Blogosphere

You should start a blog

If you have thoughts, ideas, or stories to tell, if you are working on a creative project or have one in mind, then you should start a blog to showcase your work and share it with the world.

Just expect that blogging won’t make you rich or famous. There was a time when bloggers could attract vast audiences, but those days are over. We’re in the post-blog era; the big audiences are all on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube now. This is why in recent years I’ve dissuaded people from starting new blogs.

But I was wrong and I’m reversing my position. You should start a blog.

Unless you’re already famous, gaining attention on the Internet beyond your friends and family requires lots of both effort and luck. The biggest audiences are on social media, so it might seem obvious to do it there. But the giant tech companies nakedly seek monopolistic control. They gather and use information about you in any way they please. Facebook and Google are actively working to wall you off from the rest of the Web so that you stay always within their services. Google is now more about advertising than helping you find things on the Internet. These companies monetize you. They are not on your side; they are not your friends.

A blog is free from the datamongers and monopolists. Starting a blog extends a solid middle finger toward their practices, and uses the Web in the open and equal fashion that its builders envisioned.

The giant tech companies can still be useful to you and your blog, however. Organic search still can lead people to your work, and you can use social media to promote your blog and individual posts. (I need to write a post about what I’ve learned about both.)

So: start a blog. With effort, persistence, and patience you’ll find the people who find what you do to be interesting. With a more effort, you can build a community of those people. This is incredibly satisfying!

I want to tell you about the Courthousery blog. Ted Shideler had an idea to document every still-standing Indiana courthouse — city, county, state, and federal, past and present. Little by little he drove to every one of Indiana’s 92 counties to photograph them. He researched each one and told its story. He’s even beautifully woven some of his personal stories into some of the posts, which is one of the quirky and interesting things you can do in a blog. He’s covered most of Indiana’s courthouses now, so he’s branched out to nearby states to keep going.

Courthouse at Paoli
Orange County Courthouse, Paoli, IN. Pentax ME, 28mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Ektar 100, 2012.

Ted will probably decide one day that he’s completed his project and stop updating his blog. But then his blog becomes a permanent record, a site people interested in a particular courthouse, or in courthouses in general, will find when they search. They’ll be grateful for Ted’s careful and thoughtful work.

If Ted had posted his research and photographs only on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, they would have become lost. Have you ever tried to find an old social-media post? It’s nearly impossible. They’re not available to search engines, either. They’re meant to be of the moment.

They’d not be entirely lost to Ted, who has the right to download his own Facebook posts. You have the right to download yours, too; do it on this page. But that would include everything you’ve ever posted there, not just posts related to your project. It could be a staggering amount of information to sort through. But crucially, it would not include the comments anybody left on your posts.

Because Ted chose to blog, however, he can export just his project at any time and save it on his own computer — comments and all. WordPress.com has especially robust blog export tools, which is one reason I recommend WordPress.com for bloggers.

Even though neither Ted’s finite project nor my continuing photographs and stories have mass appeal, there are people in the world who enjoy what we do. It’s a big world — some people are likely to enjoy what you do, too.

You can attract readers to your blog, and keep them. You do it one reader at a time. Some readers will find you through search. Some will find you as you promote your posts on social media. Some will find you through word of mouth, which is how I found Ted’s blog. Persist, and you will find an audience.

Courthousery is Ted’s gift to the world. Down the Road is my gift to the world. Your blog can be your gift to the world. What do you have to say? What do you have to show? There will be others who find it interesting.

Start a blog!

If this post has encouraged you, here are links to a whole bunch of other posts I’ve written that share many of the things I’ve learned about how to blog well.

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Blogosphere

Pasting Flickr embed codes into WordPress blocks no longer works

Software engineers all over the world continuously deliver new and changed functionality to WordPress.com. This is great when you like the changes, and not so great when you don’t. Especially when you have to learn all new steps to do something you’d already learned to do and were happy with.

