Tuesday, January 18, 2011

thoughts on blogging (or, what do people want to read?)

I wrote this post last night while I was up hacking, hanging out in the living room in hopes of not waking Alan up. Because it was late and I was nearly delirious, there's a lot of strange (and in some cases incorrect) phrasing or terms that I suppose I could go back and fix, but nah.

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It’s 2:17 a.m. and much to my continued chagrin I am awake due to a hacking cough that seems to be worse when I’m laying down than when I’m sitting up. To pass the time, I’ve been reading a lot of travel and decor blogs and it’s made me think about why I blog and whether or not I have anything interesting or substantial to say.

On the surface, this blog gets a decent amount of traffic. Well, “decent” being a completely subjective term. I have what I also consider to be a decent number of Twitter followers so I imagine there are enough people in the world that are interested in my ponderings, albeit in bite-sized 140-character chunks.

On any given day this blog receives between 75 and 500 views, depending on the topic. I know that is probably nothing compared to well-known bloggers that likely receive thousands of hits per post, but given that there really isn’t any rhyme or reason to what I’m posting it suits me just fine. That is, until I dig a bit deeper into the traffic stats and see that the majority of the traffic to this blog is because of a short post I made on June 6, 2009, citing the appearance of a possum in our backyard. The accompanying picture is, apparently, a favorite of the folks who troll Google Images. For all the photos I take every year, it’s not even one of my own but a random one I pulled off the net. That little scary bugger really seems to resonate with people. Or maybe there are just thousands of other folks that have their own possum problems and they come to my post thinking I’m going to tell them how to get rid of the creatures? Sorry, no help. I just pretend they aren’t there, lurking in the dark, waiting to infest me with any number of disgusting rodent diseases.

Because it’s late and the mind wanders when the house is quiet, I started down a couple of different paths. I was thinking about what would make this blog more interesting. What do my readers want? What’s its focus? Does it need a focus?

Heck, who are my readers?

I know my mom is a faithful commenter, and I get a few drive by comments from fellow bloggers in the Houseblogs.net community (a network that I joined way back when we first got the house and were spending significantly more time and money on making this place into what it is today) and a few friends who check in once a month or so. Oh, and the occasional bit of random spam on a post that is eons old. Those are always fun.

Going back to focus areas ... this one has changed over the years. Like I mentioned, at first this was a blog to chronicle the home buying process, from signing the papers, to taking possession, to sprucing it up ... ultimately the story of making this nearly 100-year-old house our home. I feel like we’ve done that, and that is reflected in the tone of my posts and the lack of updates about the house (minus today’s nasty molded windows). Sure there is more we could be doing, but we’ve found that we’re not really crazy DIYers. We’re good with paint (although don’t look closely at the borders because these walls are not straight and that makes for some pretty ugly lines), but there are only so many rooms you can paint in a 1600 square foot house. Including the bathroom (which we still haven’t revealed yet because it’s not completely done), the only three rooms in the house that haven’t seen a coat of fresh paint are the kitchen nook, the laundry room and the awkward hallway leading into the back bedroom and bathroom. Otherwise, we’ve painted it all.

We’d love to redo the kitchen one day but we’re already over $150k underwater in this house so I’m not really interested in sinking another $30k into a home that will likely never recover its value so that I can have a prettier kitchen. Right now we have an extremely functional kitchen that suits the way we live and is a great room to cook in. The only thing I want to do at this point is to replace the ugly, stained grout 80s white tile countertops with butcher block countertops and trade in the standard issue stainless steel double sink for a white one, other apron or not. Given how long it’s taken us to do what we’re doing in the bathroom, I think that’s a project best conceptualized than conceived.

Speaking of kitchens and cooking, a lot of people have told me that I should become a food blogger because I actually cook at home moreso than anyone they know. It’s true, I do cook a lot. Am I good at it? There are some meals that I am excellent at making. Others are trial and error but nearly everything I cook is edible. That said, we make the same meals over and over again. I don’t know that I could maintain a blog by showing you braised chicken with rosemary and garlic, sauteed greens and roasted potatoes. Because really, we eat that meal every week (yes, even in the summer). There are some excellent food bloggers out there who have a real knack for describing food in a way that makes you want to run home and make exactly what they’re talking about, and I don’t think I am one of them. Not to mention that I am just too impatient to ever photograph food the way it needs to be done to have a quality food blog. I’m more about the iPhone photos right before I dig in, while sitting in front of the TV. It’s a fact of life - we eat while watching TV, every single night. Sue us.

Finally, bringing this post full circle ...

Travel blogging.

If you look back over this blog, the majority of posts from the past two years have been about our travels - planning them, taking them, photographing them, remembering them. Travel is one of my greatest passions in life. I must have gypsy blood because I long to see the world like other girls long to go shopping. It’s an intrinsic need of mine to get on a plane at the beginning of the day close to home and to step off a plan somewhere different, where the hustle and bustle of my daily routine fades away and I can just observe.

