Should you start your R blog now? 6 reasons I found in my first year of R blogging

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It has been a year since I posted the first post on this blog. Since that time, I have learned many lessons, but the main one is probably that blogging has never been as accessible as it is now.

In this anniversary post, I would like to give you a few reasons to start your own R blog and write about what I have learned in my first year of blogging about R.

The barrier to entry is low and the tools excellent

For many people, writing a blog on their own can seem like a challenge. In the end, you are basically creating a full-blown website, with styles, content, hopefully also with a responsive design. Then you need to setup hosting, publishing, and all the other necessities to actually get the content online. How does one do all that on their own?

Blogdown Logo

Just like many other areas a task that would be difficult years ago, the tools came a long way and we need very little technical knowledge to have a blog up and running in under an hour. I wrote about the amazing free tools that I personally use for this blog and I really believe that thanks to those tools blogging about R is very accessible to a wide range of R developers and users.

If you are interested in starting up right now, I would recommend taking a look at the get started chapter of the blogdown: Creating Websites with R Markdown written by Yihui Xie, the author of the blogdown package himself.

Writing is a great way to learn and discover

When I was starting to write the blog, the intention was mainly to provide more exposure to base R functionality, which I felt has too little presence and popularity online, at least relative to other packages with much better presence and marketing – hence the R:case4base section.

Regardless of whether this mission was successful or not, it surprised me how much I learned during the writing process. Be it technical details, alternative ways of implementation, other class methods or even function arguments I never used before. Writing about R requires a lot of reading, which in turn resulted in learning many new approaches and exploring ideas.

Even writing this post I have discovered a cool new R package – prompt by Gábor Csárdi.

Writing will of course force you, well, to write your thoughts down, which is more difficult than it seems, especially if you are not a trained writer already and helps express your thoughts in a more concise way. I find that even if no one except me read the blog posts, the added value of the writing itself is worth the effort.

Last but not least, I have used the posts on my blog as a reference for work since most of the time I write about issues I come across and try to propose solutions. Keeping a blog is a good way to have a written resource that you can get back to when you approach the same challenge at a later point in time. For example, I come back to the handling Java exceptions regularly to refresh my memory.

If you think without writing, you only think you’re thinking.
Leslie Lamport

Getting some readers is easier than expected

Apart from the learning experience, most of the people who write are happy when people actually read their blog and, if that is the goal, find it helpful. When starting, my optimistic expectation was that it would start to get some readers and crawl out of obscurity about a year from the first post, provided I keep posting consistently.

To much surprise, getting exposure proved much easier than anticipated, mainly thanks to the amazing r-bloggers, an aggregator of R blogs with a huge reader base. In fact, in the first 3 months since it was added, 40% of all the readers came to this blog from R bloggers. There are also other aggregators and websites that you can add your content to for some extra exposure, such as R Weekly and Awesome Blogdown.

Resources online that provide some very useful tips include Maëlle’s Get on your soapbox! R blog content and promotion post. I only discovered that the Twitter hashtag for R is #rstats reading this blog post.
Thanks, Maëlle!

The community is amazing

In some effort to gain more exposure, one can also turn to social media. And since my poor skills predispose me to not much than Twitter (which I still cannot use properly) I try to at least post a tweet when I publish a new post – with variable success. Twitter is a lot of work, in fact much more than one would expect, so I failed miserably on my goals to publish n tweets each week. There probably were months where I did not even open Twitter at all. The good thing about Twitter is, at least in my experience, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the amount of work you put in and exposure you get. And the amount variable is fully in your hands.

On an even more positive note, the #rstats community is just full of helpful and nice individuals, so any worries you might have will disappear soon.

It can also happen that you get lucky and some of the #rstats superstars such as Mara Averick will notice and retweet your tweet, which can really help boost your exposure. And you can easily communicate with other well-known figures of the community as well.

Blogging is fun

When push comes to shove, writing a blog is a spare time activity and to invest part of those precious moments, one must enjoy it. And there is a lot to enjoy when creating your own blog, especially with blogdown and hugo, where you have full control over the entire content and infrastructure of the blog. You can enjoy a multitude of activities related to content, design and more. To put this in perspective, my personal favorite time wasters include

  • endlessly obsessing about tiny details in the css, making sure everything is exactly as I want it to be, resulting in commits with messages like Dont use -1em top margin for pre.r, use 0 instead. Obviously, “as I want it to be” changes pretty much on a monthly basis, with current weather potentially having a significant effect.
  • trying to make the site light to load, resulting in spending hours on editing the svg representations of Font-Awesome icons to save 75KB of resources on page load. Check the footer of the page source code if you are interested in the result.
  • related to the above, make interactive charts light to load by writing a wrapper to minimize the rendered highchart size to the necessary JavaScript minimum

Write for yourself, the inspiration will come

One of my worries when starting a blog was that when done with the first few posts that I had planned, I will not find more inspiration and topics to write about. After sticking to my schedule of posting every other Saturday, instead of running out of inspiration, it seems that the topics that I want to write about are coming in a pace faster than 2 per month, which essentially means if this keeps up, I will never run out of ideas. And if that tragic moment comes when I have nothing to write about I guess the internet will happily keep growing without those few kilobytes I would add.

In terms of popularity, I write mostly what I find interesting and helpful for my future self. Even if I tried to write what others like, my estimation of what others may be interested in reading is so bad I would fail miserably. A case in point, my personal estimation was that the posts on interfacing Java from R would be the most read posts of the year. They took a lot of work and investigation to write and I find them really interesting. As it happens, both of them combined only have 10% of the reads compared to the post I called Christmas praise.

Happy R blogging!

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