A Delicate Topic

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.



  1. bodach says

    What the hell? You are part of my morning amble with coffee and bring a lot to the table. Of course, it’s all free content to me, no effort, no blood sweat and tears. I love your movement from WW2 to knives to forging, neve knowing what will come up next. Regardless, I appreciate your efforts here and hope you do what’s best for your head.

  2. Jörg says

    readership at stderr is about 150-200 people. … 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

    That sounds like a pretty fantastic pastime.
    I don’t read each and every post of yours – e.g. F35 clusterfucks became boring pretty fast – but every other day you have some really interesting nugget that induces an avalanche of thoughts, the impetus to read one of the books on your Recommended Reading List, or a discussion about that nugget with a 3rd party.

  3. snarkhuntr says

    I too have noticed the decline of writing as an art form. I’ve been following PZ since the Nu Athiests were still a less-than-embarrassing phenomenon, and I think I started following your work several years ago. I would be quite sad if you stopped writing, but it’s a much different thing to read than to write. I do not know that I would have the energy to produce the kind of high-quality work that you consistently deliver. I’ve always appreciated the wit and clarity of your writing, and you have a range of interests that dovetails pretty well with mine (I am a Blondihacks stan, as well).

    I used to follow a blogroll with maybe 20-30 people on it. Few of them are still around. I do still read Brian Krebs, Bruce Schnierer, Yourself, PZ and Ken White (popehat). I note that Ken White has moved over to substack, which I think it some kind of system for monetizing blogging – like a specialized patreon or something.

    A lot of people who likely would be blogging, were this still the mid 2000s, are now making youtube commentary videos. And some of those are excellent, but sometimes I really just want to read something – not have someone lecture me. With reading I can take time to study a paragraph, re-read something that I might have misread, actually think about a sentence or proposition before moving on to the next thing. Gish gallops and bad logic are much easier to spot in the written word.

    This decline in writing has been particularly odious to me in the realm of DIY. A lot of things that should be articles are now youtube videos – if I have a specific question I want an answer to, sorting through 15-20 minutes of video to find the 10 seconds of information I actually need is a headache. Perhaps I’m just old and cranky.

    If you decide to give up blogging, I hope you continue to post your exploits and ideas in some other fashion – I’ll likely follow you there as well.

    PS: I think what hooked me was your commentary on the F35 – one of the only things the current Canadian government did that I wholeheartedly agreed with was backing out of that ridiculous grift.

  4. says

    I am not likely to stop doing this. But (I should have mentioned this in the OP) there seems to be a death-spiral effect when a blog switches to being intermittent – it becomes easier to stop following it at all. So I feel like if I want to keep doing this I need to remain willing to put in the time and see it as time spent enjoyably (really, it mostly is) and nothing else.

  5. Hatchetfish says

    First of all, only you can decide what’s worth your time, so if you think it’s better spent on other things, do that.

    That out of the way, I’m a regular reader because you have a genuinely unique (in my experience) talent for seeing and explaining that the emperor has no clothes, on practically any topic you touch on. I’d say that’s an immensely valuable voice.

    As constructive criticism: You suck at titles, at least if they’re viewed as serving the same purpose headlines, which might be the proper way to approach blog post titles these days. I’m not saying make them clickbait, to cut that horror off at the knees, but they don’t give much clue of what’s ahead. I think it may be more important than it used to be because over the last few years I’ve shifted to reading most blog posts (here and anywhere) in exactly the same mental space I read newspaper and magazine articles; that didn’t used to be the case.

    Coming back to the headline point though, one: stderr is the one place I never really know what I’m going to be reading until I open the post and dig in a bit, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In that traditional newspaper practice aspect: your titles suck as headlines. The effect is that there’s higher friction to read the blog. It’s a small effect, but I’ve noticed it, and I wonder if it’s a tiny psychological speedbump between first time readers becoming regular readers, or changes regulars to occasionals.

    The other place I see it having an effect is if I link to one on social media. I do that fairly regularly, from all sorts of sources, and lots of them spark conversations with friends and acquaintances who go read the article I’ve linked. Your posts don’t tend to, and, knowing my friends, that always surprises me; the topics are things they’re interested in as well, and they’re usually pretty talkative people. For some anecdata on this, a while back I started an experiment on this theory, by pretty much writing a new headline at the start of the comments I make when I post a link, and things picked up a bit.

    That gets to the second point I wanted to make: I assume you’re talking about something like unique visitor numbers when you say ‘readers’, but if you’re talking about comments, understand you’re being discussed on facebook et al instead. You don’t see it which is unfortunate both because you can’t engage and you don’t get any positive feedback or sense of worth, but know it’s happening.

  6. says

    I’ve given a lot of thought to “why blog,” or more generally “why create art without an audience?,” for fairly off-topic reasons. As somebody with plentiful self-esteem, this has been my thinking: I feel like my thoughts deserve expression, and whether or not they’re finding an audience in a given moment, I’m building an archive of them that is a resource for myself – something I can look back on or link others to, when relevant, and that archive can be a treasure trove of material for anyone who finds me in the future and is hot for content they haven’t seen before.

