A cover of and response to ‘Why and how to write things on the internet’, by Ben Kuhn.
One thing you could be doing with your limited number of hours on this earth is writing a blog. This basically involves writing essays and then publishing them online on a site you control for people to read. The idea is that people can share links to essays you have written, and if people like them you can build some sort of following1. Unlike being a newspaper columnist or a television presenter, it is actually quite easy to start a blog: if you are reading this, you are likely able to start your own blog for almost no money and not all that much time. And, of course, if you already have a blog, you could choose to publish on your blog more frequently. This presents the following question: should you be blogging more than you currently are?
I see blogging as having a few benefits. Firstly, writing about ideas changes your relationship to them. For example, the practice of writing essays on your blog might cause you to have more essay-shaped ideas by increasing the salience of mental motions like “perhaps I should have an idea so that I could then write about it” or “perhaps I should develop this idea into the sort of thing I could write an essay about on my blog”. Anecdotally, I have heard that frequent users of twitter often have an instinct to have the sorts of ideas that are pithy and make good tweets, so it seems plausible that frequent essayists might have something similar going on.
Relatedly, I think that once you have an idea, actually writing it out and publishing it changes your relationship to that particular idea. Writing an essay offers you an affordance to think of evidence for your idea, counter-examples, etc. It gives the idea a certain structure. Also, once the idea is published, you can refer to it, ask people to read it, build on it, et cetera.
A second benefit of blogging is that you can advance an argument, and perhaps persuade people of the point you are making. For example, if you think that more people should be blogging, you could write an essay arguing that, people could read it, and perhaps they would respond by blogging when they previously were not.
A third benefit of blogging is that you can share lovely things with the world. For example, if you think of a neat puzzle or a nice mathematical fact, together with a proof of that fact, you could share those on your blog, people could read them, and then they would share in the pleasure you take in beholding these things.
Fourthly, you could practise the skill of writing. In your life it will likely be useful for you to be able to communicate things via the written word - perhaps explaining things that are difficult to grasp, perhaps inchoate things that you must first mold into intelligible form - and blogging offers you the opportunity to practise this. This benefit is especially large if your blog has comments, where people can let you know if you have failed to communicate your idea or if you have missed an important consideration, or if you inhabit a corner of the blogosphere where it is common to write blog posts replying to other people’s blog posts.
The final benefit of blogging that I can think of is that it may improve your relationships with other people. For one, the practice of having ideas and writing them up may give you more things to talk about with your existing friends, or with people with whom you could become friends if only you had something to talk about. But also, by keeping your writings in one place where you are identified as the author, you could gain a following and a reputation, and people could be more willing to approach you and become friends with you, because of the traits you have advertised by having a blog - this could look like having a blog about tea and making friends who like people who like tea, or like people wanting to be friends with you because they were impressed by your blogging ability and have heard of you from your blog.
So: why would one not have a blog, or not write frequently on it? I see two big drawbacks. The first is that you have to write. For me, writing is time-consuming, difficult and painful. This means that blog posts are costly for me to produce, both in terms of amount of time (this one took around 4 hours, and I needed a writing buddy to pick up the momentum to actually write it) and in terms of how much you’d rather do something else with that time. I do not think I am alone in having this relationship to writing. The second is that you might not be very good at it. Your ideas might not be that interesting, or you might write in a way that people find difficult or unpleasant to read. Unlike the time cost, which merely balances out the benefits, this puts into doubt the very existence of the purported benefits of blogging.
When people recommend blogging, I think it is because these disadvantages are less important for them than for others - of course, you’d expect the people for whom blogging has the best cost/benefit tradeoff to feel the most good about blogging and recommend it the most. “You’ll get better”, they say, but from what level, and how much better will you get? You can improve your running speed by practising, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be running a four-minute mile any time soon. “The bar is low”, they say, but what they consider “low” you might not. (But there is some truth to this: there are benefits to writing good posts, but no serious costs to writing bad posts above and beyond the difficulty of writing.)
My own experience of having a blog where I publish infrequently (5 posts in 2022, 7 posts in 2021) is that it’s been fine, but not that great. The occasional post has gained traction, but most have not really. I can’t say that I’ve noticed benefits to my relationships from blogging, or improvement in my writing skill. That said, it’s plausible that the major benefits of writing a blog only accrue if you write more frequently, so perhaps I am poorly placed to assess how good it would be if I wrote more. Overall, I’d say it’s been worth it, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d be incredibly excited to recommend to all. That said, I do have some blogging recommendations.
Firstly: it seems pretty plausible that it’s worth starting a blog, writing one post a week for three months (or one post a day for two weeks, or something), and seeing how that goes. Is the experience terrible? Are any of your posts good? This might be a way of determining whether regularly blogging will be worth it for you.
Secondly: it would be sort of good to know what fraction of people who were on the fence about starting a blog would endorse actually starting one if they tried it. So, you could gather a bunch of your blogging-curious friends, all try out blogging for a while, gather data on how many people like it enough to continue, and publish that data. This could help inform the wider blogging-curious world whether they should or should not take the leap.
