Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blogging on the Road and Collection: Graffiti

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Yes, this meta-blog is about blogging.  Specifically though, it’s about the challenges of blogging while traveling, and some of the things we learned along the way.  While we found a lot of other great information and tips on many aspects of world travel on other blogs, we did not find anything about blogging while traveling, so this post has been on our to-do list for a while, in the hopes that it will be of some use to other travelers.
The photos are of the street art we saw around the world.

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On the practical, technical side, we knew we needed a way to conveniently compose posts while offline, as we would regularly lack internet access.  Before we hit the road, all of our posts about gear and preparations were composed with Blogger’s online interface, which is ok on a very stable, fast internet connection, but editing and altering complex or long posts quickly became very frustrating. 

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We experimented with using Zoundry Raven as an offline editor, but eventually we settled on Microsoft’s Live Writer as the least painful solution.  It’s not perfect, but it did nearly everything we wanted without driving us crazy, and it definitely works very well offline.  Occasionally, when uploading a long post, Live Writer would time out, but simply re-uploading worked fine, without mangling anything or creating duplicates.  

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We were halfway through the road trip before we had really worked most of the bugs out of our process.  Many of our early posts used slideshows, in which the images are all linked to David’s Microsoft Live image storage (the only place Live Writer would allow us to store them).  While this was easier to manage in terms of editing and formatting, it also gave us less control over the content, and clumped all of the images in one spot (or a couple of spots) in each post.  And those posts are not self-contained—if there’s ever a change in how Microsoft hosts those images, the links from the blog posts might not work.  We’ve already had this happen once. 

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Posting inline images takes more initial effort in Live Writer, but it gives us more flexibility in grouping images near the text they were pertinent to.  Also, these images are stored on Blogger’s servers, along with the text, so there’s very little chance of links breaking.  We eventually discovered that we could change the default image size in Live Writer, and standardized on one size; we also agreed on centering images, and left-justifying text, for a more consistent appearance.

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Other things were more fluid.  While both of us contribute to each post, generally one of us will start, and then we’ll either tag-team composing the remainder, or the second of us will simply proofread, making minor edits, and elaborating as needed.  As a result, there are various inconsistencies in writing style:
  • Lana favors one space after a period, where David prefers two. 
  • Lana will sometimes write in the first person, where David usually writes in 3rd person. 
  • Lana is insistent on a concluding statement or paragraph, where David is perfectly content to simply end with a period.
  • We bicker about commas, but generally the co-writing works very well, as we each remember things the other has forgotten, in addition to simply having different perspectives (this sentence was written by the one of us who loves commas, as you can see—and subsequently elaborated upon by the one who prefers parentheses to commas, semicolons and dashes). 
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The closest we come to a fundamental difference is in the initial composition of the post.  David likes to select the images pertinent to the post, and insert them all before writing anything.  In part, this is laziness/efficiency, as it’s very easy to insert them all as center-justified in a batch, but in part, if reflects how he approaches the content—the images come first, and then he adds text to accompany the images.  Lana much prefers to write first, and then find the images that go along with the story.  She is regularly frustrated when David has started the post, and the images are all in the way, determining the direction of the post.  Of course, she could always prevent that by starting a post herself, but…baby steps. We hope we’ve mostly ended up with a balance of both story and image.  Sometimes the images are the story, and sometimes, like when we were stuck in the mud, they can’t possibly convey the entire experience.

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Aside from technical and stylistic issues, our biggest challenges were attempting to make timely posts while traveling, and trying to keep those posts interesting to a general audience.
Trying to keep up with posts, while not taking time away from seeing things in order to write about seeing things was simply a slow, losing battle—with keeping up being on the losing side, and seeing things winning.  As we’ve written before, we found that constant travel required periodic breaks, and those off days were a perfect time to catch up on posts, but still, they were not enough to keep up.  By the time we returned home, we were posting about things we’d done 5 months earlier.  We’d averaged about one post—with more than just a snapshot—every 3.5 days (excluding shoe and postcard posts, 95 posts in 330 days). 

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As we got further behind, we began to keep family and friends informed that we were still alive, and where we were by posting pictures and brief comments on Google+ and Facebook.  That worked well, as those were quick and easy to write in downtime—after ordering a meal at a restaurant, waiting for transit, etc.  We also developed a habit of scheduling some regular content, like the postcard posts, in advance. In some of our longer breaks from traveling, we  were able to schedule longer posts in advance as well, so that even when we had no time or connectivity there would be regular updates to the blog.  Both of those helped to keep our mothers from wondering if we were dead in a ditch, but we still felt the mounting backlog of blog posts (we still do!). We didn’t completely make peace with that, but it didn’t disrupt our enjoyment of traveling.

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The other challenge we faced was what we termed, “writing into a vacuum.”  To some extent, our blogging has been an extended journal.  David’s hand written journaling is an abbreviated account (he would never have managed to keep it up to date if he’d written in as much detail as we do in our posts), and we know our memories of many things will fade with time, so the blog posts will act as a more detailed reference for us in the future.  Also, the exercise of writing about the events helps to cement those memories more firmly for us (that memory reinforcement is one of the reasons David first began journaling on trips, years ago). 

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However, we also knew we had an audience, albeit small, and so we consciously wrote with that audience in mind.  We just didn’t have a great conduit for feedback from that audience; were we writing enough narrative, did we have a good balance of photos to text, were posts too long or too short?  We posed some questions, and did get some great responses, and we also got some wonderful, unsolicited comments. 

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For the most part, our feedback was limited to the graph of views for each post that Blogger presented us with each time we signed in to publish the next post.  Those results were often amusing and surprising.  One of our posts of plumeria flowers has the most views by a wide margin, in part because one of our good friends forwarded it on to her extensive network of plumeria aficionados.  Lana’s post on getting her nose pierced in Singapore is the second most viewed, and it consistently gets more views every week—it will likely take first place before long.  David’s post on travel photo backups is in third place.  What could we do with that information?  Those three share almost nothing in common; one is nearly all photos, one is all narrative, and the last is all geek.  Ultimately, it ended up being an academic question.  We realized fairly early on that we weren’t writing for blog hits or any kind of compensation. Beyond writing with a general audience in mind, it wasn’t necessary to cater to a specific interest; we weren’t being paid to write, nor were we writing about hotels or tours in exchange for free or discounted admission.  We just wrote about what interested us, and generally the feedback—from whatever source—indicated it interested you too.

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If it sounds like we’re winding down on our posting, with nothing left to talk about except talking about but our way of talking about it, then we want to assure you that we have plenty of travel to talk about still. Our goal is to finish our posting before a year has elapsed since we’ve returned home. We know it must seem like we’re taking an agonizingly long time and dragging it out, but really we don’t want to just dump a bunch of photos and not actually write about what we did and what we saw. We promise we’ve still got lots to say about Egypt and Jordan, Turkey, Central Europe, Denmark, Amsterdam and the UK.