No one reads your blog: Reflections on the middling bottom.

Two weeks ago Terry McGlynn posted reflections about blogging on Small Pond Science, an excellent blog that combines research, teaching reflections and other assorted topics.  Two weeks ago I didn’t post anything.  Three weeks ago I didn’t post anything.  The week before I posted a comment of Alwynne Beaudoin‘s that is great, but wasn’t really mine (although she gave me permission to post it).  The last thing I posted myself was a long primer on using GitHub that I posted six weeks ago.

Figure 1.  The reality of blogging (totally not based on my own experience).

Figure 1. The reality of blogging (totally not based on my own experience).  Image from wikipedia.

So why bring this up?  In the world of science blogging there are the big guns, the blogs hosted on Scientific American for example; there are the fairly big guns, Dynamic Ecology, Kind of Bayesian, Retraction Watch; there’s another tier under there (EBB & Flow, Small Pond Science), and somewhere down the list you wind up on blogs like mine. [EDIT: I had a lot of trouble ranking even the blogs I named, so go easy on me if you’re not there or if you’re not where you think you should be!]  The most glaring pattern at the bottom is the number of blogs that started strong and then wound up inactive.  Anyone with an RSS feed of some kind or another is probably familiar with this pattern.  A couple great posts, a few long delays than then the emptiness of a dead feed.

So, when you’re like me, stuck in the middling bottom of the blogosphere, what do you do? I’ve faced the fact that this is never going to be a wildly popular blog and I’m okay with it.  Throughout the life of this blog (63 posts) I’ve averaged between 600 and 1000 views a month (that’s surprising actually, I thought it was a lot lower) and two comments per post, but those are mostly all in one or two posts.  Without the kind of motivation that traffic or comments bring (because they’re easily quantified), it can be hard to stay motivated about blogging, but having a blog isn’t just about driving traffic.

The way I see it you have several overlapping options in the middling bottom:

  1. Give it up, no one reads your blog so invest your time elsewhere
  2. Keep at it regularly.  The blog is good writing practice
  3. Give it up, start it up again, give it up, start it up again
  4. Only write when there’s something you care about
  5. Use the blog as a platform for a secondary purpose

I’ve been a fan of numbers 3 – 5, mostly because of  number 1.  People do read the blog, but it’s hard to get a sense of what they think when no one comments.  It makes it easy for me to pass off writing a blog post when there are four job applications due on the same day, when I’ve got papers that need immediate revisions, workshops to prepare, the kids are sick at home, and when I just don’t really have the interest in writing.

It’s partly impostor syndrome, there are people that do such a good job of summarizing articles that I always feel a bit hesitant to do it, and people that cover social issues in academia (or groups of people, like Tenure She Wrote) so I’m hesitant to write things about that as well, even though some of my more popular posts have been composites of research and policy, gender and academia, and art and science.  Mostly though, the reason I write the blog is because I have ideas I want to share.  So 3 & 4 work for me, but in reality, it’s easier to practice them if I’m writing regularly, so number 1 is sometimes a real impediment, but number 5 keeps me working at it.

Figure 2.  Another option for self-promotion, unfortunately MySpace just isn't cool anymore.

Figure 2. Another option for self-promotion, unfortunately MySpace just isn’t cool anymore. Image from flickr user tekniklr.

This blog is really a platform for self-promotion.  I’m sometimes ashamed of how blatant it is, but generally it’s useful.  I can post a mentoring statement, sample five year plans, my publications, workshop notes, and recent papers.  I know hiring committees are looking at them, and it gives me the opportunity to expand on things I think are important outside of the formalized cover letters.  Is it helping?  Well, that’s a different question (hiring committee members, let me know in the comments).

After nearly two years of blogging (I started right before AGU 2011) what has this blog given me?  If I’m honest, my academic life would probably be no different whether I had the blog or not.  I’m a postdoc in a great project and no one’s been banging on my door to change that because of the blog.  It has helped me write, in particular I think the workshop I helped run at the recent AASP/CAP meeting benefited from my blogging.  The writing style and flow of the workshop benefited from my earlier tutorials (GitHub, neotoma, general R stuff), but all the same, I think that my writing style was established a long time ago, writing letters to my parents from summer camp.  Regardless, there are definite benefits from maintaining the blog, even if it’s not in the upper echelons of the blogging world.

