I’m going to be uncharacteristically open about something that has emotional weight for me. But, because it’s important to me, I need to have this conversation with you.
This blog is dying.
When I started out, I had about 1500 regular readers. That seemed like a pretty cool number. It meant that I was not “a big star” but I had a pretty good reach for my work: I could write something and it had a decent chance of having an impact of some sort or another. I’m not sure where I was going with this, in the first place – I never wanted or tried to create a “following” of dittoheads like Sam Harris’ or Richard Dawkins’. That would, I believe, genuinely horrify me because a following of that size and thoughtless fanaticism becomes a moral burden. You were, in other words, about the right size. My original goal was for this blog to have some of the feeling of a dinner party with interesting guests. I know, from some of the things that have been posted in comments, that I’d enjoy learning about most of you – some of you are really interesting. We could eat a lot of pizza and wash it down with beer and hours of conversation. In that sense, I think this blog has been a success – it’s been a sort of multi-year conversation and we’ve gotten along pretty well.
But right now, readership at stderr is about 150-200 people. That’s a significant drop. I have a panoply of ideas what’s happened, ranging from:
- My attempt to adopt a more hiphop rhythm in my writing has done catastropic damage to my readability and I’m losing readers because, frankly, I suck.
- My chosen topic-zone: government stupidity, why anarchism makes sense, how weird history is, how badly F-35s suck, how horrible the US empire is, post-modernism, zen, and my metalworking and building projects – oh, and humanity is going extinct – is only interesting in the long-term for a very narrow readership and eventually it’s just boring, or depressing, or enraging, or all three. What’s the point of learning that the US did biowarfare in North Korea, and lied about it? What good does knowing that unpleasant fact do for anyone? Anyone who wants to believe that governments are good or worthwhile is going to get tired of my content.
- Blogging in general is dying.
I’m tough – you can be frank with me. If you think it’s me and my perspective then I have to know that.
My suspicion is that it’s not exactly me and it’s more what I’d describe as that blogging in general is dying. I have discussed this with other FTB bloggers and I am not alone in seeing this drop in readership. So, maybe it’s not just me. But that’s a horrifying idea: it would mean that written media is taking another swan-dive. For a brief while, I was happy at the many fine blogs out there, because I thought that it would continue to support and teach the art of dinner-table conversation and reading. Another point: those of you who have stuck with me are not what we might call “the younger generation.” I think that what may be happening is that I’ve lost the younger demographic to Youtube and professional podcasts. I have been watching what’s going on in those worlds with interest and a bit of horror: podcasting has professionalized and now, if you’re a podcaster, you’re competing with the likes of Malcolm Gladwell or Ibram Kendi or Joe Rogan (one must suppose) – I’m a fan of some of those podcasts, as well, but they’re a major effort and now they are backed by venture capital, because the podcasting world is being seen as “content” that can be aggregated by the new media companies like Amazon, Wondery, Audible, etc. The same has happened on Youtube and the vlogging platforms: it’s very hard for a small-time home vlogger to make it, because they’re going up against people with professional camera-people, a full-time editor, audio engineer, and researchers, script-writers, etc. One of the things I enjoy is cooking and building vlogs (e.g.: Blondihacks) and I’ve noticed that the cooking vlogosphere has suddenly been carpet-bombed with fantastic, high-quality content. It’s got great camera-work, the lighting is beautiful, it’s interesting, and the person at the focus is a real expert. Why would anyone want to watch an amateur operation? Sure, there will be space for the amateurs, but the eyeballs and the clicks are moving to the top-notch, slickly produced, content.
When I watch vlogs and listen to podcasts, I notice that I’m drawn to the slick, well-produced stuff. It’s beautiful and it’s great; we should all enjoy it while it’s still free. Because the end-game is that eventually it’s all going to be “monetized” to here and gone, or eventually divided into exclusive distribution arrangements with various platforms and eventually they will come to suck. But, for now, we should enjoy them. I hate to say it but it wouldn’t bother me much to stop being a producer of content, and simply switch over to being a consumer and recapture a couple hours of my day(s). Let’s think of it is as the Malcolm Gladwell Effect: I have to compete with Malcolm Gladwell and, at the same time, I’m going to listen to Malcolm Gladwell. I loathe his moopy voice and studied un-pretentiousness, but he’s undeniably fun to listen to anyway. If he ever tries to put a paywall up for his content, I’ll go back to ignoring him, but for the time-being who are you gonna listen to: Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Harris, or Marcus Ranum? See what I mean: Marcus who?
I’m not complaining about any of this. If what’s going on is that there’s just a ton of better stuff and my blog here is weird and maybe a bit depressing, I can see it. But even PZ’s mighty numbers are down. Everyone on FTB’s numbers are down. I was a follower of Pharyngula back in the scienceblogs days and I remember the conversations that scrolled for pages. Now, not so much. It’s OK but it makes a blogger question, “why am I doing this?” Am I here to change minds and change the world? And I a narcissist who thinks his opinion is so important everyone should have it? Am I trying to be the class clown? Am I doing this for fame and fortune? Why? What am I doing? Is it possible that part of what is happening is the “Voltaire Effect” – i.e.: a certain set of topics have been so thoroughly trashed that it’s not worth talking about them, anymore. You’ll have maybe noticed that I’m not writing much about atheo-skepticism anymore because I think that by now the topic ought to be obvious at the bottom, and wiped out at the top. Folks who are going to read Sam Harris aren’t going to come here and – who cares, fuck them. I’m not an evangelist. And maybe that shows. I’m not interested in trying to promote myself, because I would have to ridicule myself. What am I going to do, take an ad on some other blogging network: “Hey come listen to my opinions about stuff!” I believe I exhibit a healthy dose of humility, and waving a flag that reads “pay attention!” is too close to self-aggrandizement and I don’t like people who do that.
The people I should be talking to about this are, unfortunately, the ones that have already gone. Maybe I should have been thinking about this a year or even two, ago, but I wasn’t worrying about the numbers, then.
Yesterday I wrote a piece that took me about 8 hours and 3 years to write. That’s a problem because it’s not great. But the time-cost/benefit doesn’t look great, either. I’m not trying to make money doing this, or change the world, but I’m spending the same amount of time and effort on an audience that has massively dwindled. That tells me that time and effort don’t matter, much. Again, this applies to all the bloggers on FTB, and it’s why some have gone off to Patreon or whatever – chasing those elusive clicks.
I love you all, who read and comment here, because you’re giving your time to read my stuff, think about it, and comment. But I also feel what I think some of you feel: I write a piece, post it, review it, and think, “well, shit, that pretty much says it all: humanity is garbage.” I think that a lot of the topics I go into are so depressing and nasty there’s not much to say, except crack a few jokes at the expense of F-35s and Tactical! gear nuts. Is that worthwhile? Is blogging dying, or is it just me? In either case, is it worth fighting? I doubt more than maybe 2 of you would be really sad if I stopped. If I stopped, to most of you, it’s just another dead blog in a sea of dead blogs.
There’s a crossover-point somewhere out there where my egotistical self-importance intersects with my willingness to spend my time feeding my sense of self-importance. Since it’s not a financial issue for me, it’s purely a question of ego. I know it sounds weird but if one of you were to say, “seriously? forget it, you’re a mediocre writer and you make mistakes and you’re depressing. go make knives because you’re actually good at that.” I’d be relieved. Because it’s the kind of feedback I probably needed 2 years ago. I don’t know where I am on that crossover-chart. So, I’d like to know what you, the dwindling survivors, think.