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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers (you are here)
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


Blogs were popping up everywhere in 2005

Soon after I started writing this blog, and sharing one post about teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan, other bloggers started adding me to their blog lists. Notably, John of Sinosplice added me to his China Blog List and Michael Turton of The View from Taiwan added me to his massive blogroll.

From there, people started showing up and commenting. Even with only 300 visits per day, I often got 20 or more comments on a post. This seems to have been more common back before Facebook sucked up so much of people’s online writing time. It was an interesting time since nobody really knew what blogs were or were supposed to be, but it was very social.

Meeting the actual bloggers

It wasn’t long before, I started meeting this site’s commenters in real life. In Taiwan, there were a number of meetups. When I visited Shanghai, John put me up at his apartment for a week! In Beijing, I met David (then running Adsotrans), Brendan (a more fantastically talented foreign learner of Chinese than I’d imagined existed) and a number of other online friends. Other online friends, like Angelica actually moved to Taiwan from elsewhere and ended up in my offline social circle.

It was an odd world. In 2006, none of these people, except maybe John were making any money online and everyone’s focus was on the ideas they wrote about. Though some of us wrote about language learning or ourselves, others wrote mostly about politics, photography or travel. And we all put each other on each other’s blogrolls—lists of links to other bloggers on the side of our sites—just because we were foreigners with websites in Taiwan (or China). Sure there were some overlapping circles and others that didn’t. Some of the Taiwanese bloggers focused on politics weren’t adding a bunch of China bloggers to their blogrolls. They probably weren’t adding TEFL blogs from outside of Taiwan that I was following either.

People were almost always wonderful

It was really refreshing and eye-opening seeing how nice everybody was. I had originally created this blog with the goal of helping other teachers and students, but for some reason I hadn’t expected the internet to reciprocate.

Other than being offered a place to crash when I visited China, I got immeasurable help from people who had learned more Chinese than I had, people who knew more about getting around Taiwan, people who knew more about running a blog, people who knew more about programming and people who were just really friendly in general. People I met on this very site helped me find apartments, set up websites, set up a business in Taiwan (which was an entire story itself) and all kinds of other things. Even the people who constantly argued with me helped sharpen my ideas about language teaching and my understanding of cultural differences and local politics.

Arguing on the internet

duty calls

XKCD: Duty Calls

Given how many bloggers in Taiwan at that time were focused on politics, it’s inevitable that there were arguments. It wasn’t just politics, though. For me, the longest and most contentious arguments were about language teaching and search engines. I also argued about using standard Pinyin. Actually, my biggest comments on politics generally revolved around issues that related to foreigners in Taiwan, which included romanization. At the time, the DPP very much wanted to adopt or create a romanization system different from China. Due to squabbling and repeated attempts at this, the signs were really confusing for me before I knew enough Chinese to understand the characters and I hated that. “The locals don’t read romanized signs anyway!” I thought. At one point, I had a protracted debate about the merits of including tone marks on signs!

All in all, I feel the online arguing was worthwhile but that there were rapidly diminishing returns. It was fantastic for getting new ideas and seeing how others thought of my ideas. On the other hand, habitually digging in and making a third pass at an argument is very costly, not only socially but also in terms of personal growth. I certainly don’t agree with everything I’ve written here in the past, and in more than one case I’ve gone back and appologized to people I’d interpreted uncharitably in the midst of a disagreement.

The dark side of online visibility—safety concerns

Given how blogs and the internet in general make it easier to put oneself in an echo chamber filled with agreeing voices, online communities tend towards polarization. Paul Graham, a prominent essayist, believes the effect goes far beyond online communities and is a society-wide refragmentation. I think he’s probably right. People, at least within the US and the Anglosphere generally, have diverged into increasingly separated cultural camps. Nowhere is this more visible than in online mob behavior. Twitter has probably been a net positive, but it’s very possibly 45% destructive.

