December 6, 2008.
Like you, I've been writing for years. I've raped virgin forests to print dozens upon dozens of papers in high school and college. I kept a diary while I was studying abroad. I've jotted notes in notebooks, recorded ideas in notebooks, and drawn incoherent scribbles in notebooks. That's a lot of paper, and a lot of letters makes words, and sentences make paragraphs.
While half your statistics class probably greeted each new concept with the ferverent belief that it was useless, very few people will openly discredit writing in the same way: everyone knows that writing is important. Writing is a foundational skill that tints everything else you do. But, much like public speaking, instead of becoming comfortable with one's writing, we often becoming increasingly embarassed or unhappy about our writing ability. That's silly.
But, silliness aside, it makes a lot of sense. How many people have ever willingly read something you've written? You've likely had hundreds of people read your papers for class, but it isn't unusual for someone to be twenty-one and to have never had someone willingly read something they've written. Hell, I wouldn't find it unusual for people to have never had something they've written be willingly read.
So--right there--that's where blogging gets interesting. My blog gets very modest traffic, but I suspect I've had more of my work read than some tenured professors and aspiring journalists1. We're a jaded generation, where Avril Lavigne's newest music video rushes to the top place on YouTube while Plato and Locke go unread, but I'll be damned if writing to a real audience isn't a special feeling.
So, it's important to mention that there is this huge and statistically impenetrable gap between being "read" and being read. Recently I've been about this a bit, but a large fraction of one-time readers either read in error or read for error2. That is, they read your article without noticing what is written, or they read it just to pick out errors. Nor are these mindsets exclusive: many read while entrenched in both.
I think social news sites are directly responsible for much of hostile readership. They bring torrents of irregular or first-time readers3, who are focused on finding commentary to bring back to their peer group. A blog--with interesting content--is undoubtedly the easiest way to be "read", and it may well be the easiest way to be read, but pageviews translate to readers very very loosely4.
While I just said that there are relatively few people who read blogs, I do think there is a silent majority of readers who come, read and disappear into the ether. Much like the theories about United States voter turnout being low because many voters are content, for any given blog entry some people won't have a strong emotional response, and won't comment one way or another. Mostly, though, I think the silent majority is fed up with the arguing, and have decided to keep their thoughts to themselves.
On the internet--and in New Jersey--people strike me as quicker to anger than to please, so I view the tip-toeing majority as a friendly ghost. If they were angry, I'm sure they'd leave a thoughtful comment.
The vast majority of people will read exactly one thing about an given blog entry: its title. The thoughtful blogger responds to this by making the most outrageous and argumentative titles possible, in order to create the necessary emotional response for someone to click on their article.
I hate manufactured titles that intentionally misrepresent the article's content. The pasture between creativity and deception isn't such a desolate wasteland that we must abandon intellectual honesty without even trying. What I want to know when I see the latest misleading article, is "Why bother?"
What's the point of getting more low quality traffic who wouldn't even want to be reading your blog or article if you didn't lie to bring them there? Do advertisers really dig that angry and disinterested viewer between the ages of "I'm leaving" and "Fuck you"? I'm just saying that, ya know, if I was going to sell my soul, I'd stipulate in the contract that the currency was not pageviews.
Using honest titles maximizes pageviews by people who actually want to read your content. This is true in social media where relevent titles let them identify your article's amidst the flood, and also for long-tail readers from search engines. Being on Reddit or Digg isn't--and never will be--an end to itself.
Some bloggers, especially late entrants in the initial wave, thought that blogging was going to make them into public intellectuals; that blogging was the modern equivalent of the salons in 19th century Paris. Whether or not climbing onto such a pedestal is a meaningful goal, it was at least an attainable one back when people thought search engines were a bad idea because everyone already knew all the good sites on the internet. Okay, okay, it was attainable much more recently than that as well, when bloggers were part of an elite group who actually understood search engine optimization.
While there are some bloggers who could be called public intellectuals without provoking hysterical giggling, most if not all of them are remnants from the first generation, very few have successfully launched since then5.
But that doesn't mean that the value of a personal blog has diminished. Instead, the value of a personal blog has changed. Not depreciated, just different. I've meet a tremendous number of people I wouldn't have gotten to know without blogging, it keeps me looking for new stuff to learn and write about, it got me my current job: blogging creates connections and communities in an increasingly disconnected world.
That, I'd say, is far more valuable than having people think you're smart.
Although, it's worth pointing out that they get paid and I do not. And it is infinitely more challening to break into journalism or get tenure than it is to start a blog, but the focus here is being read. One would hope that high quality gets read more than lower quality content, but that just isn't the case in my experience.
I.E. "Of course this great paper will get read more than some stupid blog post." strikes me as an optimistic statement that should be true, but nevertheless is not.↩
Habitual readers--which is probably largely synonymous with RSS feed subscribers--are usually of much higher quality. That isn't to say that all, or even most, subscribers will read all your articles, but if they do decide to read your article they'll usually do a more thorough and thoughtful reading.↩
Which is important for blogs to gain readership, I wouldn't at all argue that social news is a negative phenomenon, simply that it has negative aspects. For a blog like mine, staying near the top of Reddit programming page for a day causes about a 10x spike on the day of, followed by a 3-5x spike the day after, and a return to normal traffic the third day.
I believe this traffic model has changed tremendously from the earlier days of blogging. Now, bloggers who highly value traffic are explicitly targeting social news sites, rather than the older model of blogs being a conversation between multiple bloggers.↩
It would be interesting to do some work on calculating the ratio between pageviews and reads, but I don't really think that HTTP gives us enough resources to do so effectively. Personally I'd start my guess at ten percent.↩
Those that have since accended are using a different formula: group blogs. TechCrunch, BoingBoing, there are dozens of blogs which have been quite successful in that regard. I imagine that the trend of consolidating writers under one roof will continue, as it becomes increasingly difficult for a single writer to produce the quantity and quality of content necessary to acchieve breakthrough success.
Of course, there is an easier route to success: be famous first and then start a blog. Yep, you just made a popular blog.↩