog even if they didn't know the first thing about running a website. Most of the people on these types of sites today are the very folks who were making fun of bloggers just 4 years ago, and they couldn't conceive of a reason why anyone would need such a thing. On a Drupal site I set up in late 2006, I remember one new user posting:

"How many Blogs are needed... This is nuts? Does everyone get to have their own blog?"
The idea that all the users of the site could post a short missive now and again and that these would appear in reverse-chrono order on an "aggregating" webpage with a little avatar image was actually a novel concept to many folks just a short while ago. The fact that forum-based websites and email lists had been providing nearly identical functionality for years already notwithstanding.

Dump your blog and use Facebook?

Outsourcing to a social networking site is obviously an option for some of us who run blogs. Why go through the hassle of running your own domain, installing software and maintaining it, dealing with spammers, etc. when you can just sign up for a free account on Facebook and instantly have all your friends see whatever you post?

And there are lots of easy non-Facebook options for bloggers who don't want to get their hands dirty.

There are many different types of blogger. Chris Garrett breaks them down nicely here as I use my site mainly as a personal journal of sorts I'm pretty much in the minority according to his non-scientific poll. For the years I've been running this site I've really had no agenda. There are several categories or topics that I have naturally shoe-horned my posts into over the years - things I like to write about - and I have never followed the advice of professional bloggers (people actually making money blogging) to separate these interests into content-specific sites to better target my audience. Its just too much of a hassle and I'm not interested in selling you anything.

Running the numbers

I've always kept an eye on the number of hits my sites get, and one interesting thing I note now is that for the year I was using Facebook (and importing posts from this site to there as "Notes") the number of hits this site was getting dropped dramatically (perhaps by 2/3). This doesn't include my own page views (which are excluded by the stats engine). The number of page views I get each month is far more than the number of friends I had (perhaps 10 times) and clearly a lot of people who read this site are finding it through search. Its possible that I was just writing on my own site less often during that time, and a quick tally shows that while that is true (63 posts for that year as opposed to the normal average of 74) it doesn't account for such a dramatic drop. The only thing I can imagine is that a large percentage of readers of this blog were "friends" of mine on Facebook who stopped visiting my blog when I was posting on Facebook? Perhaps the linked nature of the site leads my "friend" visitors on a track through several pages at each visit as they notice things they've never read before linked off the post of interest, but without wasting a lot of time investigating that I'll never know. Add to this uncertainly the huge number of bots and crackers who are constantly trying to gain access to the site and I might have two real readers for all I know. Since I dumped Facebook June 1st, hits on this site are pretty nearly (and consistently) back up to where they were a year before again. Thanks gang!

Making more connections?

Everybody says you should be on Facebook to broaden your readership. This certainly proved true for our band page and appears to be so for the one I created for work. I don't know most of the folks that "liked" our pages, and when we post on those pages those folks are notified (yep, just like email lists I've been using since 1992 and arguably less convenient). I enjoyed using Facebook for the one year I used it (it was well written and clean - very much unlike my experience with Myspace), but for all the added "connections" I was making, posting on Facebook wasn't nearly as satisfying as posting in my own online journal.

It's possible that the number of connections I was making was actually a reduction because I was only posting to a subset of them (my personal circle of "friends" on Facebook). For the most part they already know how I feel about things and I talk to a lot of them regularly anyway. Any Facebook-only posts I made were going into a "gated community" and not to the world at large at all. There was a danger of getting lulled into thinking this was the same as writing on my blog but it clearly wasn't. My "friends" are people who know me and perhaps have moved beyond calling me on the carpet for things I say - they may just as soon ignore me (or worse, "hide" any and all of my future posts ;) while there is a real possibility that someone who doesn't know me as well will not hesitate to say what needs to be said. Facebook may have been killing real conversations because "friends" aren't interesting in making points that they may have to defend in real life the next time we meet, or they may not wish to create unnecessary problems.

Which discussion?

Sure, Facebook made it much easier for me to spam my "friends" with my latest blog posts (something I could have done via email instead but very rarely did), but in the case of imported blog posts (via the Notes plugin), any comments my "friends" made on my imported post were being made on Facebook NOT on my blog. This meant that the conversation about my posts wasn't directly associated with the blog anymore. Someone finding my blog wouldn't know that 20 posts had been made back and forth about it on Facebook and those on Facebook wouldn't see any interactions on my own site. I thought about using something like Disqus on my blog and set up my Disqus profile since I've found a lot of other blogs use it, but I had some problems getting it working correctly on my site (while it installed and imported all the old comments of my site it wouldn't display them in context - it worked fine for new comments, but I wanted to preserve my old comments).

Facebook censorship?

You do not own Facebook. As a user of their service you must abide by their terms. This basically means that they can do whatever they want with your data, and you are limited to only posting what they deem acceptable. This probably hasn't affected you, unless you're organizing a campaign against a mega-corporation or trying to access your own data. It appears that Facebook can be very selective when it comes to acceptable free speech, so I'd just as soon take responsibility for my own posts - I don't want to be at the whim of the nanny state for approval.

Facebook creeped me out

On Facebook my connections to others were being monitored and logged with the not-overtly-stated-but-very-obvious-to-everybody goal to build up a layer of information about my particular niche group which simple "page-view" data doesn't provide to marketers. My ability to control the sharing of the information being gathered on Facebook was constantly changing on the whims of the Facebook admins. Even if I don't put any real information into Facebook (violating their end-user license by the way), the information they really want is still there: tying my email address (and thus me) to the connections I make with others (you) and the sites we visit.

How do I make it easier for folks to post on the blog?

So since I ditched Facebook and I intend to keep blogging here how do I make it easier for folks who run across the site to participate in a conversation? Facebook does a lot of things well but the most important to me is that it is very easy to post something - once you're logged in there is a big empty box waiting for input nearly all the time. Visitors to my blog are confronted by my rants and no obvious way to reply to them. This has always been the biggest problem with my site. Do I redesign entirely? I sort of like my minimalist, understated set up as is. Do I make everyone sign up for an account before they can post? Nobody will. Do I put Captcha on all the forms to block spammers? What a pain to use. Do I require just a name and email on the comment form? Works, but tedious for the user and spammers get around it constantly. As is its frustratingly more complex than Facebook - but on Facebook, you already have an account which works on all your friends pages - you already took that step to sign up.

My site is one of millions, certainly I can't expect every potential user to create an account (well, Facebook did). Folks would end up with millions of accounts all over the web with millions of passwords to remember - or worse, all of them using the same password.

What I really wanted was a way that users could log into my site easily using their existing credentials from whatever service they like to use (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc) and leave a comment on my site (not a comment posted elsewhere and displayed through some connecting software and related to my post). What I wanted was OpenID. I think I've finally got that working for now with some help from the kind folks on the interwebs.