Meta Notes, Blogging Edition

I dislike doing meta posts, but I have a lot of news related to blogging and myself, and since this is my blog, well… Let’s get started:

I’m now blogging regularly at work.

More specifically, I contribute a post to our company blog every two weeks. I’ll mostly be writing high-level technical pieces (like the kind you would find on A List Apart) and posts about how to work better with others (something I’m surprised I know so much about). In fact, I’ve already written two such articles:

I’m experimenting with video blogging.

Speaking of my job, I’m working on a rather exciting internal project. Not just exciting in that “we’re making something awesome”, (because that’s almost always the case), but exciting in how we’re documenting it.

With this project, we wanted to try to capture the essence of our development process. So every few days I sit in front of a camera and talk at it for a few minutes, trying to maintain eye contact with the lens and hopelessly attempting to stop saying “um” all. the. time. The rest of the team is doing this as well, albeit without such ineptitude, and I suspect eventually I’ll suffer the humiliation of having my awkwardness posted online, ripe for ridicule.

This has actually been surprisingly fun, and I might start a video-blog segment here someday. You know, like the glorious day when I finally upgrade my iPhone 3G after my slavery-like contract with the devil my wireless carrier ends — in July.

I’ve been thinking about writing a series of posts about blogging.

It’s not hard to find blogging advice online, but it generally comes from people that really know what they’re doing. I’ve always thought it might be interesting to see some moron with hardly any real experience try to explain the meagre lessons he’s learned from posting words online. Less authoritative, but no less valuable (hopefully).

Essentially, my struggles are more fresh and I have plenty of mistakes to share, so that should make for some interesting stories, right?

Please let me know if this is something you might want to read.

Finally, Dave is posting again!

Part of the reason I started blogging was so that Dave would stop nagging me about how I “should totally start a blog”. At the time, he had a blog and actually updated it. Then his post rate slowed to a crawl and I started to nag him about blogging, and apparently this is a really great strategy for encouraging people to write because he has a new post up and I think there are more to come!

Anyway, thanks for sticking with me through the entire post; I’m pretty psyched about all the things I have going on right now. Maybe you can share some of your own fun projects that you’re excited about in the comments?

Oh, and happy Friday!


The Karma Experiment

I read a lot of blogs (probably too many). I try to interact with at least some of them, but usually the most I can do is muster the occasional comment on the latest post. I don’t really feel like I’m generally giving back to those blogs from which I learn so much. So this month, I’m going to try to change that. Here’s the plan:

Every weekday during the month of December, I’m going to email a blogger that I read regularly.

The idea is that I really want to make an effort to let the authors that I really care about know how much I appreciate them. Worst case this is just some junk email that will get ignored, but hopefully it will at least help brighten someone’s day during the often-stressful holiday season.

Obvious question the first: Which bloggers?

The hand-wavy algorithm I used to choose which bloggers to email is “if {blogger} retired from blogging tomorrow, would that totally ruin my day?” If the answer was yes, email! Otherwise, I considered why I still read that particular blog; apparently this test can also help prune your RSS list.

I’m not going to say who specifically, but my list runs a veritable gamut of talent and renown. I’ve hit everything from blogs that are as (un)popular as mine to some of the biggest names in blogging, and most of the recipients fall somewhere in between. Part of the fun will be seeing whether any of the big names actually reply to fan-mail, while hopefully at least some of the lesser-knowns might appreciate and acknowledge my kind words.

Obvious question the second: What will I say?

Something heartfelt. I really, seriously appreciate each and every one of these people and I will have no trouble coming up with sincere things to say about them.

I’ve always found it kind of strange how when you read someone’s blog long enough you really feel like you know that person pretty well. Then you realize that they don’t know you at all and you feel kind of like a stalker. Anyway, I’ll try not to be too creepy.

Obvious question the third: Why every weekday?

Two reasons:

First, when I came up with my list of bloggers that I considered must-writes, I had exactly 23 names. I debated adding a bit of fluff to round it out to 31, or at least 31-minus-holidays, but I decided that that wasn’t in the true spirit of this endeavour. Then I noticed that December has exactly 23 weekdays.

Second, this works out well for holidays as Christmas Day is on a Saturday, and I really don’t want to hassle anyone on Christmas Day. I’m still going to hit Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve (and you know my thoughts on New Year’s Eve) but those are working days anyway, so I feel some justification, however slight it may be.

I’m not expecting this to lead to anything.

It’s not a movement, it’s not me marketing myself, and I’m not asking for anything in return. I’m just trying to let the bloggers I care about know that they matter, and that I love what they do. But with that said, it will be interesting to see what kind of conversations or realizations this leads to. I’ll be sure to post an update if I catch anything interesting.