I think that this kind of outreach serves an important purpose.  Even if the posts aren’t incredibly popular, I’d like to think that the 55 people (based on search terms) who came the blog because they were having trouble finding an acronym for their project came away with an amazing acronym or just because they were looking for a transparent trollface (an astounding 233 people).

So, if you’re like me, in the middling bottom, and are committed to starting or continuing your blog, I’ve got the following recommendations:

  1. Enjoy it, you’re not going to change the world but you can still write great posts even if no one sees them.
  2. You don’t need to write regularly, but you do still need to write from time to time.  It looks worse to have a dead blog than to have a post a month about your research progress.
  3. You need to find a reason to write.  It may not be page views, it may not be comments, but it’s got to be something if you’re going to keep writing.

So carry on, it can be lots of fun as long as you keep your expectations high enough to strive for excellence, but low enough to avoid getting discouraged!

50 thoughts on “No one reads your blog: Reflections on the middling bottom.

  1. Nice one… from someone else at the middling-bottom (or, more realistically, the bottom-bottom). Thanks.

    • I’m pretty sure that’s where I am too, but I like to flatter myself from time to time. :) Hope all is well in PG, I was just thinking about how great my undergrad there was. Mike Gillingham, Russ Dawson, Hugues Massicotte, Jane Young, Staffan Lindgren, Brian Menounos and Art Fredeen. Lots of great profs and great opportunities!

  2. Keep it up, for all the reasons you say, and don’t be afraid to tackle topics even when you feel impostor syndrome. Reason #6 to blog: you get feedback.

  3. Random jumbled thoughts:

    I think this is a really good point — most bloggers will not end up with hugely popular posts or massive readership. BUT, you can definitely make an impact, generate important conversation, think of ways to improve (if outreach is one goal), and slowly grow an audience over time.

    In my blog, I didn’t think very carefully about audience (or, rather, I stressed out a lot and decided to just go with whatever I felt like for a given post), figuring that most people are coming to me via shares, rather than subscriptions. So, social media helps a lot with expanding your readership, in my experience.

    Even the posts you think are self-promotional are actually helpful. Reading your mentoring statement helped me think a lot about my own mentoring statement!

    I also think that just being in the blogging community — engaging as a blogger and social media user — has benefits.

    For the reasons you mention, I’m trying to engage in comments more, especially if I liked a piece or found it helpful. I really struggle sometimes with not knowing if my posts are read or useful (versus just clicked on), and people have a tendency to either share a personal anecdote or disagree if they read you at all. I’m trying to be more personally accountable to that (it was one of my resolutions last year), and I’ve noticed that taking the time to say “thanks” has been a good exercise.

    • Well, thanks Jacquelyn! A lot of what I was trying to do was to reconcile all the good things that come about through blogging with the fact that it’s a blog with not much traffic.

      It’s a bit like being in a band. You look up to the bands that are really popular, like Nickleback and Justin Beiber, but at some point you need to reconcile your love of music with the fact that you’ll never be as talented or popular as those giants of modern music (joking, obviously). Then you take stock and decide whether you pack it in, or keep going. This was my “keep going” moment, captured for posterity.

      Anyway, I read all your posts, even if you haven’t updated the Mammoth since early September. . .

  4. Hello! First time reader. Also commenter. Nice blog! :)

    Keep at it! Many of the posts I end up reading are those that expand on other posts. So say, if someone at Tenure She Wrote wrote something and it inspired you with questions…I’d read that! I like seeing the conversation and what people think. Don’t assume you have nothing new to say. Often you do. Same with papers, many people talking about a paper will bring up many more points than just one person.

    Also, what Jacquelyn said. Social media can be very important for spreading posts. If you don’t tell anyone something is there, it becomes hard to find.

    • Thanks for the compliments and support! I agree about writing posts on topics from other blogs. It’s something I don’t do enough, even though there are lots of great topics out there. Obviously, this one was prompted in part by Small Pond Science, so it’s not like I don’t do it at all!

    • > So say, if someone at Tenure She Wrote wrote something and it inspired you with questions…I’d read that!

      I agree with you, but there’s still the issue of visibility. If I wrote something in response to Tenure She Wrote and you don’t even know my blog exists you’ll never see it, regardless of how interesting you might have found it had you seen it. I think there’s plenty of small blogs posting really interesting material that mostly doesn’t get seen by the people who’d like to see it.

