I was already concerned about the impact of technology on social connections. As I wrote about in Kill Process, there is an epidemic of loneliness in the world, and most especially in the US. But in the face of the global pandemic, our lives have been further irrevocably altered. The way we work, socialize, and even entertain ourselves has been reshaped by necessity.

The pandemic accelerated our reliance on technology, pushing us into an era where our screens became the windows to the world. Social media platforms became our town squares, our coffee shops, and our living rooms. We’ve seen a surge in the use of Zoom, Teams, and Slack for work, while Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Discord have become the go-to places for social interaction.

Yet, this shift has complexities that further exacerbate the dysfunctional trends that have been brewing for years. As we’ve moved our lives online, we’ve further substituted real human connection with digital interaction, leading to a sense of isolation and loneliness for many. The pandemic has amplified this effect, with social distancing measures making it harder for us to maintain our offline relationships, and indeed, even our skill at managing and maintaining those relationships.

We can see this in how the pandemic has created lasting changes in how we socialize. Making plans with others has become more challenging, with cancellations becoming increasingly common. Post-quarantine, there seems to be a growing reluctance to spend a lot of time texting, even among those who previously enjoyed this form of communication, leading to further isolation. One possible explanation for this shift could be a collective realization of the limitations of digital communication — the pandemic, by forcing us into isolation, may have made us more aware of the qualitative differences between online and offline interactions. But I think that misses the mark, personally. I think it’s more likely to be a subconscious resistance to pandemic behavior. Just as we were eager to get masks off and deny the horrors of quarantine and job loss and long Covid, so too, I think people wanted to leave behind texting.

That’s not to say that social media and messaging don’t have serious limitations. They do. Several years ago, I experienced this difference firsthand. I was grieving the end of a relationship and feeling a lot of distress. I reached out to friends for support via social media and text, engaging with many folks at length throughout the day. However, these interactions didn’t substantially change or improve my feelings. But when a friend came over in person for a short 45 minutes in the evening, my mood dramatically improved. I felt happy and connected, no longer sad or grieving. This experience underscored for me that a single in-person interaction, even of limited duration, can have a more profound impact on our emotional well-being than an entire day of digital messaging.

In my novel Kill Process, I delve into the world of Tomo, a fictional social media company, through the eyes of Angie, a data analyst. Angie’s experiences echo our current reality, highlighting the dangers of over-reliance on digital platforms. She grapples with the ethical implications of social media, particularly how it can be manipulated to control and influence users.

Since the publication of Kill Process in 2016, real-world events have further underscored these concerns. For instance, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 revealed how personal data from millions of Facebook users was harvested and used for political advertising, illustrating the potential for misuse of user data on social media platforms. More recently, the rise of deepfake technology has shown how social media can be used to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion, a theme that resonates strongly with Angie’s journey. And even more recently, ChatGPT and other large language models have made us realize just how little we actually can trust, and how much can be faked.

The pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront, as we’ve become more dependent on these platforms for connection. Angie’s journey serves as a reminder that while technology can bring us together, it can also drive us apart if not used responsibly.

As we move forward, we must strive to find a balance between our online and offline lives, using technology to enhance our relationships rather than replace them. This has been the promise of social media for a long time, but we’ve failed so far. It’s up to us to figure out how to use this power responsibly to build a more connected and compassionate world, even in the face of adversity.

I’ll be at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado next week, from April 9th to 13th. I’ll be speaking on topics including artificial intelligence, social media, data ownership and privacy, writing science fiction, and the role of science fiction in technological progress.

If you’ll be at CWA or in Boulder, and would like to meet up, chat, or get a book signed, please reach out to me. You can find me on twitter as @hertling, or by email at william dot hertling at gmail dot com.


I have good news about the Kill Switch release!

It’s been two years since Kill Process was released. Kill Switch was a daunting book to write. It’s 20% longer than Kill Process, which, when it was released, was the longest novel I’d written by far. Kill Switch also tackles new topics that required more research and finesse to handle properly. And while writing this novel, I also bought a house, moved, tackled house projects, switched roles at my day job, and more.

So it is with both excitement and relief that I’m thrilled to finally announce that Kill Switch will be released in October. The proofreading is done. The final formatting is done. The audiobook is nearly complete. The cover design is done. I will have a firm launch date within a week or two.

As usual, Patreon backers will be the first to receive Kill Switch, and they should receive their ebooks the first weekend in October, and the paperback prior to the official launch.

Thank you so much for your patience! I’m delighted to get Kill Switch into everyone’s hands.

The new cover was designed by Jenn Reese, who did a wonderful job. Thank you Jenn!

Kill Switch by William Hertling

Kill Switch Cover


I’m at WebVisions in Portland for the next two weeks, so there will be a bunch of notes on media, technology, design, and happiness. This was the first talk, a really interesting discussion about media and how kids perceive it, use it, and respond to it. The LAMP is a NYC project to teach kids how to critique and respond to media and its messages.