Stay tuned!

Web Misc

Building an Audience with Feature Pieces

Lately I’ve become a big fan of “feature” pieces. Let me give you a few examples to show you what I mean:

Every weekend, Outspoken Media posts their weekend coffee links. It’s a list of interesting one-off links from that week — links that have nothing to do with branding or SEO, the blog’s typical topics.

There are a couple of things I like about this. First, it gives Outspoken’s readers something to look forward to; every Saturday, there will be some neat links. This builds loyalty (people will keep coming back), and it’s predictable (since the same readers will tune in every week). Second, it’s probably a nice break for Outspoken’s full-time blogger. The weekend coffee links give Lisa a chance to be a bit more lax, and I bet those posts are pretty fun to write.

Of course, a regular piece doesn’t always have to be off-topic. Smashing Magazine’s monthly desktop wallpaper calendar series is right on-topic with what they do (promote and share good design). Still, it’s very effective; downloading a new calendar wallpaper is one of my top priorities at the start of each month — right up there with paying rent.

Similarly, posts in a series don’t necessarily need a predictable schedule. Take College Humor’s Prank War, for example. Sometimes the updates are over a year apart, but you’d better believe people are waiting for them. Obviously this won’t grant the same reliability bonus of a weekly or monthly feature, but it definitely builds dedicated fans. The people that love these videos really love them.

This is something I’m going to try to do a bit more of around here. In fact, starting this Friday, I’ll be doing a bi-weekly (every second Friday) update for what I’m doing this semester with OCRI. I’m interested to see how it goes — both how much I enjoy writing it, and what kind of a response it effects from you. Likewise, I’m going to play around with a few other infrequent series bits as I mentioned in last week’s one-year anniversary summary. It just feels like a fun thing to do, and I’m excited to see how it goes.

How do you feel about all this?

I haven’t really given much thought to feature pieces until very recently. Is this something you enjoy too? What are some of your favourites?


Twelve Months Past, Twelve Months Ahead

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of this blog. If you weren’t around in the beginning, you probably missed some cool posts. And if you were around in the beginning, you’ve probably forgetting about some cool posts. So here’s a recap of the past year’s highlights and my plans for the next twelve months:

The Highlights.

Did invites for Google Wave cause a slew of phishing attacks?

This was one of the first posts I wrote for the blog. It was based on the true story of how I fell for a (thankfully harmless) phishing scam, and some thoughts on phishing in general. It’s probably my favourite post from 2009.

Opera vs Reality

This post, from January 2010, is what I often describe as my favourite post. I’m a total browser-geek, so it was nice to let out a bunch of thoughts about what makes some browsers more successful than others. This was also the first post after I decided to commit to a weekly posting schedule.

Improving Performance in Flex and Scaling BlazeDS

This is my most popular post. It’s the first post I wrote for this blog that pulls in a consistent amount of Google traffic, and it’s easily the most niche piece I’ve ever written. Let that be a lesson to you other techie blog-newbs: specs sells.

The Breakfast Experiment

This was the first “experiment” post I wrote, where I tried to cook a full breakfast for myself every morning for a month. I’m planning on running more posts like this next year, because it was fun and I learned a lot from doing it. Stay tuned!

Make Every Day New Year’s Eve

This was the first post I wrote on the subject of motivation, and it’s right up there with that piece on Opera for the title of my favourite post all year. I really like my “voice” in the post, I came up with a great title, and hopefully a few people found it useful.

How to Promote a Mall in the year 2010

This is the first post I wrote that went some (extremely minor) degree of viral. It’s about a mall near my house, and how their marketing team is way, way better than the marketing team at every other mall in Ottawa. It was neat seeing my post shared on a couple of social networks, and this is another one that gets a bit of search traffic.

The Vegas Photo

This “post” triggered the highest single-day traffic burst in this blog’s short life. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check it out.

Find Yourself a Canary

It’s difficult to include such a recent post, because I haven’t had a whole lot of time to reflect on it. But it appears this story about my passive interactions with a coworker has resonated with a lot of people, so I thought it warranted inclusion. This post has made the most people tell me in person that they really liked it, which always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The Next Twelve Months.

I ended up being a bit busier than I expected in 2010 (most notably, I’m now married) so there were a few things I meant to do that got pushed back a bit. Here’s what I’m going to try to do before October 2011:

Write a short ebook.

I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge about blogging over the past year, and I thought it might be fun to wrap that up in a quick ebook and share it with the world. In particular, I’m thinking that other small-time bloggers that are just starting out might find something like that useful. And if they don’t, well, that’s ok too.

Run more “experiments”.