One major change was the new block editor. It was a whole new way of approaching creating content. I found it to be easy to learn and I like it a great deal better than any other editor WordPress has ever offered.

One thing I especially liked about it was how easily I could embed images from Flickr, which is where I host most of my images. In the old editors, embedding a Flickr image was a multi-step process. One of those steps was manually stripping out of the embed code a <script> tag that WordPress tripped up on.

WordPress actually doesn’t allow <script> tags in posts. This is wise, because those tags execute in your browser code that’s stored elsewhere. That code could be malicious. The code Flickr wants to run in your browser is harmless, but there’s no way for WordPress to know that.

In the block editor, simply pasting the Flickr embed code into an empty block stripped the <script> tag and made the image appear. Yay!

But this functionality was recently removed with neither warning nor explanation. Pasting a Flickr embed code into a block now results in a blank block.

But not an empty block. When you switch the block to HTML view, some HTML code appears. WordPress converted the Flickr embed code to the image’s simple URL wrapped in a hyperlink tag, wrapped in a paragraph tag, like this:

<p><a href="URL_of_Flickr_image"></a></p>

This is a malformed hyperlink, in that it specifies the link target (the page to go to, here the URL of the Flickr image) but no text or image to which to attach the hyperlink. The browser correctly renders this as blank.

Thinking I’d found a bug, I opened a case with WordPress.com support. They told me that simply pasting the Flickr embed code should never have worked because of the <script> tag. They didn’t explain why.

I pointed out to them that before this change, blocks flawlessly stripped out <script> tags. I asked if they would restore the old functionality. They said with no explanation that they would not.

They gave me two alternatives. The first is to paste the Flickr image’s URL into an empty block. This does work, but the image is of a fixed size, which is narrower than the block on some screens. I did it below, so you can see. There doesn’t appear to be any way to increase the image size. I almost always want the image to scale to full width, so this alternative won’t work for me.

Pay parking

The other alternative they offered is to paste the Flickr embed code into a block of type Custom HTML. This adds three extra steps I didn’t have to do before:

  1. Convert the automatically created default block to a Custom HTML block.
  2. After pasting the Flickr embed code, manually delete the <script> tags.
  3. Open the block menu and choose Convert to Blocks to show the embedded image rather than its underlying HTML code.

This is not onerous, but it is disappointing because several days ago I did not have to do these steps. A real benefit I gained with the block editor is now lost. These steps give me the same end result I had before, at least.

Pay parking

In my work as a software engineering manager in a company that delivers a software product over the Internet, I’ve personally led engineers to deliver changes that have caused users frustration. There are a lot of valid reasons to do it. But users hate to be surprised by changes that alter their workflows, especially when they don’t know why it had to change.

I’d love it if WordPress.com would revert to the old functionality so I can just copy and paste those Flickr embed codes and move on. But I’d have an easier time accepting this loss of functionality if someone had given me even a flimsy explanation of why.

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Personal

Switching from NBC to PBS, in a manner of speaking

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve turned off the ads on my blog.

They had become more trouble than they were worth. Ad placements I didn’t authorize kept appearing, ruining the look and feel of the blog. Many times I heard from readers that ads were auto-playing videos or, worse, automatically redirecting to junky and scammy sites. I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with WordPress.com support, getting them to turn off the unauthorized placements and squash the bad ad actors.

I made only about 50 cents a day from ads here. That paltry income wasn’t worth the hassle and, more importantly, the risk of alienating you. Nobody wants to keep visiting a site where videos automatically play or the page suddenly redirects to “Your computer is suffering from 23 viruses!!!!!”

The small stream of income was nice, as it covered this blog’s annual hosting costs with a little left over. But it’s not like I can’t afford this blog. Down the Road will live on without ad revenue.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Perhaps, however, you’d like to partner with me to fund more film, cameras, and adventures. If you do, you can click this “Buy me a coffee” button to send me $3. My favorite color film costs about $3 a roll, so it’s perfect.

