Creating a blog

In a previous post, I wrote about why someone in academia should get a domain name, and in a subsequent post I wrote about using the domain to setup personal cloud storage. This post builds on these ideas and will cover one of the main reasons people get domain names; to setup a blog.

…a blog is organized according to a timeline while a wiki is organized according to topics.

A blog is a type of website that usually contains a mixture text, images, and links. This description could also be used to refer to a wiki, but the main difference between a blog and a wiki is that a blog is organized according to a timeline while a wiki is organized according to topics. That isn’t to say that a blog cannot also have some form of topic organization, but a timeline is one of the defining features of a blog.

Blogs primarily started out as the works of individual users, but they’ve subsequently been adopted by businesses, universities, and other organizations to help spread the news about the things they’re doing. With individual users, blogs were a bit like a public diary; a place to publish their thoughts for anyone to see. When used by organizations, they are often used alongside social media as corporate communications tools.

People in academia should think of a blog as a more personalized, less formal academic journal. They curate the content and will most likely create it all, as well. They can use the blog to get people interested in the things that interest them. If an academic field uses peer-reviewed journals as a way of presenting information to others in the field, an academic can also try using a blog to present information in simpler terms so it can be understood by the general public.

Some story ideas would be to write about works that are influential in the field, such as writing a review. If a work was created decades ago, they can explain how it is or isn’t relevant to the field as it exists today. If a work is more recent, they can explain how it fits in the field. Is it controversial, or widely accepted? They can write about the research they’re doing, and explain the ramifications of it. How will it change the world? What impact will it have on the public at large?

An academic portfolio is a selection of papers, projects, and achievements from an academic career.

Another way to use a blog is to create and show off an academic portfolio. An academic portfolio is a selection of papers, projects, and achievements from an academic career. It’s not meant to include everything, but should be curated to show off the variety and quality of one’s work. The primary goal of an academic portfolio is to help with a job search, so potential employers will have an idea about what to expect before hiring someone. Accordingly, some sources recommend including a resume [1] or a CV [2].

Creating the blog

One of the first things to know about creating a blog is that there are tons of blogging platforms and software [3] to choose from. Some will be free, while others will charge you money. Blogging platforms will host your content for you, while blogging software is something that you’ll need to setup on your own. Luckily, most hosting providers make it easy to setup a blog so their users won’t have to deal with technical minutiae.

This blog and my personal blog both use WordPress software. It should be noted there is a difference between WordPress the software, and WordPress the platform. The wordpress.org website is the home of WordPress software, and has forums, documentation, plugins, themes, and blogs dedicated to it. The wordpress.com website home of the WordPress blogging platform. On this website, it’s possible to create a website for free. There is nothing to download, so it’s very simple to setup a website. The company makes money by running ads alongside the content, but there are paid options as well. These can be used to eliminate ads on the website, to add more themes or plugins, or to add features like personalized domain names.

This post shouldn’t be regarded as a comprehensive guide to installing [4] and using WordPress, or any other software. There are documents online that can help with that. It’s intended to be more of a basic guide to blogging, with a focus on academia. While some of the text is specific to the WordPress software, much of the information should hold for other software and platforms as well.

Posts and Pages

On a basic level, Posts and Pages are very similar. Each has a place to put a title and some text, and because “Post” and “Page” are both four letter words that start with P, they’re easy to confuse. The main differences are that posts exist in the timeline, while pages don’t; posts can have categories and tags, while pages can’t; and pages can have children and parents, while posts cannot.

What does all this mean?

Posts exist in the timeline, but pages don’t

Posts appear in reverse chronological order on your website, with the newest posts appearing at the top. Posts are intended for content that may change over time. They’re really good for things that may be ephemeral, such as thoughts on a film, or a piece of music, or a particular article or book.

Pages do not appear in the timeline, but elsewhere on the blog. Pages are intended for content that won’t change very often, such as an About us page or a Privacy Policy.

