What Ten Years of Blogging Has Taught Heather Armstrong
“What the last 10 years has taught me, the main lesson, is to first give someone the benefit of the doubt.”
Heather Armstrong is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her trailblazing blog Dooce this week and there aren’t very many people who can claim that kind of longevity online. It’s a new media world and Armstrong is on the short list of people who have advanced that sea change. She’s spent the last decade opening up possibilities for self-expression that the rest of us are just the beginning of taking advantage of.
I spoke with her last week by phone about how blogging has changed, about Facebook and about what she’s learned from the last decade of leadership in online self publishing.
Fired from her job because of her blog in 2002, Armstrong has written deeply, personally and with a big, strong community about matters ranging from religion to mental health to family. Her blog saw more than 4 million pageviews last month. A year ago she landed a gig with Home and Garden TV.
Armstrong made a very personal post on her blog yesterday about its tenth anniversary. The post has received more than 4600 comments. The following are excerpts of what she said to me by phone.
On what it felt like to start blogging:
“I’d made websites for other people for years and I knew what it was like to launch them. I felt like even though a couple dozen people were going to read it, like I was publishing my own little home made magazine. I was talking about music, and television and dating. I remember feeling invigorated by it, writing and designing it. I sent it to twelve friends and said if you guys want to keep up with me, this is how you can.“Facebook wasn’t around when I launched my site. I’m kind of glad it wasn’t or else I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
“Blogger.com was around but I decided to manually code everything and FTP things up to Earthlink. I hand-coded everything through 2002, when my husband installed Movable Type. When you have entries that say Previous and Next, I would manually upgrade all those links after each post. It was ridiculous. I resisted the Content Management Systems because I liked to have the ability to control it.
On becoming a profesional blogger:
“[I started just in order] to excercise the writing part of my brain. I was in photoshop all day long but I didn’t do much writing. I never expected it to 1. last this long or 2. for it to become my job.
“When i got fired for my website in 2002 and the traffic went crazy and then the infamy hit, I was sort of jolted out of any comfort that I had in remaining in this little bubble of friends. It was then that I was like whoa, there are a lot of people out there reading, even as small as it was.
“It wasn’t until after my husband had looked at our numbers and we had been approached by a couple of advertising networks, that we saw we could make as much money [running ads on the blog] as he made as a Creative Director.
“I did it for four and a half years until i made a dime out of it, just out of love for my audience.”
Armstrong says that deciding to put ads on her blog was controversial.
“Then the commerce part came around and the conversations started about are you a sell-out if you are a blogger who takes advertising? That seems laughable now but in 2005 I was one of the first personal bloggers who took advertising. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a big backlash or a small one but thankfully it was small. I don’t know if people even know that conversation happened.”
On Facebook and its impact on blogging
“Since then, a lot of people don’t blog even, they use Facebook. Facebook wasn’t around when I launched my site. I’m kind of glad it wasn’t or else I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“People keep saying that Twitter and Facebook are going to replace blogging. But people use Facebook to keep in touch and people use blogs to tell stories. There are times on Twitter when I find someone and I want to find what else they write, I’m looking around to see if they have a Tumblr or a blog.”
On the challenge of blogging:
“It’s a lot of work. I think anybody who has started [blogging] and stopped in the last 10 years knows that, many people stopped because it was too much work. Curating and posting 140 characters is a lot easier.
“I think my success has been a combination of several factors: one of the big ones is that I’ve been around for a long time, I’ve stuck with it, I’ve had a lot of life events that made the trajectory interesting. I’m not sure that what I’ve been doing is easily replicable. My suggestion has always been that you should find an existing community who you would like to have reading your site and hang out with them.”
On the future of social media:
“I get asked this a lot and good God I don’t know. If you’d asked me 5 years ago if I’d have a best selling book, or would Twitter even exist…the landscape has changed so entirely.
“I still really enjoy doing my website. I’m going to do it as long as it makes me happy and it’s worth it. I hope it will be for long time that I’ll have enough brain cells to rub some words together and people want to read it. When I started blogging about having a child, the term Mommy Blog didn’t exist. Now it’s its own industry. We made it OK for us to make money and we made it ok for us to talk about our kids online, to attend conferences. I don’t know what else could happen.”
The biggest lessons learned:
“I don’t know if my children or my website have aged me more, but I’m willing to be that my website has. I know so much more about what it means to be human and how human react to things. About impulses. What the last 10 years has taught me, the main lesson, is to first give someone the benefit of the doubt. To not believe everything I hear. Because so much has been written and said about me that’s completely untrue, to live with that, I don’t ever want to do that to anyone else. I started out writing about celebrities but I don’t criticize anyone on my website any more. I want it to be an uplifting place to be.”
In addition to her blog, you can also follow Heather Armstrong on Twitter.