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NetTuesday Help’s Londoners Find Their Blogging Voice

Net Tuesday, November, stirring the Non-Profit Tech Community in London

Amy Sample Ward, the new Community Builder at NetSquared, which is a community for non-profit techies (and also a project of TechSoup Global), came to London, in September 2008. With her experience, and background, in supporting and nurturing the non-profit tech community in the US, she came to help catalyse the London non-profit tech community.

In the UK there’s a thriving group of non-profit techies, (also known as Circuit Riders) who stay connected through a mailing list, that regularly keeps everyone engaged with helping each other, and supporting each other, through those trying times when you need someone to call upon, as well as those not so trying times, when you just want to let people know what’s happening, or sound out ideas.  That’s great for the virtual contact, but I’d always felt that there was something lacking in the face to face meetings and events that could also occur, and that I’d experienced during my time as a Non Profit Volunteer Techie in San Francisco during 2006 and 2007.

Working with a model that seems to work well, of meeting on the first tuesday of each month, Amy began the first of London’s Net Tuesdays this week, and by all accounts it was a roaring success!!  You can read a nice detailed account of the event at Amy’s Blog. I don’t think it would be fair to even begin to try and give a better summary than Amy’s already done.  Clearly a seasoned blogger, with a great writing style, she’s done an excellent job of reporting the output from our Bloggers Discussion Panel, which involved Type Pad, Moveable Type, Wordpress and Community Server being represented. One of the members of the Panel, Miko who wore the slightly more technical hat for TypePad, as well as representing Community Server, has written up an excellent summary of the key blogging platforms, and a great summary of some of the differences between them.  I thoroughly recommend if you’re starting out to read her summary, and use those to help inform your decisions about which blogging platform to use.

We then ended the panel, having answered some great questions about the features and functionality of the tools, and then started to come up with a list of considerations to take into account, before getting started.  The blogging “strategies and approaches” part of the conversation was designed to verse people a little in the thinking that goes into making a successful blog, and after brainstorming from the room, we crowdsourced the following 5 key points, of :

  1. Setting Goals
  2. Write with Passion and Knowledge
  3. Practice writing blog posts for a few months
  4. Use your community to come and comment
  5. Integrate your blog with everything you do

The premise behind this conversation was that in order to be successful with your blogging, there’s some key pre-requisites that are needed.  Especially if you want your blog to be engaging and participative.  With that in mind, Miko shared her own take on starting blogging, and what you should do, to prepare to succeed.

Some Of My Own Thoughts on Blogging

I’m certainly in agreement that blogging doesn’t just happen, on it’s own, in isolation from the world.  I think often people look at a blog, and think “I can do that”. They might even assume that just by installing or getting a blog set up, that they too can start to reap the engagement and conversation that occurs in the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, it really isn’t all as simple as that.

Speaking, from my own experiences, and I wrote my first blog post in 2004, I can say with all certainty, that blogging for me has been something that evolves over time. I’ve undoubtedly been learning a lot about the medium of blogging along the way too, and that journey educates and inspires me to continue to always try out new things, and then some.I first started my blog, as an experiment, using Blogger.com, and started out thinking of it as a place to capture my thoughts and interesting things that I would come across on the internet.  You can even see at Blogger.com my original blogs, as they were until I left them, and integrated them all into my current Blog, which is now a self-hosted installation of WordPress, and where you might be reading this from.

Back when I first started blogging, I decided on some key areas of interest for me in my life, and thought I would use a blog to collect interesting websites that I found and bits of information that I thought were useful.  I considered my blog to be a place to store my thoughts, and as a record of my travels through the internet. I even started a few different blogs, because I thought that other people might be interested if I started collecting enough interesting websites, relating to a specific theme, or idea, or topic, and that in time, people would start finding my blog and commenting on it, and leaving their thoughts and ideas, if I were to capture the “best of” along the way.

You must remember that this is back in those days when del.icio.us and other social bookmarking websites hadn’t yet come out, and I was itching for a way to start collecting my bookmarks online, so I wouldn’t always have to use the same computer, but would always have access to the cool links that I found along my travels.  I also wanted to be able to share with friends, and family some of the cool stuff I would find online, and thought that naturally in time, a blog would be the perfect solution.

