By Ben S. Pollock
President, National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Instead of polishing this column, I should have been sewing nametags into my clothes and shaking out my sleeping bag for WordCamp.
If I showed up with that stuff, even the geeks there would laugh. We’re all geeks at WordCamp, www.wordcamp.org. The one in Fayetteville, Ark., was a 9-to-5 Saturday workshop, with an after-party at an Italian restaurant. We were invited to talk websites over Sunday brunch, hosted by an ad agency.
More than 100 WordCamps are held worldwide every year. They’re cheap (mine’s $30 including food, drink and a good-size gift bag). There’s local speakers, at that price sure, but experts from Texas and California also came in. They help WordPress users at all levels in a spirit of sharing and community (“open source” is the term).
WordPress is free (open source) hosting software for blogs. But it’s grown to where full websites of major companies and nonprofits — not just blogs — use it (New York Observer, Le Monde, Anderson Cooper 360, even Martha Stewart’s blog). Our www.columnists.com is built on a WordPress platform.
This will be my second WordCamp. Earlier this month while being a smart-alec I realized — too late — I could’ve been a presenter, on content and use of tools.
I was at an area bloggers meet-up. An audience member asked how to make a caption appear when the cursor “rolls over” the image, and the speakers were stumped. Although I am neither a programmer or a coder, I blurted out the answer from my seat: “After uploading your picture, paste the same brief caption in both “title” and “alternate text” fields.”
Now, to fill the remaining 59:55 of my speech, that doesn’t overlap other beginner-track speakers.
I’ve now volunteered for the 2012 WordCamp. Gives me a year to prep that hour. It might include some of what follows.
Anyone can blog.
Blogging is as easy as e-mail and can cost the same — your monthly Internet bill at home or the cost of a coffee at a cafe with free wireless. Step through the instructions at www.WordPress.com or Google’s www.Blogger.com, the two big, free hosts.
Yes, free. Free for essentially unlimited text and dozens of pictures. If you want video there, that costs a little. (The cheapskate work-around is to put your videos on YouTube for free, then post those links on your blog.)
Setting up this option is not easy. Blogger and WordPress have many pages of manuals — and some video tutorials — to walk you through it. But you can always hire an expert or bribe the proverbial teenager.
The advantage of having a, say, benpollock.com, is branding. The annual fee for your own domain name and monthly hosting fees can total as low as about $150 a year). But the blog is free — the file storage is on your site that you’re already paying for.
If you want to spend money you can — for example you can make your site appearance unique (most Wordcamp sessions, which I avoid, are about this). But thousands of design themes (with customizing options) are available either for free or a donation.
Everyone should blog.
Most NSNC members already have a blog. It’s handy for everyone, even if you have little interest in writing in it often. It does things better than e-mail and Facebook.
It’s the place for sharing in detail with distant friends and family. You could make that restriction on Blogger and WordPress, limit access to people to whom you send specific web page addresses, or even set up user names and passwords for them.
You should consider leaving all your posts public. With millions of blogs out there, the chance that strangers will see a slideshow of your dog being cute is nearly zero.
At the Sunday-morning open session of our Detroit conference last month, I noted that we columnists shouldn’t post our good lines on Facebook or Twitter, but instead blog such quips — then post links to them on the social media.
Unless you have CIA clearance, it’s hard to find tweets older than six hours on Twitter or wall posts on Facebook over two days. Your writings, however, stay on a blog unless you delete them.
You could click “private” on those snippets so only you can access them and later develop them into full pieces — anywhere you can go online. Even from a smartphone.
This is — more new lingo — “cloud computing,” storing files in the Internet.
There are rules.
Of course. In this field, though, it’s just people before us who have figured out efficiencies and strategies.
At the top is from longtime NSNC member Bill Tammeus, “Tips on Blogs” at www.columnists.com/?p=679. It’s been a few years since Bill published this, but the advice remains sound. New proof of that is at www.tinyurl.com/postatnoon, the Poynter Institute’s summary of a Facebook data analysis. Click on “full results” for the numbers.
The top tip: For maximum visibility, post to Facebook at noon. So if you have a fresh blog post that you want Facebook friends (and their friends etc.) to see, publish in the morning and tell them at lunch.
There’s a lot of other advice out in the world. Nearly all of it is based on hunches and notions of “common sense.”
That’s what bothers me about seminars like WordCamp and writers workshops, even our NSNC conferences over the years — where do the leaders get their wisdom?
It’s what makes me self-conscious about the teaching game. In a column like this, I can share skepticism. In a public-speaking situation, you can damage your credibility or confuse the audience by being cautious.
I’ve been involved with sharing knowledge long enough to realize that the student’s hunch the presenter seems to be just a chapter ahead of the class actually happens.
The further I go along, though, I realize it doesn’t matter. Even shaky knowledge if it’s solid helps. The odds of having 100 percent world-class experts on the podium who communicate well is near zero. Fortunately …
There’s no reason to heed any rules.
Even grounded, researched strategies can be ignored in blogging and social media. I like my hundred unique visitors. If I posted every day, at noon, it might be five times that. Does that fit my goals?
Being as famous as Arianna has distinct disadvantages; it can wait.
You may want the equivalent of a new store’s soft opening, just a few people seeing your blog, at first. Maybe they’ll point out typos you can fix. Is putting an ugly block of ads on your blog worth the pennies you might earn?
If your goal is to get your 15 minutes of fame by “going viral” or to get rich, you have many WordCamps to attend and hours of online reading, as well as experimenting, ahead.
When you figure it out, let us know, will you?
(See www.wordcamp.org for a listing of WordCamp dates and locations.)
Ben S. Pollock writes Brick, Muse on News http://benpollock.com/brick