Blog Appraisals

Over the course of the past three years, I have encountered thousands of Christian blogs and currently subscribe to well over a hundred. Each day a new blog enters the blogosphere with the hopes and promise of being read and recommended by others. This past week, I have been thinking about making explicit the criteria I have implicitly considered when appraising blogs/bloggers. I thought I would share with you some of criteria I consider when evaluating whether (or to what degree) I read or follow a particular blog. Let’s begin with the blogger.

The first thing I hope to find in a good blog is (1) someone whose life is not defined by their blog. I know that sounds weird, but I want to know that this person has a life outside the blogosphere, is making a difference in their world with the gospel, and is known for their investments in family, ministry, and church and not just their blog. The (2) second thing I look for in a blogger is humility. A blogger can have some great content and substantial things to say, but if their content is not grounded in a humble disposition as a learner and listener, then I rarely visit. This leads to my (3) third aspect of the blogger, which is their treatment of others. Disagreement happens. Stupid comments happen. Unfortunately, vitriolic ad-hominems happen. How the blogger handles criticism and those who agree with them is important because it shows me whether they respect others and genuinely want to engage in a conversation or just want to blow them off. Lastly and most importantly, I want to know that the blogger is (4) gospel-centered in their blogging. This does not mean that every blogpost has to explicitly be about the gospel; rather, I want to see that they are blogging with a gospel-centered approach. The gospel should shape what we say and do not say, and how we say it.

Now let’s turn to the blog itself. There a number of factors I consider when reading a blog. The ones I read regularly have most of these, though not all. They are enumerated as follows:

1. Relevancy – If the blog is a journal of your everyday life or some esoteric hobby, then not only will I not read your blog, I will repent of the time I wasted in doing so (okay, not really). But seriously, if the blog is not geared to an audience in which I find myself, then I won’t buy the ticket to the show.

2. Originality/uniqueness – There are so many Christian blogs out there. They are so many Christian blogs out there saying the same thing. I am drawn to the blogs who are unique in their formatting of the blog and original in the content. We all know and read the evangelical Drudge Report, and those who are blogoclones (that’s my new word for the day) do get tiring. The blogs that have something unique to contribute to the blogosphere (which requires a little more effort) are worth a look and should be given greater consideration.

3. Precision/argumentation – Exegetical and logical fallacies are annoying. On the other hand, I really enjoy articles and posts that are carefully thought out, coherent, and critically precise (critical in the scholarly sense, not mere negation).

4. Depth/knowledge – If you are going write about a certain topic, do your homework and be as thorough as you can. Sure, blogs are not scholarly articles, but good blogs become excellent by synthesizing and presenting both a breadth and depth of knowledge that is enlightening and informing.

5. Consistency/regularity – This does not mean that all good blogs post everyday, but it does mean that one can expect some measure of regularity when you post. Furthermore, when a blog is consistently good, they develop a reputation for being a quality blog. The blogs I highly appraise are those that, whenever I click on their site, I know there will be something worth reading.

6. Style of writing/engaging and persuasive – It is not enough to think well (precision/argumentation) but also to write well. I have heard that blogging produces bad thinking and bad writing. Like any form of media, there is a mixture of the good and the bad (as in television programming). In the Christian blogosphere, I have seen both, and while I may not be really interested in the topic, I will read enjoy a blogpost that is engaging and persuasive.

7. Content-driven – Blogs can serve any purpose, from journaling to marketing to networking. Yet the blogs that I am drawn to are the ones that are content-driven, meaning that the substance of what they write and communicate are rich, sound, and substantive. When a blog is driven by content, this serves as a filter to keeping a high standard of formatting and posting.

8. Appreciation of History – I know this may sound odd, since blogging is considered a technological fad focused on trendy novels of our day. Nevertheless, blogs that have a historical consciousness and are rooted in an appreciation of the writings of yesteryear provide a balance and perspective which I find necessary and helpful. Chronological snobbery is bad news.

9. Personal edification – After having spent some time reading or reflecting on a blogpost, I want to know that it was profitable, edifying, and personally enriching, even if it is something I may disagree with what was said.

10. Blog aesthetics – Lastly, I like blogs that are aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate. If the text is hard to read or the format is busy and confusing, then I am discouraged from reading the blog. If you want others to read what you have written, then it is important to make the effort to present it in such a way that others will be attracted and drawn rather than frustrated or discouraged.