The absolutely most unpleasant experience I’ve had on this site was with a certain person from a country in the southern hemisphere who had an online presence in Taiwan. We had a disagreement which had originally seemed a hope trivially minor misunderstanding—I had corrected a couple of minor errors in what he’d written about me on his site—but his reaction was over the top. He left disturbing sexualized messages both in my email and voice machine, and contacted my business partners threatening to sue over a blog post. Years after I had moved away from Taiwan and I’d had no contact with him whatsoever, he emailed out of the blue swearing to follow me the rest of my life, to ruin it and that if he had half a chance he’d “pay somebody to knock me off”.

Though I had heard others speak of his behavior enough times that I knew I was far from the only person on the internet he’d unexpected flipped out, it was terrifying. I lived in a different country than he did, so there wasn’t a completely credible death threat or anything concrete that the police in the US could do. That one blog post that upset him is the only one I’ve ever taken down at someone else’s request.

I feel hesitant to write about the experience even without naming the individual. Hopefully this serves as an alert to my peers who might think that only huge or exceptionally contentious sites have real risk associated with them.

Also, FWIW, writing online has been a net positive despite this experience.

Lasting bonds

One really great thing about an online presence, or putting yourself out there in general, is that you can choose who you want to spend more time with and who you don’t. I didn’t like everyone I met. Guess what? I don’t follow them online or hang out with them now! Conversely, most of the people I got along with best in 2006 are still friends. Some are close friends, some are weak ties and others are just people I’ll follow online.

I many ways, this is the good side of the societal “refragmentation” mentioned above. In this past decade more than ever, people have been able to find kindred spirits and form like-minded communities.

Next is Part 3: 3 Comments Read more

Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

Byron of texturadesign emailed me this weekend about a group of US tech bloggers hosting a meetup in Taipei.

Hello,

We’re bloggers based in the US coming to Taiwan to cover the Intel Developer Forum and would like to meetup with Taipei bloggers on Sunday 10/19 for drinks and apps (on us).

They’ll be at in House (台北市松仁路90號), and Byron says they have “goodies” to give away, too!

Muninn has made my Pinyin Tone Tool into something more useful– an OS X dashboard widget!

I’m happy to announce the results of a few hours of tinkering: The Pinyin Tone Widget. This OS X dashboard widget will take a series of Chinese pinyin words with tone numbers appended at the end of each syllable and will add the tone marks where appropriate (e.g. zhong1guo2 becomes zhōngguó).

Get it while it’s hot.

What a day. I rolled out of bed at 10am, brushed my teeth, and sleepwalked over to Starbucks for a business meeting. It went pretty well.

Then, it was to the school, where I had to so some last minute editing for my Tuesday/Friday class’s first semester exam. For some reason or another, the internet connectivity was horribly spotty (and it’s on a LAN, not a WAN), but I got everything done.

The Bookstore

Next, it was off to the bookstore. I went to the new Caves Bookstore, near 圓山 MRT, and what a bounty they had for me! Over fifty books I had ordered for my students were there waiting for me, and I found a new series of readers that may have some potential for curriculum.

I’ve been very satisfied with the Oxford University Press Bookworms series, on the whole. However, their “starter” level books are terrible. They use the simple present tense for just about everything, and do so in unnatural ways. Chinese speakers have a tendency to do that anyway, and the last thing I want to do is reinforce the problem further. The problem is that the level one Bookworms are a bit difficult for low level students. I push my kids pretty hard, and it takes them about year before they’re able to read them. Not only that, but I have to give them some vocabulary sheets are support so that they can get through them at a reasonable speed (15-20 pages/hour).

Today, I saw a series that just may fill in some of this gap for beginning level students– OUP Dolphin Readers. The entire series is at a very low vocabulary level, and the books are full of good illustrations that make them much easier for students to understand. Levels 3 and 4 include multiple verb tenses, and at least from the browsing I did, the 1st and 2nd level Dolphin Readers managed to avoid the unnatural usage of the present tense that’s so common in other EFL books. They even offer headword lists online. The only problem is that the Dolphin Readers have a lot of writing activities inside them, and I’m really looking for something that can be re-used from class to class. Few parents would be happy paying for all those little readers.