I’ll quietly drop that button into posts from here on out. Clicking that button can be your way of saying you appreciate my work and want me to keep at it. But no pressure or stress — you’re welcome and wanted here even if you never click the button.

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Blogosphere

Three tips to increase engagement with your blog

As a veteran blogger and a veteran reader of blogs, I want to share some key things I’ve learned about how to encourage readers to keep coming back.

Your readers have only so much attention to give. Your blog is part of a wide stream of information swishing past everyone you hope will read your writing. They, too, quickly decide what to read and what to pass by.

Here are three things you can do now to help readers not pass your posts by.

Write descriptive titles and strong opening paragraphs. This lets everyone know why your post is awesome, and gives them a good reason to keep reading.

I used to write clever or obscure titles and then ramble in early paragraphs. I thought I was a witty raconteur but in reality readers didn’t track with me. When I started writing simple, declarative titles and got to the point in my first or second paragraph, pageviews and comments began to grow.

Doing this well takes practice. I don’t always succeed! But I keep working at it. You can too. For good examples by other bloggers, check out this post and this post.

Share complete posts, not just excerpts, in your feed. I buck conventional wisdom with this recommendation.

Before I explain, here’s some background. Readers can find out if you’ve published in several ways. They can always just come to your blog. Or they can follow you on social media if you share new posts there. Or they can subscribe to your blog and get an email every time you publish.

They can also follow you in a feed reader like Feedly or Bloglovin’ or NewsBlur. These services work by picking up your blog’s feed, a technical name for the way your blog alerts these services of new posts.

WordPress, and I assume most other blogging platforms, give you an option to share only the first paragraph or so of your posts in your feed. The idea is that this entices readers to click through to your blog to read the rest.

If your excerpt doesn’t strongly communicate why your post is interesting, most readers won’t click through. (Unless you’re a celebrity and people hang off your every word.)

If you get good at writing compelling titles and opening paragraphs (or custom excerpts, a WordPress feature; more here), you should improve your clickthrough rate.

But so many people read on their phones now. If they subscribe via email or feed reader, the phone opens your posts instantly. But if you make them click through they have to wait a few seconds for the post to load in the phone’s browser. I think this is a strong deterrent. I know it deters me. I think it’s better to not throw up this barrier.

To turn off excerpts in WordPress, click My Sites in the upper-left corner of your blog and choose Settings. Click the Writing tab and scroll down to Feed Settings. Click the slider next to “Limit feed to excerpt only” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray. Click the Save Settings button.

Enable, and reply to, comments. Comments are the last key to engagement with your blog. Once they’ve read your post, let them respond.

Yes, readers still have to click through. But just as most of us are faster to speak than to listen, a reader’s desire to have a say is likely to hurtle them right over that barrier.

Several blogs I follow don’t allow comments. It’s super frustrating when they write a good post and I want to offer a perspective or praise! I assume they disable comments because so many comment sections are cesspools, full of pointless arguments and nasty insults.

Yours doesn’t have to be this way. You get to decide the the tone of your comment section. Just delete anything that crosses your line. You don’t even have to warn an erring commenter if you don’t want to.

My blog generates little controversy. But trolls, jerks, and people having bad days do show up from time to time and say unkind things. When it’s a regular commenter, I ask them to tone it down. Otherwise, I just delete the comment and move on. If you do the same, you’ll shape a pleasant comment community — one that your readers will be glad to join.

Respond to at least some of the comments you get. Readers will see that you’re willing to engage, and it will encourage them to come back.

To enable comments on your WordPress blog, click My Sites and choose Settings. Click the Discussion tab. In the Default Article Settings area, click the slider next to “Allow people to post comments on new articles” until the white dot moves to the left and the control turns gray.


Do you have any other thoughts about how to increase engagement with your blog? If so, share in the comments!