Lastly, I feel like I should mention a few turn-offs. First, don’t be controversy-driven or try to build a readership by focusing on controversy. If controversy happens, then so be it, but don’t make it the centerpiece of your blog. Second, don’t prostitute your blog. By that I mean don’t go commenting on other popular blogs for the sake of getting people to your site or by begging people to link to you. There are several blogs that have a wide readership and draw a lot of traffic but at a high price. Don’t be a sell-out. Build your blog one post at a time without trying to gain favors or be propped up by another. Third, don’t be a jerk. Close to that would also a caution to be careful when using satire or sarcasm. Most of the time it just isn’t appropriate. Fourth, beware of self-promotion. It is an honor if others recognize you but foolish for you to try to make a name for yourself. Be grateful for the recommendation of others but beware of the temptation to promote yourself or your blog. Fifth, allow comments. Blogs by nature are conversational. Those which do not allow comments are not real blogs. Sorry. Lastly, don’t get into the “inner circle” mode with your blog. There are some good blogs out there that I would possibly enjoy reading more (and commenting), but I don’t visit their blog because they have developed an “inner circle” mentality. This is more likely to occur in group blogs than individual blogs. An example of this inner circle mentality is the IX Marks blog. I think it has great content but clearly gives the impression that the primary audience is not intended for your and me, but that we are lucky to have listened to their conversation.

I guess that’s it. In case you are wondering, here are some examples of blogs I find worth reading. Tim Challies, Mark Lautherbach, Joe Thorn, Erik Raymond, Thabiti Anyabwile, Nathan Finn, and Trevin Wax (there are many others, of course).

>> So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my criteria? Anything else you might add?

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16 Responses to Blog Appraisals

  1. Aaron Hawk says:

    Well brother Brister (ha ha… that’s just fun to say… hope you’re not tired of that one ;),

    I definitely agree with your points. I have never explicitly listed or really given explicit thought to what I look for, but inherently I would say that I have the same list (in the sense of the grid, not necessarily the blogs read, though I am sure they are good). The two things that resonate the most with me are your comments about people posting comments just for the sake of networking and your comments on self-promotion. I am fairly new to the blogging world, but this has been a consistent irritation since my entrance (and you’ll just have to take my word that this is not my intention here :). I can’t stand this in life and I can’t stand it “virtually.” I believe the attitude you’ve presented to be severely lacking in the grand scheme of the blogging world (though I have been very thankful to find plenty that are not lacking this), so I truly appreciate the sober and mature attitude that you have presented in this post.

  2. I think it is important to network in the blogosphere, and making thoughtful comments to create discussion and build relationships is good. Blatant “Great article, and I just started a blog” comments are unwarranted and annoying.

    Regarding allowing comments. I agree that comments are important, and I am always thankful when I wake in the morning to find that people have had a discussion following one of my posts. I won’t however, entertain comments by people who are not there to have a discussion, but are professional blog debaters. If you’re debating every Reformed blog around on the issue of election for example, then I am probably not going to let them ‘steal’ my time or my comment space, as they are not open to learn but are just there to argue.

    It is discipline to keep a healthy blog running, and something that I know can be a struggle for me with my current schedule. I guess that is a good thing as it means my blog is not my life. But like you, content is important for the blogs I chose to read, and also for my own blog. So getting the balance right is something I am working on.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post!

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  4. Aaron,

    Only Mr. Kummeropolis can call me Brother Brister. Okay I am kidding. :)

    But seriously, I have struggled with the ethics of blogrolling and linking. Should I reciprocate a link if someone blogrolls me? Should I feel guilty if I don’t? I know this sounds a bit silly, but I don’t think I am alone when I say that! Also, if I comment on someone else’s blog, do I expect them to respond to me? Am I making a meaningful contribution to the topic at hand? That’s some of the stuff I think about when commenting (which lately for me has not been much!).

  5. Nath,

    Yes, the meta can be a tricky thing. As an administrator of my blog, I am responsible for the oversight and integrity of the discussion. At times I have deleted comments without apology and other times I have emailed the person asking them to reword or change their tone while holding their comment in the moderation pool. I can’t say that I have handled the situation perfectly, but I have tried to be fair and kind, especially with those who disagree with me.