    But more importantly, it’s the body of work. It’s my Garth Marenghi “canon of chillers,” it’s my Hannibal Lecter memory palace, it’s my Jame’s Hampton “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” I am building my own tombstone, and the vagaries of the internet may cause it to be wiped away at a moment’s notice, it may not amount to anything, but I’m vain enough to imagine it might be very important in the future – to somebody in some way.

    Now I’d be **very** curious about other FtBers traffic numbers – as I’m sure would be whatever’s left of the Slyme Pit – but I don’t have enough running history to know for sure if mine have changed. The baseline at the moment is very low, but it always has been. It might be I’m at the floor – as low as it gets on here for anyone with regular updates – and as the network as a whole sinks, it’s not as noticeable to me from my relative elevation.

    If the network as a whole is desiccating, here are some possibilities: Maybe caring about your atheism is inherently the province of nasty creeps, and by caring about human rights we’ve inherently alienated 99.9% of potential readers, and it just took this log for the last of the hate followers to get bored. Or maybe atheism itself has just become a very uninteresting even to slymey types, and every stripe of atheist does not care enough about it to visit a network themed on the topic. Or this – I’ve noticed other internet places I frequent also being less active since COVID. People’s brains are shutting down and they’re less engaged. I don’ t know if they’re watching TV, endlessly refreshing twitter or facebook, or just drifting thru an endless depression funk.

    If it’s your blog in particular, two things drive me to pay less attention to your posts occasionally. They can be too scholarly for me, big walls of text full of knowledge that demands some effort to take on board. Or they can be too niche for me. Like sometimes I can dip into a domain of knowledge outside of my strict domain of interest, but in combo with how deep your treatment goes, it would be much more than a dip, and I don’t have the juice for it in the moment.

    If that’s true, why it’s hitting your numbers now in particular is beyond me. Anyway, that’s the main thoughts. I do hope FtB isn’t moribund, and people don’t give up. Like Bodach said, it’s my morning paper, and I do at least skim your articles every time.

  7. Jörg says

    In contrast to #6, I like “big walls of text full of knowledge that demand some effort to take on board.”

  8. says

    Jorg – I would never suggest he change that – I’m not his target demo, I’m sure.

    I had a followup thought on the newspaper thing. Newspapers are also said to be dying, but they seem to have a floor audience, like a certain bare minimum number of people who will read them until they die. So if blogging itself is indeed the same way – as a type of media fading to its floor audience – then it will be interesting to see how low that floor is. My guess is the blog-reading diehards would be fewer in number than newspaper-reading diehards – that we’d be a sort of narrow generational window. Who knows?

  9. Cass says

    I read you (and all FTB) through feedly so I’m not sure you would see clicks from me. I enjoy almost all your stuff, repost some of the security bits to the Fediverse and enjoy the peaks into your life. I’m really hoping for an update (next year) about your trespasser live fencing system.


  10. Ketil Tveiten says

    I think I’ve been reading since you moved to ftb, and well, it hasn’t gotten boring yet. I like the variety.

  11. pierremasson says

    Do your numbers take into account those like me who read you through an RSS feed reader? Basically, I only log into FTB if I wish to post a comment.

  12. Bruce says

    This is a serious topic, but I’d like to lighten the mood.
    So let me suggest asking yourself: have you considered also presenting a thoroughly researched and comprehensive essay on the ethics of geopolitical history on TikToc?

  13. efogoto says

    I have been a regular reader of yours since you started up. You produce interesting, very readable content with a point. The other blogs I read regularly, Pharyngula and Mano Singham, also regularly produce content. It is usually the case that all three of you, or two out of three anyway, have at least one new post up, so I keep returning. This has led me to keep tabs on a few of the less regular FreeThoughtBlogs, specifically Pervert Justice, Intransitive and Great American Satan, and even the very intermittent Death To Squirrels.

    I tend to skim your cooking posts, but your posts on history, US government fuck ups (especially Shiro Ishii), and security have me hooked from word one. Heck, I have been a woodworker rather than a metalworker, so in hobbyist comradery I enjoy your forge posts and look forward to the day that your shop is “complete” … I suspect you’ll always be tinkering with its set up.

    I am loyally one of your 200 and will read until your last post or my demise, whichever comes first.

  14. sonofrojblake says

    I was a follower of Pharyngula back in the scienceblogs days and I remember the conversations that scrolled for pages. Now, not so much.

    Here’s one mechanic for building your readership: blog for a while. People will read and find your stuff interesting, and tell people about it, and more people will read it.

    Here’s one mechanic for losing readership: blog for a while longer. People who found your stuff interesting will find other stuff. Literally almost nothing in media of ANY kind keeps an audience for any great length of time, which is why the media organisations value franchises (see the MCU) and bend over backwards to try to create successful ones and keep on trying to MAKE them successful even when they’re manifestly shit (see the DCEU). Building an audience is hard. Keeping an audience is nigh-on impossible.