The Election

On my way home from the bookstore, some middle aged Taiwanese guy commented on all my books, and we got to talking. It turns out he’s a History teacher at a university near where I live. He gave me an update on the election– it was an utter rout. I had thought that Ma would win, but I’d never imaged that he’d pull in 140% of Hsieh’s vote total after his party already won three quarters of the legislative seats a couple months ago. The people have spoken for the KMT and spoken loudly. It will be interesting to see what they do with their mandate.

Wayne called me up and told me a bunch of people were meeting up for a post election party, so I hurried home, dropped of my stuff and headed out. I had expected it would just be the usual suspects– Wayne, Franc, and Poagao. I was pleasantly surprised to see that David and Maoman made it there, too. The food was great, and I’m sure those guys will have a zillion pictures online tomorrow.

All in all, it was a pretty good day.

Last night, Sonia and I went to Holly‘s birthday party. First we met up at TGIF for dinner. A couple of guys I knew from Modawei showed up. After dinner, we hit the KTV, where we were wowed by Holly’s singing skills. I particularly enjoyed the song 朋友, by 周華健 (Zhōu Huá Jiàn).

It’s a fun one for KTV.

I just got home from the Muddy Basin Rambler’s CD party.

It was pretty fun. I met up with old friends, like Eli “the fraud”, Michael “blogs at the speed of thought” Turton, Angelica “the battlepanda“, Wayne, and Franc. Other bloggers, I hadn’t met before, such as Robert “the red” and Patrick Cowsill were out in force to support TC, David and the rest of the band, too! Meeting them was great, and I even got a chance to catch up with David Reid, who made it up from Xindian to visit. All in all it was a pretty enjoyable evening. The acoustics were definitely lacking, but I think the band did pretty well for themselves.

Franc brought me a very interesting gift from his visit to northern China— North Korean money! I’d never seen it before, and I probably never would have if not for his generosity. It looks very… uh… communist. Photos will be up soon.

For the past week and a half, Wayne has been staying at my place. He just moved into the city from rural Yilan, and needed someplace to crash. What’s interesting to me, is that I even met him at all.

When I first created this site, my main inspiration was my favorite blog- A Better Tomorrow. Written by a young American who had studied abroad in Beijing, and then gone on to travel all over China, it represented the most credible, most human account I’d ever seen of someone of a similar background who had learned Chinese well. Since that had been my original goal in coming to Taiwan, I read each page of A Better Tomorrow with anticipation. The tales of being swindled at knife-point in the north-west, the updates about classes, the uncensored observations about people… all of it was fascinating to me.

After the Nanjing-Hopkins program that the author, the very same Wayne mentioned above, had been enrolled in was canceled due to SARS, I was shocked to learn that he was coming to Taiwan, the place I’d chosen to study Chinese! On, I kept reading, entertained with stories of “stuff you wouldn’t see in mainland China” (such as Buddhist televangelists), translations of Lian Zhan’s political ads comparing himself with Gandalf and his rivals with Sauron, and a hodge-podge of other things. Then one day, Wayne abandoned blogging in favor of photography.

After I started blogging myself and this site became one of the larger Taiwan blogs, I eventually met Wayne via mutual friends who blog, such as PR and Poagao. It’s kind of amazing to me that due to this site, I’ve been able to get to know someone who was once “that guy with the coolest China blog on the net”. Even more surprisingly, he’s restarted A Better Tomorrow… sort of.

Last night, I went to Range’s (likemind). Truth be told I thought the name sounded like some creepy sort of cult, but I love meeting up with people and socializing, so I was really psyched about it. The location they picked was a bit far from me- in Banqiao, 13 stops down the subway line away from where I work. Also, they all wanted to meet up about half an hour before I got off work. Still, Range said it would go late, until at least 2am or so, so I thought it would be worth it.
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Be sure to check out how my thoughts changed in the nine years after writing this post!

Recently, it seems there’s been a sort of obsession spreading through the expat blogging communities. It’s about search engine optimization, i.e., trying to get one’s site to come up as high as possible in search engine results. The idea is to bring in traffic by figuring out how the search engines rank sites and then exploiting that system, or at least making sure of not being ranked artificially low. It’s not really a topic I’m interested in, but I’ve been dragged into this debate. Now that I have, I’ll let let my feelings be known.
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