    One quick anecdote I want to mention. Back in November of last year, I wrote a post called “A Question for My Arminian Friends” which quickly spiraled into a heated 75+ comment post. I criticized both sides for how they handled themselves and felt like it was a big mistake. However, three people who took shots at me and harshly criticized me (which I did not censor) found that that particular post began their journey into the doctrines of grace. Two months later, all three of them had come to a Reformed understanding of the gospel, emailing me with their stories and expressing their gratitude for opening up to them and embracing their questions (and receiving their accusations). So what was a terrible situation at first because a sweet story in the end, and I am grateful for how God redeemed that conversation which happened on a “blog” of all places. [To read one of the responses go here: http://timmybrister.com/2006/12/05/why-i-blog/

    That isn’t the only story I can tell like that but time doesn’t permit me to share them. In any case, it could be argued that posts are the front door to a discussion and the comments are the living room where real conversation takes place. If that is the case, I will bring the sweet tea and Macadamian nut cookies. :)

  6. Timmy,

    I appreciated this post and your categories for a “worthwhile” blog. I’ve never met you, but I know your blog well. Honestly, it probably illustrates what most (all?) SBTS bloggers are hoping to accomplish: creating and maintaining a well-known and respected blog that gets their name and thoughts “out there” where people “who matter” might read it. Heck, most SBTS bloggers would give a small child and even a few points off their GPA to be Challies’ King for a Week! :)

    Maybe something worth discussing/pondering for everyone is “Why Do I Blog?” You mentioned it in one of your comments here. I think we are all motivated to some extent because of selfish and prideful reasons. I know that I am. That leads people (and I know I’ve been guilty of it before) to “prostitute” their blog. For both blog comments and questions in classroom I’ve learned to ask myself: “Do I genuinely want to say/ask this, or am I just trying to get myself seen/read?”

    I struggled with whether or not to start a blog (again) this past summer. I know that pride tinged/tinges EVERY single one of my motives. But I decided that, personally, the legitimate reasons TO blog outweighed the selfishness and pride evident in EVERYTHING I do.

    Ultimately, I believe that God in his providence will give every person’s life/blog/whatever the influence that he chooses, in the way that he will be most glorified. And I rest in that.

    One quick illustration:
    I wrote a post when I first started my blog about the espresso machine my wife and I bought. I titled it by the name of the espresso machine. Now, I have had half a dozen people or more every day come to my blog because they searched under the name of the espresso machine (which is on clearance at Starbucks right now). I had no idea that God would use that post in that way. I pray for these people — that God would use my (hopefully) Bible- and Gospel-driven meditation on buying the espresso machine in their lives, to draw them to himself.

    At any rate, thanks for this post, and for your thoughtful interaction with so many things generally.

    God Bless,
    Danny Slavich

  7. Timmy Brister, it is great to read how God used a difficult meta experience for His glory. :)

    Regarding the ethics of blogrolling, I share your concerns/thoughts. When I first launched my blog I linked to a handful of blogs that I was reading at that time, and naturally as I have built relationships my RSS subscriptions have increased significantly. But I do recall making a conscious decision NOT to alter my blogroll, so as to not begin a “if you link me, I will link you” compulsion/bondage for myself. I am more than happy to link to and thank people in a post however, but I think I may be leaving my blogroll for a little while still, possibly updating it once every 6 months or so, and only with those blogs that I daily read and are personally wish to recommend.

    At the same time I really do appreciate it when someone links me…especially when I know they are very purposeful when it comes to giving links.

  8. Aaron Hawk says:

    @ Brother Brister, no, I don’t think that sounds silly at all. I think it is important that we think about these things. I am a very bold / strong-willed person, so I guess it is a little easier for me than others to not feel obligated (with some natural / inherent dangers in that personality as well). I think that if we just act “naturally” we are doing what we ought. In other words, if we really feel a blog is great and we desire to share that with our readers (all 2 in my case ;), then by all means link them. However, I don’t think we should feel obligated to reciprocate. At least for me, this attitude helps to keep my motives pure (or at least a pure as I can be) both in the virtual world and in life.