    Consider one of the mightiest behemoths in popular culture – Star Trek. The original series BOMBED, except with a hardcore. Syndicated reruns kept it alive, and got a second series into development, but it was only the arrival of Star Wars that got it a real budget and a movie. And it was only the second movie that made it a franchise, a franchise even its own fans admitted was shit literallly half the time (“Sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit”, said a character played AND WRITTEN by Simon Pegg, who played Scotty in the 11th and 13th Star Trek movies (the latter of which he also wrote)). TNG was a world-bestriding colossus… after two and a half seasons of struggling. DS9 (imho the best ST ever gets) did well, but never matched TNG’s numbers. Voyager limped on for seven years but never achieved TNG’s numbers either. Enterprise was mostly an embarrasment, not even making it to the hallowed seven year mark.

    Building an audience is hard and keeping them near impossible, even if you reinvent yourself constantly. David Bowie and Madonna did that, but who else manages over that kind of time scale? And things move so much faster now.

    Here’s another mechanic for losing readership: blog for a while longer, and reveal reasons for your audience to disagree with you to the point they don’t want to read your stuff any more.

    Here’s a better one: offer a mechanic for engagement, but actively whittle away at the numbers engaging with your content if they do something inconvenient like point out, in a comment thread on a post where you’re condemning Amazon, that literally right there on that page you are simultaneously actively shilling for Amazon by linking to their page where your book is on sale.

    Keep writing. There is nothing, anywhere, like what you do. That matters.

  15. kestrel says

    I’m going to liken this to the Partner who is a professional musician. I got the Partner this neat T-shirt that reads: “Musician: someone who loads $5,000.00 worth of equipment into a car, then drives 100 miles to make $50.00”. I can assure you this is true except sometimes it’s way farther than 100 miles. And if there is ONE person who wants to hear music, they get to hear it. The size of the audience makes no difference. We have definitely gone to some pretty sparsely attended gigs.

    Musicians play music for themselves. A helicopter pilot once told me: some people fly to eat, and some people eat to fly. Musicians are mostly in the “eat to fly” category. This decision is up to you: do you like doing this? If so great, keep doing it! If it’s become burdensome or too time consuming, great, do something else. A lot of us would miss you but on the other hand I think we’d also understand.

    Your writing is not a problem, it’s engaging, you write about interesting and well-researched topics that have a wide appeal. I can now see I’m not alone in being the only person who tunes in every morning, coffee cup in hand, to see if there is anything new. Now sure, there are days when I see the topic and simply don’t have the spoons for it right then – but a lot of times I’ll go back, when I’ve got some time and some resources, since I know in the end I’ll be glad I read it as it will be informative and educational. However I fear you are correct in the idea that many people simply don’t read. There is the phenomenon of someone who only reads the headline and then stops right there. Everywhere you look, bookstores are closing down. People just don’t read: it’s a difficult skill, many people will lie about being able to do it, and more and more people would rather look at pictures. That does not mean it’s a good idea. It’s too easy to get fooled if you only look at pictures. And you know, my mother used to teach adults who could not read, how to read. They were all incredibly grateful to her once they gained the skill – it’s an important thing to know how to do. Of course, people need stuff to read which is what you are providing.

    It really is up to you but I do hope you don’t stop.

  16. dashdsrdash says

    Like Pierre, I read through RSS and only log in on the occasion of having a comment.

    I don’t know that there are thousands of us – but there might be hundreds.

  17. says

    I am not planning to stop!

    … but I’m sure you can understand why I’m concerned.

    Feedly is a factor I had not thought of. I have some information on how to figure out what my Feedly subscribership is, which I’ll sort out tonight if I’m not too wrapped up in Subnautica.

    Also: the 150-200 is total daily page views which is pretty bad. I’m at less than 1/10 where I was, and I need to figure out if it’s because I am stinking the place up, or what. I’m sure you all understand.

  18. dashdsrdash says

    I like knives, and knifemaking, and it turns out that I’m pretty happy to read about associate projects: turning wood-epoxy composites, building a forge in an old school and the new work-shack.

    I enjoy your storytelling style. I have learned to keep my mouth shut when we reach some of the few areas in which we seriously disagree, and all the rest is more than worthwhile for me.

  19. dave57 says

    I read pretty regularly. I don’t know if your stats include RSS, but your posts come through complete in the RSS feed, so unless the format shows up weird in thunderbird, or I want to comment, I typically don’t click on the link.

  20. Chris Habecker says

    Regular reader via Feedly. Nearly zero comments. Share occasionally via FB. Old programmer. Privileged.
    Like #3, I prefer to read information rather than wait for someone to speak it — no radio or podcast talk shows for me. Radio and video are for entertainment. Writing is for information.
    I enjoy your writing style and choice of topics. If telling it like it is seems depressing or boring, blame it, not the telling. I think that we need to talk about that which is affecting us.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    The political commentary here draws me more than anything else. And as a longtime political activist I see at least two dynamics possibly driving our esteemed host’s problem:

    A) With the election of a Democrat, a sizeable proportion of those awakened by developments of the last five years have had their personal alarm bells drop below the threshold of paying attention/doing stuff about it – a pattern going back to (at least) Jimmy Carter.

