This is another in a series of case studies from people I interviewed in 2005 about their blogging efforts. Now as we move to 2013, I find it interesting to look back at the early days of business blogging. I will only include cases from people who are still blogging now. These cases have not appeared on this blog before
When we spoke in 2005, Tim Jarrett had recently relocated to the east coast in August, 2004. At that time he left Microsoft where he worked as a Lead Product Manager for business intelligence and online communities in the Microsoft.com group. Since then he had been consulting on the business use of blogging and RSS. His blog now says that he is a software product manager at Veracode.
Tim still writes the blog Jarrett House North. It is now on WordPress. Before we spoke he had written about the site name and logo, “The photo in the site logo is not the Jarrett house, or even a Jarrett house. I took the picture in 1998 or 1999 on the Manassas battlefield in Northern Virginia. The house is a dwelling that survived the battle, despite heavy fire. Something about the day and the picture spoke to me…When I was looking for a new site logo graphic, this one leapt out at me. I think the appeal of the graphic is a combination of nostalgia (I took the photo the fall before I left Virginia for business school) and aspiration (the desire for a house, and a family, that would last through war, fire, and time).”
Tim started blogging in the summer of 2001 when he was interning at Microsoft. He had a few motives. First, his family was 3000 miles away, and he needed some way to share with them everything he was experiencing—and needed someone to talk to. Second, having been fairly technical until his first year of business school, he needed a new technology space to explore. And he had been reading Dave Winer's site for years, and had in fact created a site on one of UserLand's servers more than a year earlier. Tim felt that the summer offered the perfect time to dive in and explore the technology and start doing something with the site.
Third, he wanted to stay current in technology topics that were outside his business curriculum, and felt having a public forum in which he was voicing opinions or posting as he learned would be a good incentive to learn. Fourth, he also wanted to give some of his friends and former coworkers an idea of what life inside business school was like.
When we spoke in 2005, the blog had far and away exceeded all Tim’s expectations. First, within a month of starting to blog, he found himself becoming part of a blog conversation with Dave Winer and others about the spread of some underlying blogging technologies into the new Apple Mac OS X operating system. That led to his becoming, first, an independent script developer and producing some tools that made it easier to blog from OS X, and second, an application developer. He actually wrote a little blogging client, called Manila Envelope, that made posting to his blog much easier. Tim had been a developer in his former life as an IT consultant, but here he was not only learning a new operating system and language, but thinking about distribution, user help, beta management, and a bunch of other things he had never really had to deal with before. It was illuminating, and it was all from the blog.
Since then, Tim has become an authority in a couple of subjects, including business applications of RSS and blogging, in much the same way--by getting into conversations on and offline and by publishing original thinking in the area.
Regarding his personal objectives, the blog allowed Tim to continue to stay in contact with his extended family; it's also led to old friends rediscovering him, to Tim becoming a connection point for former classmates, and in at least four or five cases it's inspired other friends to start blogging.
By its nature, then, when we spoke in 2005 Tim’s blog had always been personal rather than about a company or connecting with customers. Over the years since, the purpose has morphed a little bit. When he was at Microsoft, for instance, he blogged information about how Windows users should respond to security issues. He also expanded his focus a bit to talking about the business and cultural issues around technology, particularly blog-related technologies like blogs and RSS.
Tim also started to set objectives around his own writing and creativity. A while ago, in a post, he laid out the following explanation of why he posts:
"I don’t point to things unless I have something to say about them. They could make me mad; make me laugh (not as often as I’d like); make me say 'This is really cool'; or tickle a connection with something else I’ve read, said, or thought. The last is my favorite category of blogging material—it’s where I can actually add value as a blogger."
In 2005 Tim had also decided to use the blog to think more deeply about music. He had a deep CD collection--almost a thousand--and was a rabid digital music listener as well. But until he started writing about music, he didn't think too deliberately about why he liked some kinds of music and not others. After a while writing concert and music reviews on his own, he joined a group blog called BlogCritics that's circulated some of his music writing through an online network of newspaper web sites, as well as on his own site and the BlogCritics site.
