Yesterday I wrote this on twitter: “I must confess I very rarely read data visualization blogs, most are depressingly predictable and shallow.” Yes, it’s not the nicest sentence I could write, but it’s true: most data visualization blogs suck. They do not inform, they do not entertain.
At VisWeek, last month, we organized a pretty successful Birds-of-Feathers (BoF) titled “Blogging about Visualization”. I and Robert advertised the thing a bit and we managed to gather a pretty cool bunch of people around a table. We spent at least a couple of hours all together and then we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a Greek restaurant.
During the BoF we discussed several aspects related to blogging (check the nice summary wrote by Dominikus to know more) but what struck me the most is the following: (1) people desperately want to know how to succeed with blogs; (2) people think it is a sort of black art when in fact it’s only a matter of mindset and hard work; (3) there are endless possibilities to open new blogs.
Yet, the decent blogs around can be counted with the fingers of one hand. And I want to see more great stuff, because either we grow as a community or nobody will grow. Here are some personal thoughts about blogging and a number of tips I want to share with you, hoping they will convince some among you to open the best data visualization blog ever.
The Data Visualization Showcase is Dead
When I think about why many data visualization blogs are so useless, the reason number one that comes into my mind is that they try to replicate a dead model: the data visualization showcase (I fell into this trap twice before creating FILWD, so I know what I am talking about). The showcase model is this: “Hey folks, look how cool this is“. Stop. Iterated x-times per week.
You don’t need a blog for this. It was maybe true 5 years ago but with the advent of Facebook and Twitter it’s totally useless. Also, and even more important, there’s no way for you (and for me) to compete with Infosthetics and Flowing Data (@Andrew: I know you don’t agree with me on the death of the data visualization showcase, but what can I do? This is what I think ).
Let me clarify. I don’t think these two blogs are useless. Andrew and Nathan did an enormous service to our field and we all have to thank them from the bottom of our heart, but it’s foolish to believe we need more of that.
Three key reasons why (vis) blogs suck
I could name a hundred, and by the way if you buy a book on blogging (like the classic mainstream ProBlogger) you will find millions, but here I’ll focus on those I believe are especially troublesome for vis blogs (apart from the data visualization showcase which is the most troublesome).
Trouble #1 – Taking it as a hobby. This is the most problematic. People write blogs casually, once in a while, when they have nothing special to do or when they feel something is so cool they have the urge to share it with the world, that is, three friends. Amateur blogs are everywhere and pollute the whole web. If you want to succeed with your blog it’s important for you to realize that you have to sweat your damn shirt. On the contrary, if you don’t want to succeed, why polluting the web with your blog? Think about it, it’s an ecology thing: every piece of information you put on the web may decrease the already feeble signal to noise ratio we have. Do you want to contribute to the noise?
There’s no other way to succeed than taking it as a serious endeavor, believe me. Blogging takes a lot of planning and work. Every single post may take many hours distributed across days, weeks, or even months. And that’s just the effort needed to create content, without counting administration and marketing. You might not see it, but behind every single post here there is a huge amount of work, and I know it’s the same for other fellow bloggers.
Being serious about your blog then it’s not only a matter of content but also of being committed to have a somewhat regular schedule, especially at the beginning. People hate dead trees and for a good reason. Please do me a favor: if you are considering opening a blog, take the whole thing very seriously. You need a good reason for opening a blog and if you don’t have one, sooner or later you will give up. I don’t want to discourage anyone, to the contrary, I want to see more great blogs! But I am also tired of shallow blogs and dead trees.
Trouble #2 – Providing limited value. What is *special* about your blog? I know, it’s a tough question. But, if you are not totally honest with yourself about that, you will have problems. People stop by and read your blog only because you are able to deliver some kind of value. What value? I don’t know … you name it. As a general rule people read for two main broad reasons: to learn or to be entertained (or both). Are you able to deliver unique knowledge that other people cannot deliver? Or do you have a special irresistible style that people love so much they are eager to see what’s next? That’s the trick, that’s the obsession you have to have to succeed.
Many, many, many vis blogs are shallow just because they do not give in, they do not have anything special to offer. They don’t even try to differentiate themselves from the rest. It’s a game in which you lift the bar 1 inch higher every single time you write. The web is a jungle, people jump from one web page to another in a matter of seconds, how do you plan to let someone stop and read through what you write? Let’s take the data visualization showcase mentioned above: do you think you can attract people by showing new visualizations every day? Do you think you are more skilled than the current main players in finding new stuff? I have several doubts.
When I opened FILWD it was clear to me I could not compete with the big guys (and I didn’t want to anyway) so I asked myself: “what skills or knowledge do I have that I can use to gain a competitive advantage?” And my answer was that I have direct access to vis research and researchers and that I know vis theory better than the average geek. I am sure you have your own uniqueness so try to think hard how to use it.
Trouble #3 – Forgetting to show a real face.People are too busy to absorb the bare information, and information by the way is not a scarce resource anyway. Many blogs are plain dry, it looks like the writer does not exist or hides behind the curtains. Where are the emotions, opinions, and fun? Writing about scientific stuff does not imply being serious, objective or dry. The best bloggers show their face and risk their reputation every single post. Sometimes I feel a pain in the stomach before hitting “publish”. I happened to think: “people will kill me for this one “.