Reinventing Mass Media with 10,000 Little Jon Stewards
Emily Long, The LAMP
  • The LAMP focuses on teaching young people to be critical thinkers, makers, and especially media makers.
    • Be thoughtful about what’s coming at you from the other side.
    • Jon Stewart is someone who can be thoughtful about, create responses to media. Create his own media.
    • Work with 600-700 kids every year.
  • PEW study of teens:
    • 24% on almost constantly.
    • 56% Several times per day.
    • 12% About once a day
    • —–
    • 92% on every day or more.
  • Media exposure of 8-18 year olds
    • 8-10: 8 hours/day
    • 11-14: 12 hours/day
    • 15-18: 11.5 hours/day
    • Increases for minorities
  • Who makes the media our kids consume?
    • 7 older white men control 90% of all the media that is created.
    • CBS, iHeartMedia(Clearchannel), Comcast, Disney, News Corp, Time, Viacom
    • these are the companies: “the media” “mainstream media”
  • Everyone else:
    • Of top 120 films, women represent just 30% of speaking roles
    • Of top 100 films, black, hispanic speaking roles were less than 10% of all roles
    • 11% of IT leaders at American-based tech firms were women.
    • minorities make up 13% of total newsroom staff.
  • So it’s not just the men at the top, it’s everyone who works for them too.
    • The people who create the media are not representative of all people.
    • So the stories that are told in media can’t be representative of all people.
  • Dove evolution video
    •  Woman wakes up, looks normal.
    • Then they do hear makeup, hair, etc.
    • And then do a bunch of photoshop on her.
    • It show how much media manipulates what we see.
    • When we show it to kids, they are blown away, but how much it was changed.
    • Then they showed the Axe body spray video that shows a bunch of bikini-clad women chasing after a guy because he’s wearing Axe body spray.
      • And then you tell the kids that the same people who make the Dove video also make the Axe commercial.
  • “So you want people to stop using media?”
    • No, we want people to use media better.
    • A food critic doesn’t tell you not to eat. They give you guidance on how to eat better.
    • A media critic doesn’t tell you not to watch media. They want you to use media better.
    • You should be aware of who makes the media, why they make them, who they make them for.
  • Jon Stewart and other folks who parody and challenge media have a long, celebrated role.
    • Creative, non-violent, powerful.
    • Online, crowdsourced remix platform.
    • Students can take other copyrighted content, and make critical comments on it: remix it, criticize it, challenge it, add their messages to it.
  • While you’re watching something and enjoy something, you can also think critically about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, but that you don’t take in the whole message as gospel without thinking about.
  • Asking questions…
    • Why is there only one woman in every action movie?
    • If Boyhood was filmed in Texas, where are all the hispanics?
  • Fair Use
    • allows the use of copyrighted media for fair use.
    • It’s important for people to know when it’s okay to reuse, versus when it’s just stealing.

I’ve been thinking about the web and the role and effect of social networks. While I’m a user of Facebook, and like certain parts of it, there are other aspects of it that concern me, both for the impact it’s having now, as well as for the future. As an idea person, I ponder how we can get the benefits of social networking without the costs, while regaining the open web we used to have.

If you haven’t done so, go read Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost. I’ll wait.

I’m going to cover three topics in this post:

  1. The shortcomings of social networking as they exist today. 
  2. The benefits of social networking. I don’t want to throw away the good parts.
  3. A description of what a truly open social network would look like.

The Problems of Today’s Social Networks

These are the main problems I see. I’m not trying to represent all people’s needs or concerns, just capture a few of the high-level problems.

Transitory Nature

My first problem with Facebook and Twitter is the transitory nature of the information. I’m used to the world of books, magazines, and blogs, where information is created and then accessible over the long term. Years later I can find Rebecca Blood’s series of articles on eating organic on a foodstamp budget, my review of our Meile dishwasher written in 2006, or my project in 2007 to build the SUV of baby strollers. These are events that stand out in my mind. 
Yet if I want to find an old Twitter or Facebook post, it’s nearly impossible, even if it happened just a few months ago. There was a post on Facebook where I asked for people who wanted to review my next novel and twenty-five people volunteered. Now it’s a few months later, and I want to find that post again. I can’t. (Having grown used to this problem, I took a screenshot of it, but that’s an awful solution.)
The point is that properly indexed and searchable historical information is valuable to us, our friends, and possibly our descendants. However, it’s not valuable to Facebook and Twitter, whose focus in on streaming in real-time.

Ownership and Control Over Our Data

It should be unambiguous that we own our own data: our posts, our social network, our photos, and that we should have control over that information. As a blogger and author, I would choose to make much of that public, but it should be my choice. Similarly, it should be possible to have it be private. My data shouldn’t be used for commercial purposes without my explicit opt-in, and I should have control over who gets it and how they use it.
Personally, I’d like my content to be creative commons licensed: It’s mine, but you can use it for non-commercial purposes if you give me attribution. 
Yet this is not the case today. We have problems, again and again, with Facebook, Google, Instagram, and other services claiming the right to use our material for advertising, using it commercially, reselling it, and so on.