      • In part that’s what pingbacks and dynamic links are for, but I totally agree, the part of the social web that’s most important is the social aspect of it. If no one talks about you, no one reads about you.

  5. I love this post – because essentially it comes down to blogging (or insert other ‘task’ here) because you want to. To share, to build community, to practice communicating, to open up your work to the public…etc. As a ‘middling-bottom’ myself, I’ve taken to writing whatever I want to – the only restrictions I place are that it has to relate to academia/science policy or culture/env sci in some way. I’ve found that the most surprising things (i.e., things I’d never have written were I thinking about an ‘audience’) get the most feedback & comments.

    • That’s exactly it. Thanks Sarah, I’ve enjoyed Watershed Moments, and think you do a great job. You’re exactly right about being surprised by what takes off. This post for example. I honestly figured it would just die out quickly, but it’s turned into one of the most popular posts yet. Absolutely ridiculous.

      • I’ve realized I can never predict what will interest people more than others, so I’ve stopped trying. I think this helps build a better blog in the long run.

  6. Great post! I have no problem being on the bottom of the blog heap. I love what I blog about when I get the time to blog and I have a ton of ideas but right now isn’t the best time for me to try to blog regularly (I’m stressed out enough as it is with a teenager, grad school, etc).

    For most of the topics on my blog I hope to get traffic from Google searches about the physiology of illnesses. So far it’s working! I still get more clicks from Twitter but my main goal is just to have the info there for random people who want to know about it. This helps me feel less guilty about not blogging regularly (though I hope to do so someday relatively soon!).

    • Yes, I hope that in general some of my R examples might help people in their search for solutions. I wish I could have searched your Scabies post when I worked as a camp counselor. Every summer someone (or a whole cabin) would come down with scabies and/or impetigo. Every summer, every session.

  7. I agree with everything you have said. I get around 50-60 views per day, mostly because I have 130 posts so I get some regular traffic to the back catalog (getting close to 50,000 lifetime hits). I write in pulses, but haven’t had more than about 6-8 weeks of silence in the past few years. Sometimes about my work, sometimes about other work, sometimes about whatever is in my brain at the time. Best-read post was based on a Nature paper, linked to by Ed Yong, and got me 1,000 hits in a day. If I get a couple more of those in my lifetime I’ll be a happy little blogger (thousand-hit posts, that is – who cares about Nature papers…?).

    • It’s kind of fun when the post gets linked, or takes off suddenly. I’m glad that this post has resonated so well with people, hopefully it keeps people plugging on until the next 1000 view post!

  8. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Simon. It encapsulates a lot of my thoughts about my blogging and why I do it. My blog ticks along at about the same sort of level as yours and I’m happy with that. I write things for a variety of reasons, but one that I have put a bit of time into is explaining how the heck you use the R software I’ve written or contributed to, or just to explain how on earth I produced figure x in a paper that just came out.

    I’ve read a lot of these “How to blog” posts/opinions and the top tips they have for blogging regularly and always posting on specific days – i.e. schedule posts to come out on a Tuesday, not when they are finished – but I quickly decided that wasn’t for me. I too have kids and most of the time the girls are way more fun than hacking away in Markdown and R, and when they are being terrors, work is super fun too. Life and work do get in the way, and that is fine, it is as it should be; I am a husband/father first, a scientist second, and a blogger nth. I felt I’d be more disappointed with my blogging if I tried – and failed – to blog like these people told me I should.

    I really like your blog posts, at the very least it helps me understand more about where you are coming from with your work or particular papers. And I find a lot of relevance here for my thinking too.

    One area that we could do more on with our lower-tier blogs, is use them as vehicles for reasoned critical discussion of the literature. It is a pain to publish a response to a paper, you have to squash it into a tiny word count, and even if you do the original authors rarely respond appropriately to the critique. I envisage using my blog more for this and have a few posts in the works that do just that. I just need to make sure those posts strike the right tone; people don’t like having their work critiqued.

    • Thanks Gavin. I think that some blogs do a good job of critiquing, and I’d probably do more of it, there are definitely papers that I want to critique(!), but a nuanced critique takes time and effort, and that’s often precisely the problem with regular blogging, as you outlined so well above.

      I mentioned in another post that I liked the Copernicus system of open review, I think that helps somewhat, there my nuanced reviews both help improve the literature, but also serve as “publications” in their own right. I’ve agreed to be a review editor for Frontiers in Paleoecology, so we’ll see how that goes. Generally I like my reviews, but they take time and effort to do properly.

