A Decade Of Blogging

I’ve always been fascinated by blogging, certainly since it really broke into the consciousness of the general public around a decade ago. Regardless of the quality of the content, the ability to actively share content directly with an audience, no matter how niche it might be, immediately hit me as being incredibly powerful.

No gatekeepers.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last decade or so from simply reading blogs. I remember once asking work colleagues how many blogs they read regularly. Or even irregularly. The answer, it transpired, was that there wasn’t a single person who was. That still amazes me. Needless to say, I also understood that I was in the wrong job.

Of course the landscape has shifted hugely over the last decade. Some bloggers, real and anonymous, have moved on of course but many stalwarts remain (for example, Fred Wilson started blogging back in September 2003). Larger numbers of people are now producing content which, thanks to technology that’s freely available, has at least the potential of reaching a global audience. And of course the emergence of micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter really helped to tap into that pent-up desire that so many had to share something (with 288 million active monthly users generating 500 million Tweets per day currently).

However, a huge factor in the growth of blogging was the emergence of WordPress. Whilst investigating why Wordpress have withdrawn support for Bitcoin payments this week, I came across this article from October 2004 talking about the early days when Matt Mullenwegg developed WordPress, the juggernaut that is currently the most popular blogging system in use on the web, powering more than 60 million websites.

The philosophy’s really interesting here and really validates the open source model. Almost everything on WordPress.com is free. They charge for upgrades (whether it’s spam filters or custom domains) but the core proposition is – and always will be – free. If you’re worried about giving something away for free, I suggest you go and have a chat with Matt. I’m sure giving stuff away has done him much harm over the last decade or so.

Going back to the article, there seem to be some parallels between WordPress in 2004 and the state of Bitcoin in 2015. You can sense a seismic change coming. It’s impossible to say when or where the ultimate winners will be so far.  But it’s certain that there will be winners. As Scott Maxwell mentioned in the Q&A after the Bitcoin talk we gave up to Dundee Tech Meetup yesterday, there’s probably 5 or 6 places lying vacant at the moment just waiting for people to carve themselves a place in the history books. With every day, we get a little closer to the time when we find out who it’s going to be.

The VC Blogging Elite

Today is Ruckusmaker Day. Seth Godin’s trying to encourage people to commit to speaking (or writing) their opinion daily on a topic of their choosing, picking what would have been Steve Jobs’ 60th birthday as being a good a day to start as any.

I’ve just returned from the Dundee Tech Meetup after giving another ‘intro to Bitcoin’ talk which was brilliant fun. So whilst I agree with the concept, the only contribution my tired brain can make tonight is to simply highlight a valuable summary of corners of the web where – if entrepreneurship is your thing – people are doing precisely that.

Periodic Table of VC Blogs
Periodic Table of VC Blogs

The Year Ahead

I’ve been thinking about how to evolve this blog over the next twelve months. It originally started out a few years back as a place for me to post more considered, long-form articles that went into some depth on topics that fascinated me.

That worked for a while – in the sense that I enjoyed writing and received complimentary feedback from various quarters. But as someone far more productive than me (in making quotable statements, if nothing else) once wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good“. The reality is that whilst the more detailed and comprehensive articles may attract decent levels of interest online, the extra effort required to polish up that final 20% slows down the frequency of posts.

But doesn’t quality beat quantity? Usually – but with one caveat. Regular practice inevitably improves quality and writing should be no different. At the same time, I’ve always found that the process of moving knowledge from head to screen using your own words is the most powerful learning technique there is.

So I took the decision to just relax a little more in each post and to just write more frequently – every day – more broadly about the topics that interested me. The logic’s pretty simple. Even if I turn out to be the only one out there that enjoys these topics, at least I’ll enjoy looking back over some of the posts in the years to come and see just how far some of the thinking has evolved.

This year, I’ll keep that approach going. I’m hoping to redesign the site in the near future to make things cleaner and easier to read, particularly on mobile platforms. And as for the topics themselves, I don’t think they’ll be of any surprise to those that have visited before.