We should have the right to be free from advertising if we wish, and certainly to have our children not exposed to advertising. But the way social networks exist today, the advertising is forced at us, whether we want it or not. And while I can ignore it (although I still hate the visual distraction), it’s harder for my kids to do so.
We’ve unfortunately ended up in a situation where the only revenue model for these businesses seems to be advertising based, even though there are alternatives.

Siloing of Networks and Identity

I have a blog, a couple of other websites, accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, FourSquare, YouTube, and Flickr. But, for all intents and purposes, there’s just one me. We try to glue these pieces together: sharing Instagram photos on Facebook, or using TweetDeck to see Facebook and Twitter posts in one place, sharing checkins, but this is a terrible approach because our friends and readers either see the same information in multiple places (if we share and cross-link) or miss it entirely (if we don’t). Because the networks are fighting over control points, they’re disallowing the natural openness that should be possible.


For some people, privacy is a big concern. This isn’t a big one for me because I subscribe to the basic theory of Tim O’Reilly that obscurity is a bigger concern. (He was talking about authors and piracy, but  I think the theory applies to most people, whether they’re furthering their career, starting a business, selling a product, etc.) I’m concerned about the use and misuse of my data by commercial interests, but I think that can be handle through mechanisms other than privacy. If I’m wrong, then yes, privacy becomes a bigger issue.

The Benefits of Social Networking as it Exists Today

Yet for all these complaints, there are pieces that are working.
I have a niece and her husband that I don’t get to see often, but they’re active on Facebook, and I feel much more of a connection to them as compared to family not on Facebook. I’m glad to share what’s happening with my kids with my mom. I have far more interactions with fans on Facebook than I ever had comments on my blog.
The attempts surface the content that matters to me are imperfect (to be honest, often awful), but exist in some form:
  • I don’t see a hundredth of the tweets of the people I follow, but using TweetDeck and searches on hashtags and particular people, I’m able to find many I am interested in.
  • Google Circles are far too much work to maintain, but for a few small groups of people, it helps me find the content about them.
  • Facebook’s automated algorithms are awful, showing me the same few stories over and over and over, but it’s an attempt in the right direction: trying to glean from some mix of people plus likes plus comments what to show to me. 

The Solution

I think there is a solution that combines the best of social networks and the best of the old, open web. I think it’s also possible to get there with what we have today, and iterate over time to make it better. 
What I’m going to describe is a federated social network. 
Others have discussed distributed social social networks. You can read a good overview at the EFF: An Introduction to the Federated Social Network. If you look at the list of projects attempting distributed social networking, you’ll notice that they all list features that they’ll support, like microblogging, calendars, wikis, images. You’d host the social network on your own server or on a service provider.
Despite distributed social network and federated social network being used somewhat interchangeably in the EFF article, I want to argue that there are critical differences. 
The fully distributed social network describe in the EFF article and in the list of projects feels like mesh networking: theoretically  superior, totally open and fault tolerant, but in practice, very hard to create on any scale. 
I prefer to use the term federated social network to describe a social network in which the core infrastructure is centrally managed, but all of the content and services are provided by third parties. The network is singular and centralized; the endpoints are many and federated. To continue the analogy to computer networking, it’s a bit like the Internet: we have some backbones tying everything under the control of big companies, but we all get to plug into a neutral infrastructure. 
(I’ll acknowledge that in recent years we’ve seen the weakness of this approach: we end up with a few big companies with too much control. But it’s still probably better that we have an imperfect Internet than a non-existant mesh network.)
Here’s my vision.

SocialX Level One: 

