Blogging and ambition

When I started blogging in 2007, I had ambitions of being popular blogger with a certain amount of authority. Those ambitions burnt out within a year or two, as I realized I did not actually want to be a famous blogger, and would rather satisfy my own preferences in blogging. Why did I have such ambitions, and why did they burn out? More broadly, how do other creators experience ambition, and are there differences from my own experience?

Okay, so 2007. Towards the end of the Bush administration, when Bush reached peak disapproval. New atheism was just getting rolling, and blogs held a particularly important place in the conversation, much like lefttube or twitter hold an important place today. I was an undergrad, and had been reading blogs myself, starting with Phil Plait, Hemant Mehta, PZ Myers, and branching off into many smaller ones.

My ambition was to become as well-known as the big names, or perhaps at least one of the smaller ones. It’s hard to remember why I had this mentality, especially since I now see it as irrational. I suppose I had a lot of opinions to share, and believed my opinions were the Good Ones that would transform how we thought about stuff and resolve all the issues that bloggers argued about. I have always been very modest, and though nobody throughout my education would ever let me forget that I am “smart”, I have never felt that my opinions are super valuable just because they are my opinions. Nonetheless, in my experience reading blogs, there were countless places where I thought bloggers and other readers were missing something important, and I felt I could supply that something if only people would hear me.

These ambitions were dashed quickly, as I started blogging and received total silence. When you read blogs, you disproportionately read the kind of blogs that have readers, and when you write a blog, you disproportionately write the kind of blog that doesn’t. I knew that, but I still felt disappointed, and felt a bit silly for ever expecting anything different. I also realized that there was barely any way to dig out of the hole of obscurity. In the blogosphere, there are two major mechanisms to be “discovered”–either you get the attention of a more influential blogger, or you spend years leaving lots of insightful comments everywhere, with links back to your blog.

I eventually achieve success, to some degree. According to statistics that I compiled in 2015, my page views grew to 7k a month over the course of two years–which can be a lot or a little depending on your expectations. It translates to 1-2 comments on an average day. My readership never grew past that point, and is now a smidge smaller.

The growth was so gradual and slow that my ambitions had time to shrink down to size, as I gained self-knowledge about what I actually wanted from blogging. I like that my writing is providing value to someone other than myself, and I like that there are enough people around to keep me honest. But I also look at big name bloggers, and I realize how much work they must put into it, to blog several times a day. I realize that the things they write about are mostly not things I want to write about. I see that they bear a great responsibility to avoid mistakes because of the sheer number of people who would be misinformed. I see that they are subject to harassment. I don’t want any of that for myself.

Creators can experience ambition in a variety of ways, and I don’t wish to overgeneralize. However, I observe that the environment for creators is significantly different today, in two major ways.

First, you can actually make money as a creator–if not as a blogger, then as a vlogger or influencer of some sort. When I started blogging, even the most influential bloggers could only make a pittance in ad money. Thus, making money was simply never part of my ambitions. In fact, blogging is very “expensive” in terms of the time spent. It’s even worse for analytical blogging, which is often founded on an education that few people are privileged enough to have. So in my experience, it’s a hobby most popular among college students and grad students.

I believe that the potential to monetize content makes it accessible to a more diverse group of people. This is well and good, but just as I had inflated expectations about how popular I could become, many creators may now have inflated expectations about how much money they could make. While the most popular creators can make a living off of their work, most creators do not even come close. So content creation might be accessible to more people, but I worry that for many people it may be a trap.

The second difference today, is the mechanism of discovery. Most modern platforms have more effective mechanisms of discovery, often in the form of going “viral”.  That is, creators may receive runaway attention through the word-of-mouth snowball, or by the whims of the algorithm.