    B) Burnout – those of us who Stick With It don’t get to see much progress resulting from our work (the consistent disappointment of point A comprising a part of this, especially considering the half-assedness of Democratic pseudo-solutions), such that calls to the barricades more and more elicit only glassy stares.

    I continue coming here because I still learn things I want to know, from our esteemed host and (some of) the commenters, but the pleasure of seeing problems exposed no longer leads to much hope that remedies will follow.

    Also, what snarkhuntr @ # 3 said about written words and other media.

  22. Ice Swimmer says

    I like your writing and read many of your posts. As for what or how to write or not write, I’ve decided long time ago not to tell any blogger what or how they should write, as more interesting things will come out from writing as they please.

    Written word, while less popular than it used to be, gives the reader freedom. The freedom to read it at their own pace, to easily pick what to read, in which order to read and to search the text. Podcasts or vlogs are less flexible. My experience on recorded lectures is that while they can be a pleasant way to learn, text is the king when checking things and applying knowledge and most lecturers benefit from being sped up by 20 % – 50 %. I’ve never had a temptation to speed up a podcast or vlog, only to skip the usual disclaimers, branding stuff and other ubiquitous drivel in the beginning.

  23. says

    So, I read at least half of the blade making posts, but I have to admit that part of that interest comes from wanting to be able to write good fiction, and that requires knowing a little bit about a LOT of things. Sure your hero will only be wandering through the town for half a page, but what does she hear? What does she smell? If either of those catch her attention and she turns her head, what does she see? Not all my fiction is sci fi/fantasy, but the majority is, and this gives me a desire to know something about blacksmithing (which is not exactly what you do, given the very different nature of your heat source, but it’s clearly related).

    Another part of my interest comes from the fact that your work is beautiful. I like looking at art.

    Another part of my interest comes from the fact that anything new to me is interesting, and I’ve never smithed.

    But those last two, well, I’m nothing like an artist. The best I’ve been able to do is paint RPG miniatures competently. When I try to draw or paint from scratch, it doesn’t work out well. Glass blowing, pot throwing, glazing & smithing require expensive equipment that as a hobbiest I just don’t have access too. I’ve taken a glass blowing class. I’ve done the same with pot throwing, both on and off the wheel. But I’m not good at any of that. If I’m limited to glazing, well, I seem to have a flair for mixing colors & understanding how the melted glass will flow so as to paint something roughly that comes out of the kiln quite beautiful. But of course just glazing the damn thing at the end is only a tiny piece of the work.

    All of which is to say, I don’t have much to contribute to a discussion about art. I’m not good at it, save in tiny, tiny niches. So the looking at your art is fine, as far as it goes, but I can’t really participate in a conversation usefully. And smithing is new to me, but the newness factor goes down after a while: if I’m not going to set up (or borrow time on) a forge, there’s only so much I can learn. I’m sure that some of what you write simply means something else to someone who has tried it. The words are suggestive to me, but because of my personal experience they suggest something other than what they suggest to someone who has actually worked a forge.

    So with your art, I’m more an audience (not only an audience, but more an audience) for pretty pictures with brief captions. While I started out reading all the art posts on Affinity & all the forge posts here, I find I read fewer of them them now, for all the complicated reasons I’ve explained.

    Your history posts are dense & wonderful & I’m absolutely the target audience for them, but sometimes I read them days or a week after they come out because they’re good and dense and you’re great at them, so I really want to give them the attention they deserve. This isn’t bad per se, but it does mean that by the time I read them, I’ve missed the conversation about them. If I add a comment, it’s likely at the bottom, few people will read it, and very very few will engage with it.

    That suggests to me that your history posts aren’t great blog fare even if they’re absolutely great reading.

    This suggests something to me that might help: Make single posts into multiple by highlighting the engagement you get and/or adding supplemental pictures.

    A forge post can be supplemented a few days later with additional photographs, especially because you often talk about what you’re going to do next. Throw those photos up with nothing but captions and a link back to the original article. Highlight a comment or two that you thought had a good question or insight, especially if it’s one from near the end of the thread that might not have gotten engagement from other commenters. Even if you’re doing another big post on the same project later, having this post between them keeps interest up and provides some eye candy for people like me who enjoy your work but can’t honestly contribute much to discussions of art.

    A history post can be supplemented by following up a few days later with comments & questions. Maybe you can even deliberately say less **during** the discussion thread & put that writing that you do in response to comments up in a brand new, featured post. It’s virtually the same work, but allows a new clock to start on the discussion. If I wrote something (hopefully worthwhile) a few days late, maybe you quote & highlight that so it gets attention it would have missed. If I still haven’t commented, this is an opportunity to join the discussion in a way that matters. It turns my one click into several since I don’t just read the post & the comments all at once and then leave, finished.

    I don’t have a great suggestion for the F35 posts, but I read those religiously, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Perhaps someone else can help with those.

  24. John Morales says

    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.

    Well, I could say that, but I’d be lying.

    I don’t think it’s you.

  25. consciousness razor says

    who are you gonna listen to: Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Harris, or Marcus Ranum? See what I mean: Marcus who?

