This Is My Hobby

Eugene Wallingford had a post last week about blogging, and popular misconceptions:

When I first started writing this blog, several colleagues rolled their eyes. Another blog no one will read; another blogger wasting his time.

They probably equated all blogging with the confessional, "what I ate for breakfast" diary-like journal that takes up most of the blogspace. I'm not sure exactly what I expected Knowing and Doing to be like back then, but I never intended to write that sort of blog and made great effort to write only something that seemed worth my time to think about -- and any potential reader's time to think about, too. Sometimes my entries were lighthearted, but even then they related to something of some value to my professional life. The one exception is my running category, which is mostly "just about me". But even then I often found myself writing about the intersection of my thoughts on running an my thoughts on, say, software development practice.

This intersects weirdly with a post of Dave Munger's from quite a while back, on "Why I Blog". I've had Dave's post saved in Bloglines for quite a while, and keep meaning to write something about it, but keep not quite getting to it. Eugene's post is headed in the same direction, and they're related, so I'm going to try to put them together, and see if I end up with anything remotely coherent.

Eugene makes a distinction between two types of blogging, one that he equates with writing essays, and another unnamed type that includes the "what I ate for breakfast" stuff mentioned above (for concreteness, let's call the two types "essay blogging" and "diary blogging"). Obviously, I do a little of both here, so why do I blog, and why do I blog the way I do?

(I also half expect to be asked some form of this question at my next meeting with my tenure committee, so it's been much on my mind of late...)

First and foremost, I do this because I enjoy it. It's not for the money (which isn't much), and it's not for the fame (which is even less), it's because I'm having fun. When it stops being fun, I'll stop doing it, or at least stop writing about the topics that are making it not-fun (there are currently two topics on indefinite hiatus).

(Continued after the cut.)

I've been doing some sort of online writing since 1993 or so, when I discovered Usenet. I shifted over to blogging in 2001-2, and haven't looked at Usenet in years, but it's the same basic impulse. I enjoy talking to people, and both Usenet and blogging give me a way to interact (albeit virtually) with huge numbers of interesting people spread over multiple continents.

Why do I blog the way I do? When I started the original version of this blog, I looked around at the blogs I was reading regularly, and asked myself what made them interesting to me. One of the things I found that I really enjoyed was seeing experts in various fields writing about the details of what they do and how they do it, including Derek Lowe's Lagniappe, the forerunner of Inside the Pipeline, which talked about the inner workings of the drug development business.

I thought that seemed like a good thing to do, and there definitely appeared to be a niche for a physics-oriented science blog, so I started writing about what I do for a living. Also, I'm just arrogant enough to think that I have a fairly interesting job, and people might like to read about it.

That explains the essay-blogging stuff, but what about the diary blogging? The other thing I noticed about the blogs I read regularly is that I tend to like blogs where you get a real sense of the person behind the blog. Narrowly focussed collections of single-topic links don't interest me as much as sites where the personality of the author is on display. And, again, I'm arrogant enough to enjoy talking about myself.

When I started doing this, I set myself some ground rules, that I've done my best to stick to:

  • No talking about internal college matters. I don't discuss department politics, I don't relate anecdotes that are embarrassing to an identifiable student or faculty member, I don't discuss on-campus happenings that you can't find in the newspaper. This one is sometimes hard, because there's a lot of interesting material there, but I like my job and want to keep it.
  • No technical jargon, unless it can't be avoided. When I talk about physics, I make an effort to keep the discussion at a level that I think will be comprehensible to the laity. As far as possible, I don't post equations, I don't use jargon terms without defining them in the post, and I don't assume knowledge of anything that you wouldn't encounter in a good high-school program. There are plenty of places to find hyper-technical, LaTeX-enabled discussions of physics concepts, if that's what you're interested in, but if I'm going to be writing to the whole Internet, I want it to be readable by as many people as possible, and not just those with Ph.D.'s in my sub-speciality.
  • No telling other people's stories. Unless I'm given permission to do so (as with the Baghdad Updates), I try to restrict my blogging to being about me and things that I know about directly. I try not to tell stories that would embarrass others, and I try not to tell stories that would better be told by someone else. I don't always succeed, but I do try.
  • If there's a question about the appropriateness or advisability of posting something, I ask Kate to read it. She's a better judge of this stuff than I am.

If I really have to, I can spin the essay-blogging part of this site as being related to my professional activities. In some sense, blogging is a public outreach activity, and some of the essays I post are derived from or recycled for class lectures. Spending a lot of time reading and writing things online has also given me a better knowledge of the world, or parts of it, and that's helpful when teaching as well.

But in the end, I do this not for any professional reason, but because it's fun. It's a hobby, not a job.


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