Virality can be a very tempting possibility, if you are the kind of creator with big ambitions. And for some creators, virality indeed grants their wish of fame and popularity. But other creators may learn that their wish was foolish. Or perhaps they never wished for fame in the first place, and received it anyway. Still others may toil for a long time thinking that fame was just around the corner, when it never was. The extremely gradual growth of my own audience was painful, but I’m not sure I would trade it for what creators have today.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    the environment for bloggers is significantly different today


    you can actually make money as a creator–if not as a blogger, then as a vlogger or influencer of some sort

    You have always been able to make money as a creator of what the young people call “content” – it’s just that what counts as “content” has had a couple of additions lately.

    You can actually make money as a musician, as a comedian, as an actor, as a writer of novels or newspaper columns. And in all those fields, your observations work. For instance:

    When you read blogs, you disproportionately read the kind of blogs that have readers, and when you write a blog, you disproportionately write the kind of blog that doesn’t

    When you listen to music, you disproportionately listen to the kind of music that has fans, and when you make music, you disproportionately make the kind of music that doesn’t”.

    blogging is very “expensive” in terms of the time spent

    Tell that to a jobbing standup comedian, sweating blood over the exact wording of a punchline and slogging across the country staying shitty hotels and eating rubbish because they’re never at home. Tell that to a musician who has been practicing two or four or six hours a day for DECADES just to be able to get side gigs in pubs or to occasional wedding. Tell that to an actor who has student loans from acting school but who’s waiting tables waiting for their break. You can blog from a phone on a bus. Get out a musical instrument on a subway train and see how welcoming the looks you get are.

    I think blogging today is not a lot different from a lot of other creative professions, in that a few successful people can make money at it, but in general they have to be GOOD at it, and to the untrained eye it’s easy to be good at… but in reality quality takes a LOT of time to develop for anyone except the occasional prodigy. The vast majority of people doing it are doing it for their own pleasure, because the simple pleasure of just doing it is worth it. And, occasionally, one of those people will produce something that catches the imagination of the public, and they’ll get suddenly better known.

    This mechanism is not actually new, it’s just got a bit quicker since the internet and the gatekeepers have changed. It used to be that “overnight success” stories happened to people who caught the eye of specific impresarios or media owners, often after a long apprenticeship. Nowadays it’s a little more hit-and-miss, because we have a massive, unorganised network of “influencers”, and popularity with one of them can translate into fame (for 15 minutes…), and the person in question might gain fame with their first (and perhaps ONLY) piece of output (e.g. where is the kid whose finger Charlie bit? His career was short…).

    many creators may now have inflated expectations about how much money they could make

    So it has always been. How many people do you know who have illusions of being the next JK Rowling (minus, one hopes, the TERFness)? That story of writing-in-a-cafe-on-benefits-to-billionaire is a powerful one.

    What’s really different now is that there really are better chances to make SOME money, because the gatekeepers have changed. Musicians can get (tiny amounts) of money from streaming, writers can publish via print-on-demand, and if you haven’t got a podcast with an advert for razors or the Economist or mattresses or beer subscriptions (?) or something stuck in the middle of it then you’re obviously not trying. But that aside, it’s not that different from how it was twenty or forty or a hundred years ago. If you create stuff, you mostly do so to no response at all. A small number of creators can make a tiny living from it, and an even smaller number get rich’n’famous, with variable results. Plus ca change.

  2. StevoR says

    For some reason, this clip seems apt here :

    Indy didn’t get it either really – at least not the fortune part that we know of and how many meals does glory pay for these days?

    At least they won’t ruin your repuation with some FSM awful fourtth sad excuse for a movie about XL skulls or summin’.. (So I gather, not keen to ever see it.)