Thirdly: I think it is worth trying writing blog posts that are covers of other things. In the domain of music, sometimes musician A will take a song of musician B, and perform that song in the style of musician A (or perhaps the style musician A thinks musician B should have performed it in). But one could also do this in the world of writing: for example, you could take an essay that you liked and write it in your own style, or make slightly different points that you agree with more. You could also cross genres (e.g. take someone’s essay and write it as a poem, or take someone’s sermon and write it as an essay). This strikes me as an easier and more approachable way to write, and I may write other blog post covers this year.
As you may know, a podcast is when you record audio (usually primarily audio of people speaking) and publish it on the internet, in a manner such that dedicated ‘podcast apps’ can let people subscribe to your podcast and listen to ‘episodes’ right after you publish them. Because podcasts are sort of like radio shows, and the ones you have probably heard of are high-quality and well-polished, I think people think of podcasting as somewhat inaccessible, or a thing for fancy famous people - but it is not! The barriers and costs are somewhat higher than those of blogging, but, I suspect, still surmountable by the average reader of this post without a heroic amount of effort.
Podcasting has many of the benefits of blogging, in that they are both ways of publishing ideas. That said, the profile of benefits and drawbacks is somewhat different, making it a better fit for different people.
The most distinct advantage of podcasting is that it involves speaking rather than writing. I find speaking much easier, it being a thing I do all the time (and even as a form of recreation with friends!). This makes the basic production of ‘material’ easier. Also, by virtue of speech communicating more information per word than writing (one can use pitch, intonation, and tone of voice), as well as being a primary way people interact with their friends, listening to someone’s podcast can be something of a simulacrum of having a friendly relationship with them (see the concept of parasocial relationships). This is sometimes thought of as a downside, but it means that podcasting offers your friends and acquaintances an easy way of ‘interacting’ with ‘you’ when you cannot actually be there.
Podcasting does have some downsides relative to blogging. For one, the process of speaking takes less time per word than the process of writing, so the ideas you express might have less preparation put into them. Note that this can be ameliorated by speaking on topics that you have already thought a lot about, and therefore have the ability to say thoughtful things when speaking extemporaneously about them.
It is also more difficult to set up: audio must be edited, which is likely a more foreign process to you than that of editing text, and you have to figure out how to get someone to host your audio files, what you have to do to convince Apple Podcasts that they should let their users listen to your podcast, et cetera. Also, there is some expectation that podcasts should be more ‘polished’: people might anticipate that your podcast has a consistent theme or format (I guess this is because podcasts are more often listened to by dedicated subscribers rather than people who have been linked to a single episode). But of course one is allowed to buck these expectations!
A final difference between podcasts and blogs is that it is more frequent for podcast episodes to be a collaboration between multiple people - perhaps the people are having a conversation, or perhaps one is interviewing another2. This gives them a certain kind of freshness - certain ideas and dynamics can more easily thrive in the interaction between two people who don’t know the same things or think the same way. It also has the cost that in order to make them, you need two people to do something rather than just one, and perhaps they both have to be available at the same time, which they may rarely be: in general, my experience is that the more people are required to make a thing happen, the less it will happen.
I have two podcasts, and as you might expect of someone who has two podcasts, I have quite enjoyed the experience of being a podcaster. One of my podcasts interviews researchers who are working in the field of AI existential risk reduction, and gets them to explain what they’re on about. This has both been valuable for people who want to know what those researchers are on about (which seems to be the sort of thing it is often easier to talk about than to write down), and has given me a pleasant sliver of fame among a certain sub-sub-culture. It also means that I have the excuse to have some kinds of conversations I enjoy having. Overall, my suspicion is that more people I know could get something out of starting podcasts, but this could well be the same mistake that the people who are good at blogging and think more people should blog are making.
In the remainder of this post, I will talk a bit about how one might start a podcast, so that you can more easily recognize if that might be for you.
Podcasts usually have some sort of format or theme. Here are some kinds of podcasts you could make:
If you would like to get lots of listeners, you might want to spend time thinking of a target audience, what sort of thing they might want to get out of a podcast, and try to make a podcast that does a good job at producing that. This could also be a way of giving you an idea for what to talk about.
Next: how do you actually make a podcast? Here is a list of steps that I previously wrote on this topic, slightly edited, that should get you started.
In conclusion: do what you want, but it’s kind of nice to put your thoughts out there into the world, and mathematics says it’s often worth trying things that you haven’t tried before.
I am focussing on essays because that is the predominant type of blog ‘content’ (and when people recommend you start a blog I think they are usually imagining an essay-dominated blog), but other formats are possible, such as short stories, serialized long works of fiction, poetry, collections of links to other internet content, beautiful works of art you have found, non-essay diary entries, reporting, product reviews, descriptions of places you are travelling, mathematical proofs, and I’m sure much more. Of course, all these categories blend into each other around the edges. For examples of blogs containing some things other than standard essays, I recommend Marginal Revolution, Jeff Kaufman’s blog, and World Spirit Sock Puppet. ↩
Of course, one could just as well do the same sort of collaboration on a blog post. I know that this is much less common, but I don’t really know why. ↩