I was reading some blog or comments on some blog when I encountered a statement that bothered me. It bothered me because it was spoke a truth and yet it hit close to home.
In short, the message was how blogs die when the author starts obsessing on one topic. The term die refers to losing an active readership. A common element of all of the various social-media options is the concept of having followers. There is some feature available to join or follow a particular blog so that one is alerted to the latest updates. At the very least, the site can be added to a list of favorites to be checked frequently to see the latest updates.
There is much truth to the notion that growing and maintaining a large list of followers requires having fresh and varied content. There are plenty of examples of sites I no longer visit because although there is new content it is very predictable and narrow. There may be no reason to follow such sites.
However, that is not to say that the sites are not useful. I will go back to sites I haven’t visited in a long time even though I know what to expect. When I do, perhaps I do find not much has changed. It can still be interesting because there will be some change. Their thinking may still be obsessive on a topic, but their thinking would have grown to accommodate new information or answer some criticisms.
What irritated me about that initial statement was the dismissal that such obsession is a sign of failure. This attitude measures the worth of an individual by the number of followers, friends, likes, daily page views, or unique visitors. Popular people are popular because they remain interesting and fresh. The lack of those measures do define failure to be popular. The statement I heard was that lack of popularity is sign of failure in general.
The statement hits close to home because clearly I am obsessing over a few topics in this blog. In terms of obsession, mine is of the worse quality of rehashing the same ideas over and over again. I’m not doing much to expand the horizons of the discussion with new information. Instead, I’m revisiting old ideas in such a way that new blog entries repeat what I mentioned before. This has got to be uninteresting in a modern sense.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I am not sure where I want to go with this blog. That was a couple posts ago. I continue to stick to the original plan of writing for the sake of writing but leaving the content exposed to being discovered perhaps accidentally. I guess I’m comfortable doing what I have always been doing.
I’m writing the type of blog where if you read one post, you’ve read them all. I take offense with the idea that this is a mark of being a failure. I see it a little differently. I consider a success to obtain a single view of someone who stumbled on something I wrote. It is a success to have a complete stranger find a post and then maybe read a few words. That’s enough for me.
This focus on popularity is a recent development. Recently we started measuring blogs by numbers of page views, unique visitors, friends, followers, likes, links, etc. As I watched the progress, it appears a motivation for this is to drive up advertising income and search-engine optimizations. This has progressed to the point where the goal is to achieve some kind of massive status. The goal is to put out something that goes “viral”. Initially, this viral status was awarded for some innovative concept or expression. But now the viral status is an end in itself to achieve. Viral status (huge number of views, links, unique visitors, etc) is now more likely to be obtained by something that causes outrage, ridicule, or condemnation. What matters is getting noticed on a global scale.
I describe this to contrast it with my impression of an older concept of blogging and certainly with my approach to blogging. This approach is to get into a habit of writing at regular intervals, making it habitual part of the day or week. The content of any entry is whatever it takes to motivate the writing. If that motivation is the same every day, then the result will be very boring to anyone else to read. The content is likely boring even for the author to read.
The original point of blogging is not to compete with more professional writing of publishable material. There was a role for blogging even for writers who are successful at getting their material published in other means. Blogging permitted an opportunity for a less committed form of writing. A blog can capture a thought or some thinking that doesn’t merit the polish needed for publication. Some bloggers may have the goal to develop some idea to a point where it merits an investment to get it published, but it is likely they expect most ideas to go no where.
Such approaches to blogging is not meant to be inherently interesting. It just turned out that some bloggers are naturally just good narrators so that even their idle thoughts are fun to read. Other bloggers have a network of established friends who appreciate the opportunity to drop in once in a while to see how things are going. Those were side benefits to the blogger. The primary benefit was to have a writing schedule with the freedom to write a larger volume of words or thoughts than they would be permitted to write for something that can be published.
Making something publishable requires much more time to be spent on much fewer ideas. Publishing involves editing. Editing throws out unnecessary material that may have been fun to write. Publishing involved rewriting. Rewriting requires revisiting the same content already written about. These are essential activities to appeal to readers. Publishing is a writer’s devotion to entertaining his readers. It is very admirable of a writer to be so concerned about the reader’s entertainment or other forms of well-being. For most writers, that concern amounts to a lot of work on a limited scope of material.
Blogging frees the author from that constraint of concern for the reader. While there is a joy of writing for the sake of being read widely, there is also a joy in writing just for the sake of writing where readers are optional. That later motivation is what motivates much of my writing.
Writing offers its own rewards in many forms.
One reward for writing is the practice of writing. I equate this to my piano practice. When I practice piano, I make all the noises normally associated with piano playing and there are at least attempts at making coherent musical thoughts. Certainly, when I practice piano I attempt the same musical thought over and over again. The hope is that someday I’ll get it right. I see the same thing happening with blogging. It is like piano practice only instead of leaving an audible trace, I’m leaving a written record.
Another reward for writing is a form of relief. There are ideas or concerns that are not appropriate to discuss verbally, certainly not in the depth and duration possible in writing. This type of writing is the opposite of the published writer’s concern for a reader. In the ideal form, it is the form of writing that is fully free to express thoughts with absolutely no concern at all about the reader’s welfare. Such thoughts are probably lurking inside me but I haven’t gone that far. I know there might be a reader to any post and I to write with consideration to that reader, but sometimes my writing is driven to just say what is on my mind.
The larger reward for writing, at least to me, is to obsess about something. I find that my writing on a topic stimulates me to revisit that topic. I liken it to a conversation or even debate. Effectively it is a debate between myself and myself. More accurately, my current self is arguing with an earlier version of myself. A thought takes on a different level of meaning or concreteness when it is written down. After I write something, I think about it and I find something that I want to follow up on. This thinking motivates new posts. These posts may respond to strengthen some point, or to smooth out a rough potentially misleading point. More often, the later posts argue with the older posts and suggest a different way of looking at the same obsession.
An outside reader of these post will find a boring blog of an obsessed writer, apparently rehashing the same idea over and over again. I shouldn’t be surprised or bothered that my blog doesn’t become sticky for this reader. He may pass some judgement about the blog. Although I try not to be bothered, I do feel that I’ve let someone down in not being more entertaining.
My larger complaint is the broader cultural assessment that the only measure of self expression is popularity. Failure to achieve viral status, huge lists of followers, large numbers of daily page views and unique visitor counts is to fail in some absolute sense.
Personally, I remain motivated to obsess in my private little blog space. I regret the sense that this motivation is being discouraged for others.
I’ll end with my obsession about data science. Data science and particularly in the form of big data gets its value from very diverse observations. Form this perspective, it is far more valuable to have a large number of isolated narrow topics than to have a huge population all talking about the same topic. I consider search engines to be an equivalent to a big data query but one that opens into the social network sphere. Several years ago, I was impressed by find such diverse opinions in the first page or two of search results: obscure blogs with a contrarian viewpoint often would show up on the first page or search results. Today, a search on a topic will return many pages of essentially a rebroadcast of the exact same content. Everyone has optimized the SEO game and are competing with each other to be the source of the same information. To me, this is silly.
An achievement of a viral status of from one particular person’s contribution is equivalent to a failure or break-down of the larger social issue. We squandering our social energy on getting everyone talking about some one person’s idea instead of talking about everyone’s own individual ideas.
Everyone’s ideas are valuable. Only a few can be popular. A phrase associated with being popular is being sticky. Who really wants to be sticky?