Similarly, many bloggers don’t spend any time thinking whether they have a style or not. But *your* style matters a lot and you’d better know what it is. There are a million styles and be careful not to fake it. Your style has to be natural but it also has to shine through your words and visual design. Take for instance Stephen Few: Oh boy … I hate the way he expresses his opinions, he makes me cling my teethes at times, but you rest assured I read every single line of what he writes. What is your style then?
How do you create (or revamp) a successful vis blog?
Hey this is slippery terrain: every single blogger has his own formula and you can find a million sources on the web on how to make your blog successful. I don’t pretend to be a blog guru, but I can share with you the things that really worked for me, with the hope they will assist you in case you want to open your blog.
Tip #1 – Find your final cause. How do you plan to change the world? Why do you want to open a blog? Once you put aside all the legitimate ego trip we all make what is left for the others? Successful blogs are centered around the readers, they want to make the world better. They strive to provoke shifts in people’s mind. How do you plan to be ridiculously helpful for people? With FILWD I planned from the very beginning to help people become visualization experts, then I discovered I could sometimes help them think in unconventional ways. What’s your cause? I’ll give you an example: do you know anything about Data without Borders? That’s a cause folks!
Tip #2 – Study a lot. Before starting FILWD I read an endless amount of material about blogging, I trashed many and kept some. I studied the strategies of many many successful bloggers in many other areas out of visualization. I could name hundreds of sources but you have to do your own research. Among the thousands things I read, there are two gems that really shine: Trust Agents, a must read even if not an easy read, and Think Traffic, the best blog about blogging ever.
Tip #3 – Plan ahead and find your style. Before starting FILWD I wrote down a thousand plans and eventually came up with two key pieces of information: (1) my target posting schedule; (2) a very few number of post categories. The posting schedule does not have to be very tight but it has to be somewhat regular, especially before your blog is established; people hate guessing when you are going to post the next article (and of course I am still struggling with it). Having a number of predefined post categories is the best piece of advice I can give, it helped me being totally clear about what I wanted to write and especially what I did not want to write. For instance, I very rarely write about other people’s work unless it is an inspiration for a broader argument. You can check my categories on the blogs and you will see they are very few. When I write a new post I think: “what category do I want to write in today?”
Tip #4 – Be ready to walk through the dark and deep valley of loneliness. Blogging reminds me when I started learning how to play guitar many years ago. At the beginning it’s so frustrating, it looks like you will never be able to play two chords one after another. With blogs the problem is that at the beginning you have zero readers and you have to spend a lot of time preparing these stupid posts nobody will ever read. Very painful. But it’s totally transitory: if you keep doing the good work, people will come and will love your post written to nobody in the past. That’s a very key element of blogging: being able to go through the deep valley and wait until it blossoms. You have to have faith: it will be great.
Tip #5 – Find your own buddies. What is life without friends? I don’t have to tell you how to use twitter, Facebook, or Google plus right? Plus I don’t think there is a unique formula. But hey, make sure to build a thriving environment around your blogs and your ideas. Somebody said “No man is an island”, well this is especially true in this business. Find some buddies, share your ideas with them, test your ideas before writing a post, be exceedingly generous and genuine and people will gather around you.
Tip #6 – Experiment. Blogging is a constant experiment. You write a very successful post with a given strategy, you try to replicate it and it doesn’t work. I like to think about blogging as a radio knob you have to manipulate to find the right frequency to tune with your audience. The frequency is always shifting and your work is to be able to seek the right spot all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s not a big deal as long as you keep trying. Blogs, for instance can accommodate very different media and it’s a good idea to experiment with them. I experimented a few times with video and I was scared shitless because of it.
There are of course many other things you can do to make your blog successful, many of which I don’t know yet. Everyone has his own path, you have to find yours. I know one thing for sure: hard work always pays off. Always.
Need a good reason for opening a blog?
Hey, I hope I did not scare you too much up to this point. There is one thing I want to make sure you get out of this blog post: opening a blog may be one of the smartest choices you can make in your life. Again I could name hundreds of reasons why blogging is great but for me the most important one is that it feeds my mind in a way I could not get with other means. Blogging so far helped me, at least, in these many ways:
- I became a much better writer
- I became a sharper thinker (thanks to having to write what I think)
- I know much better how the web works
- I know many more great thinkers … and they know me
- My ideas are debugged by a large crowd of people
- If I have a burning question I have lots of people to whom I can ask
- I get invited for talks
- It feeds my research and my research feeds it
- I might write a book one day thanks to it
I can testify that all the effort is definitely repaid by the myriad of benefits you can get. Some people do blogging for the money, and some are pretty successful, and some other for the glory. But whether you do it for the bling bling or not, the formula is always the same: you have to write epic shit. There are altruistic and egoistic benefits from blogging and they are all fine as long as you have a good balance. Blogging makes you grow internally, you find yourself improving in many ways, and it helps you having a powerful interface with the world. But it also helps people thrive thanks to your work, and that’s absolutely priceless.
Start a kick-ass visualization blog today!
Let me add one final remark. If you are thinking of opening a data visualization blog, a good one, please do it! We have a desperate need for quality content and I want to have my inbox filled up with exciting ideas. If you need more help send me a line or ask to professional bloggers. I do think there is a huge space for new blogs in this area, you just need to find your niche. For instance, I am looking forward to data visualization blogs related to one specific application area. Or, another great one I’d love to see is a blog with a frequent posting of interesting little visualization experiments. It’s up to you now, let’s make data visualization better together!