Let’s start by imagining a website called SocialX. I have an identity on SocialX, and I tie in multiple endpoints into my account: Twitter, my blog, and Flickr. 
Behind the scenes, SocialX will use the Twitter API to pull in tweets, RSS to pull in blog posts, and the Flickr API to pull in photos.
Visitors to my profile on SocialX will see an interwoven, chronological stream of my content, including tweets, blog posts, and photos, similar to the stream on Facebook or Google Plus.
SocialX will be smart enough to eliminate or combine duplicate content. If a tweet points to my own blog post, it can surmise that these should be displayed together (or the tweet suppressed), knowing the tweet is my own glue between twitter and my blog: the tweet is an introduction to the blog post. 
Similarly, if a blog post includes a flickr photo, then the photo doesn’t need to be separately shown in my stream. 
Of course, SocialX will feature commenting, like all other social networks. Let’s talk about comments on blogs first. Let’s assume I’m using a comment service like DISQUS. By properly identifying the blog post in question, SocialX can display the DISQUS comment stream exactly as it would appear on the blog: in other words, both SocialX and the original blog post share the same comment stream. Comment on my blog, and your comment will show up in the SocialX stream associated with the post. Comment on SocialX, and the comment will show up on the blog.
Twitter replies can be treated as comments. In fact, the current approach of handling related messages on twitter is obscured behind the “view conversations” button. On SocialX, Twitter replies will look like associated comments. And if you reply on SocialX, your comment gets posted back to Twitter as a reply. So both Twitter and SocialX will share the same sequence of shared content, they’ll just be represented as comments on SocialX, and as Twitter replies/conversation on Twitter.
In other words, the user interface of SocialX might look a lot like Facebook or Google Plus, but behind the scenes, we have two-way synchronization of comments.
SocialX can handle the concepts of liking/+1/resharing in a similar manner. The two high level concepts are “show your interest in something”, and “promote something”. Each can be mapped back to an underlying action that makes sense for the associated service. For twitter, “show interest” can be mapped to favoriting a tweet, and “promote” can be mapped to retweet.
So far, we’ve also discussed how a single user’s stream of content looks. In other words, we’ve looked at it from the content provider’s point of view. 
If a user named Tom comes to SocialX to view content, he can, of course, view a single user’s content stream. But Tom likely has multiple friends, and of course this is social networking, not just the web, so we’ve got to use social graphs to determine who Tom is interested in. 
SocialX will use any available social graphs that it’s connected to, and will display the sum total of them. So if Tom connects with Twitter, he’ll see the streams of everyone he follows on Twitter. If Tom connects with Twitter and LinkedIn, Tom will see interwoven streams of both. (Although SocialX will try to remove redundant entries across services by scanning posts to see if the content is the same.)
This is today. We can make this work with a handful of existing services, plugging them into a centralized network, do the work on the central network to get these existing providers connected. It’s about bootstrapping.
Notice that we don’t need everyone to use SocialX for it to start being valuable. If Tom visits the site, and follows another twitter user named Sally, we can display Sally’s twitter stream for Tom, and probably auto-discover her blog feed, making the service useful for Tom before Sally every starts to use it. In essence, at this point we have a very nice social reader.

SocialX Level Two:

The next step beyond this is an API for the platform. Rather than force the platform to do work to integrate each new endpoint, we provide an open API so that other services can integrate into the network. When the next post-hipster-photo service comes out, they can integrate with SocialX just as Instagram once did with Facebook and Twitter APIs.
The API will require services to support a common set of actions for posting, commenting, liking, and promoting. Services will be required to provide posts in two formats: a ready-to-render HTML format, as well as a semantic form that allows other services to create viewers.  (Semantic HTML would work as well.) 
We require the semantic form because SocialX can’t be the only ones in the business of rendering these streams. So SocialX will also provide an API for other services to provide a reader/viewer or whatever you’d like to call it. This enables the equivalent of TweetDeck and Hootsuites in our environment. If someone can provide a superior user experience, they’re welcome to do so.
We also need to take a stab at figuring out what content to display. Should SocialX display everything, like Twitter? Use circles, like Google Plus? Heuristics like Facebook? Have a great search ability?
Let’s open it up to third parties to figure it out. A third party can consume all the streams I’m subscribed to, and then take their best attempt to figure out what I’m interested in. And if we set up this API in a smart way, it’ll function like a pipeline, so that we could have a circle-defining service divide up streams into circle-specific streams, and an interest-heuristic take each circle and figure out the most interesting content within that circle, etc.
Services like news.me are a perfect example of existing stream filtering, they just do it out-of-band.
Newsle is another good example of a content service we’d want to plug in because these news stories are associated with people we follow, even if they originate outside someone’s own content stream.
So far we have a content API on one side of the service that allows us to pull in content from and about people. On the other side of the service, we have a filter API that can remix, organize, and filter what stories appear in the stream. And a reader API to consume the final stream and render it.
SocialX will continue to provide default, base level filtering and reader native to the service, but all content originates from somewhere else.
Now we have a rich ecosystem that invites new players to create content, filter it, and display it.
In contrast to distributed social networking systems that spread out the network, but build in the features, SocialX would distributed the features, but have a singular central network.

SocialX Level Three:

Technology businesses need to make money. I respect that. As a technology guy, I’m often on that side of the fence. Content providers want to make money. I respect that, too. As an author and a blogger, I’d like to earn something from my writing.
But I also want to be free from advertising. 
How can we resolve this dilemma?
Advertising is just one way of making money, but I’d like to suggest two other ways.


Let’s think about Twitter for the moment. Their need to make money from advertising has led to all sorts of decisions that their users hate. They want to insert ads into the tweetstream. They want control over all Twitter clients, to ensure their ads are shown. They’re restricting what can be done with the Twitter API.
Anytime a company makes their users hate them can’t be good. 
Here’s a different idea. The more followers one has on Twitter, the more valuable Twitter is. At the very top of the ecosystem, there are users with millions of followers, whose tweets are worth thousands of dollars each. Even at the lower end of the system, a user who has 10k or 50k followers on twitter is likely gaining a tremendous value from that network.
What if Twitter charged the top 1% of most-followed users a fee? Twitter would be free to use under 2.5k followers, but followers are capped unless you pay. A fee starting at $20/year, of roughly 1 cent per follower, would raise about $200M a year — in the same ballpark as their current ad-based revenue.