And to an extent, it did work, for a few months, and it certainly warmed me to the idea of blogging, but it didn’t really take off, in a big way. I still didn’t quite understand, back then of what I might be able to use the blogging for, and I definitely didn’t maintain the discipline of keeping my blog updated with all the interesting and wonderful things I discovered along the way.

I think back then, part of the challenge for me was that everytime I wanted to post something I would have to log into the blogging platform, and then create the entry, and couldn’t just use a plugin, or bookmarklet script or external blogging client to write to my blog.  Now after experimenting with a number of great tools, I’ve decided that I’m in love with ScribeFire, a plugin for Firefox, and since using it I’ve also started blogging a whole lot more too.  But I digress..So after a considerably non-productive use of blogging, with little real interest in keeping it alive for the sake of keeping it alive, and with this terrible feeling that no-one in the world was interested in what I was writing about, or posting about, I laid my blogging to rest.  Not consciously, but I just didn’t feel the need, or a desire to write about stuff as much.  I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired, or excited, and I guess I was going through my own challenges in life, understanding what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to engage with the world.

Then in the summer of 2005, I ended up travelling to Peru, in South America, and all of a sudden, I had something that I wanted to share with all my friends and family back home.  After a few attempts at writing out long emails, with details of what was happening, in response to people’s emails, I realised that most of the time I was writing pretty much the same set of details in response to people, and spending quite a bit of time repeating the same stories over and over to people, on a one to one basis.  Spurred on with the knowledge and experience of using Blogger.com, quite successfully in the past, I decided I would use that wonderful medium of “blogging”, to write about my travels.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t take long before I took great pleasure in sitting in internet cafes, writing up my notes of the day.  I even became really diligent in writing in my pocket diary, a summary of the days events, so that my time in the internet cafe would be spent just writing up what I’d already thought about and reflected upon, at the end of each day.  I thought that sharing my travels, and experience in that intimate manner would be a great way to keep everyone updated on what I was upto, and how my travels were going, and it meant that I wouldn’t have to write the same email to everyone that kept asking me how things are going, and what I had been upto.

It also started to fuel my desire to write, since I knew I had a captive audience.  I’d received so much support and encouragement from people as I’d left London, that I figured most of those people would probably enjoy reading about my travels, and my adventures.  I later discovered that my cousin had also been sharing my blog out to his fellow co-workers at work, and even though I never received much email, or saw any visibility of how many people visited my blog, and hardly anyone ever commented on it, I felt like it was being read, and I kept it updated, just so if nothing else, at least my family and friends would know how I was doing, and that I was ok.

Of course, once I left Peru, and returned to London, the blogging on that trip to Peru didn’t seem like a natural thing to continue, since I was back home, and things in London just didn’t seem as noteworthy, or as interesting and different as they did out there.  My only regret with my blogging back then, was that I didn’t take a digital camera with me, and take photos… Some of my travels were just so scenic and beautiful, and some of the people I met such loving souls, that I wish I had captured them all on camera.. But instead I got the joys of having fond memories that I shall keep with me instead :)

Again, the blogging had seemed like a great idea, it had become really useful, and productive for me, when I needed it to communicate, and now that I was done with that trip, it didn’t seem like I had anything left to write, and so I just let it fizzle away.  Back then, I didn’t really have any comments on my posts, and I didn’t really understand, if I had emailed all these people that knew me, why didn’t anyone comment on anything I wrote??  And so, by not having much engagement from the audience, I ended up leaving it as a record of my travels, and nothing more.

Uncovering Your Voice

I guess all along, the biggest challenge I had, when writing for my blog, was to get clear in my mind who I was writing for, and what it was that I wanted to communicate.  I would have moments of sharp clarity, and specific things that I thought were noteworthy, and then the enthusiasm would wear off, reality would set in, and I would come to the conclusion that actually I didn’t have anything significant or noteworthy to share with the world. (At least nothing that seemed to get the whole world clamouring at my doorstep, and wanting to comment on).

I’d finally understood, that blogging is a very personal choice, and that if I chose to publicly share myself, I would always be able to do it on my terms, and didn’t have anyone to answer to but myself.  I think partly because back then I didn’t have a clear audience in mind, I used the blogging as a way of tracking my own thoughts, and adventures out into the world of the internet, but never leaving that comfort zone of writing into an empty vaccum where no-one seemed to be listening.

