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7 Lessons Learned From 20 Years of Technology Blogging

By Wayan Vota on December 21, 2017


Waaaay back in December 1996 – 20 years ago this month – I started blogging. Only then it wasn’t called blogging. That term would not be coined until 1999 with the advent of platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger. Instead, I hand-coded every page in HTML using a text editor, and FTP’ed each to the server, manually updating links to the new content. Yeah, it was rough back in the day.

Fast-forward to 2017, and even Aid Worker Jesus has a microblog.

So what have I learned in 20 years at the ICT4D keyboard? And how could my experience help you do better digital development? Here are seven insights from seven blogs:

1. Execute Fast

My very first blog started when I moved to Russia with the Peace Corps. My emails of the experience were passed from friend to friend till I had over 100 people cc:ed on each email. So I decided to scale the experience and start an “online photo-journal.

I had no clue what I was doing, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was brave enough to start. In executing fast, I gained first-mover advantage. I was one of a handful of websites on Russia at the time, so I quickly jumped up in popularity, becoming one of the key voices of Americans in Russia.

That lesson I learned well – if you are first to talk about an issue online, you become a go-to for that topic offline. This matters in everything – not just blogging. Got an idea? Execute fast. Improving your idea while in the lead is much easier than playing catch-up, regardless of quality (or intervention).

2. Consistently Experiment

Once I got serious about blogging, I realized that I needed to post regularly – at least once a week – and I started to experiment to see what worked. Every post I approached as a creative challenge – how to make it engaging yet different from the last one.

I tried many formats, from reporting others’ content, to stream-of-consciousness posts, to contentions posts that were intentionally challenging. Not all of them worked, but the process keep me engaged with the blog when the weekly need to post started to grind.

Consistency and constant experimentation isn’t easy, but the first turns your idea into a habit, and the second keeps it fresh. Remember that when you’re designing everything from a training course (not just one ToT, please!) to an SMS campaign (one text doesn’t make a behavior change!).

3. Capture the Flag

In 2006, Nicholas Negroponte launched One Laptop Per Child, his utopian digital development vision that quickly became a lightning rod in technology and development circles. Every time it was mentioned, waves of comments washed across the Internets, yet there wasn’t a central place to discuss it. Of course I executed early!

I also made sure to be the center of the debate. I blogged about the effort three times a week, I transcribed all his public talks, I started a forum and a local club for supporters, I responded to every interview request – whatever it took to make sure I was at the center of every single discussion about OLPC. I wasn’t always right, but I was always in the game.

That’s a particularly prescient lesson to learn in the age of Trump. It does matter if you are always right; it matters if people care about what you say. If you don’t have people’s attention, it doesn’t matter, period.

4. Quality Matters

That’s not to say that post-truth pronouncements win. In the end, quality does matter, and when the World Bank came calling with cash-money, I upped my OLPC News game to the highbrow world of policy debates.

EduTechDebate was Oxford-style debates as blog posts. The format worked well when there were strongly divergent views, but over time, as we gained more evidence about ICT4Education, one clear vision became the accepted norm: There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education.

So quality does matter, and welcome it, even if it is contrary to your closely held beliefs. You owe it to yourself, as much as your constituency, to be honest about what works and what doesn’t in everything you do.

5. Cobbler Has the Worst Shoes

Of course I started my own blogs in the midst of all my other websites. I had some vague idea that I could separate Travel Wayan from Work Wayan. That sentence sounds so quaint writing it in 2017, but back then, pre-Facebook, I was still naïve enough to think I could populate two Wayan blogs at the same time.

The reality is that blogging itself is almost a full time job – if you’re serious about it. So while I had great success with other sites, my own languished. It’s become a grab bag of posts that don’t fit anywhere else, and it’s on the list of things I need to fix soon… right after the other 293 things that are more pressing today.

Lesson learned: most of us only have time to keep one website going, maybe two if you’re doing it full time. So be very, very careful about over-promising what you can under-deliver online.

6. Ecosystems Matter

In 2014, Sylvia Cadena issued me a challenge: elevate Asia-Pacific digital development to the level of African ICT4D discourse. I thought it would be easy – find local voices, amplify them, and bask in blogging glory. Ha!

It takes more than desire to create meaningful change. There needs to be an existing ecosystem that can support and nourish your intervention, or its going to be a long and expensive journey, with many false starts. There wasn’t much attention on Asia-Pacific digital development before I started, and my efforts, however gallant, didn’t change it.

This is one of the hardest lessons for us in international development to learn. Sometimes, maybe many times, no matter what we do, we will not create effective, lasting change. The ecosystem isn’t ready and we alone, are not strong enough to create the change by ourselves.

7. Share the Wealth

I count ICTworks as one of my greatest successes. With over 12,000 subscribers, we are the largest website on ICT4D, by far. This reach is only possible because ICTworks isn’t me. It’s us.

You help create its leadership as much as anyone else by reading this far, sharing posts like this one with your friends, and submitting Guest Posts to showcase our collective digital development experiences.

And that’s the final, and greatest lesson I’ve learned from 20 years of blogging. Yes, execute first, but never alone. Community matters. Invite your constituency to be part of your intervention – from design, to execution, to evaluation. It’s very hard to do, but WOW! That’s how you get results, at scale, which is truly sustainable.

Thank you. And cheers for the next 20 years of blogging!

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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2 Comments to “7 Lessons Learned From 20 Years of Technology Blogging”

  1. This is very well said Wayan. They are all excellent insights. Most importantly, keep pressing forward, and keep the focus on helping others.

  2. Elaine Baker says:

    Interesting to read the history – thanks Wayan for your leadership role in building up this very useful, informative and dynamic ICT4D community !