    I’ll try to put this as delicately as I can, but: Marcus Ranum. Too easy. For more of a challenge, all three of you need to be tied up in front of some trolley cars. Then, I may have to think about it for a moment. Make it so.

    I agree that it’s probably not your content so much as the blogging format itself, which isn’t new and shiny like it used to be. That’s okay. Along with the other positive things to say about the written word in general, at least some people (like me) also appreciate how interactive blogging can be. The blogger/commenter dynamic can be nice, when it’s done well. Of course, that’s just not how things work when producing videos or podcasts, because there’s a lot more asymmetry in how the interactions take place. So, even if they are in decline, I doubt blogs of some kind are really going extinct, although they could evolve.

    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.

    We both know there are much worse writers (better paid, with larger audiences, etc.) who don’t even have something interesting to say. I mean, I guess the relief should really come from knowing that it just doesn’t matter all that much. If you’re still enjoying it, then it’s all good — that’s all you needed anyway.

  26. Lofty says

    In the age of covid-19, there are many competing issues that take your readers precious time. Just write what you enjoy writing about, there will always be some of us waiting eagerly for the next article. Quantity isn’t everything.

  27. springa73 says

    I’ve been reading your blog, along with several others at FtB, regularly for several years now. I would definitely miss it if it stopped, but you have to do what is right for you. I’m more engaged with the history/politics/current events postings – I have very little knowledge of metalworking or most other crafts, or computer security, so most of the posts on those topics tend to go over my head. I don’t comment often because I often have little to add, and when I disagree I usually prefer not to get into an online debate (not good at it, and it’s not good for my mental health). I definitely see a unique perspective that I value on stderr, even if I sometimes disagree.

    I couldn’t say why your readership has fallen – I’m inclined to agree with the view that it probably has more to do with the decline of blogging in general rather than anything specific to you.

  28. theflyingchipmunk says

    “but for the time-being who are you gonna listen to: Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Harris, or Marcus Ranum? See what I mean: Marcus who?”

    MJR, that’s who. Seriously, please don’t even think about it. I am saying this for utterly selfish reasons, of course. You must take into account lurkers like me who have never commented in the past but pretty much read the vast majority of your posts, including the lively comments section. I didn’t even have an account on FTB and just created one to plead my case.

    There are only two people I read religiously (ha!) on FTB: you and Mano Singham. Both of you shine light on topics that I otherwise would not have known much about beyond a cursory/superficial level. I dig everything you write except when it comes to gaming or related references as I have no interest in that.Your primary filed of expertise (security) is deeply interesting as are most other random topics you write about.

  29. brucegee1962 says

    I find your historical analysis (like the recent stuff about “scientific” racism) to be your most interesting, but it’s all good. I skim the bits about knifemaking, but the pictures are pretty.

    As a teacher at a community college, I definitely have a sense that reading as a whole is falling off amidst the younger generation. For instance, one of the things I have to teach is MLA citations (I could go off on why it’s stupid that we have to teach it, but that’s its own post). Really, though, the stuff is dead easy — I should just be able to have them read a few pages of instructions, look at a few examples, and move on to the next topic. Yet I seem to end up having to cover the subject all. frigging. semester. The ability to follow basic written instructions is looking like a vanishing skill.
    Even among the good, intelligent students, reading seems to be dying. My kids listen to audiobooks instead of reading books, or podcasts instead of articles. Me, I find those formats vastly unsatisfying for non-fiction — I am constantly wanting to speed up or slow down the delivery to fit my comprehension.
    So what’s the endgame? I wish I knew. But I know that teaching college is feeling more and more like banging my head against a wall, and I’m counting the days until retirement. Meanwhile, I’ll be right here reading your stuff with the rest of us fogies.

  30. joestutter says

    I’m happy you have clarified that you are not going to stop blogging as you, along with PZ and Mano, are part of my indispensable late night reading.
    Regarding having an impact I can tell you that at least on my side it’s not only me that you are reaching, you are reaching my late teenage kids, my wife (sometimes), and my brother in law’s family.
    Assuming my kids and their friends are representative of younger generation attitudes, it is not you or your writing, it’s the medium that has become less popular. Most of the time the will read a post I have linked to, but they will not go back to the blog to explore. One thing that I have noticed they would do is read the post I sent them and then look for more information on YouTube.
    Again, I visit your blog at least once a day, and really enjoy most of what you post. I now tend to skip some of the F-35 stuff, but I read all the the history related or shop posts, no matter how long they are.

  31. says

    FWIW, my page views have been holding steady since I joined FTB in 2016. Well, it looks like it may be a bit lower this year. I’ve never reached the heights that you reached.

    My other non-FTB blog has been declining in page views since 2015, up to a factor of 3-4.

    While I think blogs are on the decline, I don’t think that’s enough to explain a decline by a factor of 10. I think it’s likely that you got some initial boost, but your content didn’t have the popular appeal to sustain those numbers. Or maybe you just haven’t self-promoted enough, or haven’t written enough things that have caught google’s attention. 150-200 page views is perfectly respectable, honestly.

    Personally, I don’t read most of your content–I got lots of stuff to read. But I subscribe and occasionally something catches my eye.

