Why Do I Blog?

TL;DR:

In which, as a result of a post by Atanas Entchev, I postulate on why I continue to do this blog thing. This is a departure from my typical subject matter and you can be forgiven for not reading any further.


My friend Atanas Entchev’s latest post on a possible decline in GIS blogging got me looking at my own output. After and initial surge, I have held steady at 40 to 45 posts per year. The discussion around Atanas’ post, both in his blog comments and on his Google+ stream, got me thinking about why I continue to do this. So, at the risk of being accused of engaging in philosophical navel-gazing, here it goes.

This blog was not my first attempt at blogging. I originally had an ESRI-development focused blog on Blogger in about 2004. I think I made four or five posts, let it languish for a bit, and then killed it off. The main reason for that is that I wasn’t really sure what I was trying to accomplish with a blog. I never even backed it up so whatever was there is lost to the ages.

Fast-forward to 2006 when I was at a stage in my career where I was working at a fairly cloistered customer site, building a human resources management system…in VB.NET no less. It was the first time since the beginning of my career that I was away from the GIS industry and I wasn’t interested in letting my skills soften. Up until that point, I had been primarily an ESRI developer but I was now using evenings at home to do experimental stuff to keep current. My company machine had ArcMap on it but I wasn’t going to swing an SDE license at home so I started looking at PostGIS. That’s when I ran across zigGIS and used it to extend out of my ESRI comfort zone into the world of open-source GIS.

All of that lead me to start blogging. Initially, I was doing web searches to find out how to do things I was trying to with ArcObjects and PostGIS. I would occasionally find a post that provided a good overview of a coding techniques or an in-depth discussion of how a piece of software behaved, but they were few and far between. That’s when I finally had a concept for a blog: to write the kind of blog that I was looking for and would want to read. So my early posts featured a lot of code snippets and such (this was in the pre- Gist days when sites like SourceForge, Google Code and CodePlex were overkill for snippets). It also generally tracked my growing personal explorations with open-source tools.

So that’s how I got into blogging but the title of this post is really looking for the reasons why I keep doing it. I’ll summarize:

  1. To give back – Over the years, the snippets have gotten more sporadic but I still try to post some outputs of my work from time to time. I can’t really devote the time to jump into an open-source project with both feet so my hope is that my blog can be an avenue to contribute back some of the knowledge I derive from my work.
  2. To engage – I am a consultant after all. I am able to continue to ply my trade by being known and my blog is one component of building the track record of my work. Due to vagaries of Federal contracts, much of my work remains behind firewalls so my blog is a way to demonstrate some of what I can do outside the standard Federal procurement process. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my blog has been an avenue by which I have met a number of people that I now consider friends. For fear of leaving someone out, I won’t enumerate them here but the act of writing my blog, and reading others, has helped me connect with a lot of people I am glad to know.
  3. To act as my own resource – I have often gone back to mine old posts to find a technique I implemented in the past and bring it forward to my current work. So, while my blog is out there for the public to see, it has become something of my own personal archive as well. It remains to be seen whether GitHub and Gist will put a dent in that use case.
  4. To tidy up my own mind – It actually takes a lot of work to prepare a post, or at least it does for me. Oftentimes, I have a lot of “bit and pieces” floating around in my head and on various notepads and such. One of the attributes of working at multiple locations is that various pieces of related information can become scattered across separate e-mail systems, content management systems, notepads, post-its and the like. I can’t always have my smartphone with me or access my GMail, so some fragmentation can set in. Taking the time to write a post is an excellent way for me to pull together all of those disparate bits, organize them into a cohesive approach, and document that approach for others and for me (see item 3).
  5. I am a writer – I used to write a lot of fiction and poetry. One day I may do so again. Until then, my blog scratches the itch for stringing some words together into something coherent.

I remain committed to the idea of writing the kind of blog that I would want to read and I have tried to be consistent about that over the years. I am actually quite humbled that it seems to have found an audience, that anyone other than me reads it, and that others find value in it.

I can completely understand Jonathan Crowe’s decision to end his long-running, and excellent, blog The Map Room. Sometimes things just run their course. This much I can say: I won’t be ending mine in the near future. Late last year, I took the step of migrating my blog from WordPress.com to a Jekyll/Octopress site hosted on GitHub pages. Extracting six years of content from WordPress was no small task (thanks for the help, James) so I did a gut check before moving forward. I decided that taking that step was a commitment to keep the blog going for the foreseeable future.

So back to Atanas’ post: I do think GIS blogging, in the form it took when I started, is in decline. There were a lot of personal GIS blogs in 2006, many of which have fallen by the wayside. That’s probably true of blogs in general as social media platforms have eaten away at them. I don’t know that it’s a loss; I don’t know that it’s important at all. Human communication evolves over time. We just happen to be in a period where that process seems to be moving rapidly.

That said, some good individual blogs have popped up but I think blogging in general is becoming more polished and corporate. I think some of the better original content these days comes from multiple authors contributing to organizational blogs. In the geospatial industry, the MapBox blog stands out as this type of blog. Yes, the blog forwards the ends of MapBox but its content is genuinely useful to those trying to put MapBox to use. The same can be said of some of Esri’s blogs, the content of which has shown marked improvement over the last 24 months or so.

Blogs can also help small companies establish their identity. At my company, we started a blog a while back as a means to add fresh insights into our capabilities beyond the standard representation that most company web sites provide. Blogs are a nice long-form enhancement for organizations and I think they are safer because they minimize the risk misinterpretation that comes with a 140-character limit.

So that’s it. This is about as “meta” as I ever want to get on my blog. I don’t think I’ll do anything like this again because it smacks of philosophical navel-gazing. (I am usually my own harshest critic in that area.) Thank you, as always, for stopping by.

  • Great insight into the state of (GIS) blogging. Twitter took the discussion away from blogs, but long-form blogging will live on.

  • Duarte

    Good to hear a defense for blogging, especially in technical areas. It seems lazyness has taken down the web as we knew it… you can’t compare blurbing 144 chars against a well written blog post. Besides googling does not show you tweets 😉

  • Gretchen Peterson

    Teaching others the principles of cartography in a better way than what’s come before. That’s why I blog.

    • If I may say so, you are quite successful at that.

      • Gretchen Peterson

        Thanks Bill!

  • Nailed it 🙂

    I blog because I enjoy sharing. Since I started in 2009 it became hard to suppress that “holy crap this is awesome” feeling I get when I see something cool and to not want to share with other people. I blog in order to make my writing and programming skills better, the same reason I work on open source. I blog because it makes me feel good knowing I’m not just keeping everything to myself and other people will benefit. Finally I blog because I own the content http://www.hanselman.com/blog/YourWordsAreWasted.aspx

  • Matt Wilkie

    +10 for #4. Collecting the various flotsam from our disparate places and operating means IS a lot of work, but work that generates real value. I think of it like harvesting. We sprout seedlings all over the place — multiple computers, Q&A threads, email, twitter, hallway conversations, behind firewall projects — but it’s when they’re brought together into the (hopefully) cohesive whole of a blog post or article that they’re true value is made manifest. For my part, I stopped blogging, though I was never strong in it to begin with, because I tired of fighting the tools to do it with all the time. I spend enough time doing that at work!