Tim had become interested in photography through meeting and reading photobloggers, and it had started to become an important aspect of his site as well.
When we spoke, the two biggest challenges were keeping the line between the blog and his private life, and managing the blog-work relationship. Tim found that it's very tempting once you become a blogger and get the spirit of sharing to write down everything that's happening to you. Tim feels that if you're single, that's maybe OK (though there can certainly be some things about your private life that you are OK sharing at the age of 20 but might not want to be Googleable when you're 30). But when you're married, as Tim is, he feels that your spouse has a right to expect a certain amount of privacy and to get a certain consideration about what gets exposed in public and what doesn't.
With respect to work, there were all sorts of issues. Intellectual property was one. Tim points out that your workplace may claim ownership of ideas that you have. How does that affect blogging? He documented his blog and his existing software as an exception to the intellectual property agreement he signed with Microsoft, but he felt constrained in what he wrote afterwards--especially in talking about the company or its policies. This was a year or two before Robert helped to define the culture of blogging at Microsoft -- that it was OK to have a blog and talk about your team and what it was doing. Tim talked about RSS, because at that point the company wasn't doing anything in the space, or about things he was learning on his own about CSS and web design, and then he blogged a lot about music, food, beer, and home improvement. It was only after a year had passed that he even publicly said, "I work for Microsoft" on his blog.
Tim felt it was very liberating to realize after a while that there were other people at Microsoft who were able to maintain that balance and still write good interesting technical things on their blogs. That freed him a bit to have a stronger voice about software matters.
Ultimately, Tim got full liberation by joining a group whose business was about building community--customer-to-customer and Microsoft-to-customer relationships. He had done work with an early version of that team as an intern, thinking about how Microsoft should work with customer-run websites that talked about its products and how to encourage those sites. At the end of his Microsoft experience, he came full circle, this time helping the company build a service that would take employee weblogs and weave them into the corporate website--effectively blurring the line between employees' perspectives on their products and corporate messages. This became the Microsoft Community Blogs.
Tim had a couple streams of content that combine on his blog, including items that he finds in his RSS subscriptions. In 2005 he subscribed to about 360 syndicated feeds and tried to read (or at least scan) everything that's new in them at least once a day. That's how he kept up with developments in RSS or blogging practice, with new developments in the software field, with news stories that he was interested in, and with the other bloggers he read. As we mentioned above, Tim tried to post things from the feeds he read where he can add context or offer a strong opinion.
A second source for Tim was his life experience--things like photography expeditions, concerts, cooking, etc. He tries to write about things in his life that are fun, really frustrating, or that provide some context to what's going on with him.
Tim hoped people came to his blog to learn something, to laugh, or to get in an argument with him. He didn't want people to passively consume what he wrote; he wanted them to challenge what he said and to help him grow in how he thought about things. Tim noted that he also wanted them “to marvel at the limpid prose and phenomenal photography, but I am not holding my breath on that front.”
Tim benefited from reading other blogs. He found that often times other writers had a perspective on a topic in which he was interested that he hadn't thought about—either because he was starting from an opposing point of view or because they had some background that he didn't possess.
In 2005, Tim had the following advice for others thinking about starting a blog:
First, if you're doing blogging in a business context you need to think about a very few important things: how tolerant are my employers of me saying things that might not jibe with corporate messaging? and is it appropriate for me to write about what I'm doing? (Cases where the latter is an issue: startups during the quiet period; if your entire job is working with clients, especially difficult ones; etc.). Then dive in afterwards, as long as you remember Scoble's rules, which basically boil down to: would I have a problem if my wife, my boss, or my CEO reads this post?
Second, remember what Ted Hughes said about Sylvia Plath's poetry, which was that if she couldn't get a table from the materials she was working with in a poem, she would be happy with a chair or a toy. Not every post has to be hit out of the ballpark, but you always need to do the best job you can with the material you have at hand.
Third, link to people on both sides of an issue, not just the ones you agree with.
Fourth, if you read something interesting on someone's blog, point to it and write why you think it's interesting.