The Stages of Blogging – an Empirical Study

… with sample size 1.

Last year, at the 4-years anniversary, I presented a quantitative analysis – in line with the editorial policy I had silently established: My blogging had turned from quasi-philosophical ramblings on science, work, and life to no-nonsense number crunching.

But the comment threads on my recent posts exhibit my subconsciousness spilling over. So at this anniversary, I give myself permission to incoherent reminiscences. I have even amended the tagline with this blog’s historical title:

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.

Anecdotal evidence shows that many people start a blog, or another blog, when they are in a personal or professional transition. I had been there before: My first outburst of online writing on my personal websites predated quitting my corporate job and starting our business. The creative well ran dry, after I had taken the decision and had taken action – in the aftermath of that legendary journey.

I resurrected the old websites and I started this blog when I was in a professional no-man’s-land: Having officially left IT security, still struggling with saying No to project requests, working on our pilot heat pump system in stealth mode, and having enrolled in another degree program in renewable energies.

The pseudonymous phase: Trying out the new platform, not yet adding much About Me information. Playing. In the old times, I had a separate domain with proper name for that (subversiv.at). This WordPress blog was again a new blank sheet of paper, and I took the other sites offline temporarily, to celebrate this moment.

The discovery of a new community: The WordPress community was distinct from all other professional communities and social circles I was part of. It seems that new bloggers always flock together in groups, perhaps WordPress’ algorithms facilitate that. I participated with glee in silly blogging award ceremonies. However, I missed my old communities, and I even joined Facebook to re-unite with some of them. Living in separate worlds, sometimes colliding in unexpected ways, was intriguing.

Echoes of the past: I write about Difficult Things That I Handled In the Past – despite or because I have resolved those issues long before. This makes all my Life / Work / Everything collections a bit negative and gloomy. I blogged about my leaving academia, and my mixed memories of being part of The Corporate World. It is especially the difficult topics that let me play with geeky humor and twisted sarcasm.

The self-referential aspect: Online writing has always been an interesting experiment: Writing about technology and life, but also using technology. As philosophers of the web have pointed out, the internet or the medium in general modifies the message. I play with websites’ structure and layout, and I watch how my online content is impacted by seemingly cosmetic details of presentation.

Series of posts – find our favorite topic: I’ve never participated in blogging challenges, like one article a day. But I can understand that such blogging goals help to keep going. I ran a series on quantum field theory, but of course my expertise was Weird Internet Poetry … yet another demonstration of self-referentiality.

The unexpected positive consequences of weird websites – perhaps called ‘authentic’ today. They are a first class filter. Only people who share your sense of humor with contact you – and sense of humor is the single best criterion to find out if you will work well with somebody.

Writing about other people’s Big Ideas versus your own quaint microcosmos. I have written book reviews, and featured my favorite thinkersideas. I focussed on those fields in physics that are most popular (in popular science). My blog’s views had their all-time-high. But there are thousands of people writing about those Big Things. Whatever you are going to write about, there is one writer who cannot only write better, but who is also more of a subject matter expert, like a scientist working also as a science writer. This is an aspect of my empirical rule about your life being cliché. The remaining uncharted territory was my own small corner of the world.

Skin in the Game versus fence-sitting. Lots of people have opinions on many things on the internet. The preferred publication is a link to an article plus a one-liner of an opinion. Some people might really know something about the things they have opinions on. A minority has Skin in the Game, that is: Will feel the consequences of being wrong, personally and financially. I decided to focus on blogging about topics that fulfill these criteria: I have 1) related education and theoretical knowledge, 2) practical hands-on experience, 3) Skin in the Game. Priorities in reverse order.

The revolutionary experiment: Blogging without the motivational trigger of upcoming change. Now I have lacked the primary blogging impulse for a while. I am contented and combine anything in practice since a while. But I don’t have to explain anything to anybody anymore – including myself. I resorted to playing with data – harping on engineering details. I turn technical questions I get into articles, and I spend a lot of time on ‘curating’: creating list of links and overview pages. I have developed the software for my personal websites from scratch, and turned from creating content to structure for a while.