The key theme will inevitably be Bitcoin and associated block chain technologies. But on top of that, the other areas under the spotlight this year will likely be data security, surveillance, drone technology, 3D printing, the internet of things, networks, startups, VC investment, AI, the coming singularity and last, but by no means least, how traditional forms of creativity can not only survive but thrive in a digital world.

I’m guessing that’ll keep me pretty busy for the next 364 days.

To Comment Or Not, That Is The Question

Comments on a website are a funny thing. At their very best, they challenge both author and audience by introducing a valuable extra layer of insightful, brief and often witty points for further debate that serve to elevate the original material in the eyes of the average reader. The interaction helps to inform the natural bias of the author so that he or she can either take this on board or develop the argument further to ensure that it becomes more robust.

The visitor learns from the author who in turn learns from the crowd-sourced knowledge of the audience in a virtuous circle. It really is a case of the sum of all parts being far greater than the whole.

Of course, not all websites achieve such comment nirvana. For those that are fortunate enough to receive comments in the first place, it’s not uncommon for some of the comments to be ill-considered, factually incorrect, abusive or, on occasion, a collection of all three.

Some believe that it is the disassociation of place and identity that gives people the licence to say things that they wouldn’t necessarily come up with to somone’s face. Allowing pseudonymous profiles to comment does leave some writers fighting a seemingly endless crusade against the inevitable trolling and anti-social behaviour that can ruin a website.

There seem to be three main strands here. The first is websites (such as PopSci) who deal in topics that can on occasion violently divide opinion. Take global warming and the concept of evolution, for a starter. They made the decision to stop accepting comments on their website over a year ago, claiming that part of the reason was that evidence proved that strongly-worded disagreements by commentators could undermine the general public’s belief of how robust scientific research was. The more controversial the research appears in the minds of the general public, the harder it becomes for public funds to be allocated in support of such causes.

The second type of websites appear to be those for whom success is just a given because frankly the quality is always just so damn high. For example, Seth Godin’s brilliant blog doesn’t have comments enabled simply because, in exactly the same way that he doesn’t spend significant amounts of time of social media, he just doesn’t have the time (or the inclination) to respond. It’s not that he’s in some way ambivalent to that public commentary. It’s just that he has a relentless, razor-sharp focus on actually “shipping” his product on a daily basis and he uses his main text to refine his big ideas (as opposed to explaining the finer points).

Next you have the websites where bluntly the empty comment section at the bottom just looks a little bit feeble. As an individual blogger, it’s less of an issue (he says, confidently – although please prove me wrong by telling me why not in the comments below). But as a professional news organisation (such a re/code) that’s never had a great deal of engagement, it’s perhaps best to play it safe by removing the option (and the cost).

But of course, many blog posts survive with vibrant commenting communities. Just take a look at avc.com, a blog that I read daily that’s one of the leaders in the field when it comes to reader engagement. So how does Fred Wilson’s blog succeed where so many others fail?

I believe it’s down to a couple of simple facts. First, the information that is being shared by the author turns out to be genuinely valuable. Generous and insightful commentary on relevant issues by someone who has a fairly unique combination of knowledge, experience and influence. And that generosity is reflected in the quality of the commentary where the community – for the most part – regulates itself. Most people respect the fact that many other commentators are well-respected leaders in their own field.

A couple of the websites that have recently switched off comments have claimed that this is because commentary now takes place predominantly on social media channels. I understand their point but I totally disagree. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen because commentary clearly does happen in these places. However, I’ve always felt that over the six years I’ve been using it, the biggest weakness that Twitter has remains its inability to pull conversation together around a topic for consumption in a cohesive way. Hashtags are a really basic attempt that can only ever get you so far. Add in the space constrictions and you have no obvious social location to read in-depth commentary around a post that’s more effective in my view than that little collection of comments, lurking, for good or bad, at the end of an article.

If you want a vibrant community, you have to spend the time cultivating and encouraging it. I suspect that part of the issue is that the news organisations simply lack the resources to develop these communities. I can’t believe that the system we have now will survive the next decade online but I do think it’s short-sighted to simply give up on it at this stage. It’s always harder to build than to maintain.