Ad-Free, Premium Subscriptions

The second opportunity is to charge for an ad-free, premium experience. If 10% of Twitter users paid $10/annually for an ad-free experience, that’s $500M in revenue. Personally, I’d be delighted to pay for an ad-free experience. Part of the reason this doesn’t work well today is that my time reading is split between Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, individually hosted blogs, news sites, Facebook, Google Plus, and so on.
It’s simply not feasible to pay them all individually.
However, if I’m getting the content for all these services through one central network, and can pay once for an ad-free experience, suddenly it starts to make sense. 
SocialX knows who the user is, what they’ve viewed, which services helped to display the content.
Now we start to see a revenue model that can work across this ecosystem. Revenue could come from a mix of patronage, paid ad-free users, and advertisements. We’ll keep ads in the system to support free users, but now that we have multiple revenue streams, there’s less pressure to oriented the entire experience around serving ads and invading people’s privacy. 
Example 1: Ben is a paid-subscriber of the system. Ben’s $5/month fee is proportioned out based on what he interacts with, by liking an item, sharing it, bookmarketing it, or clicking “more” to keep reading beyond the fold. He’s going to pay $5/month no matter what, so there’s no incentive for him to behave oddly. He’ll just do whatever he wants. 
If Ben interacts with 300 pieces of content in a month, each gets allocated $5/300=1.6 cents.
Those 1.6 cents are shared with among the ecosystem partners, something like this:
  • network infrastructure: 15% (SocialX)
  • stream optimization: 15% (news.me, tbd)
  • reader: 15% (the feedlys, tweetdecks, hootsuites of the world)
  • content service: 15% (the twitter, flickr, blogger, wordpresses of the world)
  • content creator: 30% (you, me, joe blogger, etc.)
Example 2: Amanda is a free user of the system. She sees ads when using SocialX. Amanda will be assigned an ad provider at random, or she can choose a specific one. (Because the ads too, will be an open part of the system.) Ad providers will be able to access user data for profiling, unless the user opts out. 
If Amanda clicks on 5 ads during the month, that will generate some amount of ad revenue. The ad provider keeps 20% of the revenue, and the rest flows through the system as above. The revenue is allocated to whatever content Amanda was viewing at the time.
Ad providers are induced not to be evil, because users have a choice, and can switch to a different provider. 
Example 3: George is a famous actor from a famous science fiction show. He has four million followers. Only the first 2,500 of George’s followers on SocialX will be able to view his stream, unless George pays a Patronage fee. He does, which for his level of usage is $4,000 a year. However, George is also a content provider, so if his content is interacted with (liked, reshared, etc.), he’ll also be earn money. Since George is frequently resharing other people’s content, the original content creator will get the bulk of the revenue (25% instead of 30%), but we’ll give George 5% for sharing.


Let me come back to some of my problems with existing social networks, and see if we’ve improved on any of them:

  • Advertising: We’ve made a good dent in advertising. By having a central network and monetization process that relies on a combination on paid ad-free experiences, patronage, and advertising, we’ve taken some of the pressure off ads as the only revenue model, and hence the primary force behind the user experience. We’re allowing people to select their ad provider, so they can choose if they want targeted ads or random ads, or organic product ads, or whatever they want. Ad providers can’t be evil, or customers will switch providers.
  • Ownership and Control Over Our Data: SocialX owns very little data. It resides in the third party services. When users have choice over one blogging platform or another, or hosting one themselves, then they will regain control over their data by being free to choose the best available terms or by hosting it themselves. 
  • Privacy: 
    • My primary privacy concern is over the commercial use of my data, and in this regard, I have much more control. I can choose to use a stream filtering service which profiles me and my interests and receive a more personalized stream, or I can choose not to. Either way, the data is only used to benefit me. I can pay to opt-out of advertising totally, or opt-out of targeted advertising at no cost. 
    • I haven’t really thought through the scenario of “I don’t want anyone but a select group of people to see this content,” the other type of privacy concern. My guess is that we could solve this architecturally by having selectable privacy providers that live upstream from the filters and readers. These privacy providers would tag content with visibility attributes as it is onboarded. 
  • Transitory Nature: My concern here was the case of being able to find a given Facebook post where I had solicited beta-readers. In the SocialX case, I see a few fixes:
    • Some of the “stream filter providers” could be search engines. 
    • I could have chosen to originate my post as a blog entry.
    • The platform could support better bookmarking of posts. 
  • Siloing of Networks and Identity: By it’s very nature, this is the anti-silo of networks and identity.