Now, almost four years on, a lot has changed.  My understanding of the internet, and it’s role in my life for one.  My ability to engage and connect with people for another.  And also how I’m using the internet, and what I’m seeing myself using it for are all changing too.  I think part of the online social networking phenomenon of seeing your network online, in platforms like facebook and linked in means that you slowly start to see your “community”.  Wheras in the past, the most visibility you would get is the emails you got and sent, and the IM chats.  The online social networks that have come into existence now, are slowly starting to make us all acutely aware of the fact that we now have “captive audiences”.  Be it we might use those captive audiences to chase, as werewolves, or to write on each others walls, but innately , we have people we are engaging with, and who are engaging back with us.

This is where blogging comes into play, and starts to become useful.

Whilst you can certainly send an email out to everyone you know, using bulk emailing platforms, once that email is sent, it’s gone.  There’s no permanency to that message or conversation.  It disappears into the ether, and you can only track the results, and await the response from people to know what people felt or experienced.  Whilst it makes it possible to communicate intimately, and personally, it detracts from the public presence that could be enriched by sharing the contents of those emails in public.  Especially if it’s non-sensitive information that goes towards establishing your brand, your credibility, your cause, your needs, or your experiences with others.  What people can’t see about you, people can’t know about you, and whilst email newsletters are great in principle, in practice, there needs to be something being added or updated to the blog, or the news section of your own website too, so that those people who don’t currently subscribe to the newsletter could also have the choice, based on the content.

Nowadays, I’ve come to understand a little more clearly my audiences, and my different voices when blogging.  I can’t say I understand or know them all clearly, but I do know that I have a number of different threads or streams of ideas flowing through this one blog.  I have very distinct and different communities of people that I’m communicating with through this blog.  (Albeit, those communities may only exist in my mind for now, but they are very real nonetheless).

I can see, as I re-read my own blog, and see the train of thought, and threads of conversation that I’m weaving together, that I have some very distinct and seperate groups of people that I’m talking to, or in conversation with.  And I think more importantly, I’m starting to understand how powerfully, I can start to engage in the conversation on the internet, through the blogosphere.

It never truly dawned on me, until the Net Tuesday event we had in London, but commenting on other people’s blogs has really started to make me realise and appreciate how important it is to give before you receive.  If I want people to comment on my blog posts, I have to go out there and comment on other people’s blog posts first.

If I want my blog to become successful, I have to make it more focussed, and targetted.  This is something I’ll write about properly another time, but for now, suffice it to say, that the internet is a big place, and the more targetted and focussed your writing is, the easier it will be for you to become an authority in a particular niche.  What that translates to, is that everytime someone googles something vaguely related to your topic or area of expertise, you’ll come up at the very top.  As long as you know what it is you’re passionate about, and what you genuinely know about, then chances are that you’ll eventually be able to become an established authority in that niche.  Until you get that focussed, your own thinking and writing will suffer, as well as the community engagement, and participation to your blog, your website, and your cause, or field of expertise.

Conversely, the more focussed, and targetted you are in everything that you do, the more you start to add real value for others.  You become capable of voicing the unvoiced, on clarifying assmumptions, on becoming an authoritative voice, and opinion.  You also become capable of synthesising and expanding upon the ideas and thoughts of other people, and actually further the conversation in the blogosphere.

But first, you must know who it is that you will be writing for?

Then what is it that you’re going to write that this audience is going to want to know about?

Once you can answer the above two questions, clearly, and you have people regularly asking you for, or your regularly telling people the same bits of information, then, and only then, will you be able to uncover your blogging voice, and start to contribute in a meaningful manner through your blog.  Until then, you’ll be finding your feet, through the possibilities of what you might be able to voice, and who you might be able to express your thoughts to.  That’s not a bad thing either, because until you start trying, you’ll never figure out your space, and most definitely not find the flow of your blogging voice.

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2 Responses to “NetTuesday Help’s Londoners Find Their Blogging Voice”

  1. [...] has a great post about the event and blogging here. Possibly Related Classroom Projects From DonorsChoose.org Laptops Around The [...]

  2. [...] a Firefox plugin that allows you to post from wherever you are on the web in seconds. (Hat tip to Farhan for pointing me to [...]

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