Leaving your comfort zone: I do edit, re-write, and scrutinize blog postings here relentlessly. I delete more content again than I finally publish, and I – as a text-only Courier New person – spend considerable time on illustrations. This is as much as I want to leave my comfort zone, and it is another ongoing experiment – just as the original stream-of-consciousness writing was.

But perhaps I will write a post like this one now and then.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Spam Poetry: “Cris-Crossing the Universe”

I have tried my hands at different kinds of experimental internet poetry, and all of the poems turned out to have a dystopic touch or tantalizing hints to some fundamental philosophical truth. Perhaps this says something about 1) The Internet or 2) about my subconsciousness.

Since I have reduced blogging frequency, the number of spam comments plummeted accordingly – from 600 to 150 spam comments in the queue. So it has got harder and harder to find meaningful spam. In addition, there is a new variety: Such comments are not composed of meaningful sentences, but phrases of three or four words are stitched together to form a lengthy comment that sounds like postmodern poetry in its own right.

But I try to rise to the challenge, and even add one more hurdle. Rules for this poem:

  • Each line is a snippet of a spam comment.
  • Snippets must not be edited
  • Only one snippet can be extracted from one spam comment, but not every comment has to be utilized.
  • New: Snippets must be used immediately in the order of spam comments (descending by date), and they must not be re-arranged afterwards.
  • All comments have to be harvested in a single session.

The following lines were taken from about 125 spam comments in the queue on October 1st.

The idea shows through the pamphlet
where people need to respond

temperatures will most likely govern
long-lasting usable cartoon figures

in certain places the floor is sinking
We have a very big problem.

withdrawal insomnia
The arrangement exists because of the persistence

arrangement - persistence

using ontology within all things
There should be one internal link

You’ll be able to move to another location
Could certainly come zombies

A Dreamcatcher bard who have been heard
sober as opposed to
stepping off point
the one that has problems with panic attack

We will dissect too
cris-crossing the universe far far.

cris-crossing the universe

Scattered all over
the location where the profits have been

conspiracy delayed
raving about choosing real humans

our personal fashionable ethos
As opposed to the isolation
produced by Zombie galleries
creating an irritatingly low experience

in the sci fi shooting living space
extremely like black topics

Our favorite self-theory
That particular creep
seriously electrifying

seriously electrifying

Random Things I Have Learned from My Web Development Project

It’s nearly done (previous episode here).

I have copied all the content from my personal websites, painstakingly disentangling snippets of different ‘posts’ that were physically contained in the same ‘web page’, re-assigning existing images to them, adding tags, consolidating information that was stored in different places. Raking the Virtual Zen Garden – again.

New website: A 'post.'

Draft of the layout, showing a ‘post’. Left and right pane vanish in responsive fashion if the screen gets too small.

… Nothing you have not seen in more elaborate fashion elsewhere. For me the pleasure is in creating the whole thing bottom up not using existing frameworks, content management systems or templates – requiring an FTP client and a text editor only.

I spent a lot of time on designing my redirect strategy. For historical reasons, all my sites use the same virtual web server. Different sites have been separated just by different virtual directories. So in order to display the e-stangl.at content as one stand-alone website, a viewer accessing e-stangl.at is redirected to e-stangl.at/e/. This means that entering [personal.at]/[business] would result in showing the business content at the personal URL. In order to prevent this, the main page generation script used checks for the virtual directory and redirects ‘bottom-up’ to [business.at]/[business].

In the future, I am going to use a new hostname for my website. In addition, I want to have the option to migrate only some applications while keeping the others tied to the old ASP scripts temporarily. This means more redirect logic, especially as I want to test all the redirects. I have a non-public test site on the same server, but I have never tested redirects as it means creating loads of test host names; but due to the complexity of redirects to come I added names like wwwdummy for every domain, redirecting to my new main test host name, in the same way as the www URLs would redirect to my new public host name.

And lest we forget I am obsessed with keeping old URLs working. I don’t like it if websites are migrated to a new content management system, changing all the URLs. As I mentioned before, I already use ASP.NET Routing for having nice URLs with the new site: A request for /en/2014/10/29/some-post-title does not access a physical folder but the ‘flat-file database engine’ I wrote from scratch will search for the proper content text file based on a SQL string handed to it, retrieve attributes from both file name and file content, and display HTML content and attributes like title and thumbnail image properly.