The main problem we’re left with is that we need a benevolent organization to host SocialX. Because it is a centralized social network, someone must host it, and we have to trust that someone to keep it open.
A few years ago, I was sure this was going to be Google’s social strategy. It seemed to fit their mission of making the world’s information accessible. It seemed to be a platform play akin to Android. Alas, it hasn’t turned out to be, and I no longer trust them to be the neutral player.
It could be built as a distributed social network, but then we’re back to the current situation. Lots of distributed social networks, but no one has the momentum to get off the ground. 
If you’ve made it this far — thanks for reading! This is my longest post by far, and I appreciate you making it all the way through my thought experiment. Would this work? What are the shortcomings? How could this become a reality? I’d love feedback and discussion.

A fellow author recently asked if he should have one blog where he consolidates all of his interests, or different blogs for his different audiences, since they are pretty disparate topics with little overlap.

It’s a dilemma with no single right answer.

One point of view says that the most loyal fans come about on single author blogs. That is, Brad Feld has a rabid set of fans, while something like GeekDad, with a dozen different bloggers, won’t ever be able to inspire such a loyal group of fans.

The thing about single author blogs is that they almost always shift topics over time. A person’s interests change year by year, and five years later they may be onto an entirely different set of topics. Yet it still works. We like to follow people.

By comparison, a topic oriented blog is just that: a topic. The reader’s interest in that topic may wane, and they’ll stop following. I’m no longer reading TreeHugger or the other environmental blogs I used to read. Yet I’m still reading Rebecca Blood, a blogger I met once and emailed a dozen times, and who has some very different interests from me.

My thought is that over the short term, topic-specific blogs are better. But over the long term, just expressing all your interests in one place is better.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on having one blog or many.

This is an article I wrote five years ago about finding the time to blog. It’s holding up pretty well as it ages. For authors trying to build their platform or anyone else who needs to blog to achieve personal or professional goals, this will be helpful. — Will

Seven Ways to Find the Time to Blog

After a friend recently posted about trying to find the time to blog, I got to thinking: How do I find the time to blog? 

After some thinking, I came up with a few principles. In some ways, I’m the worst person to give advice, because my frequency of posting is terrible compared to any decent blogger. On the other hand, I’m the father of 3 children under the age of four (now 9) and I work full time, so if I can find the time to post, then anyone can.

First, make sure that you know why you’re blogging. If you don’t know, the issue may not be a lack of time, but a lack of clarity or motivation. Rebecca Blood’s articles and references on blogging and book, The Weblog Handbook, are useful if you are just finding your voice. Once you know why you’re blogging, the following tips may help you find the time to actually get those blog posts going.

  1. Repurpose: If you are an information worker of any kind or a student, you’re probably already doing research, generating reports, analyzing information. If you can find a way to take your initial work and repurpose it for use in two places, then you can generate content for your blog with only a little additional work. Be aware that depending on your employment contract, work policy, and employment laws, there could be all sorts of issues about who owns your work, the confidentiality of your work, and a slew of other issues. On the other hand, judging from recent Wired magazine articles, many companies are now opening up and encouraging transparency in all its forms, including blogging. Research this ahead of time so that you’re doing the correct legal and ethical thing.
    2012/8/7: I’m still doing this. If I ever find myself posting a writing tip to a closed newsgroup, I usually use the original post as fodder for a blog post. 
  2. Substitute: You probably already bookmark websites, send emails about interesting articles or thoughts to friends and you may even write the occasional letter or holiday newsletter to family and friends. All of these are material that could be published on your blog. When you publish your bookmarks on your blog, not only do you benefit, but so do your readers. Blog instead of bookmarking, blog instead of emailing, blog instead of writing a letter, blog instead of publishing.
    2012/8/7: Most importantly, blog instead of Facebook: Facebook is a walled garden that can’t be accessed publicly. And many ideas that could become fully formed blog posts never get beyond a short rant if they’re shared in Facebook. 
  3. Get creative: Take the creativity advice of Gifford Pinchot III, and always keep index cards or a quarto on you. The time when you have a creative idea to post is most likely not when you are in front of a computer. So grab that handy pen and paper, outline your post, and it’ll be quick and easy to post when you next sit in front of a computer.
    2012/8/7: These days, I like to use Wunderlist to keep track of what I’m going to blog.
  4. Scratch an itch: My own blog originated from my desire to keep track of books that I had read. As I borrowed more books to read (instead of buying), I found it difficult to keep track of books and authors I liked. That make it difficult to decide what books to read next. I could have simply kept a log on my computer, but it’s much more fun to share with everyone. Now using my blog helps me do something I already wanted to do, and that’s true even if no one ever reads it. The epilogue to MIT’s open source book has an interesting discussion of the open source principle applied to writing:
    “While every writer will tell you they write for themselves, this is more a statement of principle than an actual description of process—a piece of writing, whether a textbook or a novel, needs an audience to succeed. A programmer who claims to writes code for him or herself, on the other hand, is often telling the literal truth: “This tool is for me to use. Additional users are nice, but not necessary.”