I thought the breakfast experiment was a lot of fun, and that I could turn it into an infrequent series where I commit to doing something a bit unusual for a while and let you know how it goes. Look for the second installment in a month or two.

Share more “hacks”.

The canary post was listed as a productivity hack, which it is. I have a bunch more of these that I can share (apparently I do a lot of little quirky things to get myself through the day). I might start doing them on the occasional Friday as quick half-posts — we’ll see how it goes.

Re-design the blog.

A confession: I’m not a horrible designer, and I’m a veritable wizard with html/css. When this blog launched, the theme I chose was just a placeholder until I got around to designing my own theme (which I am entirely capable of doing). I’ve been taking notes about ideas for months, but due to various other commitments, I never found time to put any of them into action. So, (officially) sometime in 2011, this blog is going to get a whole new look and feel.

Any feedback?

If I didn’t mention your favourite post in my summary, I would absolutely love to know what it is (and why). Please leave a comment. Similarly, if you would like to see more of something or have some other suggestion for the future, a comment would be a great way for you to share that with me.

Web Misc

Be Your Own Ambassador

These days, your identity on the web can be quite broad. You might have a blog, you almost certainly have a Facebook account, you’ve probably at least heard of Twitter and LinkedIn, and at the very least, you watch YouTube videos and read other people’s blogs. To make things seem even more spread out, many interactions in these spaces tend to be very short — and I don’t just mean Twitter, I bet your comments on Facebook and several other social tools are usually a few hundred characters or less.

With such a wide set of places to leave your mark, and these interactions tending to be shorter and shorter, it’s easy to make a lot of them and its easy to make them without thinking too hard. Lately I’ve been trying to put more thought into comments I leave on people’s blogs and tweets that I’ve whipped up on the spot, and the other day I realized something: Every tweet, every status update, every forum post, and every comment I leave online, anywhere, is an opportunity to make a good first impression.

Pause and consider that for a moment. Every time you submit any content online, someone else is meeting you for the first time. Sometimes it might really only be one person, but often it’s dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. Now imagine meeting this many new people in person rather than through a screen. Would you still just blurt out a quick statement without thinking? What kind of first impression would that leave?

Think of this from a branding point of view. Every time you write a quick, pointless statement online, you’re wasting a chance to properly introduce yourself to a handful of new people. Why not seize every opportunity to make a strong first impression — something people will remember?

Some tips for making those first impressions count:

When you post on a blog or forum, link your name to something. There are plenty of options: your blog, your twitter, your shared items in Google Reader, anything you have that says more about you. If I like what you have to say, I’m going to want to know where I can go to listen to more of you.

Please (please, please, please!) don’t just write “great post!” when you comment on someone’s blog. That doesn’t tell me anything about you. Mention why the post is great: what do you like about it? Do you have a similar experience to share? Does it remind you of something funny/stupid/unique? If you’re going to take the time to leave a comment, leave something worth reading — or better yet, something worth re-reading.

Along the same lines, when commenting on something in Facebook, don’t just say “lol” or “epic!”. That’s what the Like button is for. If you’re going to comment on someone’s status, add a bit of personality. You never know who might gain value from your reply, and something heartfelt and sincere could really make the original poster’s day.

Try to be helpful. This doesn’t just apply to question-answer sites like Stack Overflow; people are asking for help all the time, using every tool available to them. This includes the obvious ones like Twitter and most forums, but the same goes for blogs and Facebook/MySpace/Yammer. You probably know all kinds of things that others don’t — share that knowledge!

Be personal. Remember that you’re interacting with one or more human beings. Don’t spam us to death (I’m looking at you, LinkedIn “power users” and Twitter “experts”) and try to talk like you would talk to someone you’re meeting at a park or grocery store. Be humble and respectful, and don’t just talk about yourself.

Proofread before hitting submit. Those typos and basic grammatical mistakes that ruin otherwise great resumés can also sabotage thoughtful comments. Don’t let easily-correctable errors distract me from what you have to say.

Finally, practice makes perfect. This post isn’t meant to scare anyone away from online interactions. Make lots of them; just remember that each and every one is a chance for you to show the world how great you are.

Web Misc

How to Learn Twice as Much from Blog Posts

The trick is to read posts that are doubly-useful.

Let’s look at a few examples:

I’m a big fan of JD Roth’s Get Rich Slowly, a finance-tips-for-the-layman sort of blog. While I do appreciate the best practices and money hacks (I feel they help me develop and maintain good financial habits), I could get those anywhere. A huge part of why I read GRS is because JD is a fan-freaking-tastic blogger. He writes diverse content on a near-daily basis, his posts always come off as sincere and never condescending, and the totally-committed community he has built up around GRS is nothing short of incredible. When I read posts at GRS, I’m not just learning about personal finance, I’m learning about how to write for and manage an extremely successful blog. Two things.

