Blogging as Intellectual Activism

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Editor's Note: This is cross-posted at Intellectual Activism, a blog about how advocates of Objectivism can help the philosophy of Ayn Rand gain greater currency in the culture. I ask that comments be posted at that site when possible, and that Objectivist bloggers link to the post there as a means of promoting that blog.


Before I begin, I wish to thank the proprietor of Intellectual Activism for asking me to post about blogging. I hope to live up to the compliment by providing useful advice to his readers and to profit from the opportunity to improve my own blogging further through your constructive criticisms and suggestions.

The focus on this article will be on blogging as a means of engaging in intellectual activism. This may or may not be the primary purpose of your blogging activities, so bear that in mind during this discussion. Also bear in mind that despite my successes in blogging that intellectual activism has not been my primary focus as a blogger.

Blogging for me has been mainly a way to explore my strong interest in writing. This purpose and intellectual activism often do intersect since I enjoy writing about cultural and political issues, and I consider myself an Objectivist, meaning that as far as I grasp the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I have reached considered agreement with it.

Be an Advocate for Objectivism

This leads straightaway to some fundamental points regarding intellectual activism. I first encountered Ayn Rand over two decades ago -- about eighteen years before I started blogging in 2004. Eighteen years is a long time, and yet, despite having thought carefully about many philosophical issues during that time, I have discovered that during my blogging -- a more intense phase of such thinking -- I have changed my thinking about several applications of Rand's philosophy to the kinds of issues I write about.

As Objectivists, we appreciate the importance of philosophical ideas in shaping the cultural and political trends of the world we live in, thereby possibly also affecting our own lives. And so it is that we all want better ideas -- particularly those of Ayn Rand -- to attain a greater influence in the culture. Certainly, if this is to occur, we should do what we can to ensure that those ideas get a hearing, including when we make our own contributions to the public debate.

This means two things. First, acknowledge Objectivism when appropriate. Second, likewise indicate in your postings that these are your attempts to apply Ayn Rand's ideas to the issues at hand based on your understanding of them. You should also include some kind of disclaimer in an "about", FAQ, or other informational page (accessible via hyperlink from anywhere on your blog) to the effect that you do not claim to be an authority on Objectivism. The first will help your audience discover Ayn Rand, and the second will alert your reader, particularly if you have made an error in applying her philosophy, that what you wrote isn't necessarily consistent with Objectivism.

On a deeper level, consider again the motivation for intellectual activism, i.e., an appreciation of "the importance of philosophical ideas in shaping the cultural and political trends of the world we live in, thereby possibly also affecting our own lives". One mistake many new to Objectivism make, partly from genuine enthusiasm and partly due to the influence of altruism, is to focus too much on convincing others of Ayn Rand's ideas, and too little on understanding them thoroughly enough to profit from them in one's own life.

Objectivism is, as Ayn Rand put it, "a philosophy for living on this earth". As important as intellectual activism is, one must never lose sight of the fact that one's happiness -- not convincing others that Ayn Rand was right -- is the purpose of one's own life. In doing so, one will remain focused on understanding her ideas for oneself, in personally understanding how valuable they are, and, incidentally, also being better at intellectual activism. It is not enough to wail that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, if one does not offer a positive alternative. To make such a case convincingly, one must argue his point well, and one must convey the sincerity that can come only from having lived according to Objectivism.

In case you were wondering, this is why I italicized the phrase "for Objectivism". To win the battle for the mind, we must appeal to the best within our audience. The best arguments in the world will mean nothing if people do not see that gaining and keeping their rational values depend in some way on a proper philosophy.

A Word about Blogging

A weblog (often simply "blog") is a "website that displays in chronological order the postings by one or more individuals and usually has links to comments on specific postings." This leaves an enormous amount of latitude to a blogger, even if he restricts his purpose in blogging to intellectual activism. At the same time, the medium presents certain limitations. Here, we will look at the suitability of blogging for intellectual activism.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of this medium is how easily one can start a blog, what with the wide availability of web sites that offer free blog hosting. To the individual and for the purpose of intellectual activism, this is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you are suddenly empowered to say something (and perhaps even be heard by someone) the next time you hear about some issue on which to your knowledge, no rational perspective has been offered. On the other, if you are unsure of your grasp of Objectivism or your writing ability, be aware that you will have no editorial backup unless you arrange it for yourself.

The fact that just anybody can blog is reflected by the fact that a very few big-name bloggers get thousands of page views a day while the vast majority get fewer than one. The numbers reflect the fact that there is lots of junk out there to sift through. Of course, a low hit total does not in and of itself imply that a blog has lousy content. It can also mean that few people have heard of it yet, or that it rarely has new content.