    If you can manage to write and simultaneously create value for yourself through your writing, then you have a double motivation to write.

  5. Eliminate barriers: If posting on your blog requires you to jump over a dozen hurdles, you won’t do it. Eliminate barriers, and you’ll find that even five minutes can be enough to start an interesting post. Use simple blog software with a WYSIWYG editor so you aren’t spending time messing with HTML. Keep a browser window open to your blog editor at all times, so it is always easy to get to. Start a post, even if you won’t have time to finish it now, and keep the edit window open. You’ll come back to it later when you do have time.
  6. Have modest expectations: I’m sure I could have made this a “top ten” list, but seven items came easily, and still fulfilled the purpose of the post.
  7. Set a goal: E set the goal of posting at least once a week, and while she may have missed one week somewhere in there, for the last two months, her blog has had plenty of fresh, interesting articles. Way to go!

Update (4/12/2007): Here are several other resources about finding or making the time to blog:

Update (November 2011): I’ve been blogging less, but I’ve also written three science fiction novels, so the principles here work for things other than just blogging. 

Correspondent from the Future: Future & Digital Storytelling
Baratunde Thurston
The Onion
Webvisions 2012, wvpdx
  • @jjpolitics 
    • jack and jill politics
    • “the watermelon has long symbolized intelligence discourse”
  • tv host discovery channel “future of”
  • director of digital at @theonion
  • live hate-tweeting: all twilight movies
  • Author of How To Be Black
    • if you don’t buy this book, you’re a racist
  • Use brainstorm for headline about steve jobs death
  • For live-tweeting events, have prep documents with many dozens of tweets prepared.
  • for oscars: search onion archive and retweet.
  • using analytics to see what got retweeted, and then used that information to decide what to published on the website.
  • Be a Platform
    • Did planned parenthood satire story about “abortionplex”
    • Didn’t ask anyone to do anything, but…
    • Someone created Yelp destination for it
    • Received 282 reviews, quite detailed.
    • Supports and extended the world/story.
  • Invite people to participate
    • “If you sight a 500 foot tall Bin Laden, send pictures.”
  • Evolve Story Across Platforms
    • Created entire campaign around mayorship on foursquare
    • Video
    • In person campaign
    • In these divisive times, we need something to bring people together. That’s whiskey. Hence, “Whiskey Fridays”.
  • #HowBlackAreYou
    • Started as a dialogue on twitter
    • Turned into an idea for a book
    • Interviewed people on video (using iPhone 4s)
    • Invited people to respond on their website and tell their own story
    • The book had dozens of questions around identity.
    • “When did you learn you were black?” … “a white ghost?”
    • Did a live-writing idea:
      • while writing certain chapters:
      • shared screen using join.me
      • shared links on google+ and twitter
      • posted rules on the left:
        • chat amongst yourself, not with me
        • don’t request control, etc.
      • “How self obsessed does one have to be to set something like this up?”
      • “I have an urge to tweet about this”
      • “Based on what I read here, I am going to buy this book.”
      • “it is interesting to see his writing flow”
  • Stories Are Worlds
    • we ask people to suspend disbelief and join us in that world
    • the platforms are just different access points into that world
  • check out http://cultivatedwit.com

I just had an interesting conversation with Gene Kim talking about why some topics, be they blog posts or books, attract a lot of attention, while others seem to languish.

It seems that there is an equation that looks something like this:

Attention = f(“Number of people interested in topic”, “Uniqueness of relevant search terms”, “Uniqueness of content offered”, “Value of content”)

That is, there are four factors that dictate the amount of attention a blog post or book gets:

  1. Number of people interested: When I wrote several blog posts about the 4-Hour Body in the beginning of 2011, many people were highly interested. The book had just come out, and Tim Ferriss had a massive marketing/promotion machine. Similarly, I recently had a very popular post on rapid scaling of web applications – another important topic that many people are interested in.
  2. Uniqueness of relevant search terms: “4-Hour Body” is a unique name that didn’t have any search engine conflicts. 
  3. Uniqueness of content: When I wrote my 4-Hour Body content, the book had just come out, and there were almost no other blog posts on the topic. The posts I wrote were unique – content that wasn’t in the book or anywhere else.
  4. Value of content: The content must be valuable enough that people make a decision to share through social media, blog posts, and aggregators.