  32. AndrewD says

    Hi Marcus
    I wonder if Covid induced ennui is partly to blame. If people are working from home,reading blogs afterwards might be a step too far.
    Also,is there an element of post trump relief?
    Whilst you blog, I will read

  33. says

    Since other people are weighing in on this, I’ll just mention that I like the F35 posts. Perhaps because my local media have decided to entirely ignore the subject.

  34. says

    Love your stuff and am one of the regular readers. Just so happens that with all the Covid time I have been keeping track of all FtB blog posts for the last year. You are 7.7% of the total and my personal favorite there. I read about 10 other sites daily AND manage to listen to about 10 podcasts daily. The latest change has been to pay for YouTube which gets rid of the ads and their music channel is included so I paid for it by ditching Spotify (which they pretty much emulated). Regarding your content, I most enjoy your computer security related stuff, but I read it all because you are an engaging author who makes any subject interesting. Keep on truckin’

  35. cvoinescu says

    I agree with most comments above. I like your stuff, and I would be sad to see it go; I check your blog every day and read everything (including nearly all comments). Pizza would be lovely.

    If I had my pick, more stories about the good old days of computing would be nice. Forge posts are cool. Historical and political posts I read patiently and with great interest. Doom and gloom is just realism, so keep that coming too,

    F35 posts are nice, but best enjoyed in moderation. Maybe diversify? I’m sure there are other impressive tales of waste and incompetence, if perhaps on a smaller scale.

    You have honed the blog art form to a fine edge. I laughed out loud when I noticed you tagged your “Genius Idea” post (about fuel cans) with “burn it to the ground”.

  36. jimmf says

    I don’t comment often because I’m not one to keep saying “me too”. I have a disconcerting tendency to read things I agree with. Except for a very flawed newspaper analogy, I’ve no insight into the decline in blog readership numbers. Understanding human behavior is incredibly difficult. I’ve read several interesting books that you’ve mentioned. I like reading the comment section, but I rarely see anything after early morning, because once I’m done with coffee, I rarely use the Internet.

  37. says

    Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments here.

    Feedly says I have 60 followers. If I assume there are other such aggregators, then maybe that’s 100 readers or so.

    One scary thought that occurred to me, when I was writing the OP, is that the bulk of my readership might be robotic crawlers. I mean, I know some of you are real but others … I suspect you’re AI avatars set upon me by evil marketers. Just kidding. Really, I’m kidding. But I do worry sometimes that that end-point of the internet is robots writing AI-amplified clickbait for robots that are using AI to try to figure out what hot topics (F-35s, apparently!) have high-click potential. That does not appear to be the case, yet.

    I’m deeply moved by many of the comments, here. Given that I post stuff like “Argument Clinic” (should I do more of those?) and how to be a snarkenfuhrer I assume that some of you are capable of cutting me to pieces; I was ready for that. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

    It sounds to me like we’re somewhat agreed that blogging, in general, is collapsing. As I said, some of the other bloggers here are experiencing similar. I don’t know any bloggers on other blogging networks, but I’m curious whether they’re experiencing the same thing. I’m going to chalk it up to, as I implied in the OP, high-quality content and feed systems that make it easy for a person to sit back and get hours of well-produced, well-acted and edited content. [When I write that, I am thinking of Alec Steele and Alex, the cooking French Guy, both of whom I follow] One thing I wonder, and hope, is that the readership blogs, like Counterpunch and Daily Kos are ripping chunks out of the old gatekeepers of media, like the New York Times. As you have probably figured out, my relationship with NYT is pretty bipolar, ranging between the pegs at both ends of “die, die, die!” and “that’s really good.” I hope the NYT survives but I don’t pay for subscriptions to media, in general.

    I’ll also note another thing: when a blog switches to a paywall, it has pretty much shot itself in the heart. The blogger may make some money, for a while, but it’s so easy to just forget about it, over time. I believe that a large factor in what’s going on is that the move-in of new media is funded to advertise. I keep encountering ads for Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia – advertising is not something I will do. I can afford it but I’d rather have a new bandsaw than a handful of subscribers lured here with ads. [I will probably listen to The Bomber Mafia in spite of the fact that I know a hell of a lot about that topic, already, and it’s really depressing to me]

    As I said, I do not plan to quit. And I was not trying to squeeze you for applause. I’m genuinely concerned about what’s happened to “my reach” or whatever we call it, and I want to know why because the obvious answer would be that I suck and my readership have been slowly figuring that out and the readership slide reflects that awareness. I intend to continue, and I will not stop dumping on the F-35, until and unless the program is cancelled, which will happen around the time the US actually pulls its military from Afghanistan. (/me waves fist!)

    Finally, what really gets to me is the awareness (thank you) that many of you have made me part of your morning routine, and you’re sitting, enjoying that first hot kiss of coffee, and reading my words. Because I’m sitting here, enjoying my first cup of coffee, trying to assemble a posting in my mind. My morning routine is to write. I do my reading and gaming in the evenings, after I try to wear myself out during the day. It would probably fit better with my readership if I dropped postings early in the morning, instead of “when I get done writing” but I would have to majorly change my lifestyle if that was what I was going to do. So, I’m going to close this window and start to write, in another. BRB.

