Less than perfect…

It has become the norm to blog about every teeny-tiny facet of daily life, from cooking to getting dressed to home organization to raising children. I think these blogs have set an unreasonable standard for daily living, though. If you follow enough of them, you start to think that everything must be absolutely perfect all the time. This is a pretty old article at Jezebel, but it gets at what I’m talking about, and also shows that this insidious behavior has been going on for far too long.

As I walk around my cluttered, slightly dirty house, eating cold leftovers out of the Tupperware container, I have to wonder whether perfect should really be the goal. Not every meal has to be a gourmet experience, just so it can be documented on Instagram. We don’t have to love absolutely every t-shirt in our closets or banish it to Goodwill, as some fashion or minimalists bloggers exhort us; sometimes we just need something to wear. Every crafty project I have found on Pinterest and tried with my kid has failed utterly, but when we wing it and do what we feel, we generally have a good time.

Let’s make 2014 the year of not being perfect. Not reaching the perfect weight. Not having the perfect house or the perfect wardrobe or perfect children. Not living the perfect life. And being okay with that. No…loving that.

Welcome, 2014…

In an effort to revitalize my interest in this blog, I am going to try to post something new every day here. It may be a photo, a quote, a link or just some random thoughts, but I will try to make it at interesting, at the very least. Not promising anything.

Yes, I have heard that blogging is dead, and I half-agree with that assessment. But since this is broadcast to almost all the social networks I’m on, I figure I’m covering all the bases with one post.

The real reason I’m doing this is to try to keep the days from just drifting by like a fog. 2013 seems like it barely happened now. I’m still writing 2012 on my checks, when I write checks. Some big milestones were reached. My son started kindergarten, for one. He’s pretty much reading now. We made some very nice improvements to our house. All in all, I’m fairly content.

But am I? Something still niggles, a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, like there’s something I should be doing but I can’t put my finger on what that is. If I accomplish anything in the new year, I would like to figure that out.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that the best way to figure stuff out is to write until it comes out. Hence, back to the blog.

Making resolutions doesn’t work. I have learned that over and over again. But the beginning of a new year is a good time pause, take a breath, re-evaluate. Decide to try something different and see how that works.

This is a new one…

No-spam

No-spam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of spam comments on all my blogs masquerading as real comments. I can tell they’re spam because the comments are generic or unrelated to the post, or they make absolutely no sense whatsoever, or they ask me about my blog’s design or something random like that. And they have an unrelated URL in the address field. So I’ve been marking them as spam. It’s been getting so bad that it doesn’t seem like I am getting any legitimate comments anymore, and I’ve pretty much stopped checking comments except once a week or so.

Today, I got a spam comment asking me what I do about all the spam on my blog. I could tell it was spam because it was totally generic and also there was the unrelated link. That’s a twist. How meta of the spammers.

Seriously, have personal blogs had it? I don’t seem to update mine all that regularly anymore, because I’m doing other things. But it is nice to have this one place on the web that’s mine and that comes up in Google searches for my name.

Periodically, I question what I should do with this space. No real answers yet.

Boards on Quora: A new way to blog or manage projects?

One of my favorite websites, Quora, has launched a new feature called boards, which may put yet another nail in the blog’s coffin. Boards enable you to organize in one place Quora questions and answers, web links, notes and pictures on any subject you like.

It immediately occurred to me that boards were perfect places for project planning and management, kind of a virtual bulletin board where you can pin up whatever you like on a particular topic. That inspired me to start my first board: Learn to Draw and Paint. This is one of my goals for 2012, in an attempt to expand my creative outlets.

Boards would also make effective mini-blogs, on a subject as narrow or as wide as you wish. With tools like Quora’s Boards and Google+, it almost seems like we don’t need the blog anymore. However, the blog is still a great way to organize your stuff under your name on the web, all in one permanent place that can easily be searched, tagged and linked. Although I don’t update my blogs as much as I used to — and often, I am reposting content from another site to the blog — I still find the blog to be a handy way to keep a “home base” on the Internet.

