Reflective writing on the meaning of work, life, business, travel and blogging. These thoughts are the first part of a longer essay. But they’re already long enough.
I go over some of my recent history and experiences, happy and sad, as well as the questions and doubts I’m currently experiencing in relation to my life, work, and the projects I have undertaken with OOAworld.
This may be seen as a manifesto of sorts, or blog round-up, or a slice of my own ‘life philosophy’ at this point in time. Some of these considerations may also be useful to anybody who’s thinking of, or already is, producing work online, wants to learn how to blog and make money, or wishes to know how to start a travel blog. (This is a personal essay, not practical tips. I’m considering whether to share a few how-to articles and hands-on resources.)
OOAworld’s stories are usually about others, telling the stories of people and places. So I apologize for this self-indulging piece. After two years of near disappearance, and as the website has recently been relaunched and is evolving, I thought it was important to share the thoughts that accompany its rebirth.
I’d also like to thank all readers, past, present and future, who make this possible.
Here’s the outline of this particular piece, so that you may decide when and where to skip to if necessary:
- I) How to Start a Blog, or Rather, How Not to Blog
- Four years into OOAworld, four years of work, sacrifices and rewards
- Everyone wants to be ‘Liked’ – The Rewards of Digital Creation
- Moving from wordpress.com to wordpress.org (self-hosted)
- Quality vs Quantity, and How to Blog: Consistency is Key
- Starting from Scratch: Learning from Mistakes, or Tips to an Aspiring Blogger
- II) How to Blog and Make Money, Monetizing a Travel Blog
- Travel Blog or Artistic Portfolio: What is OOAworld? A manifesto
- Monetizing a Blog While Preserving Editorial Integrity: Mixing Business and Art
- Selling and Selling Out – Which Type of Compromise is Acceptable?
- III) Focusing on the Things That Matter
- Deeper Doubts: Meaning of Work, How these Projects Relate to the Connectedness of People and Humanity
- In the end: Doing the right thing
Four years into OOAworld, four years of work, sacrifices and rewards
It’s been almost four years since I first left on a USA road trip which would change my entire life, during which I finally decided to live deliberately and according to my deepest gut and intelligent feelings, and to truly lead the life and create the work I cared about, which I felt were the right thing to do.
More than three years since I first decided to make a documentary movie (now a series of them), along with producing a lot of other work, asking people I meet one common question: “What’s your philosophy in life?”
This decision has had countless ramifications, has led to another year of travels through Asia, and will lead to other travels yet. It has helped me reconnect with Carole (Coco), the love of my life from whom I’d been separated for more than eight, long, crushing years.
It has helped me be happy and proud about the life and work I lead, it has sparked anew my love of life and all things living, and has led to meeting and sharing time and experiences with many inspiring, generous and caring people.
It has also come with a healthy dose of sacrifices and hardship, a lot of effort and hard work.
For all these things I am forever grateful and indebted, and would never dream of regretting any of the decisions I have taken.
I am currently, however, at a junction, and prone to questioning and the deepest self-doubts, which I will now share.
Everyone wants to be ‘Liked’ – The Rewards of Digital Creation
One of the joys of publishing work online is to share it with the world and, hopefully, get a sense that it is of value to others.
Not only that, but, importantly, in the online world and in social media, this sense of value and self-worth are deeply linked to an immediate sense of reward brought about by how much one is ‘liked’. The impact of online ‘likeability’ on one’s own feelings of self-worth is no doubt exaggerated, even erroneous, but nonetheless has a very real, heart-wrenching effect.
I initially enjoyed a fair amount of success with the ooAmerica blog when traveling across the USA. People liked it. I had a connection with them. The project was deemed original. People seemed to be into the work I produced.
Unsurprisingly, it felt good.
(At this point, I would add that the desire to be praised / loved and rewarded both as a person and for one’s hard work are only natural for any person or line of work, whether online or not, etc.)
