This is an English draft for the second of two articles I wrote on blogging for Dutch magazine Informatie Professional (the first one – Blogging for knowledge workers: incubating ideas). The Dutch version should appear very soon, but I’m too impatient to wait for it to share the draft :) I’ll add the reference/link as soon as it’s there.
Update – see: Efimova, L. (2010). Bloggen for kenniswerkers: het nieuwe netwerking. Informatie Professional, February 2010, pp.22-25.
This piece is based on the study of networking practices of KM bloggers. Practically everything from the study (including interview summaries) is covered in my blog and Chapter 5. of my dissertation, but this article provides a condensed version of the insights.
When I interviewed early adopters of weblogs for my PhD research many of them mentioned their surprises that blogging can go beyond documenting own thinking or publishing to the world and that it actually helps to build relationships with others. Bloggers talked about “explosion” of their professional networks as a result of blogging and meeting people that they would not be likely to meet otherwise.
These days, people almost count on social effects of blogging, however it is not always obvious how exactly blogging helps to build reputation and relationships and what is required to make it work that way. Below is what I’ve learnt from the study that looks at networking practices of knowledge management bloggers: how weblogs help bloggers to discover each other and to build relationships.
Finding others and being found
Weblogs help to discover interesting others by serving as magnets and filters. Similar to a magnet that can help finding a needle in a haystack, passionate writing attracts people interested in topics you blog about, inviting them to comment and link back. Filtering works similar to personal recommendation: following links in blogs of people you trust you are more likely to discover interesting others than by direct search.
Connections established as a result of blogging often cross geographical,topical and hierarchical boundaries. Since weblogs are rather person-centred than strictly focused on a predefined topic, a blogger often writes about a variety of personally relevant issues, exposing readers to potentially new and unexpected topical areas and other bloggers within those. Also, in the blogging world interesting content often means more than one’s age, gender or place in an organisational hierarchy: for a new reader it is blogger’s thinking that it visible first, not the profile information. This makes blogging especially useful for newcomers and “minorities” in a particular field, giving them an opportunity to be visible next to the established experts. Those who have reputation and visibility prior to blogging might have a headstart in amount of readers, but they will have to prove that that attention is worth it with every post they write.
Unfortunately blogging doesn’t work that well for crossing language boundaries. Writing in Dutch makes you more likely to connect with local professionals, but leaves your contributions almost invisible for the bigger world; writing in English gives access to a critical mass of potential readers most of whom are far away. The choice depends on the topical focus of your weblog and where do you want to connect most: locally or globally?
- If you choose for one language, you can still get some visibility in another by providing links and summaries of language-specific material. For example, writing an overview of interesting conversations in the Dutch blogosphere in your English weblog could also help connecting with Dutch bloggers, who are likely to notice that you expose their thinking to a broader audience.
- If you choose to blog in two languages make sure your readers can view or subscribe to content in each language separately. It might be also useful to have short summaries of each post in the opposite language and link to automatic translations for those who want to know more.
Public figures and quiet observers
A weblog serves as “living portrait” of its author. It is different from a well-written biography or professional website. Rather, the impressions of who the blogger is are formed by picking up personal details and cues about one’s personality and passions from multiple blogposts and by observing one’s thinking and interactions over time, similar to making an opinion of public figures by the media coverage of their life.
This visibility comes with both benefits and challenges. From one side, it provides others with an opportunity to get to know a blogger personally before deciding if and when to engage further. In the professional world a weblog could be the starting point for inviting its author to speak at a conference, to work on a project or even to apply for a job. And, in contrast to celebrities, whos life is covered by others, the blogger himself has a great deal of control about the information that appears in his weblog. If a weblog provides a true reflection of its author’s interests, then the contacts that follow from it are likely to provide personally relevant opportunities for further conversations and growth (bloggers tend to expect it and frown at marketing emails that are not personalised based on information in their blogs). Finally, reading weblogs also helps to stay in touch with one’s existing contacts, providing information about their thinking and relevant events without a need to ask them directly.