Posts can have categories and tags, but pages can’t

Search engines that scan your blog will look at the title and the text of each post, but they will also look at categories and tags to help understand the context. Categories and tags can both be thought of as keywords, but while categories are about broader concepts and ideas, tags are more focused. Another difference between categories and tags is that categories are hierarchical and they can have sub-categories.

The lack of categories and tags is one of the defining features of a page.

Because pages aren’t supposed to change that often, they don’t necessarily need categories or tags to help with context. The lack of categories and tags is one of the defining features of a page.

Pages can have children and parents, while Posts cannot

Another defining feature of pages is that they are also hierarchical and can have sub-pages. Sub-pages aren’t always necessary, but they can be quite useful in the right circumstances. As an example, on my personal blog there is a Portfolio page, and underneath that are sub-pages for different portfolios, including my academic portfolio. Underneath that is the degree I’m currently working on, and underneath that are sub-pages for the classes I’ve taken. Those sub-pages have sub-pages of their own for the different projects I’ve worked on in the classes.

For the way my portfolio is organized, pages are a better option than posts. Once these pages are posted online, there’s little need to revise them.

Settings

The WordPress Dashboard has a navigation menu on the left, some generic information about this particular website, and information about upcoming WordPress events and news.
The Dashboard in WordPress version 5.7.2.

Before going much farther into this, it’s a good idea to go over the Settings available in the WordPress software. These are different than most of the settings available in WordPress.com websites, and from other blogging software and platforms as well.

After logging in to a WordPress blog, you’ll be shown the Dashboard. It has various information, but isn’t overly important. On the left side of the page will be the menu, which is the main way to navigate inside WordPress.

New users

In the General section of Settings, you can set some of the basic details about your blog, such as the title, the tag line, and the time zone, but it’s also important to note the Membership checkbox. Checking it means anyone can register. If you allow this, I recommend setting the Default New User Role as Subscriber. This will allow new users to create a profile page and not much else. Allowing anyone to register is something to be treated with caution, as new users can set their profile pages to include spam links.

Editors

In 2018, WordPress introduced the Block editor, which treats the content as a series of blocks. Every paragraph, image, embedded video, and so on, is considered a block, and the blocks can be moved around and rearranged however desired. While the Block editor was intended to make it easier to blog, it has its detractors, particularly those who had been using WordPress for a long time. It was such a paradigmatic shift, that longtime WordPress users demanded the option of using the Classic editor. The Classic editor is still available, though it requires a plugin.

Personally, I’ve been using WordPress so long, the Classic editor is the only one I use, and when setting up a new WordPress blog, the first thing I do after logging in is to install the Classic editor plugin, enable it, and set it as my preferred editor. The section on Plugins will talk more about how to install the Classic editor.

Spam control

In the Discussion section of Settings, you can changes the settings having to do with comments. Comments are a bit of a tough call. Ideally, they’ll be used to foster genuine discussion about the content of a post, but there are programs that scour the web, looking for blogs with open comments in order to post spam. If you decide to leave comments open, I encourage you to add an anti-spam plugin, lest your blog become inundated with advertisements for all manner of cryptocurrencies, pharmaceuticals, and counterfeit goods. Plugins are covered further below.

Themes and Plugins

Themes and Plugins are not exclusive to WordPress, but are available in many other software products. Typically, plugins are used to add some form of functionality to a product, while themes are used to change its appearance.

With regard to WordPress, it’s important to differentiate between the items that affect the public side and those that affect the admin side. Normally, a person who visits a blog to read a post doesn’t need to log in to do so. They are on the public side of the website. When a person logs in and sees the Dashboard, they are on the admin side of the website. Most people who visit a website will never need to login, but people who create content for the website will.

WordPress has functionality that allows a person to easily add Themes and Plugins. An issue common to both is installing something thinking it’s open source, only to find the developer is pushing the user to upgrade to a Professional version. WordPress is so popular that a small industry of companies and individuals has sprung up around it to create Themes and Plugins. However, in order to be made available within WordPress, it has to use an open source license. This doesn’t mean a person has to upgrade to a different version. The developers are trying to make some money from their creations, but if the user wants to use the open source themes or plugins available within WordPress, they can do so without needing to pay for them.