New website: Flat-file database.

Flat-file database: Two folders, ‘pages’ and ‘posts’. Post file names include creation date, short relative URL and category. Using the ascx extension (actually for .NET ‘user controls’ as the web server will not return these files directly but respond with 404. No need to tweak permissions.)

The top menu, the tag cloud, the yearly/monthly/daily archives, the list of posts on the Home page, XML RSS Feed and XML sitemap  are also created by querying these sets of files.

New web site: File / database entry

File representing a post: Upper half – meta tags and attributes, lower half – after attribute ‘content’: Actual content in plain HTML.

Now I want to redirect from the old .asp files (to be deleted from the server at some point in the future) to these nice URLs. My preferred solution for this class of redirects is using a rewrite map hard-coded in the web server’s config file. From my spreadsheet documentation of the 1:n relation of old ASP pages to new ‘posts’ I have automatically created the XML tags to be inserted in the ‘rewrite map’.

Now the boring part is over and I scared everybody off (But just in case you can find more technical information on the last update on the English version of all website, e.g. here) …

… I come up with my grand insights, click-bait X-Things-You-Need-To-Know-About-Seomthing-You-Should-Not-Do-and-Could-Not-Care-Less-Style:

It is sometimes painful to read really old content, like articles, manifestos and speeches from the last century. Yet I don’t hide or change anything.

After all, this is perhaps the point of such a website. I did not go online for the interaction (of social networks, clicks, likes, comments). Putting your thoughts out there, on the internet that does never forget, is like publishing a book you cannot un-publish. It is about holding yourself accountable and aiming at self-consistency.

I am not a visual person. If I would have been more courageous I’d use plain Courier New without formatting and images. Just for the fun of it, I tested adding dedicated images to each post and creating thumbnails from them – and I admit it adds to the content. Disturbing, that is!

I truly love software development. After a day of ‘professional’ software development (simulations re physics and engineering) I am still happy to plunge into this personal web development project. I realized programming is one of the few occupations that was part of any job I ever had. Years ago, soul-searching and preparing for the next career change, I rather figured the main common feature was teaching and know-how transfer – workshops and acedemic lectures etc. But I am relieved I gave that up; perhaps I just tried to live up to the expected ideal of the techie who will finally turn to a more managerial or at least ‘social’ role.

You can always find perfect rationales for irrational projects: Our web server had been hacked last year (ASP pages with spammy links put into some folders) and from backlinks in the network of spammy links I conclude that classical ASP pages had been targeted. My web server was then hosted on Windows 2003, as this time still fully supported. I made use of Parent Paths (../ relative URLs) which might have eased the hack. Now I am migrating to ASP.NET with the goal to turn off Classical ASP completely, and I already got rid of the Parent Paths requirement by editing the existing pages.

This website and my obsession with keeping the old stuff intact reflects my appreciation of The ExistingBeing Creative With What You Have. Re-using my old images and articles feels like re-using our cellar as a water tank. Both of which are passions I might not share with too many people.

My websites had been an experiment in compartmentalizing my thinking and writing – ‘Personal’, ‘Science’, ‘Weird’, at the very beginning the latter two were authored pseudonymously – briefly. My wordpress.com blog has been one quick shot at Grand Unified Theory of my Blogging, and I could not prevent my personal websites to become more an more intertwined, too, in the past years. So finally both do reflect my reluctance of separating my personal and professional self.

My website is self-indulgent – in content and in meta-content. I realize that the technical features I have added are exactly what I need to browse my own stuff for myself, not necessarily what readers might expect or what is considered standard practice. One example is my preference for a three-pane design, and for that infinite (no dropdown-menu) archive.

New website: Category page.

Nothing slows a website down like social media integration. My text file management is for sure not the epitome of efficient programming, but I was flabbergasted by how fast it was to display nearly 150 posts at once – compared to the endless sending back and forth questionable stuff between social networks, tracking, and ad sites (watch the status bar!).