Over the time I have been blogging, I have written several times about the many personal benefits I have realized through the hobby. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list: a chance to clarify my own thinking, a place to blow steam (in a constructive manner, of course!), new friends, contacts for more serious writing, exposure to other thinkers, improved self-discipline, practice writing, and a place for occasional diary entries. Blogging has been very rewarding to me.

One thing I have not discussed until now is the price I have paid for blogging. Although writing comes very easily to me, it still takes time -- and sometimes, finding material takes a comparable amount of time. To compare this time investment to holding a second job is not much of an exaggeration. I am talking about several hours a day, every day. I am very lucky that my wife has been supportive of my efforts, and that she is often busy anyway. Until recently, I posted twice a day during the week, but greater time demands at work and other writing activities have caused me to recently decide to normally post only once a day.

When you decide to start blogging, then, you will be one of many voices in a huge, noisy crowd. It is difficult, but not impossible, to be heard. At the risk of sounding negative, my general advice is to consider other forms of intellectual activism, including donations to the Ayn Rand Institute, letters to the editor, helping organize Objectivist clubs or events in your area, or commenting on established, popular blogs and forums -- unless you can gain other benefits from blogging until your efforts begin to bear fruit.

Nuts and Bolts

From here on out, I will focus on some concrete blogging advice. Recall that this is coming from someone who has not focused on intellectual activism or spent that much effort on publicizing his blog. Some of you may have some valuable insights to offer in those areas that I have not brought up.

I have linked to advice about blogging before. Below is a list of posts about blogging in chronological order:

Of course, if you are observant, you will note that I stopped blogging about blogging nearly three years ago! That was about the time I started feeling comfortable as a blogger and, perhaps felt less of a need to think as much about it.

So, now that I have enjoyed some success, what have I found to be effective?

As I have already mentioned, my main focus as a blogger has been on exploring my interest in writing as well as mentally "chewing" various issues that have captured my interest over the years. I have made no extraordinary efforts to achieve publicity for my blog other than to force myself to write daily during the week whether I feel like it or not.

For the purposes of intellectual activism, then, it would seem that aside from being sure that you understand and apply Objectivism as well as possible, you should concentrate on what you can do to overcome the "noisy crowd" problem.

The below list discusses in no particular order what I have done on both scores and a few things I have observed others doing on the latter score. (And my observations of others are not confined to Objectivist bloggers.) Generally, four categories of advice follow: (1) making your content readily accessible, (2) helping others locate your content, (3) improving your content, and (4) building readership. Any one piece of advice may apply to more than one of these at the same time.

