What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade
Blogging leads to unchanging opinions
As I told in the first part of this series, blogging is tremendously helpful for learning. Keeping this online journal has helped me learn about other languages and cultures, it’s helped me learn about writing and most of all it’s helped me learn about myself from a more detached point of view. But it comes with a terrible price—it has made it far more difficult for me to change my opinion.
Unfortunately, people are strongly influenced to believe what they write publicly. This bias is so strong that it was the subject of a full chapter of Cialdini’s classic book Influence. People will even tend to start believing things that they previously didn’t when writing them in public! I don’t know of any specific research on arguing, but I suspect people who publicly argue for a position become even more entrenched in their belief of it.
As a blogger who wrote multiple posts per week and occasionally ended up in huge arguments with other bloggers, it was an effect I felt acutely. Even when nobody disagreed with me, I could feel my openness to other points of view slowly decrease as I wrote repeatedly about various topics revolving around education, language learning, politics or blogging. This is the main reason I stopped blogging so much, even before leaving Taiwan.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that blogging isn’t a fantastic way to get feedback from other people and get closer to the truth at any given time. Over the course of days or weeks, it’s great. The danger is that after you come to a decision based on all of the feedback and have repeated it for a few months, then it gets harder and harder not to influence yourself to stick to it and even dig in further over time.
It’s hardest to change your opinion when it contains some truth
In cases where I was unambiguously mistaken, it wasn’t difficult to change my mind. The times when it’s been difficult are those where I was right about something—something I believe even years later—but my perspective was limited and I was wrong about other things related to the one I was right about.
It’s a bit hard to explain this clearly in abstract terms, so I’ll dredge up some old arguments.
Exhibit 1: Is Taiwan a good place to study Chinese?
The Taipei Times has written repeatedly about how Taiwan is becoming a center for learning Chinese and how it’s a great place for students of the language.
I felt that Taiwan was a poor choice since so many people pretty much insist on trying to use English with any westerner they see. Even when my Chinese was fluent, I still encountered numerous people who were so blinded by my race that they just assumed both that I couldn’t speak the local language and that I could speak English. I also wrote that non-standardized romanization systems and traditional characters were a hurdle for learners but that on the good side, Taiwan is a much better place to live than northern China, which is where I would recommend students go.
After nearly a decade, I think I was completely spot on. Taiwan is great for long-term life and reasonably ok in terms of assimilation, but not the best place to learn Chinese.
tldr; I wrote it because I believed I was right, and I still believe I was right because I was right!!111!
Exhibit 2: Should road signs have tone marks?
This was a four part debate with my friend, Prince Roy. I thought that adding tone marks to roadsigns would be very helpful for foreign residents (so they could know how to pronounce street names when talking with locals, such as taxi drivers). He disagreed.
Now, I have roughly the same opinion as then but I don’t care about the issue at all anymore.
Should bloggers focus on SEO?
As this site started picking up steam and blogging became more mainstream I started getting flooded with really icky emails from marketers and search engine optimization enthusiasts. Basically every kind of business proposition you can imagine for a text-only blog that would leave you feeling unclean afterward came into my inbox.
So I fired back this call to shame SEO! It would take an entire separate piece to go into how I was wrong, but the short story is that I was right about specific problems and wrong the bigger claims. I was right about what SEO was doing to Google and the web in general. Crappy link farms were rising to the top of search results and crowding out useful results. Calculating “keyword density” to use in an article was slimy. But marketing itself isn’t always a bad thing. And even to the extent that it is, my response was much like a hockey team deciding that checking was “unethical”. They would just lose.
In the years since leaving Taiwan, I’ve actually grown to respect the field of marketing and developed an interest in it. Even SEO, which is admittedly a much cleaner sport than it was in 2007, has a certain Moneyball vibe to it that I appreciate now. It’s also putting the user first to start by learning what they’re looking for and then work backwards to what you want to produce.
tldr; I got some important details right but I’ve done a complete 180 on this position. I’m glad I let this blog gather some dust and went out and got a broader perspective!
Getting the best of both worlds
The question is, how much of the trade-off between how blogging boosts your learning and how it stifles your flexibility is unavoidable? How much can we engage each other and debate topics vigorously without involving our ego in them?