However, this gives me some ideas about the purpose of this blog versus the purpose of my website. Here, on the WordPress.com blog, I feel more challenged to write self-contained, complete, edited, shareable (?) articles – often based on extensive research and consolidation of our original(*) data (OK, there are exceptions, such as this post), whereas the personal website is more of a container of drafts and personal announcements. This also explains why the technical sections of my personal websites contain rather collections of links than full articles.

(*)Which is why I totally use my subversive sense of humour and turn into a nitpicking furious submitter of copyright complaints if somebody steals my articles published here, on the blog. However, I wonder how I’d react if somebody infringed my rights as the ‘web artist’ featured on subversiv.at.

Since 15 years I spent a lot of time on (re-)organizing and categorizing my content. This blog has also been part of this initiative. That re-organization is what I like websites and blogs for – a place to play with structure and content, and their relationship. Again, doing this in public makes me holding myself accountable. Categories are weird – I believe they can only be done right with hindsight. Now all my websites, blogs, and social media profiles eventually use the same categories which have evolved naturally and are very unlike what I might have planned ‘theoretically’.

Structure should be light-weight. I started my websites with the idea of first and second level ‘menu’s and hardly any emphasis on time stamps. But your own persona and your ideas seem to be moving targets. I started commenting on my old articles, correcting or amending what I said (as I don’t delete, see above). subversiv.at has been my Art-from-the-Scrapyard-Weird-Experiments playground, before and in addition to the Art category here and over there I enjoyed commenting in English on German articles and vice versa. But the Temporal Structure, the Arrow of Time was stronger; so I finally made the structure more blog-like.

Curated lists … were most often just ‘posts’. I started collecting links, like resources for specific topics or my own posts written elsewhere, but after some time I did not considered them so useful any more. Perhaps somebody noticed that I have mothballed and hidden my Reading list and Physics Resources here (the latter moved to my ‘science site’ radices.net – URLs do still work of course). Again: The arrow of time wins!

I loved and I cursed the bilingual nature of all my sites. Cursed, because the old structure made it too obvious when the counter-part in the other language was ‘missing’; so it felt like a translation assignment. However, I don’t like translations. I am actually not even capable to really translate the spirit of my own posts. Sometimes I feel like writing in English, sometimes I feel like writing in German. Some days or weeks or months later I feel like reflecting in the same ideas, using the other language. Now I came up with that loose connection of an English and German article, referencing each other via a meta attribute, which results in an unobtrusive URL pointing to the other version.

Quantitative analysis helps to correct distorted views. I thought I wrote ‘so much’. But the tangle of posts and pages in the old sites obscured that actually the content translates to only 138 posts in German and 78 in English. Actually, I wrote in bursts, typically immediately before and after an important change, and the first main burst 2004/2005 was German-only. I think the numbers would have been higher had I given up on the menu-based approach earlier, and rather written a new, updated ‘post’ instead of adding infinitesimal amendments to the existing pseudo-static pages.

Analysing my own process of analysing puts me into this detached mode of thinking. I have shielded myself from social media timelines in the past weeks and tinkered with articles, content written long before somebody could have ‘shared’ it. I feel that it motivates me again to not care about things like word count (too long), target groups (weird mixture of armchair web psychology and technical content), and shareability.

Interrupting Regularly Scheduled Programming …

(… for programming.)

Playing with websites has been a hobby of mine since nearly two decades. What has intrigued me was the combination of different tasks, appealing to different moods – or modes:

  • Designing the user interface and organizing content.
  • Writing the actual content, and toggling between creative and research mode.
  • Developing the backend: database and application logic.

I have distributed different classes of content between my three personal sites, noticed how they drifted apart or become similar again, and have migrated my content over and over when re-doing the underlying software.

e-stangl: screenshotsubversiv-screenshotradices.net: screenshotCurrently the sites run on outdated ASP scripts accessing CSV files as database tables via SQL. This was not a corporate software project – or too similar to one: I kept tacking on new features as I went, indulging in organically grown code. I hand-craft my XML feeds!

It is time to consolidate all this. I feel entitled, motivated, or perhaps even forced to migrate to a new ‘platform’, finally based on true object-oriented programming. Our other three sites run on the same legacy code, which I don’t want to support forever – I will migrate those sites as well in the long run.