  • Write. Write. Write. But I repeat myself.
  • Always go the extra mile to credit people who show you the good stories first. Not only is this good blogging etiquette, it will encourage more of the same in the future since people generally do like recognition. Fellow bloggers especially like you to link to their blogs!
  • Blog on a regular basis, preferably at least once a day on weekdays. Think of this from the point of view of a potential "regular". Why do you visit a blog repeatedly? Because you know you can expect new content there. When does it become habitual? When it becomes part of your daily routine. The more regular readers you have, the more eyes you will have out for interesting material (See above.) and the more potential referrals of new readers to you blog. If you can't (or don't want to) blog regularly, consider joining or forming a team blog.
  • Connect with other Objectivists. Since I began blogging, a strong community of Objectivist bloggers has begun to take shape. Many of us communicate by such means as the Olist mailing list, and the brand new OActivist list will be especially helpful for those more focused on activism.
  • Edit for spelling and grammar. Poor spelling, like poor grammar, is very distracting, and will make many people leave your post for the sake of sanity before they even know what you're trying to say. Those who do slog through anyway will, if they have any doubts about your point, understandably have them magnified by large numbers of errors. ("What else is he being sloppy about?") And any opponent who comments on what you said will delight (as I often do) in peppering your quotes with "[sic]" just because he can. Don't discredit yourself or help your opponents do so by being sloppy.
  • Make your content as easy to read as humanly possible. Let me repeat myself here, because this is a more common problem than you might think: Make your content as easy to read as humanly possible. A good way to do this is to make it easy for people to find the web address of your blog's RSS feed. I don't actually visit that many of the blogs I follow because I don't have time to do so. I use RSS feeds in the Netvibes feed reader. This way, I can scan for interesting headlines, mouse over them for the first few lines, and read the whole post if that piques my interest. If I decide to comment on a post at my blog, I can click through to the actual site to get the web address. People who truncate their feeds (in order to force readers to visit their site for whole posts) cost me time. If I'm in a real hurry, I skip their blogs entirely. (Time is money, and not just for me.) But wait! There's more ....
  • Use scripts and off-site content sparingly. These not only make your page load more slowly, but each one is a potential failure point that can make part or all of it not load at all. A couple of blogs I otherwise like take minutes at a time to load over a cable modem. Do you want to wait three minutes to see whether there might be a new post somewhere that takes (maybe) thirty seconds to read? Then don't ask your readers to do this, either.
  • Use standards-compliant HTML. If faulty code -- like substandard HTML "extensions" that work only with Microsoft products -- at your site crashes my browser every time I visit (with 15 other tabs open) or I can't read it easily for some reason, I'll stop visiting out of frustration. And so will anyone else in your potential audience who has a similar difficulty. Never make someone fire up a browser (or worse, recover from a browser crash) just to view your blog. Substandard HTML is the virtual gag of the blogging world.
  • Seriously consider blogging under a pseudonym if you are in academia. (HT: Diana Hsieh) Although I am openly an Objectivist at work, using a pen name allows me to control when and to whom I disclose my full views on, say, Islam, abortion, or the current war. There are many reasons besides the very compelling ones mentioned in the linked article to consider this.
  • Consider moderating comments. I have heard this called the "nuclear option", probably because of the amount of work involved or the fear of inhibiting discussion. However, I have done this for over a year myself with no noticeable drop-off in comments. If checking your email counts as "work" then it does entail more work (and it could easily be quite impractical for a larger blog), but you will always know when someone attempts to leave a comment. This has made comment spam and drive-by flames nearly non-existent and totally preventable, and has allowed me to respond to the occasional question posted to some old, half-forgotten post.
  • Join Technorati. My blog, Gus Van Horn, has been listed as relevant blog commentary several times by RealClear Politics and at least once by each of The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and The New York Times. It has been quoted twice by Slate and linked several times on the front page of City Journal. I have been asked to comment at a forum by The Chronicle of Higher Education. (I had to decline. Science is a beast of a day job!) Objectivist ideas have been heard each time, and yet this blog has never averaged more than a modest, but respectable 300 readers a day. Most of these high-impact posts were discovered by these media outlets though Technorati, which tracks blogs that link to news stories, among other things. In addition, Technorati (along with referral tracking via Sitemeter) is a good way to detect when other bloggers choose to comment on something you have said. Other, similar services may also be useful but remember that every tracking script you include in your blog template risks turning it instead into a "bog template", as we have already alluded to. This will more than negate any advantage of being tracked by more people.
  • Advertise. I have noticed Google ads placed by both Diana Hsieh and Leonard Peikoff in my Gmail reader upon logging on. I haven't done this myself, but if you want more readers, Google Ads does target your ads according to web page context. I would imagine that any Objectivist blogger or Objectivist email list subscriber who used Gmail would become a potential reader of yours.
  • Leave comments and trackbacks to higher-profile blogs. Your comments should be on-topic, say something intelligent, and link back to your blog only if your post adds to what you have just said. Ditto for trackbacks, which should always, as a matter of blog etiquette, link back to the post. Remember: You are more likely to get favorable notice for your blog and win minds if you actually participate in the conversation at hand, rather than just spamming someone else's blog for attention -- which everyone will see through, to the detriment of your reputation in the blogosphere. You can make an ass of yourself with one posted comment, but to develop a reputation as someone with intelligent things to say will likely take persistence.
  • Be a link Santa. (I thank Joe for that term!) If you can blog regularly and you follow a few good bloggers who don't, you can send them traffic (which they will appreciate) by linking to them from time to time. On days you don't have as much time to post, if you link to several such posts at once, these bloggers will have already returned the favor by saving you time. Incidentally, my roundup posts are among my more popular features, probably because I save my readers time tracking down these other good bloggers.
  • Add value to your blog with a good blogroll. Sure. Everyone already knows about NoodleFood, but aside from the fact that I like Paul, Diana, and Greg, why should I link to a blog everyone knows about anyway? To make it easy for them to visit there after they pay me a visit. If other good blogs are easy to visit from yours, your blog is a more useful place to visit than it would be if you made them bookmark those other sites themselves or -- shudder -- visit some other blog that does do this. If you want Objectivists and those receptive to our arguments to visit your blog, make it easy for them to get more. Other bloggers usually return the favor, which will sometimes send you more readers. You should include a note to the effect that links do not imply an endorsement of the other sites, whether you choose to link only to other Objectivists or, as I do, will link to almost anyone. Note that part of having a good blogroll is to update it by adding new links and removing defunct links periodically.
  • Accept only unobtrusive ads. If you choose to accept advertisements, avoid irritating your readers with pop-up ads, roll-over ads, or anything else that obscures your content.
  • Help your readers visit you from work. Basically, this means avoid posting images to your blog that you would not want your boss to observe you viewing from your computer at work. Never post anything that automatically makes noise when your page loads. Provide a warning with any material (e.g., a risque YouTube embed) that is not prudent to view from an employer's computer.
  • Take advantage of social bookmarking sites. I don't use Digg, DelIcioUs, Stumble, or the like, but I do make it easy for those who do to bookmark me with appropriate links at the end of each post. I do not normally get a large amount of traffic from these sources, but the next time I get an Instalanche, I will probably get multiple Diggs and thus leverage such publicity by getting a high rank at such sites.
  • Link to some favorite posts. Every blogger gets noticed by an A-list blogger from time to time, and every blogger experiences disruptions to his normal posting schedule. Whether it be to give potential new readers a chance to see your (other) best stuff or to tide over your regulars, a list of favorite posts will do the job.
  • Benefit from the comments. When I can, I answer every comment. This always keeps my mind engaged, and I suspect that it encourages discussion. I strive to provide a comfortable, civilized place to hold a discussion. People from all walks of life have participated in discussions at my blog, and have often contributed valuable leads, insights, or elaborations of their own. Regular commenters include military personnel, a linguist, the proprietor of an Internet radio station, and numerous professionals. In addition, I have heard from school teachers, a historian, a used car salesman, and even a professional gambler! I like the fact that blogging puts me in touch with people who can answer my questions when I don't know about some issue or set me straight when I merely think I do! I enjoy hearing from my commenters, and I have learned a lot from them. Aside from maintaining a cordial atmosphere, I have found the next tip most helpful in gaining the ear of such an impressive array of commenters.
  • Always be honest. Don't be afraid to divulge the limits of your expertise on a topic if doing so is appropriate. Always thank the people who take the time to correct you, even if having to deal with such a comment is inconvenient and ruins your mood. If your character is challenged, address the challenge, if it is appropriate, at once and thank whoever brought up the issue. A commenter once indirectly implied that I had plagiarized a comment he had left, but which I hadn't seen, to an item I blogged. Had he not done so, I would not have had the chance to defend myself as soon as I did. I thanked him, too, and I meant it.
  • Take advantage of flames. Even some dishonest comments and outright flames can be turned on their head to make a useful point. As a rule, I direct whatever I say about such comments to other readers, thereby making it clear that any intended insult was wasted on me, and that the intelligent discussion of ideas at my blog will end when Hell freezes over. I almost never insult a commenter, but a racist once just about did the work for me. If an insult can be used to convey that stupidity will not be tolerated, then it may be worthwhile. Only occasionally will I simply reject even a bad comment.
  • Unless you write 24 hours a day, use a single blogging web address. Two mistakes I see all the time are (1) going through new web addresses like toilet paper and (2) needlessly spreading one blog's worth of content across three or more blogs. Both practices make it hard to build an audience for different reasons. In the first case, changing to a new URL in order to use a better blogging platform is fine, but your last post at your old address should redirect your readers to your new blog. But start hopping around enough, and all but your most loyal readers become more likely to get tired of hunting you down. Yes. That might seem lazy or stupid to you, but every degree of added effort you impose on a potential reader is less effort he can spend reading your blog. In the second case, most blogging platforms allow you to categorize posts anyway, and usually, readers will find more than one of your interests worthwhile. Why send them on an Easter egg hunt for what you decided to post about on a given day? Unless you're about ten times more prolific than I am, just don't do that.
  • Have fun! Objectivism and your life are great values. How much time and effort you devote to intellectual activism will depend on your evolving hierarchy of values. If you find that blogging causes you to focus too much on unpleasant things, then cut down or stop entirely. If you enjoy it, then don't be afraid to have fun with it. The misconception, common in our modern culture, that serious equals boring is just another manifestation of the mind-body dichotomy. It's a benevolent universe. Stand up for what is right. Laugh at the evil. Enjoy the many creative ways -- which I have barely begun to cover here -- that blogging and the Internet place at your disposal to begin living in the future of your choice today!

Note that I have left many areas unexplored here, such as the value of having rational commentary "out there", just waiting to be Googled long after the initial media frenzy has died down, or the concept of "premise checking" which we Objectivists offer above the mere (concrete) "fact checking" you hear touted as the great virtue of blogging.

Feel free to comment on any of these things in addition to raising questions. I do note, however, that as this topic will be intensely interesting to Objectivists, I probably will not have the luxury or time to answer every comment! Thank you for your time and consideration and, now, for your questions and constructive criticism!

-- CAV

P.S. Readers who are registered to comment at Intellectual Activism should comment there, and I ask Objectivist bloggers to link there when referring to this post.