Analysis and thoughtful writing not endangered after all…

I like this take from Clive Thompson on how the blog, once a literal log of Websites, is now becoming a forum for longer, in-depth analysis once reserved for magazines and newspapers. His thesis is that Twitter and similar tools have replaced the quick link-sharing function once served by blogs, and that these social networks also provide a more appropriate place for instant reactions to news and stories — the “short take,” as he calls it. So more thoughtful analysis has moved to the blog. What really suffers, he posits, is the “middle take,” once provided by weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek, but probably unnecessary in our wired world.

I see this at work in my own blogging and online sharing. I tend to confine links and thoughts “of the moment” — such as breaking news and reactions to it, or something that’s momentarily funny — to “short-take” forums like Twitter and StumbleUpon. I reserve more thoughtful pieces for sharing on my blog and preserving in Delicious.

But for truly long-form writing, such as essays, short stories and book-length writing, I return to paper. I still can’t stomach reading anything much longer than a typical blog post on the computer screen. Maybe if I had an iPad?

Read: Clive Thompson on How Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis | Magazine.

Is there any point to blogging anymore?

I enjoy blogging so much that I maintain several of them, but I have to wonder if there is a point. To be honest, it often feels like I am shouting into the void only for the privilege of hearing my own voice.

Many web tools have arisen that do certain jobs better that I originally used a blog for since I started blogging. For instance, the purpose of the first blog I started was to keep notes and recipes while I taught myself to cook. Now I use Cookbooker to organize my cookbooks and to make notes on the recipes I have tried. Not only does Cookbooker maintain a searchable database of cookbooks and recipes, but it allows me to connect to other people who own the same cookbooks I do and see what they think of recipes I haven’t tried yet. I can’t do this with my blog.

I also originally started a book journaling blog to keep track of what I had been reading and post book reviews. Now I belong to LibraryThing, which maintains a searchable database of all the books in my library with my book reviews plus lots of other useful information. And it makes recommendations for other books I might like based on what I read. My blog can’t do that.

An original purpose of blogs was to share links, and I often do that on all my blogs, especially this one. But let’s be honest: There are more effective ways to share and organize links, such as Twitter, StumbleUpon and Delicious, all of which I use heavily.

So why do I keep up my blogs? I will admit I don’t post as frequently as I used to, but I try to post something on each blog at least once a week. The blog is still best for long-form writing, especially the kind of writing I’m doing now, when I’m just spewing random thoughts onto the blank page to help me sort them and reflect on them. And the blog really excels at functioning as a kind of electronic notebook, organizing everything in one place: links, random thoughts, longer essays, even media like photos and videos.

So I probably will keep posting to my blogs, even if it feels a little like masturbation from time to time. But I will keep on using those other tools, too, where I do feel like I more genuinely connect to other people, because — let’s face it — more people are on those sites than are visiting my humble little blogs. My blogs will probably continue to be my catch-alls from those other sites as well as a handy place to post my original thoughts that can’t really go anywhere else.

And that’s really what the blog is best at: a place for original thoughts. I need a place like that.

So much crappy writing, so little time…

The web has made it easy for anyone anywhere to publish their writing with very little effort or money, and for the most part, I believe this is a VERY GOOD THING. There probably hasn’t been a time in history when people could so easily express themselves, and instead of shouting into the void, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere is actually listening.

But as freeing as this collective outpouring is, the writers of the web are producing a lot of dreck. Originality is as rare a commodity online as it is anywhere else. But I have found that the worst writing doesn’t come from the vast sea of personal blogs (although there is plenty of bad writing there), but from the so-called professional blogs that rely on a never-ending stream of content to get ads in front of eyeballs.