So: I am developing a new .NET site from scratch, and I am going to merge my three personal sites into one.

However, I cannot bring myself to re-doing the code only and trying to migrate the content unchanged and as automated as possible. Every old article brings up memories and challenges me to comment on it and to reply to former self. I have to deal with all the three aspects listed above!

As for the layout, the challenge is to preserve the spirit and colors of all three sites – perhaps using something silly as three different layouts that visitors (especially: myself) can pick from, changing the layout based on category, or based on something random.

This is just a draft - but it seems I prefer to build on the 'subversive' layout.

This is just a first draft – building on the ‘subversive’ layout.

I will dedicate most of my ‘online time’ to this project; so I am taking a break from my usual blogging here and there – except from progress reports on this web migration project – and I will not be very active on social media.

About 14,5 Random Thoughts on Blogging and Social Media

I have been blogging on WordPress.com since nearly three years, and I noted the following:

Blogs have a half life. Many decay after 2 years. Blogs I had followed had been deleted, or bloggers had suddenly stopped publishing without notice.

There are tons of single-post-blogs. A user-friendly editor motivates people to get started. But blogging does not take more time than HTML editing. We need time for composition, not for typing.

An important change in personal or professional life often triggers the launch of a new blog. If the change had been mastered successfully, the well might run dry.

You can write the articles you want to write, or you can write what you want to read. Perhaps many hobbyist authors go from the former, introspective-therapeutic stage to the latter.

Bloggers running blogs of the same age flock together in groups. Groups consist of less than 10 people; everybody reads and comments on the others’ blogs regularly.

WordPress.com is both publishing platform and social network, and it works well because nearly every user is both contributor and commentator.

Nearly all social media have done away with nested discussion threads, and only the first few lines of comments are visible unless you click More. Will WordPress follow suit?

It is hard to resist popular topics, and the hype might not be obvious. Who knew that all things quantum would enthrall the masses?

At the beginning there was the classical website; then there was the blog – configurable to serve any purpose. Now there is a specific platform for images, for long-form texts, and whatnot.

Optimization for mobile devices can makes sites harder to read on PCs. There is no such thing as the integrity of individual web pages anymore.

Web-logging the diary way messes up structure and categories. But  on static WordPress pages organized via nested menus I always look for that signature date information.

Social media fundamentally recalibrated communications; we go asynchronous. A synchronous phone call  feels like an intrusion unless life-altering.

Blogging and social media have revived the art of rhetorics, and I learned a new word: humblebragging. 

Our online repositories are like the human brain: Content needs to be alive: to be revisited, rearranged, and curated all the time to be useful.

You ought to add an image.

The View, 2015-02

On Resisting the Bait

I don’t mean click-bait. I mean write-bait. That article that wants you to launch your 2.000 words rhetoric missile, and click the red button: Publish.

I am pondering about one of the most successful genres clicked and shared on social media: a blend of popular psychology, life hacking, and business wisdom, perhaps enriched by trusted thought leaders’ anecdotes.

Viral articles often match one of the following patterns:

1) The positive version that wants you to be part of the chosen group:

People who are X are also capable of Y.

X has usually a somewhat negative connotation, so capability Y comes as a surprise and as a relief.

[Also introverts can be great leaders.]

In addition, X is not clearly defined (maybe Y isn’t either), and it will be easy to find a multiple-choice test that gives you confirmation about your status as a winner.

2) The negative version that makes you feel happy about not being doomed, or giggle mischievously:

People who are X are not capable of Y.

To make this work, X-People need to be a minority, and Y needs to be something the target audience recognizes as desirable.

[Book-smart academic over-achievers will hardly be successful entrepreneurs].

These articles are light entertainment for the Non-Xers, but X-People might have a hard time resisting the temptation to take the bait. Especially when they feel they haven’t tagged a blog post with Rant for a long time.

If there is anything to gain here in terms of self-improvement and self-hacking, it is the ultimate test of your Stoic attitude. You can refine and polish your counter-arguments over and over, make it more poignant and provocative, or more balanced and thoughtful. Make it more anecdotal, personal, and honest, or more detached and based on rock-solid research. You might long to dance on the slippery area in between, mastering the art of making fun of yourself without too much self-sabotage.