From another side, such visibility might be a challenge. Since it’s easy to read weblogs without making yourself visible, contact that might follow are often asymmetrical: bloggers have to figure out how to deal with socially awkward situations talking to strangers who know them pretty well. It is also difficult to control what exactly others pick up in a weblog and what do they read between the lines, especially since weblog content might be easily exposed to the audiences that the blogger didn’t have in mind while writing. In addition, a weblog provides a visible trace of one’s actions and mistakes: what is written may stay “out there” forever and be searched, aggregated, transformed and linked back to the author, so it is essential to learn how to make mistakes in public and how to handle them gracefully.
While writing a weblog helps to be discovered and known, it takes more to turn first contacts into trusted relationships. The connections between bloggers grow through interacting over time, starting from conversations in blog comments and between weblogs.
Participating in weblog conversations is not easy, since the replies appear in many places: in the comments to particular post, in posts by other bloggers that link back or even outside of blogging, for instance when the link is passed along on Twitter. Bloggers stress the importance of monitoring where the comments on their thinking appear to be able to continue the conversation and to let the readers know that their attention is appreciated. Interactions with others, fragmented over time, help to build trust and knowledge of each others. Also, the distributed nature of these conversations provides good opportunities for collective sense-making: ad-hoc conversations that can be picked up a few weeks later, unexpected connections when one’s ideas become visible outside of the usual circle and emergence of patterns based on where the attention of others goes.
With mutual interest initial engagement via weblogs is continued connecting via other tools: email, phone or instant messaging for more focused or more private discussions, wikis and shared documents to collaborate on writing, social networks, photosharing or microblogging tools to share updates in alternative formats. Meeting in person plays an important part as well: bloggers tell stories about making an extra effort to meet other bloggers and about the excitement from being able to continue conversations started via weblogs while sharing food and drinks. Over time the knowledge of each other, trust and a history of interaction becomes a valuable resource, allowing bloggers to tap into their network with questions and problems or collaborate on specific projects.
A weblog written as a stand-alone webpage doesn’t help to connect to others. A few things can help to become part of a blogging ecosystem (this is from slightly revised earlier post ;)
- Make sure you have the right tools: social effects of blogging are enabled by invisible infrastructure of tools and services.
- if you are blogging make sure your weblog software produces newsfeeds, notifies ping servers, sends and receives trackbacks, and allows search engines to index weblog pages
- if you are introducing blogging inside an organisation make sure that your intranet includes weblog indexes, aggregators and search engines
- Read other weblogs: it’s essential to get to know people, to become inspired and to learn how the whole blogging thing works by watching others doing it
- start from reading a couple of blogs and follow links to discover more
- get yourself a newsreader, subscribe to interesting blogs, but don’t be afraid not to read everything
- Participate in conversations by writing and linking: this is what makes blog social
- comment! make sure comments are meaningful and leave a link to your weblog
- write good stuff and link to those who inspired you, when possible directly to a specific blogpost
- Monitor the attention to know where to continue the conversation
- get comment notification for your own blog (usually via your blog software) and subscribe comment discussions that you want to continue in other blogs
- check who links to your blog (e.g. by typing link:URL of your blog into search string of blogsearch.google.com); subscribing to the results via a newsreader makes life easier
- Spread the word outside of blogging
- share links to good stuff written by others (via microblogging, social bookmarking, etc.)
- connect your weblog to other tools (add a link to your email signature and social network profiles, notifications about new blog posts on Twitter, etc.)
Is it worth it?
The networking effects of blogging do not appear in a few days: it takes time and effort to produce engaging content, to monitor where comments appear and to continue conversations via weblogs and other tools. Visibility can also turn into an information overload, with more interesting people to connect to than time for meaningful connections. However, initial effort that goes into establishing one’s online presence via a weblog, building relationships and learning the specifics of doing that via blogging often pays back over time. This is when the wealth of posts accumulated in a weblog continues to attract new readers, having a broad network to rely on helps to get work done faster and smarter, while the effort of staying in touch is minimal.
It also helps to think of a weblog as a front garden: while it’s nice to impress passer-bys or strike a conversation with neighbours, it makes much more reason to invest in it if it’s also valuable for oneself – to sit there with a book or to pick up the flowers for a bouquet. Similarly, networking via blogging is more sustainable when it comes as a side effect of creating personally valuable weblog content rather being the main reason for blogging.