Themes

In WordPress, a theme is what the visitor sees and experiences when they go to a website. Themes control the fonts, the colors, the layouts, the navigation elements, and more. They even control whether some items appear at all. There are literally thousands of themes available for easy installation, and these are just the open source themes available in the official WordPress channel. This doesn’t count all the commercial themes that are available. Commercial themes have their place, but given the vast number of open source themes, they often aren’t necessary.

To add a theme to the public side of the website, click on Appearance in the menu, then click on the Add New button. This will show you some Featured themes. I’m not sure how they are chosen to be featured, but they are sometimes interesting. Over to the right, there is a text box where you can search for themes using different keywords, but if you click on the Feature Filter button, you can choose Education from the Subject column. Click on the Apply Filter button and WordPress will show you all the available themes related to Education. As of this writing, there are over 300 themes related to Education.

It’s sometimes worthwhile to do a Preview of the theme before installing it, but I find the Previews often don’t exactly match what they look like after they’re installed. Also, many themes have features that are impossible to use when using Preview. One option is to install it, but do a Live Preview instead of activating it. A Live Preview will show you how the theme will look on your blog, using your actual content, but it’s still not perfect because of the different options available in most themes. Live Preview will only show the default theme setup. To do a Live Preview, the theme has to be installed, but it doesn’t need to be activated.

If you want to change the look of the admin side of the blog, click on Users then on Profile. In your profile, you should have the option to choose from several color schemes. Choose one of the color schemes and it should instantly be applied.

Plugins

In some ways, plugins are the opposite of themes because they normally create functionality on the admin side, or do things that a visitor will never be aware of. While there are some that will control aspects of the public side, they often require a bit of effort to get them working with a particular theme.

For those in academia, there are a number of plugins that are potentially useful. There are plugins that will pull in references from Mendeley and Zotero, and there are plugins that make it easier for others to cite your blog. Some have even created plugin to manage labs. But there are some important points to consider before installing a plugin.

An infobox in WordPress showing information for a very old plugin named LabTools
An infobox for an old WordPress plugin.
At first glance, the plugin shown at right looks like it might be nice to install because it says its intended for research labs. When it was created, it probably was, but in the lower right corner of the infobox we see it was last updated eight years ago and it’s untested with the current version of WordPress.

WordPress comes out with a few updates each year, so I don’t automatically dismiss a plugin that hasn’t been tested with the current version. If a plugin was updated a year ago and isn’t tested with the current version, it might mean the developer is working on an updated version. But if a plugin hasn’t been updated in several years, as with the example at left, then it’s safe to assume it isn’t compatible and probably won’t work. Sometimes older plugins will still work with newer versions of WordPress, but the longer it goes without being tested, the less likely it is.

If you find a plugin you want to install, click on the Install Now button and WordPress will download it and install it on your website. Before it works however, you will need to activate it. This can be done by clicking on Plugins in the menu. This will show a list of installed plugins and the ones that have been activated will have a different color than the ones that haven’t. To activate a plugin is simply a matter of clicking on the Activate link, while deactivating a plugin can be done by clicking on the Deactivate link.

A new feature with a recent version of WordPress is a link where you can allow the plugins to update automatically. Similar to activation, this is enabled or disabled by clicking on the appropriate link. For security reasons, I recommend allowing the installed plugins to update automatically. Plugins are potential attack vectors that could allow a hacker to take control of a blog. Allowing automatic updates, or installing them manually, is the best way to keep a blog secure.

Many plugins, but by no means all, have settings that need to be configured before they can be used properly. Some will have links to their settings on the Installed Plugins page, while others will add links in the menu. Either way, after installing a plugin, it’s a good idea to take a look at its settings to see if anything needs to be configured. As an example, it was mentioned earlier that the first thing I do after setting up a new WordPress blog is to install the Classic editor plugin. Clicking on the Settings link for that plugin brings me to the Writing Settings for the blog, which now includes the option to choose the Classic editor or the Block editor, and whether this option should be made available for all users.