Based on my posts about the places we’ve gone, my sister thinks I should be a travel blogger/writer. I’d love to think that she’s on to something, but alas, I read the popular travel blogs and I lack a whole lot of what they have. For starters, we’re not very adventurous in our travels. At least, not the adventure that “sells.” Also, I think there are times when we are out and out tourists and that’s not what people want to read about. They seemingly want either authentic, off-the-beaten-track experiences, or high-end luxury trips that are more fantasy than reality for the rest of us.

I know it was one of those types of vacations that cemented my first “gripped by the travel bug” memory. About 15 years ago I picked up a copy of a random travel magazine that profiled the wilds of Vancouver Island, specifically Tofino. Getting there required so many different types of travel that it seemed so remote, so unattainable. Then a couple of years later I was reading Conde Nast Traveler or Travel and Leisure (subscribed to both at the time my travel bug was so new and fierce!) and they profiled a high-end luxury camping resort in Tofino and my imagination ran wild. It was right then that I decided someday I absolutely had to visit Tofino and stay in that exact resort.

The problem? That particular resort is $1200/person per night and is completely unattainable for the common traveler. We do alright for ourselves and hope to one day do ever better financially but I vow to you I will never spend $2400/night to sleep in what is essentially a tent. But through the magic of magazines - and later the Fine Living Network’s “My Own Private Island” - I could pretend that someday I would and I could dream that someday I’d go to Tofino and it would be as magical as it was in the pictures.

And you know what? We did go to Tofino in 2010 and it was magical and everything the pictures had told me it would be and I had an absolutely fabulous time and I hope to one day return. But you know what else? We stayed in a wonderful, comfortable, homey lodge-style hotel that was by no means luxury (3.5 star rating in fact) and it was very expensive. When it comes right down to it, on paper our trip was pretty mundane and not all that different from the thousands of other people that make the trip there every year. We took a boat to see bears - us and 20-30 other people. And tomorrow another 30 people will take the boat out again. We didn’t do anything spectacularly extraordinary. We relaxed. We hiked. We ate and we drank. We talked. We read. We spent time with one another away from the extreme pressures of work and that was marvelous in and of itself.

But people across the country - the world - take very similar vacations all the time so why would anyone want to read my blog when they can pick up a glossy magazine with professional photos and get transported to a dream destination without spending a dime? Because really, I think that’s what travel magazines and travel blogs are all about - helping us see these places without having to go there ourselves. Or, if we’re really lucky, giving us enough insight on a place to make us want to visit someday and then actually do it. But for us and the retelling of our trips? There is no glamour in the mundane. There is no mystery in the trips we take. Anyone could do it; thousands do.

The other side of travel blogging - what seems to be the prevailing popular theme among these professional bloggers (if you will) - is the whole nomad thing. And Southeast Asia is wildly popular for the young blogging set. A former colleague of mine did it too so I get the appeal - go teach English in Japan or China or some other jumping off country and then spend the next several months traveling around Bali, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam ... wherever. The scenery is beautiful, the dollar goes far and these places are set up to serve expats and backpackers beautifully. Could I ever do it? Hell no. I am a fan of the creature comforts and would not do well sleeping in a hostel. Even as a 21 year old the idea of sleeping in a hostel was off-putting to me. Then again, I’m a bit of a germaphobe and even the communal showers in my college dorm was hard for me to endure. To me there is absolutely nothing appealing about this lifestyle. And yet, I can understand why people want to read about it. I read about it ... because it's not mundane? Because it's completely foreign and so far out of my comfort zone as to sometimes be shocking? Maybe.

But at some point you have to look at all of the blogs out there and you begin to realize that some of them exhibit a sense of superiority because they are so “off the beaten path” and are doing it solo or are having "a truly authentic experience." Strangely, I see them having THE EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE as the other expats and bloggers around them. Not to take anything away from these people at all because they are happy and they are loving their lives and I know firsthand how important it is to grab on to that, but in the past three months I have read basically the same post from three different people about their time in Bangkok and Phuket. Perhaps these are authentic experiences in that area, but ... I dunno. When every bar serves the same bucket of drinks and every blogger is posting essentially the same pictures and talking about waking up with a hangover at their hostel, I’m wondering how that experience creates such a demand in readership. Heck, I’m part of that readership so clearly there’s something to be had from it. Entertainment? Again, the foreignness of it all?