But no matter what you write: If you take the bait it will always sound like whining, nitpicking in the wrong place, or re-defining and twisting terms like ‘success’ to meet your own agenda. Besides, it may hurt your productivity at work to turn around that unpublished piece in your mind again and again. So do yourself a favor and trash your draft.

Graffiti in Shoreditch, London - Art Is Trash Dumpster (9422226755).

Also notorious wafflers are capable of writing short posts.

The More Content You Have Created

… the more time you need for curating.

My first ever attempt at tweeting an aphorism. But it is true for me, and it defines the way I use online spaces.

As a contributor of online content, I am operating in different modes:

  • Creator, with emphasis on creating something original – including unintended re-invention of the already existing I had not googled.
  • Researcher, when cross-checking sources or doing calculations.
  • Commentator on the blogs of others.
  • Curator. It is this role I want to dwell upon now.

I started writing online by editing static web pages, and this still determines my netizen’s philosophy. Creating content was always playing with structure versus content, and playing with how to present content in a way it was useful to me – and maybe to others, too.

You cannot pre-define categories, tags, and other structure upfront in my opinion, but you have to revisit them regularly. Social media like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter are primarily determined by the timeline, without giving the user a chance to provide a more timeless structure. Actually the user cannot influence the layout at all. That’s why I consider them secondary channels. Originally I had planned to organize resources useful to me on such sites – but I don’t want to full-text search my own posts or edit hashtags.

What I prefer is what search engines might penalize me for: Long, hand-crafted lists of links. Since a few months I have resumed posting to technical IT security forums. These forums provide automatically compiled lists of my threads, my activity etc. But yet I compile lists of my threads on one of my sites whose domain name accidentally makes for an insider pun: radices, which means roots. I violate database best practices by organizing the same content in redundant fashion – by date or by topic. It is not the final list that is so terribly useful to me, but the act of revisiting all the content, struggling with categorizing, and adding summaries.

I made it a rule to only add links to my collections that I had already used, as I believe the ease of arranging links and downloading documents makes it too simple to just collect and hoard – without actually reading or using. The internet is not too blame here: In the old times, at the university, I was collecting and curating scientific papers – the collecting being a result of my monthly browsing interesting journals, and it was often more extensive than needed.

This year I have created new major categories for these blog by laying out the site map –  the pages making up the main menu. It dawned on me that this more than a navigation menu. It reflects what is important for me, and that I don’t care anymore about explaining how all this goes together. I created these pages at about the same time I stopped trying to explain why my professional playgrounds would complement each other so nicely. I rather say, I work on A and B, as odd as this combination seems. Combining Anything – I Mean It.

I do love playing with different platforms, and I do maintain all of my non-blog websites. My most innovative experiments in Google-Translate-assisted poetry go unnoticed as I published them only on my subversive website.

The reason I have this Anything blog is that I tried to keep things separated originally, but finally all of my sites cover all of my topics anyway. Curation is what makes me aware of it.

But on principle I do know that it makes sense to keep to a topic. On our German blog we focus more on heat pumps; there is a lot of technical information, and we keep to a specific narrative style. I am at a loss how to explain this. We call ourselves the Two Fearless Settlers and Professional Tinkerers who tell stories about renewable energies. We use synonyms for places that are reminiscent of fairy-tales or slightly old-fashioned newspapers. Ironically, there is a game called Settlers Online whose style might quite match our blog, and we only learned about this via search terms on our blog (which have also been turned into search term poetry). Clients find the site both informative and entertaining – some of the unexpected positive feedback left me speechless.

On this blog here the navel-gazing ramblings may still outweigh light entertainment or practically useful information. I am not sure if I want to change this – I am just parsing my content and I am recognizing this. The more I create site maps and categories, the less I use them to plan for future content. It is more about coming to a halt and contemplating. I have also decided that I will go on a literary diet until end of 2014 – so I will not amend my Reading List in the next weeks.

I feel like I have reached a goal I hadn’t defined before.

Vineyards