Using Social Media To Get Published
Cat Rambo, (Mary) M.K. Hobson, Mary Rosenblum / Mary Freeman, Chris Lester
OryCon 33
  • For a new writer, who is just getting started out, is it important to be on social media?
    • Cat: Yes and no. If they are just getting started, they don’t need to be broadcasting. But they need to be following editors and agents and more experienced writers. They can get the relationships that will get them published.
    • Hobson: Social media is like an online con that never ends. You need to be fostering those connections. Don’t be annoying, needy, etc.
    • Lester: What does publishing mean to you, and why do you care?
      • If it means a major deal with one of the big six and your book in Barnes and Noble, then it probably isn’t going to help.
      • If it means that tens of thousands of people are accessing your content and enjoying it, then yes, it can really help.
      • If you are dependent on NY publishing, then you are dependent on an archaic system that does have nothing to do with whether someone is successful or not.
    • Mary: Yes, you need to do it. If you’re only goal is major publisher, it will help somewhat. Some publishers will notice that. But it’s not that big of a deal. But if you are coming to any publisher with a established fanbase, that makes you eminently more publishable. 
      • Plus, if no agent or editor will pick you up, now you are positioned to self-publish.
      • Someone I work with, her first week she sold 1,000 books. That’s damn good.
  • How to use social media?
    • I’m seeing a lot of very ineffective use. How do we do it well?
    • Set up your accounts so that when you tweet, it goes to your Facebook.
    • When you read something you like, tell the writer. Social media makes that easier.
    • Hobson: Look at some examples
      • John Scalzi: Old Man’s War. He put it out onine, it got a great reception, and then was picked up by a publisher.
      • Cory Doctorow puts all his stuff online.
      • When I started, the conventional wisdom was put nothing online.
      • Now that may be turning around. You can put stuff online and build a readership.
    • Lester: 
      • Scott Stigler: Put out a bunch of different books in podcast form. Had five or six of them. Finally got his first book deal. Bidding war between two publishers.
        • By the time the book came out, the publisher was very heavily invested in it, and really pushed it.
        • And he had a big fan base.
        • And yet, he still made far more money from his other self-published series.
      • Tim Pratt does short stories – and podcasts of them. The podcast spreads everywhere in the social media world. Everyone knows his name.
      • You can expect 5% of the people who take something for free to actually pay for it.
  • The Giveaway
    • Mary: If you have a short story that you’ve tried with the big publishers, and they’ve rejected it, put it online. It will do more for you that way than shopping it around to smaller publishers.
    • Lester: Give away the first book free. 
      • People are drawn to production values: It has to look like someone cared about this, and put their time and money into it.
      • Then for the next book, put the book for sale up front. Then give away the book, a chapter a month. There will be plenty of people want to know what happens next, and they’ll pay to get that book.
  • You have to have a good product. Pay for a proofreader. Pay for an editor. Make sure it is good. People won’t pay for it if it isn’t. 
    • The reason you only get a $1.40 out of your $14 book from a NY publisher is because they are paying for a proofreader and an editor.
  • Make sure you understand the difference between a content editor, a copy editor, and a proof reader. Don’t hire one person to do it all.
    • $1 – $1.50/page.
    • $1000 for a book.
    • 2-5 cents per word.
    • a content editor or development editor is looking at structure, asking for revisions.
    • a copy editor is looking for logical errors, checking facts, checking language.
    • a proof reader is checking for typos, dropped words, commas in the right place.
  • What are you putting there social media?
    • Cat Rambo writes historical fiction. People who read historical fiction will be interested in historical articles, period costumes, etc.
    • Social media has to be authentic. It doesn’t have to be all of you. But it has to be real.
      • There’s an entire industry in silicon valley to try to fake authenticity. Big business doesn’t get it.
      • You have to be able to give up some privacy and some stuff about you to build the relationships so that you can be followers.
      • Think about what you want to remain private and what you don’t want to be private.
  • Personal Connection
    • Readers recommend books when they have a personal connection with the characters.
    • Readers recommend authors when they feel a personal connection with the author.
  • Know your circles well.
    • With Google plus, you can set up circles
      • your fans
      • your fans and acquaintances you’ve met in real life
      • your trusted friends
  • Q: Where should I spend my time? Facebook? Twitter? Google plus? Blog?
    • Use them all.
    • Cross link them. So when you do one post, it goes everywhere.
    • Know what they are useful for.
  • Twitter
    • It’s your watercooler conversations. You go over to the watercooler, you listen to a few sentences, and you say a few sentences, and then you leave.
    • Use it to converse with authors and fans. Sharing things you think are cool.
    • Use it to direct people to a larger article or larger discussion elsewhere.
  • Forums
    • Set up a fan forum, if you get that successful. Then set up a super fan as a moderator. Pop in once in a while, but let the fans have their space and moderate themselves.
  • Expanding your social media base
    • you must expand your base
    • some of it will happen automatically
    • if you are entertaining, it will attract people.
    • but make a decision: are you building your career, or going to relax? Because those are different kinds of posts.
    • Hobson: Spent the last six months reading what other people say and responding to it, amplifying it.
  • Building connections
    • See what other people need, and see if you can give it to them.
      • If you can, you build relationships and credibility.
    • Lester: Had a book with a female protagonist. There was a woman in the podcast community who was doing lots of voice recording, but not getting paid for them. He offered to pay her to record his stuff. Not only she do that, but she talked about him to everyone else. And she knew a lot of people in the podcasting community.
  • Author profile vs. personal profile on Facebook
    • Do make a separate author profile.