    @ Nath, yes, you are right, I think networking (such as Said at Southern) is good and important… in total agreement with your comments. Perhaps my choice of the phrase “just for networking” was not the best, but I meant something more along the lines of the “hey I made a comment now would you blog-roll me so I can say I got 2000 hits last night.” Also, I think that’s why I titled mine “Endorsed / Other Blogs.” I know I am just playing with words there to some degree, but that is really the reason I titled it that way, so good thoughts :)

    @ Danny, totally agree on checking motives (in virtual and in life). For me I was sort of forced into blogging, but have discovered that I love it :)

    @ All… I am basking in this one… this is what blogging should be; iron sharpening iron and conversation leading us to holiness and purity in Christ!

  9. Timmy,

    Great criteria and I agree on almost all points. One thing which can be strange is the insular nature of blog communities and networks. Now in one sense we know blogs must have an “audience” – but that is not what I want to discuss. In other words much of the readership can be driven by those inside a certain small pocket of the Christian world – written for us by us so to speak. Your comment on “The Drudge Report of Evangelicals” was a bit indicative of this. The using of a conservative political blog to nickname an evangelical news site aside, it seemed you do not like folks reproducing stuff from JT on their own sites. Perhaps I read wrong, but it is almost like you were saying “we all read Theologica” so come up with some unique stuff. Point taken, but let me push back a little. Not that I am a theologica clone in my efforts, far from it, but I do have readers that are from our ministry, friends, non Christians and guys who are not part of “the evangelical reformed blog circle of friends” – they don’t read Challies every day or “Evangelical Drudge.” So seeing something good surfaced by Justin on other sites is to me a good thing – especially if that blog has a readership that is outside of evangelical bloggers, seminary students and pastors.

    Also, let me put this out there for you guys – I think some blogs ought have content that interacts with the thought world and its ideas – it is good to interact with non Christians as well. I also appreciate blogs that are witty and make me laugh.

    Otherwise – great criteria…

  10. Tony Kummer says:

    I don’t have much to add. I think Timmy nailed it.

    I keep returning to the unique social nature of blogs. That is the impulse behind Said At Southern. Many have noted the unusual nature of virtual community. But the friendships I’ve found via blogging (Brister, Trevin, Alex, ect.) have been built on a shared understanding of the Gospel. Their writings are a real encouragement to me. They write with honesty and humility. And when we meet for prayer, or talk on the phone it promotes the kind of Godward fellowship that I just don’t find in other friendships. Maybe its a a throwback to the personal letters that ancients (aka pre-1990s) used to share.

  11. Trevin Wax says:

    The blogosphere offers some semblance of community, but it falls short of true Christian fellowship. However, the blogosphere has connected me with like-minded Christians who I have enjoyed getting to know and who I would never have met otherwise.

    I also recommend varying the types of blogs you read. If all the blogs you subscribe to are of a certain theological persuasion, it’s easy to miss some thought-provoking questions coming from other corners.

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  13. Thanks for all the great feedback guys. I would love to respond with more thoughts, but I have just a minute to comment (I am in South Florida on a brief vacation). Danny, you asked some great questions which perhaps should be answered in a follow-up post. Reid, I agree with your suggestions too. In general, my hope in appraising blogs is that it would raise the level of the blogosphere to expect more from us and to see as a medium for better purposes than gossip, slander, controversy, or what have you. It *can* be a wonderful tool for edification, information, discussion, etc., and I want to see Said at Southern, my blog, and yours be places that honor the Lord and are meaningful stops for us all. I hope to chime in more soon. Thanks guys, and have a wonderful weekend!

  14. Timmy – have a great vacation.

  15. Aaron says:

    That’s a really great list. Nicely done.

    Just a few thoughts…

    I have a similar approach to Nath on the blogrolling question. It does constitute a pretty strong endorsement, much stronger than a link in a post, anyway. Blogs that I think are consistently good and suitable for my audience get added every so often.

    On point #6… I don’t think blogging produces bad writing any more than eating produces indigestion. Granted, a lot of blogging is bad, but it is sloppy bloggers who are to blame, not the medium itself.

    That said, there are a few typos in the post you might want to correct. (Not trying to be snooty, just helpful. “Excuse me, sir – your drink is on top of your car!”) Check point #6 and the end of the paragraph after point #10.

    Good work, Timmy.

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