Why Am I Starting a Blog?
- I Don’t Have a Brand and Neither Should You
- Setting the Stage
- The Self-Promotion Game and The Curse of the Algorithmic Feed
- Regaining Control of My Digital Relationships
- Building a Digital Home
- Becoming a Better Writer
- Sharing More Thoughts Publicly
I Don’t Have a Brand and Neither Should You
My sister didn’t seem excited when I told her I was going to start a blog. “Andrew, why would you start a blog? You’re already all over the place. YouTube. Instagram. Facebook. Just choose one and stick with it. It’s not good for your brand to be all over the place.”
My sister is 18. And I have a brand. Or so my sister thinks.
Well, maybe I have a brand. I’m not quite sure.
I do have a YouTube channel, and sometimes I put videos on the Internet. I do have an Instagram and I share photos with friends, family, and a handful of random strangers from different continents that have decided to follow me. And yeah, sometimes I post on Facebook, increasingly with my audience set to “Public,” not “Friends Only.”
But I wouldn’t consider myself a YouTuber nor would I call myself a social media influencer.
The things I share do influence people. Everything we share influences the people who end up floating through our digital wakes. But I’m not an influencer™. And I don’t have a brand™.
When I first started my YouTube channel, I focused a lot on branding. What would my channel’s name be? What would the logo be? Color palette? Speaking style? What kind of trade-off should I make between humor and seriousness? Do I want people to like my personality more and find me relatable? Or do I want people to listen to my ideas seriously and think of me as trustworthy? Can’t I just have both?
In most public-facing endeavors, branding is extremely important to think about. Because if you don’t think about it, others will think about it for you. Even though every individual, company, and organization is highly complex and nuanced, people don’t have the time or mental capacity for complexity and nuance! Complexity will be compressed. Complexity will be destroyed. What simple, compressed image do you want people to conjure in their minds when they think of you? This question applies just as much for clothing brands as it does for technology products as it does for people. Will the compressed image show kindness and conscientiousness? Creativity and passion? Intelligence and determination?
I don’t think about branding too much anymore, at least not for myself. I know I just said it was ‘extremely important’ only a paragraph before, but I take it back. I take it back because normal people (like you and me) don’t need personal brands! Today, we’re living in a world where personal branding is worshipped and considered necessary. Necessary for what? I’m not quite sure.
Setting the Stage
So this blog isn’t for personal branding. Great. What is it about then?
One of the main reasons I’m starting this blog is to find a healthier way to share information online. Along the way, I hope to rebuild my digital relationships into healthier ones too.
The Self-Promotion Game and The Curse of the Algorithmic Feed
Last year, Ruth Whippman wrote a wonderful op-ed for the New York Times called “Everything Is for Sale Now. Even Us.”
"Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery. It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul."
The article talks about the constant self-promotion that everyone seems to be participating in. And I’ve definitely played my part. Whenever I finish a personal project (usually a video), I share that project on Facebook and Instagram to get it in front of as many people as I can. But self-promoting is never natural and definitely not ‘shameless’ as the saying goes.
On social networks, why does sharing something that you’ve worked on feel like self-promotion when you do it and smell like self-promotion when others do it? Isn’t telling your friends about something you’ve been working on natural and exciting? Isn’t this what friends do?
I think the answer to that question is yes! But the unfortunate truth is that your Facebook friends are not your true friends. Your true friends are a subset of your Facebook friends! And your Facebook friends are really just ~103 people that you’ve met at some point in your life, became connected to digitally, and have stayed digitally connected to since.
When you finish some project and want to share it with friends, the easiest and fastest way to do so is often just to share it online from your social media profile. But because your message is going out to ~103 people, you end up crafting your message in a gaudy, less-than-ideal fashion. If you were sharing the same idea face-to-face in person with a good friend, of course you would sound different. You’d even express the same announcement differently in a private group chat with a few close people in your life.