Another blogger I really like is Lisa Barone over at Outspoken Media. She writes mostly about search engine optimization and branding, which is often useful information for small-time bloggers like myself, but it’s not what she says that I’m paying the most attention to — it’s how she says it. Lisa has voice. Her writing is playful but clear, concise but with flair. I’m confident that if someone gave me ten posts about SEO and told me that one of them was written by Lisa, I could find it hands down. She’s identifiable and unique in an industry that is crowded and largely bland. Her content is useful, but it’s her style that I learn the most from. Again, two things.

And doubly-useful content doesn’t always have to be about honing pairs of skills; it works just as well for entertainment. Take, for example, Penny Arcade. There are at least two things I find entertaining on this website. The obvious one is the content they produce; their comics, podcasts, and PATV episodes are inspired and wildly popular, but I’m also a huge fan of Tycho’s writing! There have been days when I’ve loaded up PA to see the latest comic, and after reading Tycho’s post, completely forgotten that they even do comics and moved on to something else. Tycho’s posts are so captivating on their own that I would visit the site even if they didn’t make hilarious content. You guessed it: two things.

This doesn’t just apply to blogging either. I’ve tried several times to find a few francophones to follow on Twitter, because in addition to enjoying their opinions (I like to cover a wide variety of demographics on Twitter) it will also help me practice my french. It’s surprising where phenomenons like this can crop up.

So next time you’re about to drop half an hour on FAIL Blog or that popular social-media site that you only follow because everyone else does, consider spending that time on something with more depth. Something you can gain two insights from instead of one. Something doubly-useful.

Web Misc

When not to Write a Post

This is the fourth (!) post I’ve written for today. The reason you aren’t seeing the first three is because the past couple of days have taught me a few valuable lessons about when you shouldn’t follow through on a post idea (even if it’s a really good idea), and I thought I’d share that knowledge with all of you.

<tangent>This post was probably inspired in part by a recent similar post on Outspoken Media.</tangent>

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

My first idea for this week’s post was massively ambitious. A popular site I follow posted an article last week about something I know a lot about, and didn’t do a very good job of it — and it was one of those dreaded list-posts where you can tell some of the items were just filler to boost the count up to a nice, rounded number. I was sure I could write a better post about the topic, so I got started! I was picking apart all the things the other article did wrong, doling out advice for how it could have been improved, coming up with my own, significantly better advice and conclusions, it was epic!

And then I read over what I had so far.

It was atrocious. My bold calling-out of a not-so-great post with examples of how to do it right was reading like a vicious tirade about why I’m better than they are. It was awful! Then I looked up the post’s author; he’s been blogging since I was in high school, has guest posts on some of my favourite blogs, and has made a hugely positive impact in his niche. What was I doing? This guy was a role model. So he had an off-post. It wasn’t all that bad, and even if I could find a few things wrong with it, that doesn’t translate to a better post — especially if I’m being a jerk about it.

So I trashed it. It was probably the longest post I’ve written for this blog to date, and I wholly regret wasting so much time on it before pulling the plug. On the plus side, I’ll think twice about it next time, and hopefully one of you will too.

Posts about current events can backfire.

My back-up idea for this week was based on a gem of a rant I went on over Skype when I found out that YouTube pulled the original RickRoll’d video for a Terms of Service violation. This was a solid post with some legitimately good content that I was all set to write — until I found out that YouTube restored the video.

This is the problem with such ephemeral topics. How long would that post have been relevant for? A few days? Then what? I update it to say “rejoice! the video is restored!” and the rest of my post is moot? Ridiculous. Next time I’ll remember to wait until the news is more official before assuming I’m set for next week’s post.

Are you really a good candidate to write this post?

My third idea was to write a post based on some story I found via Slashdot; one of those trendy posts about an ongoing saga of human rights dilution in a far-away land. This was obviously a good idea, because it was something I cared about! Not so.

What kind of insight would I have on such an issue? Sure I’m passionate about it, but so are millions of other people. Do I know more than the majority of them do? Probably not. Am I going to have some wacky angle that no one else has covered yet? I doubt it. Is there anything significant I can contribute in this space? Not really. So, no post. It was my fault for choosing a topic I was under-qualified to write about.

Please learn from my mistakes.

It’s been a long couple of days. It wasn’t easy throwing out idea after idea, especially after I’d invested time and energy into each one. But in the end I’m glad I did it; I didn’t publish something stupid that I’d probably regret later (or worse: completely forget about), and the silver lining turned out to be a handful of valuable lessons, ready for their own post.