Moving from wordpress.com to wordpress.org (self-hosted)
After the USA Road Trip, I thought: “Why stop here? Let’s go and continue this project around the world.” Then, two main things happened:
First, I decided to move the ooAmerica blog from wordpress.com to wordpress.org, a self-hosted website, before my next travels to Asia. I also decided to take on the web development and design myself, both for budgetary reasons and since I’ve always been curious to learn more about these skills. I had less than a month to learn, do, and complete all the necessary steps.
This had one dramatic consequence: I completely botched the redesign, and worse, the migration process. I’m guessing I lost at least half of the readership right then and there. People were either not informed about the move, or suddenly started receiving emails from another website – up till now I’m not even sure what happened exactly.
To all the early readers who are still reading this, this is my heartfelt excuse. And my thanks.
So by the time I left on the travels to Asia, the site was not ready. Links and images were broken. Most of the hard work that had gone into building ooAmerica, growing readership and backlinks, growing trust and loyalty, was lost.
To add injury to insult, due to poor hosting and web development, the website repeatedly went down. I would publish a new post, and the site crashed and went offline. People would land on a beautiful white “Internal Sever Error” page. Or, my photo galleries would display an elegantly bland line of code and no pictures at all. I was seriously gnawing at the patience of the loyal readers who were left.
Quality vs Quantity, and How to Blog: Consistency is Key
Then a second set of circumstances made things even worse and brought the site to a near standstill. As I’ve mentioned above, I had reunited (for better and for worse, but forever with happiness) with my long lost love, Coco.
I underestimated how hard it would be to travel with her, in low-budget, tiring conditions, while also keeping up my online production. I did manage (phew!) to work throughout the travels and document them, but I simply wasn’t able to keep up my publications. The amount of new footage, photos, and travel notes quickly became overwhelming. I had to postpone the publication of a lot of this work till after the travels.
And so happened last year. After returning from Asia things were bleak, but not entirely lost. I still had some readers. But things got worse yet: the website was still structurally flawed. It continued to break regularly when I posted updates. I got discouraged. I also got caught up in other projects and had to focus my efforts on other professional and artistic ventures. And that was the final blow.
Starting from Scratch: Learning from Mistakes, or Tips to an Aspiring Blogger
All in all, I’d say I deeply missed the mark on three things:
- First, I absolutely had no idea that I had been successful with the ooAmerica blog (it is only in retrospect that I realize this). I took it for granted, or rather, I didn’t think any more or less of it. I didn’t realize that having loyal readers, but even more importantly, having a connection with them, their trust and sometimes admiration, was worth something. I had no idea this was the most valuable thing I had created so I had no idea how much it was worth when I lost it.
- Second, I ignored how much online readership is linked to regularity and consistency (rather than quality or originality). Consistency is the main ingredient to a successful online publication. Quality is paramount too, but I’m tempted to think it often, sadly, comes second.
- Third and perhaps most painful miscalculation, I didn’t realize how important to me the bond with and support of readers had become. And reversely, I hadn’t thought how painful it would be to start again without it. (This is an exaggeration, fortunately there are still many of you who visit and show their support, thank you!). But it still sometimes feels, to an extent, like I’m starting from scratch.
I’m deeply grateful for every reader on OOAworld, and it’s always a special pleasure to see or hear from you, especially when it’s people who’ve been around for a while.
Travel Blog or Artistic Portfolio: What is OOAworld? A manifesto
One important remark at this point is that I have never considered myself a blogger, paradoxical as it may seem. To me, OOAworld is simply a place where I record creative and artistic work. It just happens that the most convenient, practical and non-technical way to do this is in blog format (I also explain this in the FAQ).
OOAworld was not conceived as a travel blog either. It ‘just happens’ that travel provides a rich, unending source of inspiration for stories, photos, videos and other creative work. It is by no means the only way to fuel imagination and these types of projects, but it is one of the most readily en-actable ones. (And an enjoyable means to an end, I might add.)