On top of this, when you share something on a social media platform, it’s not even guaranteed that it will reach the people that you want it to reach most (or the people that want to see it most).
However, this is the agreement we all make with social media platforms when we join. We as users aren’t the owners of our relationships with our friends and followers and subscribers. The platforms are. And they decide how our relationship plays out.
Take Facebook Pages. If you ever liked a page, it’s presumably because you like that page and want to receive information and updates from that page in the future. The page you like also wants to share updates with you and all the people that like it. One day in the past though, Facebook realized that if they de-prioritize pages in the news feed, they could get pages to pay to get their content to reach the people that they originally served the content to in the first place. And just like that, a person or organization with a million followers, a million real relationships, has all those relationships demolished in the blink of an eye… unless they pay the mob… I mean Facebook.
When posting from my own personal account, I’ve also noticed Facebook suddenly de-prioritize posts that have links in them. But not if the links are in the comment section of the post? So there are all these silly little rules that change without your awareness, and they completely affect how you can deliver your ideas to others. And this isn’t just on Facebook. It happens on every social platform. For a good reason too.
There’s just too much content! You need an algorithm to figure out what to show people. And right now those algorithms are controlled by the social media platforms. Is there an alternative? Stephen Wolfram has proposed an interesting solution where you can choose what algorithm controls your feed from a 3rd party service that you trust. But I’ll let you check out that idea on your own time.
Is it possible to sidestep the self-promotion game and the algorithmic feed and just get your message out to the people that want to hear it?
Regaining Control of My Digital Relationships
I think the answer to that question is yes, and it starts by reclaiming digital relationships. Just as I argued above, I am not the one who owns my digital relationships on social media platforms. And I want to be the one that owns them. And I want the people on the other side of my relationships to also own them. That is why I’m choosing not to start this blog on Medium. Because if I do, once again, a large social media platform will be the one that controls what the people that follow me get to see and when they see it (or should I say if they see it).
The way I’m solving this problem is with email updates that you can subscribe to here. I’ll notify you whenever I release a new essay, finish a project, or have some high-value information that I want to pass along.
If you subscribe, both of us will know you’re interested in hearing updates from me, and I don’t think it will feel like self-promotion for either of us.
Why email? Emails are private. Direct. With email, every time I send you an update, I know you will get it. Your inbox isn’t yet subject to the same algorithmic feed that social media platforms use… at least not yet. Email newsletters are becoming increasingly more popular, and I believe it’s for this exact reason. People are starting to catch on to the fact that it’s not as easy to reach people on social media as it once was. Substack, a platform that lets people start email newsletters and get paid from subscriptions, recently raised $15.3 million in a Series A.
There may be a point in the near future where email will also become too crowded with people and companies that want your attention and we’ll have to search for an even more direct and intimate relationship than email… maybe I’ll notify you when I share new things through SMS? I’m not quite sure what the future will hold. But for now, email seems like it’ll do the job.
Building a Digital Home
In the same way I hope to form better and stronger relationships with my friends in the digital world (through email), I also hope to build a better and stronger home on the Internet. I’ve realized that social media platforms not only control your digital relationships, but also control your digital aesthetic. Aside from your profile photo, cover photo, and bio, it’s really difficult to customize how you appear on the Internet. And I want to control how I appear. I want to decide what colors you see when you navigate to my virtual self. I want to experiment with what I can display and how I display it. I want to make my site interactive too. But this doesn’t mean that I’m going to add a feature that allows you to “like” or “upvote” or “clap” at my content. In fact, I probably won’t. Have you ever considered just how many aspects of your digital presence are decided for you by someone else? This website and blog are my first step toward creating a better digital home for me.
Becoming a Better Writer
I once asked someone who wrote speeches in the Obama administration how I could become a better writer. I explained to him that it didn’t make sense how anyone could become better at writing. Don’t you just sit down and let words come to you? And then you decide if you like those words? And if you don’t, then you just sit some more and wait for better words to come? What can I possibly do to get better at this process?