Even if you don’t install the Classic editor plugin on your blog, I encourage you to install an anti-spam plugin to protect your website. There are many to choose from, and they use different methods to reduce or eliminate spam. Since there are so many to choose from, I won’t recommend a particular plugin, but will say that you shouldn’t have to pay for one. You may have to do a bit of trial and error to find one that works well for your website.

Conclusion

Blogs were one of the first Web 2.0 [5] technologies to take root on the Internet. For the first time, people could visit websites and comment on what they read or saw. Since the late-1990s up to 2021, the number of blogs on the web has risen to over 500 million [6], or roughly 1/3 of all websites. Within the vast number of blogs, different communities have sprung up such as mommy bloggers [7], car bloggers [8], wine bloggers [9], living-on-a-narrowboat-in-the-UK bloggers [10], and even academic bloggers [11].

It’s incredibly easy to start a blog, and I encourage those in academia to consider creating one of their own to talk about the work they do. Faculty and staff can use academic blogs to engage with peers and communicate with the public [12], and students like myself can use them as a way to practice writing and work on their academic portfolios.

If you’re a student or a faculty or staff member and have an academic blog, I’d love to hear about it.

References

1 University of Arizona. 2016. “What an Online Academic Portfolio Can Do for You (No Matter Your Career Goals).” 2016. https://it.arizona.edu/blog/what-online-academic-portfolio-can-do-you-no-matter-your-career-goals.
2 University of Technology Sydney. 2012. “Developing an Academic Portfolio.” University of Technology Sydney. September 26, 2012. https://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/learning-and-teaching/scholarship-and-research/scholarship-learning-and-teaching/developing-academic-portfolio.
3 Capterra. 2021. “Best Blog Software 2021 | Reviews of the Most Popular Tools & Systems.” Capterra. 2021. https://www.capterra.com/blog-software/.
4 “How to Install WordPress.” 2018. WordPress.Org Forums (blog). October 12, 2018. https://wordpress.org/support/article/how-to-install-wordpress/.
5 “Web 2.0.” 2021. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Web_2.0&oldid=1031479226.
6 Ch, Radoslav. 2021. “How Many Blogs Are There in 2021? We Counted Them All!” Blog. HostingTribunal (blog). January 18, 2021. https://hostingtribunal.com/blog/how-many-blogs/.
7 Skrba, Anya. 2021. “30+ Best Mom Blogs To Inspire You (2021 Edition).” Blog. FirstSiteGuide. April 21, 2021. https://firstsiteguide.com/best-mom-blogs/.
8 Sellén, Magnus. 2021. “Top 50 Best Car Blogs & Websites to Read in 2021 – Mechanic Base.” Blog. Mechanic Base. February 16, 2021. https://mechanicbase.com/cars/best-car-blogs/.
9 CWA Staff. 2019. “The 12 Best Wine Blogs To Follow.” Blog. California Winery Advisor (blog). August 28, 2019. https://californiawineryadvisor.com/best-wine-blogs-to-follow/.
10 CanalBoatGal. 2021. “Narrowboat Blogs & Journey Logs [MY TOP 7].” Blog. Canal Boat UK. March 16, 2021. https://canalboatuk.com/narrowboat-blogs/.
11 Hayward, Andrea. 2018. “40 Must-Read Academic Blogs for Researchers and PhD Students.” Editage Insights. April 27, 2018. https://www.editage.com/insights/40-must-read-academic-blogs-for-researchers-and-phd-students.
12 The University of Edinburgh. 2018. “What Is Academic Blogging and How Can You Use It to Build Your Professional Profile?” Information Services (blog). September 5, 2018. https://thinking.is.ed.ac.uk/professional-blogging/2018/09/05/slide-2/.

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