I never was in search of eyeballs or traffic. I never produced content in a way or manner meant to promote page views, analytics or business opportunities. Instead I did what I felt like because I thought it was the right thing to do. I’ve always published work which I thought – or at least hoped – reflected creativity and quality, rather than as a popularity contest, or to sell a product other than my own.
Had I had a different mindset, I probably would have done many things – everything – very differently. I would have continued to publish regularly, even if it were content I considered as lesser quality. But truth is, I probably would never have created the content I really wanted to in the first place. Instead, I would have started producing a whole lot of content solely for the purpose of getting viewership and selling stuff. In other words, I would have compromised with what I had set out to do.
Fortunately, this is not how I felt. I haven’t been interested in making OOAworld a business at the expense of my sense of editorial or artistic integrity.
I have no inherent problems with professional blogging or commercializing a website – much to the reverse, I think it’s still today a vastly undervalued activity, too often judged off-handedly – but I would simply prefer to use another outlet or brand rather than the artistic work I feature here in order to do so.
Let me be clear: I have no qualms against selling my hard-earned work, stories, photos and other content. Any and all fruitful work deserves to be compensated. I have no problem with the idea of monetizing a website either: just like any other business, it has costs, and deserves to generate revenue.
But I’d like what I consider as the creative work I produce on OOAworld to remain ad-free as can be. I’m only too aware of the pressures that derive when producing content that is solely dependent on advertising. I work hard in and outside of OOAworld to allow this freedom of choice.
To be fair, I considered advertising for a while but in the end I simply wasn’t convinced by the return brought by display ads (again this is not an absolute matter of principle – had the metrics been different I might have opted otherwise).
I’m trying to produce what I consider long-term, creative and valuable content, which will stand the test of years. I am more interested in producing a continuous, coherent body of work, than I am in getting (instant) gratification.
I truly hope the “What’s Your Philosophy?” documentary and videos will help to promote better cross-cultural understanding and peaceful thinking.
The travel writing diaries I continue to produce are serialized chapters of what are meant to be larger semi-autobiographical novels.
The photos are series which are meant to best depict a place, an artistic rendition or my feelings when visiting a location, but they’re also continuously building upon a few select themes I hold dear.
None of this content is designed with any virality, searchability, or usefulness in mind. I systematically opt for beauty of words and craftsmanship over likeability, popularity or providing a service.
But I now am however at a junction of questioning and self-doubt.
Monetizing a Blog While Preserving Editorial Integrity: Mixing Business and Art
This year, Coco and I set out to fix (still on our own) the problems with the website design and hosting. And I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, while remaining very conscious of the limitations and amateurism of our current design. But we’ve learned valuable skills along the way. And it’s still a big step up.
We’re back to posting regularly. I feel good about this. We’ve also merged her website, Rolling Coconut, as the Travel section of OOAworld. There are several reasons for this: her articles are the result of hard work and research, and a valuable addition to the content I produce, since we’ve traveled to the same places in Asia.
Because they’re service-oriented travel articles, they also tend to attract more views through search. This kind of content also opens up the possibility for monetization, whether through display ads, affiliate links, and so on.
That’s all fine as far as I’m concerned.
On my end, I’ll still be working hard to provide the same mix of artistic and editorial articles which I consider the foundation of OOAworld.
Selling and Selling Out – Which Type of Compromise is Acceptable?
Still, these changes and new points of focus will always beg some ethical questions: for example, I’ve begun to pay more attention to things like SEO, and in some cases have voluntarily ‘uglied’ a headline or an opening paragraph just to fit it some keywords.
I’ve also been mulling over the possibility of sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, with some lists of tips or useful resources.
There’ve also been other changes in gear: for example I now typically produce several series of photos per location visited, instead of only one before.
To be fair, part of this is because I think I have more than one photo series to offer, and I don’t think that the quality of photos has gone downhill (feedback always appreciated!). But I am very aware that I need to be careful with my own standards, and continue to always focus on quality above all else.
It’s all about knowing where to draw the line.
As for monetizing the travel articles, this raises other, thornier questions: what kinds of content will we deem acceptable to produce in order to generate revenue?
Original travel reviews are helpful resources that provide a real service. We’ve also decided to begin to publish a few Top 10 and other List articles (such as Sites and Monuments, Destinations, etc.), which will feature my photography and Coco’s writing. These articles will help us gain some traffic, besides featuring some nice, ‘light’ travel photos. As far as I’m concerned, that’s still perfectly acceptable. I also get to share some of the photos I wouldn’t otherwise include in my own articles.
But will we accept to write an entire article simply to promote a sponsor’s product? Is it acceptable if we’ve made personal use of it? How do we avoid being biased if offered a comp travel or service? Where do we draw the line?
What if the Travel section is branded separately as Rolling Coconut (as it currently is)? How do these decisions reflect on OOAworld and my creative work?
These are the types of questions that any business owner must answer. I don’t have all the answers. And let’s be clear, I’m only too aware that when the word business is involved, the bottom line often times trumps ethical considerations.
All I can say is I’ll keep readers in mind and do my best to deserve their trust and live up to my own standards. Explaining these thoughts and decisions is one way to do so. It’s up to each and everyone to draw the line.
Another big step this year is to start promoting OOAworld and its projects, including the documentary, photos and others.
I’ve been terribly shy so far at selling OOAworld, or my story, mainly because I have difficulty self-promoting. (This is not the same, however, as not liking to be in the spotlight, or feeling gratified when receiving the praise or compliments from other people – these I do, quite naturally, enjoy! But I like to think they’re the consequence of work and merit, and not simply salesmanship. This may or may not be true.)
I don’t like talking about myself. In fact, if you’ve been reading up till here, let me apologize and thank you.
(The travel writing I usually produce, the ‘diaries’, have always been better when they’re about other people and places, about their stories. Lately I don’t feel like I’ve been able to re-construct or re-create these stories as well. Part of it, of course, is that it’s long enough after the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to correctly piece together the memories. But I will improve upon this.)
I’m going to have to learn how to market and sell better. It’s time to get this baby off the ground!
Deeper Doubts: Meaning of Work, How these Projects Relate to the Connectedness of People and Humanity
Another challenge I am experiencing is directly related to the main background project, the documentary movie asking people from around the world one common question: “What’s your philosophy of life?”
When I first presented this idea on ooAmerica, a few years ago now, I got very good feedback. Had I not, chances are that I would not have spent four years working on this.
I think one of the reasons for the good feedback is societal: we’re at a point in human history when, thanks to a combination of material well-being and the progress of digital technology (both for tools used to collect information and in the platforms used to spread it), a vast portion of mankind realizes – and feels – our connectedness as a species.
This has led to many content creators and artists building projects based on this realization, usually through the use of systematic patterns. To cite only two of the most successful ones: Humans of New York asking people to share stories about their life and the French photographer JR featuring very large photo portraits.
Just the other day I read an article about a photographer asking people to share their message with the world. And so on. I’m sure there are hundreds of these.
Of course, none of these projects are mutually exclusive. I think they all tend towards the same goal: bringing people together by opening their minds to different people’s stories and cultures, to their overarching humanness.
But they do create more ‘competition’. Each new like-minded project means the “What’s your Philosophy of Life?” documentary idea becomes less unique and original as time goes. So that’s something else I have to take into consideration.
In the end: Doing the right thing
I would hope this will not be construed as self-pity. I am not going to lament or weep. I accept the realities and hardships of online publication and creative work, and generally speaking, how hard it is for anyone to stand out of the crowd while making a valuable contribution to the world.
But I’m not going to give up. Though I may doubt, yearn, and cringe, I’m going to persevere. I will do what I think and feel are right, no matter what it takes, no matter how hard. And I will succeed.
Thanks for reading! These thoughts were initially part of a longer essay.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this essay, which is a more general discussion about the meaning and purpose of life, and other issues worth reflecting upon.