He told me I should write more. And that if I practice, I could become a better writer.
Okay, well, I guess that makes sense. Let’s give it a shot.
Sharing More Thoughts Publicly
This is the most important reason why I’m starting this blog. I have lots of thoughts. And I want to share as many of them as I can with the world. If I could, I would make videos for each of my thoughts. But the process of writing, filming, and editing is long and tedious. Writing will help me push ideas out into the world faster.
Why is it important for me to share my ideas with the world? I think it’s important for anyone who thinks they have something interesting to say to put their ideas out in the world.
Patric McKenzie wrote an awesome Twitter thread about ideas, the tech industry, generalists, specialists, and the market. But the best part of the thread is the ending: “Meta thought: you radically underestimate both a) how much you know that other people do not and b) the instrumental benefits to you of publishing it.”
This concludes, for the moment, an off-the-cuff list of things which would otherwise be too obvious to bring up in conversation.— Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) December 1, 2017
Meta thought: you radically underestimate both a) how much you know that other people do not and b) the instrumental benefits to you of publishing it.
I think this is extremely true. But I also think he’s missing something: c) the instrumental benefits to others of publishing it.
What seems obvious and simple for you might be deep and profound for me. And vice versa. My internal models of the world are probably quite different from most people. And I think it would be great if I can let others take a peek into how I think.
Even if some of my ideas have already been said before, I still believe it will be useful to rephrase them and frame them for a new audience. This is why science communicators like Carl Sagan and Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are so great. Even though they are saying things that have already been said, they allow more people to comprehend interesting concepts because of how they say it.
And who knows? Maybe I even have some original thoughts that have never appeared anywhere before. These would be the best kinds of thoughts to share.
Lastly, my views of personal identity align closest with Open Individualism. In Andrés Gomez Emilsson’s words, this means that “there is only one subject of [conscious] experience, who is everyone.” One implication of this philosophical position is that more humans should share more things on the Internet that might be beneficial to humanity. I’d like to contribute to this project.
Ooh, and one more thing. I’d like to acknowledge three people who helped me realize that starting a blog would be a great decision.
First, there’s Alex K Chen. Alex shares more of his internal stream of consciousness on the Internet than any other human being I know. He’s written over 60,000 questions on Quora. He posts interesting ideas on Facebook multiple times everyday. He even shared his entire genome online publicly… talk about open science!
Here’s one of Alex’s posts that made me realize it was time to start writing more:
Then, there’s Devon Zuegel. On the About me page of her website, she has a great section called “Learning in Public.” She writes, “I remember ideas best when I have the opportunity to discuss or explain them to other people. This blog is an experiment to see if summarizing, writing up reactions, and reiterating the highlights of what I’ve thought about or learned each day can have a similar effect.” Count me in on this experiment.
And third, there’s Alexey Guzey. He wrote an unbelievable piece called “Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now.” This piece catalyzed me to start this blog more than anything else. I read Alexey’s post a while ago, and intentionally decided not to re-read it before writing this one so that I wouldn’t gravitate toward any of his ideas. But now after finishing my post and re-reading his once again, it looks like I’ve unconsciously repeated some of his main points in the last section. I think that shows just how influential his words were! His post contains so much more though, so do read it as well, especially if you haven’t started a blog either.
That’s it for now.
Thank you Theresa Gebert, Joon Kim, and Charis Pipis for reviewing a draft of this piece.
Archived links from this page:
Wolfram - Algorithmc Feed Solution
TechCrunch - Substack
Patrick McKenzie Thread
Qualia Computing - Open Individualism
Opentheory - Open Individualism
Alex K Chen - Genome
Devon Zuegel - About me
Alexey Guzey - Why Have a Blog
And if you missed the link above to subscribe to my email updates (for when I release a new essay, finish a project, or have some high-value information that I want to pass along), you can do so here: