About three or four times a year I get asked for advice on how to start a philosophy blog. (My first thought is always, haven't they heard blogs died?) So, this post is meant for those who wish to start such a blog or who like, so to speak, a peak behind the curtains. I have organized my notes along some topical headers, but obviously they interact with each other. (Also, this post on the nature and risks of being a public philosopher provides important background.)
The only good reason to start a blog is because you wish an audience for your ideas and have a desire to see them discussed. (Sometimes you are nudged into it because some grant agency or department chair wants to see more outreach.) Journal articles are controlled by others (and in philosophy have insanely low acceptance rates), have very restrictive form, length, and content requirements, and even when you get through all the gate-keepers have limited audience size. Newspaper editorial pages have huge audience, but have very restrictive word and style limits. Even so, the first thing to reflect on is who are you, or do you imagine, writing for? You can pitch the blog to your academic peers in your area of specialization, your students, the profession at large, or the academy, or an even wider public. That is, your intended audience will constrain not just the topics you will discuss as well the the manner in which you do so. Of course, they can become moving targets and change, but to develop a blog you need to have an intended audience in mind (even if only philosophers of the future.)
Every audience presupposes different background knowledge and are more or less forgiving of different kinds of (specialized) writing styles. I admire Bleeding Heart Libertarians because while they write for a non-academic, rather politicized (and large!) audience, they simultaneously are interesting and accessible to academics who do not share their shared background commitments. But I also admire Brian Weatherson, when he was still blogging actively; Brian's blog was generally rather technical and he did not compromise on this. But he writes clean, lively prose and made you see the point of the apparatus while you were sitting in on a seminar he was virtually having with his peers and graduate students.
The bad news is most blogs, even well written and designed ones, have small audience size. That is sometimes a matter of bad luck [just as you publish a neat post on modality, a film clip of Timothy Williamson is shared on youtube, etc.] or bad marketing (you need to use social media, link to other blogs, that is, become a node in a lot of discussions), or an unwillingness to talk about sex scandals or share professional gossip. The main problem with most blogs is that they lack voice or what I call persona.
The hardest problem is to figure out what persona you will project in order to connect with your audience given the ideas you want to discuss. I tend to suggest that you need to project and magnify a part of you that inspires a response in one's would be audience. (Of course, if you are Kierkegaard you can develop many different kinds of such personae.) For those of us, who are self-conscious teachers, we do something similar with our class room persona, which we use as a means to facilitate learning, to provoke reflection, or generate discussion. I know quite a few shy people, who qua blogger present a persona they would like to be in other parts of their life.
Now, it is significant that if your blog takes off, this blog-persona has consequences how people will interpret and see you. So, you have to be willing to live with such consequences, even unintended consequences sometimes due to selective attention to only few utterances or posts. It surprised me, for example, albeit it was an entirely foreseeable consequence, that I have come to be understood by some readers as a shrill social justice warrior (despite my skeptical sensibility).
- Form and Content
Most philosophy blogs are brief reads (250 words) or short reads (800-1200 words). It's not as if long reads (over 1500 words) are impossible, but life is short and few people are eager to pay attention to you for extended periods of time. Personally, I would love to see more use of graphics and video-moving content in philosophy blogs. While the best blogs -- through the use of hyperlinks -- create an oeuvre, a system, a privileged set of conversation partners, or a pathway into different ways of thinking, by nature blogs are (recall here and here) ephemera.
Some content restrictions and style structures follow from the blog provider you use. You should really research different kind of blog providers--not just their fee structures, but also their permissible templates, the capacity of the templates to do what you want to do with the blog, and the explicit restrictions of speech they impose. Some blog providers give you a discount but then plaster advertising on your otherwise clean house look. This is a big decision because once you go with a particular provider you kind of lock yourself in, and when you switch you may have trouble to carry the archive of your past blogs with you.
Academics are disciplined into forms of cautious and pedantic writing that are tedious to read. Like all non-disciplinary writing any given individual blog post needs a hook--the first few sentences are key. On average, a blog needs to state its point or conclusion in the first paragraph. Luckily analytical philosophers are trained to state their thesis in the first sentence, and glorify polemics, so the transition to blogging is not so difficult, provided -- and here our training pulls in the other direction -- one is not a perfectionist of a certain sort. That is to say, analytic philosophers impose on ourselves a demand of disambiguation against any kind of uncharitable misreading. That makes for a great satirical blog post, but destroy whatever conatus (in the Spinozist, not the Hobbesian or Cartesian sense) a blog post may have.
That is to say, most good blogs have in addition to a provider who delivers a range of container templates, they (the blogs) also have an implicit and regular template in which the content is articulated. The simplest one is three-fold: (i) hook [thesis/point]; (ii) argument/evidence; (iii) polemical restatement of the thesis. (For others, recall here and here.) Of course, over time one learns to play with different structures to present one's point.
The most important point about frequency is that it needs to be fairly regular--certainly while you are developing your blog and audience. The audience should want to expect one, even if they can't receive a new piece when they wish. But once a blog is established that's compatible with extended downtime. Schwitzgebel's The Splintered Mind and Helen de Cruz, who divides her blogging activities among different sites, allow quite a bit of down-time in between posts. But their pieces are received with great interest.
Few academics have the time to do a daily post and it is really unnecessary to draw a regular audience. In fact, it may reduce one's audience because people really don't want to spend that much time with you (we academics are not that fascinating to others). The other, more frequent problem is that many blogs start with a gush of activity (often drawing on ideas and posts that motivated setting up the blog in the first place), and after a few weeks or months they run out of steam and die down. Some people really don't have a lot to say and become aware of this in a timely fashion. My only suggestion is to think about blogging as producing a series, some of these are open-ended and some a circumscribed. Of course, it's okay if blogs die.
- Comments Policy
One of the most important decisions that you'll make, which will influence your audience size, audience engagement, and your health is your comments policy. If you allow automatic (un-moderated) anonymous commenting you will probably have larger, even loyal readership and more comments than otherwise would be possible. You will also allow your blog ro be hijacked by, and in a certain sense you will be responsible for providing a platform for, some of the worst and unsavory ideas out there. If you want to produce the end of times, go for it.
That leaves either moderated commenting of anonymous comments or moderated comments of owned comments. The former is extremely time-consuming, the latter reduces the number of comments significantly. If you want to be a forum for discussions you probably need to allow anonymous commenting because so many people worry about reputational costs of their comments, have legitimate concerns about being targeted by some lunatic or anonymous website, or concerns about employability or tenure-ability. Either way, write a good comments policy, so you can re-direct the aggrieved to it.
- Time management
I hinted at the significance of time management. It is very easy to have one's blogging become all-consuming. Drafting a piece and moderating comments, not to mention an obsessive eye on readership numbers and flows, can be a time-sink. Obviously this is more true of very high profile blogs, and the odds of your blog becoming high profile are -- time and attention are scarce goods -- low. Even so, it's good to set some rules for yourself about when you post and when you check comments (etc.). If you care about audience size you'll also learn when are good times to post a piece. Timing really matters.
Group blogs can be very time consuming because they require quite a bit of coordination behind the scenes. But they do allow taking quiet breaks from blogging without much disruption to the blog.
- Professional Risk
You have to think hard about this. Lots of peers think blogging is not serious and not philosophy. Almost certainly your blogging will not meet exacting professional standards of, say, an Analysis article. Alternatively, when you do get an audience, you run the risk that they know your blogging work better than your scholarly work.
A lot of people use their blogs to promote the scholarly views they have developed in print. That's a dissemination model of blogging. That's relatively low risk because you have already done the hard work and understand (presumably) the scholarly landscape. Of course, if you cut scholarly corners you are giving more visibility to your would-be-enemies/critics to hunt you down.
Alternatively you can use a blog to develop or discover a position. However, if you use a blog to develop new ideas or new interests, you run the risk of looking like an amateur or worse.
Okay, this is just over 1800 words, so I have gone on too long. But maybe you found it helpful.