It’s depressing reading the same rehashed, boring, generic prose over and over again. These sites, which seem to constitute the bulk of what gets published online (at least on a regular basis) occupy the same wasteland as the magazines in the grocery store checkout line or the Today Show and its ilk — except they are much harder to avoid. Google’s search algorithm doesn’t filter for quality, as far as I can tell.

And I have to blame Google for this never-ending babble, because these sites believe they have to publish quickly and often. I know that pageviews drop if you don’t post frequently. And if pageviews are your bread and butter, then the act of posting — rather than the content you post — becomes the crucial thing. Who cares what you have to say so long as you keep talking?

So we get list after list of 20 this or 50 that, pseudo-slideshows designed to keep us mindlessly clicking, unsupported prognostications of the end of everything, vague punditry that answers questions none of us cared to even ask. Because of the pressure to keep posting, few take the time to ruminate, percolate, revise or edit. This isn’t writing; it’s masturbation by blog post.

I’ve found the best online writing either at the very top of the food chain — on the sites of renowned print magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, some publishers that have invested writer and editorial talent in their websites, and blogs of well-known writers — and at the bottom, where individual writers toil in relative obscurity, simply for love. (I try to highlight those writers here when I unearth them.) The best links rarely show up in Google searches; they are shared by my virtual friends on Twitter, Google Reader, and the comments areas of my blogs and blogs I read.

But there’s a certain randomness to waiting for good writing to fall into your lap. There is no online library where high-quality writing on all kinds of subjects has been selected, cataloged and annotated. Who would be willing to pay for such a service when we are so used to getting everything on the web for free, even if it is one that we could all benefit from?

In the meantime, we keep floundering in the sea of dreck. The reward is when we discover a new insight or thought or poetic piece of writing. Sometime it happens several times in a day; sometimes it doesn’t happen for a week or more. But still, it happens.

You should also read:
The Future of Print (Booksquare)
Why I Blog by Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic)
Slow Blogging Manifesto

Practical uses for blogs: Journals and research notebooks

The blog has become so popular because it is a format that has a wide variety of uses. Generally, web surfers are used to seeing blogs used in one of the following ways:

  • to present information and news on a narrow subject in small, manageable chunks, generally supported by advertising
  • to communicate news about a service, product, organization or program
  • as a diary, detailing the daily life of the writer, which may or may not be of interest to anyone else
  • in its original usage, as a place to post interesting links (although I think other tools have surpassed the blog for this purpose)

Or as some combination of the above.

I have found the blog to be a useful format for another purpose: as a notebook or journal. I keep 6 blogs (5 public, 1 private), which I grant you, seems like a lot. But to my mind, they are the virtual equivalents of 6 notebooks I might have once kept or did keep before I discovered blogging. Yet they are so much more powerful.

I think of my blogs as journals or research notebooks. Journals differ from diaries in that diaries typically focus on the mundane day-to-day events in the life of a person. A journal, on the other hand, is a record of a person’s thoughts and learnings, often about a particular subject. For instance, you might keep a journal recording your thoughts about the books you read, as I do. Or if you are teaching yourself to cook, you might keep a journal of tips, recipes, ingredient notes, etc. (again, as I do).

A journal can also be the equivalent of a research notebook, although I differ between the two because I tend to keep more clips, quotes, pictures and other people’s writing in a research notebook, while a journal is usually all original writing. For instance, one of my blogs is my notebook of post-apocalyptic research. It contains photographs, lists, article summaries, poetry and my own thoughts, all mixed together.

Blogs have it all over physical notebooks, though. Here’s why:

  • Links - you can link to articles of interest, research sources, related pieces, etc.
  • Media - it is relatively easy to incorporate graphics, photographs, audio and media into a blog to enrich the content.
  • Search - a blog is fully searchable, making it a simple matter to locate whatever you’re looking for.
  • Tagging - enables you to quickly categorize your work, cross-reference related items and visually see patterns emerge over time.
  • Unexpected feedback - Blogs can be public or private. But if you make your blog public, you are inviting comment, which allows others to contribute their own ideas, other resources, questions and support to your work, which may enrich your work in unanticipated ways.

