Thursday, November 30, 2023

Because It Amuses Me: the albertnet Subhead


My wife is starting a business, and recently read up on how to build a good website. This has given her some ideas for albertnet, one of which is to have some kind of subheading, beneath the masthead, that conveys the nature of this blog. I guess the subhead is meant to be kind of a slogan, or a mini-mission-statement. It should ideally answer the question of why the business exists: i.e., what is the point?

Having been thus encouraged to apply this idea to my blog, I’ve had to do some head-scratching. One result of this is the subhead you see above. At least, you should see it above, if I updated the template properly. In any case, you can see it below:

My thought process, including further examination of the question “why albertnet,” follows below. If you’ve ever wondered what the hell this blog is even about, this is your chance to (maybe kind of) find out.

Not a business

First and foremost, albertnet is not a business. Since I pay for web server storage and for my domain names, but receive zero revenue because I refuse to turn on AdSense advertising, this blog is actually a cost center for me. This means the answer to “why?” can’t simply be “because money.” Meanwhile, I can’t call this is a non-profit, pro bono type of business, because I have no way to tell if it’s actually benefitting anybody. To date, this blog has had about 890,000 page views, which pales in comparison to a great many blogs (though in absolute terms it strikes me as a somewhat large number). I’ve posted over 700 times over a period of about 14½ years, so 890,000 views is not a lot of bang for the buck. I also don’t know whether a page view represents somebody reading an entire post or just glancing at it and deciding it’s not the Google result he was looking for, and closing the page. So to assume I’m serving some market and satisfying readers would be pure guesswork.

Does that mean I shouldn’t bother trying to promote my blog? Not necessarily; after all, what writer doesn’t want to attract an audience? But that doesn’t mean I have the time or patience to work much at it. After all, technical tricks like search engine optimization and content marketing are not nearly as interesting to me as, say, writing. So what if I double my page views? From the financial perspective, two times zero is still zero. From the “actual reader” perspective, leading people here does not make them read.

What do readers want?

For a blogger—that is, the kind of writer who can’t simply look at book sales to see if he or she is successful—page view counts might seem very valuable. Data mining is certainly a popular practice in corporate America; I recall a big boss once advising me, “Metrics are important in this space.” (Man, I think I actually bruised my eye sockets at that moment, so forcefully did my eyes roll.) Another time my director was counseling my boss and me on a tough decision we had to make: “Go with your gut,” he said, and then—seeming to suddenly remember the business zeitgeist of the time— he quickly added, “but make sure it’s data-driven.” Um … okay.

Okay, fine, I’m poking fun at puffed-up pronouncements here, not the data behind them; what does page view data actually have to say? Could I use blog post popularity data like a mini-focus-group? Well, consider that my most popular post of all time, as of today, is “Spelling Focus: Is It ‘Kindergartner’ or ‘Kindergartener’?” which has racked up over 11,000 views. Should I conclude that this the kind of post albertnet readers love, and do more posts like it?

Well, not so fast. I think when companies make data-driven determinations like this, they’re using the feedback to try to react quickly to the market. But if this “Kindegart(e)ner” post were a TV show, it’d have been canceled immediately, because it was initially stillborn and generated practically zero page views for the first two years it was up:

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon: my most popular post of the past month (though it’s only so far climbed to fifteenth overall), “Selecting Bicycle Wheels – Part I,” was largely dormant for over nine years before suddenly gaining traction about six months ago. It’s been going strong ever since, getting almost 1,700 page views (about 60% of its total over time) in the last three months alone:

I see this again and again with albertnet posts: “Everest Challenge ‘Pep Talk’” took six and a half years to go anywhere and is now my tenth most popular ever; “The Problem With Soccer,” my eighth most popular, malingered for almost a decade before building any momentum. So why should I put any stock in page view stats, knowing that any of my 700+ posts could, theoretically, suddenly tip? All I can really glean from the data is that albertnet posts are not timely. But then, I knew that.

Now, it’s tempting to think I could set the numbers and timelines aside for a moment and simply look at the topics of my most popular posts and try to figure out what they have in common. Here are my top five of all time (as of today):

Hmmm. No single theme is jumping out at me. The top post is about spelling. Second most popular is a news story about a cyclist setting a world record. In third place is an essay about whether highbrow entertainment is actually superior to lowbrow. Fourth goes to a harrowing personal history about having my balls shaved and my vas deferens snipped. And the fifth most popular is a poem about bicycle gearing. In terms of topic, these posts almost couldn’t be more different.

Could it be some other characteristic they share, that makes them popular? Well, I guess they’re all arguably funny—but then, I try to find humor in everything I write about, and these posts aren’t necessarily standouts in that regard. The one about the cycling world record, for example, has a few decent gags but isn’t nearly as funny as, say, “From Farting Liberally to Liberal Arts: the Flatulence Files,” which has performed dismally, with under 600 posts total over nine years.

Should I care what readers want?

When I look over those top five albertnet posts, I can remember how each of them came about—and in every case, worrying about whether the topic would attract readers never crossed my mind:

  • The corn cob post was a result of a cycling teammate of mine ribbing me about the randomness of my blog topics. As I wrote in the post’s introduction, he said, “You could write an essay about each cog, or better yet, you could write a sonnet, an ode to the corn cob!”
  • The vasectomy post was simply a great yarn that demanded to be told; from the shaving of my scrotum, to the mysterious ConMed Hyfrecator machine, to the mid-procedure power outage, to the doctor declaring ominously, “I’ve got your vas,” the confluence of events was practically literary entrapment
  • The “Highbrow vs. Lowbrow” post came about because I’d wasted a bunch of money at a museum and wanted something to show for it, if only an essay
  • The cycling world record post almost didn’t happen … it seemed like an interesting opportunity to actually report on some breaking news, but I was feeling lazy, and prevaricated before finally deciding, what the hell, I’d go ride South Park Drive a bunch of times with a wannabe world record holder
  • The “Kindergart(e)ner”post was simply to help out a curious friend, who puzzled over the spelling but wasn’t as keen as I to dive down rabbit holes after arcane knowledge

The common thread you can discern about those posts is that the likelihood of an enthusiastic audience wasn’t the point. And why should it be? Writing for me is simply a hobby, and how many hobbies are measured by some worldly notion of success? Does the fly fisherman care how many fish he catches (particularly if he always releases them, as many do)? Does the bird watcher mainly do it for the bragging rights? Does the Netflix binger hope his encyclopedic knowledge of “The Crown” will bring him glory at the office water cooler? No … we do these activities simply because we enjoy them.

The joy of not caring

At the end of the day, many if not most bloggers are amateurs. Many of us have probably considered writing for a living, but that means pleasing our publisher and editor and getting worked up about what critics have to say, and how well we’re selling. That sure seems like it could take the fun out of the activity. If I always write with some potential readership in mind, then I’m really doing this for them. But since this is my hobby, why shouldn’t it be about me? And if others happen to find my stuff useful, funny, or insightful, why not just consider that a bonus?

So if you’ve ever come to the end of an albertnet post—perhaps this very one!—and thought, “Man, that really didn’t do it for me,” don’t be disappointed. This blog was never about you. It’s about me, and more specifically, whatever I think it’d be fun to write about. And thus the answer to “why albertnet?” is a simple one: “because it amuses me.” (I hope it happens to amuse you, too.)

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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