  38. planter says

    Marcus, I would like to chime in to the rest to say that I do enjoy your writing (though I comment very rarely on any blog). FTB is part of my morning routine. Between you, PZ, and Mano, I can be confident that I can read something that will spark interesting thoughts as my coffee brews. I particularly like your long-form historical posts. Perhaps this is because so few people now have the inclination and time to do the research needed to write something thoughtful.

  39. rojmiller says

    Marcus, I am also a regular reader of your blog, even though I rarely comment. I follow almost no one else on Freethought Blogs. I read everything you and Mano post, because I find the variety of topics interesting. As well, I think the commenters for you and Mano are less snipe-y and judgmental, and thus more pleasant to read. So perhaps even though your readership is relatively low, you and Mano fill an important niche, for people like me!

  40. James says

    So, I don’t know about feeds and aggregators, maybe I am being stupid but I manually check your blog every day, and have not been dissuaded by the intermittent posting. I love your work, though occasionally I have to reserve your climate posts for later consumption because they can send me spiraling into a depression.
    As to younger generation, I am not sure that I am in the “older demographic” I’m a millennial in my mid thirties and I certainly don’t understand the obsession with youtube and similar. If I want an information dump or status update (like I would expect from a blog post) videos aggravate me so much, they’re so slow. I remember these numbers from a public speaking class I took in undergrad something like you can talk at ~120 WPM at most, you can listen at something like ~400WPM (I don’t speed up videos because I don’t like how it sounds). That difference in speeds means that I get bored easily. I can read at least as fast as I can listen, so writing is the best.
    Anyways I will follow your blog for as long as you keep deciding it is worth your time and effort to write it. Screw the people who leave it because “blogging is dead.”

  41. says

    In my case, I spend less time online lately. This means less commenting. Less writing. I still read most of the same blogs that I have followed for years, though. Largely this is the result of perceiving the current state of the world as deeply depressing. Some people just want to kill all of us.

    Thus I am happier staying offline more and doing other stuff (like gardening or playing video games). Or reading blogs about cheerful topics. Frankly, currently reading blog posts about how to kill aphids (they are damaging my cherry trees right now) feels cheerful compared to politics and COVID-19 and our climate disaster.

    I actually prefer written content rather than podcasts. My reading speed is faster than people’s talking speed. But I do like podcasts for when I am taking my dogs for walks.

  42. says

    I love reading what you write, although the F35 is one of the less interesting topics (to me). I also try to purposefully avoid most of the doom and gloom postings about the catastrophe that is climate change, because frankly, it depresses me so much that I am getting suicidal.

  43. lochaber says

    I don’t think I really have much to add that hasn’t already been said by someone else…

    I also suspect the drop is less to do with your particular blog, or the FTB network in general, but something larger scale. Maybe something temporary and related to covid, maybe something of a more permanent change, like just a decline in blog readership overall, and a transition to video (maybe related to how a lot of people now primarily access the internet through their phones?), or possibly something to do with the steady consolidation of power and control over the internet by google, facebook, etc., and boosting their own platforms and content, to the detriment of the rest of society…

    I enjoy most of the posts. I don’t have the scholarly/intellectual background to fully appreciate some of the philosophy/history/strategy ones, but I’ll usually at least skim them, and once in a while I can follow along.

    I don’t really have much to ad, but just felt I should say something…

  44. Badland says

    I don’t think I really have much to add that hasn’t already been said by someone else…

    Heartily seconding this, and adding my voice as a regular reader to say that the breadth and depth of your posts is fascinating and keeps me coming back. I don’t comment much because there’s frequently not much I can add, or you’re writing about the F-35 and I want to chew through my keyboard. Or climate change, and I want to slink off and drink.

    But anyway, I’ve learned a lot reading stderr and will be here for the foreseeable future. Thanks for all that you do.

  45. crivitz says

    Been a regular reader from the start and will likely continue to the last post. You seem to have a good handle on the reasons for the decline in your readership and FTB’s as well. It seems to me that if you enjoy the writing then you should continue to do it. There will probably always be an audience, the loyal readers will come and go over time, but there will likely always be a core group there.
    I enjoy almost all of the topics here, and although the computer stuff goes over my head much of the time, I still read through it hoping to glean some tidbits of info and to try to find the major points you are trying to make. Bottom line last: If you like writing here, keep doing it and when the time comes where you don’t, then hang it up. Some of us may have a sad, but really, if you don’t enjoy it, the readers will pick that up and stop reading anyway.

  46. petenihu says

    As many others here, I have been a regular Pharyngula-reader, for more years than I care to remember. Here on FtB, I then encountered your blog, started looking at it occasionally, and got hooked by some blade-making posts. Over time I realized that our personal and professional interests seem to intersect quite a bit, and now yours is one of two FtB-blogs of which I read pretty much every post.