  3. says

    I guess my whole conundrum is “what’s the point?” Take, for example, Charles Stross’ blog – which has a strong following that turns each posting into a multi-page discussion with sometimes thousands of comments. Is that blogging nirvana? I suspect Charlie reads it quickly and moves on; he’s overloaded himself. Meanwhile, I, with my small but deliciously witty Commentariat(tm), am content to trade barbs with them, because I’m not bombed by thousands of comments. I sometimes look at my readership (around 2,000 regular – smaller than yours) and think “if I put all those people in a beer hall in Munich, it’d be a heck of a great beer and pretzel party!” I’ve spoken at conferences in the past, where I had thousands of people in the room, and it’s more than one person can interact effectively with at a personal level; the only way to manage it is to add hierarchy and then, suddenly, there’s what whole “leadership” or “elite” or “spokesperson” or “horseman of the apocalypse” thing. If your blog gets big, then you’re no longer “just this person who shares their thoughts” you’re a phenomenon. I realized after a few years of speaking at conferences that I don’t want to be that, so I am quite content with my little blog here and the commenters.

    I won’t say that if the Commentariat(tm) decamped en mass and never came back, that I wouldn’t stop bothering. Because the “weird dinner party conversation” atmosphere I am trying to get would not work if it scaled back too far. But neither would it work if I became a runaway shooting star of blogger fame. Besides, whenever I see a shooting star in the blogosphere, I know that really, it’s just the fire and shockwave generating part of a descent into a lump of shattered oxidized junk; an inevitable Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, or Christopher Hitchens. Those guys are what you get when you start playing to the crowd and relying on shock and click-bait to get eyeballs.

    So, yeah, in my mind’s eye maybe I picture a graying grumpy badger in his Wind In The Willows lair, hosting a table full of unusual critters, most of whom are wonderful and well-behaved, while outside the face-eating leopards prowl in the ascendant. Would you like a mug of hot cider with some cinammon whiskey in it? It’s warming.

  4. billseymour says

    I think I agree with Marcus.  If I were a blogger, I’d be writing about C++ and passenger trains with occasional rants about the latest right wing nuttiness; and I’d much prefer to have few enough comments that I would have the time to actually read and respond to them.

    I actually have a fantasy about becoming a Freethought blogger.  I even have my who-I-am blurb written:

    Bill Seymour always wanted to be a fireman when he grew up [photo of me looking out of the left side of the cab of a steam engine], but he never had the vulgate for the firin’, so he became a computer programmer instead.

    A wires-and-pliers guy by training and early vocation [photo of me ca. 1978 outside KRAB FM, Seattle], he has no academic credentials of any consequence; and as is often the case with autodidacts, his knowledge reflects his interests more than his needs.

    That’ll have to wait for retirement, though, and will probably also have to await a non-FtB blog to prove that I can write. 😎

  5. Alan says

    Congratulations on your success! 7k visitors per month is great! When I started blogging about a year ago, I learned firsthand how much work it is. And my goals were very modest: just writing one post per week. I quickly learned how difficult (and potentially demoralizing) it would have been if I had also been hustling to try and become popular. I finally gave up on that altogether and just focused on publishing elsewhere and used my blog as a kind of repository (or graveyard) for my writing. But I now have tremendous respect for bloggers who manage to achieve and sustain success on their own, especially those who do it on their own terms like you have.

  6. says

    @Marcus Ranum #3,

    If your blog gets big, then you’re no longer “just this person who shares their thoughts” you’re a phenomenon.

    Yeah, my thoughts exactly. My observation is that past a certain level of popularity, bloggers seem to focus a lot on news coverage. Or on Tumblr, they devote most of their focus on signal boosting. And I wonder, are they popular because the style is popular, or does popularity push you further in that direction? I imagine popular bloggers get lots of requests to comment on this or that story, or boost this or that signal.

    @billseymour #4,

    I actually have a fantasy about becoming a Freethought blogger.

    Before I got this spot, I publicly fantasized about the same. Now that I’m here it doesn’t seem like so big a deal. It’s not the huge break that I thought it could be–although maybe it has worked out that way for a few others.

    @Alan #5,

    I finally gave up on that altogether and just focused on publishing elsewhere and used my blog as a kind of repository (or graveyard) for my writing.

    I thought you were a paid columnist of sorts? I can’t speak to that experience, but I imagine that blogging was in some way building up to that.

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