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Bringing Conversations (Back?) to Blogging
I could have written this post as a more standard blog post with a catchy stand-alone intro, but it's worth not doing that in this case. This post is about how we're missing out on the conversational aspect of blogging, and part of the reason we're missing out is precisely because we're too worried with the techniques of blogging instead of the reasons why we blog.
My last post highlighted something Jonathan Mead wrote on his blog, but I actually wrote this post first and then stalled on it because I got spooked out of saying what I'll say below. Anyway, while I was writing a comment to that post, my word count started to get high, which is a sure sign that I should probably write a post about what I was thinking here rather than having a super-long comment on his. This is something I end up doing often enough that I recognize the pattern, but something sparked this time.
Part of the spark came because of past conversations we've had about "work," but a lot of it was me reflecting on my SXSW experience.
To Blog is To Converse
I had a lot of rich conversations at SXSW with many cool, insightful people. I've had one particularly rich conversation with a score of people, and it gets richer with each new person I talk to. Though I've had my own thoughts in the discussion, my central role has been as the carrier of the idea and conversation.
Each of us have been carrying parts of this conversation on our own blogs and conversations. But it's important to think about the fact that this conversation has been distributed through the Twitter stream, the blog stream, and the other collective experience streams and we're reflecting the ideas into our blogs and conversations. We're adding value to the conversation, but most of us are self-aware and realistic enough to know that we didn't start the conversation.
This conversational stream is one of the best benefits of blogging. Yet we're really not harnessing it to the extent that we could.
Bringing the Conversation Back to Blogging
This section of the post is technical, but bear with me for a minute.
At one point in the evolution of blogging, there was enough of a difference between trackbacks and pingbacks that we used the two differently. The technology has changed such to make little difference between them, but we lost something when that happened.
Many of us happily link to other sites with great content. We throw a link and, if we are particularly thoughtful, try to make sure that link text has something relevant to the post or site so that the writers get some link juice. Happily, the gremlins that run the interwebs send a pingback to the website, letting the writers know that someone linked to their site. All is good with the world.
But we use that link as a one way point. It points from one website to another - in other words, it sends people from one website to the next. Please don't misread me here; it's nice to send traffic and readers to other places that you think are relevant to them.
We used to use trackbacks to establish a two-way link between sites. It was a way of saying "this content is important enough that I'd like to continue the discussion" rather than "that's a great discussion; go join it over there."
Trackbacks, used properly, were a way of extending the same discussion and adding value to it. Pingbacks pointed to a different conversion and - hopefully - added value to that discussion. That's a big difference.
Of course, there was also the big difference between the two that a good trackbacked post also shared your audience with whoever you were talking about in a much more relevant way than a link. People wanted to know what the rest of the conversation was about.
The point of this section is not so much about the technology, as that changes all the time. It's about the way we talked to each other and joined conversations; where we once at least paused to consider whether we wanted link or to extend the conversation, we now just link, thinking that it extends the conversation. Rarely does linking serve to extend the conversation in the genuine way.
We Blog Because We Have Something To Say
I'll come out and say it right here: if you don't have anything to say, stop blogging. Just stop.
Though that makes me sound like an ass, the truth of the matter is that most people have something to say. They're just trying to figure out how to say it or are mustering up the courage to say it.
But the bloggers you know and love have a lot to say. Even those of us that are writing because we want to help other people are writing because we have something to say and we like being heard. Why else would we step onto the global stage?
If you comment on something we write, we're thrilled. Yay! If you link to us, we're even more thrilled, because it takes more effort to link than to comment and you've given us link juice. But if you continue the discussion on your own blog while linking to us (what trackbacks used to do), we're thrilled...but, importantly, we're interested.
Why? Because we're interested in our conversations and we're interested to see what others think about our conversations. And because there's only so much thrill you can get out of the thousanth comment that basically says "Great post!" (Although genuine "great post!" comments are still nice; please continue to share the love.)
What can I say: bloggers are suckers for great conversations. Use that to your advantage.
I can hear the groans here as people start thinking about the idea of comments evaporating and having to run all over the tubes to follow the conversation. Let's get real on two points: 1) most people aren't going to do that and 2) links help your blog more than comments do. And the reality is that we will all learn more if the people who have thoughtful comments expand, explore, and share those ideas in their own spaces.
The Search For A More Social Web
Remember Web1.0 websites that you couldn't comment on? Yeah, me too. I'm glad we're past that. Remember when blogs were about conversations? Yeah, me too. I miss that.
The beauty about technology is that it bends to our will; when we want to do something, we create techniques and technological solutions to help us do it. It turns out that the technology to extend conversations via blogging has always been here; we just changed the way we used it.
I'm hoping that more people embrace the conversational power of blogging. That said, I'm talking to two audiences here: new bloggers and veteran bloggers. I'll start with the new bloggers.
What Do I Say?
Many people that are just starting out blogging worry about what they should say. Rather than just writing about something, they fret and fret and end up on Twitter or commenting a lot on other people's site. It's a shame, really, because it's so much easier to join a conversation than to try to start your own.
If you read a great post and want to leave a rich comment, that's fine. But if it really speaks to you, or you think you can really add value to the conversation, why not write a post that explicitly extends the conversation? In time, you will start your own conversations, or you will be like many veteran bloggers and forget that what you're writing about didn't come from your own head. You'll be part of a fascinating conversation and you'll have plenty to say.
But, for now, if you don't know where to start with a conversation, join somebody else's. Write a thoughtful post that extends the conversation, and notice that your blog grows faster by you writing posts than you commenting everywhere and not writing posts. Content will always be king, and adding new insights to a conversation is content.
For The Vets
Please do continue to share the links from your site; it helps everybody. But also consider using your blog as a way to extend the conversations you're having with other people, since the reality is that most of what we're writing is a big spiraling conversation anyway.
For instance, when a particular post speaks to you and you have a lot to say about it, rather than leave a comment or pop a link in a roll-up, why not write a post that explicitly honors the conversation and continues it? You win because you have an easy post to write; they win because they get a link and have the thrill of having their conversation spread. We all win because we're thinking in terms of conversations rather than posts.
If a whole post is too much of a commitment, mention the parts of their post that you liked on your own blog. For a great example of how to do this, check out how Havi Brooks does this on her blog.
It's Really About the People
The larger issue here is that blogging is really about people. It's about engaging people, one at a time, with content that adds value to them for one reason or the other. Faceless crowds don't read blogs; individual people with individual perspectives, needs, and wants read blogs.
But not only is the content about people, the content comes from people. That said, you'll see me introduce more people on this blog in the near future. It may seem like name-dropping, and I can deal with that perception, but the truth is that they're people that I'm having conversations with. I want to be more clear about the fact that their ideas and conversations are influencing what I'm saying and thinking; I also hope that me extending the conversation helps them with what they're doing - they are great people that are worth reading and supporting.
In other words, this blog will host more conversations. I hope you'll join them.