    On a personal level: Over the years I started to feel about the Pharyngula-commentariat as almost “extended family”, but perhaps too large and intimidating enter the discussion there. This blog here feels much more “approachable” to me, even though also here I never commented much (I’m ususally late to the party, often reading your posts with a few days delay). But I would certainly miss it – not like one might miss a regular newspaper, but more like one would miss a regular chat with a friend.

    On your more general point: I am also somewhat concerned that blogging in general might be – if not dying, then at least fading away. There are a few software blogs that I have been following for many years (e.g. Raymond Chen, Scott Hanselman, etc.) Quite a few of those have also disappeard over the last few years, while others still exist. Also there the discussions and comments seem to be steadily declining. I am not sure if I missed a “technological leap”, and those conversations have moved elsewhere. Or whether they are really diminishing…

  47. says

    So here’s a theory:
    There are two kinds of readers
    – the ones who have a regular schedule of places they check for something to read
    – the ones who don’t bother checking and instead check the feed output of some algorithm

    I hypothesize my remaining readers are the ones who do the first thing and the ones who moved on are the ones who move to content platforms that feed them. In the content platforms if you stop posting, the algorithm just makes you disappear and nobody hears your dying screams. If you’re part of someone’s morning routine you can miss posting for a couple days here or there but if you drop off for more than ${some number of days} you’re out of the readership’s routine-loop and you’re toast.

    So it seems to me that blogging is dying out except for among the morning coffee set. I wish I could make popovers for the readers I’ve lost and lure them back but it seems like what’s going on is people’s lifestyle rythyms becoming incompatible.

  48. says

    So here’s a theory:
    There are two kinds of readers
    – the ones who have a regular schedule of places they check for something to read
    – the ones who don’t bother checking and instead check the feed output of some algorithm

    I use RSS (Feedly).

    Although lately I no longer turn on my computer on a daily basis, which means that I often read blog posts several days after they are published.

  49. Jazzlet says

    Late to comment, demonstrating that while I do read most of what you write I don’t always do it on the day – that reflects my state of mind and/or level of pain rather than your writing. I do look at your posts everyday, but depending on the topic or complexity I may save them for when I am able to focus. A few points, not new, but:
    Yes I’d like more argument cinics, I enjoyed them.
    Yes other blogs that I read in completely different ecosystems like romantic and SFF fiction are suffering drop offs too.
    I like your writing style, you explain things clearly, elegantly on occasion, sometimes things I’ve been struggling to formulate, sometimes new things and both are good.
    I like your photos, they too explain clearly, which is actually not very common.

    Damn it I know there was more, but it’s slipped away, suffice to say I will go on reading as long as you go on writing.

  50. lanir says

    So… I’ve been bouncing around freethoughblogs for awhile. I have times where I read every day or multiple times a day and others where I hop on a couple times a week just to see what changed. For some stretches, my main news source is here because I just am not tracking everything that’s happening in the world and someone here often mentions anything of real import that I’d want to know about. I’ve worked as a sysadmin for awhile. So that’s my perspective.

    I tend to read most of the posts here. Sometimes they take awhile and I’ll chew them over for a few days. Or I’ll stop partway through one because I feel like I’ve absorbed the impression you’re going for but all the details may be a bit depressing. To put it bluntly, educational content does not have to be absorbed quickly or in one stretch to be worthwhile. Or even all of it. To give you a less personal example, I don’t think I’ve gottena round to reading more than the first chapter or two of a book I have on regexes but it’s still been enough to turn my ideas about how to run searches or handle input for scripts on their head.

    The other people who’ve said to write what interests you are right as far as I can tell. In addition I think you might want to try out asking questions about some topics. That might be a way to more regularly get a feel for what your readers are after and also what they think about a particular topic. It’s also probably one of the only avenues available to get to know everyone a bit better, if that’s something you’d like to do.

  51. StevoR says

    FWIW. MarcusRanum, I enjoy reading your blog and find it informative and entertaining and I would miss it if you stoppped and hope you continue blogging here.

  52. dangerousbeans says

    i think it’s probably #3 sadly, but then i find your (often depressing) thoughts on diverse topics interesting and am just as bad at rapping.
    i’ll keep reading and commenting when i have something to say.

  53. seachange says

    As usual I have a slow brain and it takes me awhile to think about things. Usually also, I don’t comment on any post later than a day or two, because FTB just isn’t set up that way and it’s not really part of the culture here for folks to look back.

    This post seems important to you though Marcus, so here’s my two dollars (we know pennies dimes nickels and quarters are so worthless that they cost more than their face value)

    Rick has degrees in philosophy French and math and is way smarter than I am and he does not read. It was really unusual to see him read during COVID times, catching up on french literature in french and philosophers he has quoted to me for years and never actually read as in really reading it. That I can sit and read stuff seems weird to him. Because of him, I watch more videos than I ever would.

    Anna is your puts-up-with-curmudgeonly-nihilsm like Rick is to me. I would be interested in her sordid, or perhaps not-so-sordid takes on the things you write. You are amazingly interesting and competent. Yet. No man is an island.

    As a christian who is presumably the intended target of them, I find your nihilist posts on why-christianity-sucks to be funny. Please continue.

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