That lifestyle though is simply not how we vacation. We are not vagabonds, we are not backpackers. With the exception of some of our stops in Ireland and British Columbia, we are extremely value conscious travelers. Heck, I would argue that even our most opulent experiences in Ireland were value conscious as we went in the off season and got the absolute cheapest rates on those luxury accommodations that can be had. Maybe our trip would have been more interesting to some if we stayed in bed & breakfasts every night instead of hotels? I don't know. I know what I like and it's exactly the way we travel. But I don't think it makes for very good storytelling.

Back to that whole value thing and the vagabond superiority. Is it just me or does anyone else get a smug vibe from these posts as they tell you about their lodgings for $3/night. It's kind of like rich girls in reverse. Whereas people used to try to outdo one another with how much they spent, these bloggers seem to be in some sort of competition to see who can spend the least.

I get a lot of flack from some people about how much we vacation. A girl I used to work with would quite loudly bring up how many trips we take a year and how much money we must spend on vacations in very public, and very inappropriate times. But really most of our trips to Hawaii revolve around reward points and timeshare exchanges. I can go to Hawaii every year because I was smart about which reward card would give me the thing I wanted most. (Although as you have seen from my tweets, I'm not loving it currently.) I'd like to say these trips are very value-conscious, but how can I compete with living on $10/day when I wouldn't ever want to.

And about those authentic experiences? We stay in condos along with the hundreds - thousands? - of other vacationers to the island at any one time. With the exception of slight changes in furnishings, they are all cookie cutter units. Little boxes, on a golf course. (Gold star to the person who gets that reference.) We’ve considered renting jungle houses 30 minutes from the closest swimmable beach because that seems like it would be a more authentic version of Hawaiiana and more like the locals live but in the end we chicken out and go the resort route. Why? Because we like it ... and that’s not a crime. But, it’s also not something that creates a demand in readership or a spike in blog traffic so I just have to accept that I will likely never be a popular travel blogger either, despite my love for travel.

So, now that we’re firmly in 2011, I ask myself what this blog will be this year. Clearly it has an evolving identity. Maybe - and this is okay too - it remains a way for me to blather about the most random things in our lives for the handful of people that actually care about what it is these two crazy kids are up to. If that’s the case though, I really need to look into switching to Blogger because $180 a year is a high price to pay for random blatherings and what is essentially a vanity project.

So my 10 or so loyal readers, what do you want me to talk about?

Edited to add: I published this post at 3:31 a.m. and I'm still coughing. Blerg.


  1. Sorry it took me so long to comment, but I love the random bloggings about your life. The food, renovations and of course the vacations. I say, keep doing what you've been doing.

  2. Ended up reading this originally about an hour after you posted it, 'cause I was also awake. :P

    I guess to some extent, it depends on what you want. For me, my blog's just a place where I can periodically blab about random crap, so it doesn't really need much focus or a theme. The nice thing for me is that if I want to blog re: game design stuff, I now have the company blog, which actually has a tiny audience, and a built-in focus.

    So it depends if you want to write for yourself, or write for an audience. But since you're having the discussion, I'd guess it means that you want to write for an audience.

    In that case, I think the thing that you have that other people don't have is that you're pretty "practical" travelers, but you have a lot more experience than most other people who are of the same sort of mindset.

    The thing with all the existing travel sites is that they're all ludicrously extravagant. While that's aspirational, fine, the fact is that I'm not going to ever spend that kind of scratch on a vacation, because I *know* that I can have my mind blown for much less.

    At the same time, I'm not going to travel like a hobo. It's never been my schtick, and with the family, I'm certain it never will be in the future.

    So, I think the market is definitely there for a travel blog focused at young, child-less professionals who are looking to go to awesome places for a reasonable amount of money - but then the writing should theoretically focus on the *how* as well as the *where*.

    So it might be that the thing that separates the blog is a breakdown of expenses, where you thought the money was well spent, where it wasn't well spent. There's probably a really good way to visualize that data in an interesting way that could be almost the blog's trademark - some way to visually quantify dollars per unit of awesome.

    Anyway. Just a thought.

  3. Just a bit of clarification:

    The child-less professionals is a pretty important distinction to make because you do, I think, find places that are geared toward avoiding the generic touristy destinations that are overrun with people & their insane children.

  4. Great feedback Seppo. I think moving forward I'm going to refine our trip reports a bit to be less of a narrative of every little thing we did and instead talk about what worked for us and why (and also what didn't). I've also found in the past that people I work with think I'm some crazy ass baller because I go on multiple vacations a year. What they don't realize is that with the exception of Ireland and British Columbia, our trips are actually very economical. I think it's important to talk about how that happens and what people can do themselves to get more out of their travels. Or hell, travel more to begin with.

  5. Feel encouraged! I am a random websurfer and blogger myself who happened to stumble on your blog one day several months ago, and since then I check in regularly to see what exciting places you have been traveling. Keep doing what you are doing. -Leslie (lessyloo.wordpress.com)


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