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Some thoughts on Wordcamp SF

Written By: daveski on June 13, 2009 2 Comments

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be one of the participants at “Wordcamp San Francisco”, one of the many gatherings/conventions being held around the U.S. and in a bunch of other countries for users, developers, and fans of the open-source blogging platform WordPress. Of course, a week and a half is about 7 lifecycles in blogtime—the ‘real’ bloggers at Wordcamp were tweeting from the lobby, liveblogging from their auditorium seats about the latest developments, tips, and hints about WordPress’ future direction. Anyone interested in WordPress, including their recent release of WP version 2.8, might want to follow developments here or here, for example.

But since WordPress is the platform FIT runs on (as well as hundreds of thousands of other blogs), I thought it’d still be good to look back at a few of the points that were made as they pertain to this blog in particular, and to the challenges and joys of multi-user and (aspiring, at least) multilingual blogs in general. And of couse the FIT faithful will recognize that we have a penchant for writing blog posts about blogging about the difficulties of blogging, a reflective spiral that will seemingly never end…. 🙂

If you are a ‘borderline’ blogger and haven’t been to a Wordcamp or something similar, you might be blown away first and foremost by the lingo, like I was. People were talking in terms of at least three ‘levels’ of blogging—the ‘full-length’ blogging like you get here (and then some!), “short-form writing”, which might be something like our “Asides”, or Tim Ferriss’ blog here, and “microblogging”, like the 140 character-or-less pearls of wisdom that you get on Twitter. If you blog you are of course interested in “improving the click density” on your blog, though, equally obviously, you shouldn’t be concerned with “SEO” when you’re writing you first drafts. What’s that, you ask? Search Engine Optimization, of course—making you posts, and the language in them, easy to pick up by Google, Yahoo, or other big search engines that lead people to your blog. But once you’re into your revisions, you might ask yourself how “crawlable” your website is, and you may even want to think about “socializing” your website (yes, “socialize” is now a transitive verb) with something like Buddypress, a social networking feature that can be added on to WordPress.

If you were able to start following the in-group talk at Wordcamp SF, you would have been privy to lots of blogging, designing, and publicity tips. Tim Ferriss (mentioned above), educational activist and author of The 4-Hour Workweek (which as far as I can tell, doesn’t mean only working 4 hours a week but in redefining what “work” means), started things off in the morning with a toolkit of ideas for aspiring and accomplished bloggers: make sure when you blog you’re adding new content and not just passing along the news (“Chasing the news is a tiring, thankless job,” he said); photos and videos are important, sure, but don’t overlook the power of writing because “text sticks around”; and on the design front, for example, showing the day and time of new posts is great, but don’t do that for pages that have old posts (very pertinent for the many timeless posts on FIT). Matt Cutts, the head of the webspam team at Google, came up next and explained how Google Pagerank, a big concern of most in the blogging world who want their blogs to be visible, is all about the “tension between relevance (what you say) and reputability (what people say about you)”. He suggested starting small in the blogging world, tackling a small niche instead of writing about everything (hmm, I thought, what is FIT’s niche?), what he called the “Katamari Philosophy” after the popular Japanese video game Katamari Damancy.

The sessions went on like this and there were many other ‘tips’ that could be mentioned. On a broader level, though, I was wondering how all this talk about self (or ‘blog-as-self’)-promotion goes over in the other countries and languages in which WordPress is now being used—42% of WordPress downloads are happening in non-English speaking contexts, and WP founding developer Matt Mullenweg told of his surprise at seeing no fewer than 11 books on WordPress on a recent visit to Indonesia). And not just in ‘other places’, but with those who blog here, near the ‘epicenter’ of tech development in Silicon Valley and up and down the San Francisco peninsula, how does this anticipated readership ‘market’ shape the kind of writing that people are doing? Is blogging all about writing for the search engines, so that word choice, topics, titles, and the very content of what we write about boils down to self-promotion, marketing, ‘selling’ yourself and your blog for the all-important click?

The answer seems to be yes, at least for a good percentage of the regular bloggers out there: Matt Cutts, for one, said this of using multiple synonyms, proper names, and other ‘hot’ words so that they’d be sure to show up in keyword searches: “Try to write posts naturally that incorporate all the words that people might use”. And Tara Hunt, “community” builder and founder of Citizen Agency (tellingly, not about democracy group but product development and marketing consultancy), spent her presentation basically telling the audience that the key to getting your message out there is garnering social capital, which she termed “whuffie”. Like the principle of “the 4-hour workweek”, work is only “work” because it’s not fun, and the key to becoming a success in the era of click-and-earn is to “lighten up”, to convince yourself and others that what you’re doing is, at heart, just having fun.

I wonder…isn’t there a contradiction here? How is it “natural” to write with keyword searchability and earning “whuffie” as organizing principles? Isn’t this in effect saying that everyone needs to write the same? No, they’d respond (I’m sure), the whole point of blogs is the style and the flair that you bring to it, but then that sounds to me like the kind of standardization and commodification of communication that Deborah Cameron rails on (rightly so, I think) in her book Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture.

This was, and is, my biggest question on leaving Wordcamp and continuing to think about what it means to blog, or what it is we blog for. Can you avoid selling everything if you’re still selling something?

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2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Wordcamp SF”

  1. Matt on: 14 June 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Would you be interested in giving a presentation next year, perhaps focused more on writing for writing’s sake?

  2. daveski on: 15 June 2009 at 10:49 pm

    That’d be great! And, I don’t know if it’d work out with WordCamp’s format, but I bet we could even get a small panel of people concerned with these questions (struggling in the space between “blogging” and “writing”) for a pretty dynamic presentation.

    Thanks for reading!

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