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Blogosphere

A couple weeks ago I published a mini-review of the new Gutenberg editor in WordPress. I said there that there was no clean way to embed images from Flickr.

I was wrong. It’s stupefyingly easy. You just paste the Flickr embed code directly into an empty block. The image appears instantly! It also hyperlinks back to the Flickr page from which it came, per Flickr’s terms of service.

Teacup
Flickr image embedded instantly into WordPress Gutenberg

This is far easier than how we all had to embed Flickr images in any previous WordPress editor. Given that I use Flickr to host my photographs, Gutenberg is making creating posts significantly faster for me!

Embedding Flickr images in the WordPress Gutenberg editor

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Blogosphere

Using the WordPress Gutenberg editor

WordPress has been working for a long time on a new post editor, which they’ve named Gutenberg. The folks at WordPress.com are slowly rolling it out to users, allowing them to opt in to test it. As soon as it was available to me I took the plunge, and have written several posts with it now.

I remember the last time they rolled out an all-new editor — it broke all of my workflows and frustrated me for weeks until I learned it.

Gutenberg didn’t. That’s not to say it’s like any past WordPress editor; it’s not. It doesn’t offer Microsoft Word-style editing like every other editor in the universe. Each paragraph, photo, everything is its own element known as a block.

I thought this would be the most overthought editor design ever. But then I started typing my first post, and the majority of things I wanted to do fell right to hand or were quickly discoverable.

I make software for a living. Let me tell you — the quick learnability they have delivered is no mean feat. Within a couple posts I didn’t want to use the old editors anymore. I even converted my in-progress posts to Gutenberg.

To add any kind of content, you press Enter to create a new block. If you want a text element, just type. If you want any other kind of element — image, YouTube embed, pull quote, anything — hover over the block with your mouse, click the plus-in-a-circle icon that appears, and choose the kind of content you want from the list that opens. The block will then give you every clue you need to create, link to, or embed that content.

Here’s a random image from my WordPress media library, easily inserted as a block.

Moving blocks around isn’t a cut-and-paste operation, as it is in every other editor. You hover over the block with your mouse and some controls appear that let you drag and drop the block, or move it up or down in the document.

There are a few quirks yet that I hope they iron out.

Empty image block

First and foremost for me: you can’t directly embed Flickr images. You’d think you could use “Insert from URL,” but it doesn’t work for Flickr (yet?).

Fortunately, there’s a workaround: create an image block and hover over it. A toolbar pops up. Click the icon that looks like three dots stacked vertically. From the menu that appears, choose Edit as HTML. You’ll see some block code in there; triple click to select it all. Then paste in the image’s HTML embed code from Flickr. Then click away from the block. You will get a message about it not being in block format. Click Resolve, and then scroll down and click Convert to Block.

A helpful commenter explained that you can insert a Flickr image simply by pasting its embed code into an empty block. Bam! Easiest Flickr embedding ever in WordPress!

At Coxhall Gardens
Embedded image from Flickr.

This is far easier than it was in the old editors, which had limited Flickr embed functionality. I always switched to HTML view and pasted the embed code there, which was more a pain than the workaround method in Gutenberg. But still, here’s hoping that WordPress streamlines this even more.

Another quirk is that while typing, if you delete the first letter of a word it also deletes the space before it. I have to assume this is a bug.

On my theme, at least, paragraph spacing is different (it’s most noticeable before and after images, as the image isn’t evenly spaced with the surrounding paragraphs). And image captions are centered, where the old editor left-aligns them.

There also isn’t a way to set the text Publicize uses when it sends your post to your social media accounts. I’ve been going back and doing that in the old editor; it seems to hold the formatting okay. Gutenberg creates code that is very different from the old editor’s so that wasn’t a given.

Again, I’m shocked by how easily and quickly I’m taking to Gutenberg. I look forward to WordPress improving on these quirks and adding missing functionality.

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