Whenever I start a new project from now on, I intend to start a blog to accompany it. Whether it amounts to anything is not important. What is important to me are the tools that blogs offer to help me plan, record, organize and — yes, this one is important, as well — share my work and what I’ve learned.

I am a blogging fool

So, I write two other blogs besides this one. I bet you didn’t know that because you never look at the stuff in the sidebar. Nobody ever looks at the stuff in the sidebar, even though I spend so much time on rearranging it and getting it to look just right. Oh well, I don’t look at your sidebars either.

Both of my other blogs are basically  journals of my hobbies (and both get a lot more traffic than this blog). One is a journal of what I’m cooking, gardening and eating; it has recipes! The other is a journal of what I’m reading — mostly science fiction — and it’s where I get to geek out over my favorite books and authors.

I made the mistake (?) of saying I would accept review copies on my books blog, because after all, getting review copies makes me feel like a “real” book reviewer, and who doesn’t like free stuff? (Nobody ever gives me free cooking stuff, by the way, which I would really love, hint hint.) I didn’t realize how desperate publishers’ press agents were to give away free copies of books, though. It took just a couple of crappy books to make me real choosy about what I requested for review (although, to be fair, I’ve gotten a couple of really nice books as review copies too). But what irks me most is that these PR people shoot out offers of review copies like a shotgun, hoping something will stick, without regard to what the potential reviewer is actually interested in reading. So now my email inbox is filled every day with offers of the latest political baseball thriller or chick lit romance.

Here is an actual quote from one of these emails just so you know I’m not exagerrating:

In a departure from his gritty, in-your-face style, the author of God is a Bullet and The Creed of Violence, which are both being made into motion pictures, has written a sensitive dog story destined to rank with Edgar Sawtelle and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Here’s another (just the headline):

New novel examines potential doom of housewife’s selfish desires

Guys, I read science fiction. I do not read sensitive dog or doomed housewife stories of any kind.

The micro-blogging stream

As I mentioned in a recent post, we are using Yammer in our organization to share what we are doing with a geographically dispersed team. It started out really strong, but participation has fallen off somewhat, unfortunately. I am still hopeful that this will prove to be a worthwhile way of forging connections between dispersed co-workers, but I am worried that like so many of these sharing initiatives, it will just fizzle out.

Part of the problem is communicating the value to our colleagues who don’t want to just jump in and start participating. It is very hard to communicate the value of micro-blogging tools like Yammer and Twitter to people who aren’t using them. They tend to make fun: “Why do I care what someone had for lunch today?” I know I made lots of fun of Twitter before I started using it.

But when you do start using it, you do realize the value. I suspect the value is slightly different for everyone, again making it hard to communicate. But also it is rather Zen. It has to do with being in touch in a new way with the rest of the world and making unpredictable connections as a result.

There are two things I do know about using Twitter, Yammer or any similar type of social networking tool:

1) You can’t treat it like email. In other words, don’t even try to keep up with everything that is said. Instead, think of it like a constantly flowing stream. Every now and then, you dip your foot in the stream and see what’s happening. You are likely to find something of value then. But you can’t worry about all the stuff flowing by that you are missing because you are focusing on something else. This is the only way I know of to make these tools work for you, instead of adding just one more source of information overload.

2) You have to participate in the conversation. Sitting back and watching the stream flow by won’t cut it. The connections won’t form. When you take a moment to dip your foot in the stream, always say something. I have three suggestions for what to talk about:

  • Say what you are working on right now. Don’t worry that your activities are boring. Your co-workers or colleagues will likely be interested. At the very least, it reinforces connections between you and the people in your network.
  • Ask a question. You may be surprised who has the answer.
  • Share something you’ve learned or a great link or resource you’ve found. That may be just the thing that someone else in your network is looking for.