      I think a better use might be posts like your LOESS smoother post. Rather than picking out a particular paper, choosing tools or concepts and discussing or critiquing them.

  9. Great post, and thanks for the very nice thoughts and words.

    My first thought is: For gosh sakes, don’t write a blog post unless you really want to do so!

    All kinds of reasons are good, and everybody’s got a different motive of some sort. I typically have a post coming out each day, though I miss a day on occasion. I only post this frequently because I feel like I have a bunch to say. My problem is choosing to not write for the blog and choosing to do other, more productive, things. In the past I’ve had other, less useful, means of entertainment and procrastination, and getting a blog post out most days is a not-so-bad thing. I do this, though, because I have a very long list of topics, ideas, incidents and concerns that I want to write about that fit the blog.

    My blog is about a specific, though broad, topic and I stick to that. It keeps me hopefully on target and also prevents me from wondering about whether I should be writing about a particular topic.

    Even if a blog isn’t about self-promotion, that is a side effect, and not necessarily a bad one. The goal of having a blog well-read only is a useful one if it’s coupled with other goals. There’s absolutely no harm in writing a post that targets a broad audience and doesn’t reach one. The point about a dead blog is really key. I think posting at regular intervals – regardless of interval size – looks a lot better than occasional haphazard posts. Once a month, once every three months, whatever. When there’s a new post here, I’ll see it via RSS within a week or less.

  10. I don’t write about science (well occasionally), but what I do write typically comes out of what I am researching. I publish an essay once a week (almost every week for 5 years now, plus a couple of more sporadic years, 340 essays and counting). Sometimes my blog becomes notes for articles (a few published in peer-reviewed journals). I get about 350 page views a day now and this has built fairly steadily over the years with peaks and troughs (writing about pornography was very good for my stats!).

    Hoping to do an MPhil next year followed by a PhD (funding bodies willing) and it was writing my blog that got me up to speed. Even if I don’t get funding, I’m still planning to turn parts of my blog into books. One down, one 90% finished, and one completely mapped out in blog posts.

  11. I also find it quite remarkable how some posts that I expected to disappear from view quickly stay alive and vice versa. I’m blogging for two reasons I guess: every now and then I’m very annoyed with mistakes I’ve made, and by sharing those on here I hope to help others prevent similar mistakes. Second it’s the practice. English is not my native language and I think writing regularly helps to improve!

  12. Very resonant post! When launching BioDV, we saw the same benefits and roadblocks to blogging and decided to launch a group blog that could act as a forum for a lot of tentative/new bloggers. We are always looking for motivated contributors who might not have the stamina for your number 2, but 3 and 4 work well collectively.

  13. I’m curious what folks think about pros/cons of the singular versus group blog format. The self-promotion aspect is diluted with a group blog but has the benefit of a built-in community for feedback and editing.

    • I like the group blogs. When I eventually get my own lab group I think I’d move to that sort of model. Some of the best blogs that I read are group blogs, it keeps a steady flow of diverse opinions, and, as you mentioned, there is a built-in community that is invested in the content and discussion.

  14. Well when that time comes, know that you and your students would be welcome @ biodiverse prespectives. Lab blogs are an effective model too!

  15. Blogging & traffic go up and down. I’ve been doing it for 9 years now, and have seen some posts get spread like mad, and others that I was really proud of only get a few comments/links/etc. I just do it for me–when I have something interesting to write about, I write. It might be that I think it will be educational, or something others would enjoy, or it might just be that it’s something that excites me even if I know it will be low-traffic. Have fun with what *you* like to write about, IMO.

    • Tara, you are so right. My traffic is like a roller coaster, and what I think are my best articles get little love while the ones I threw together fast get tons of traffic. I don’t understand what turns people on or off to certain articles. Ah well, like you said, you do it for you.

  16. Very nice post Simon! I blog because some of my entomology colleagues talked me into it, but most of the time I have little or nothing to say, so I don’t. That’s why I mostly use the Entomological Society of Canada blog (http://escsecblog.com/) because then I am not solely responsible and can blog when the spirit moves me, so to speak. I don’t read a lot of blogs either, but shameless self-promotion works, so most of what I encounter is via Twitter (like this one). I think I write blogs as an outlet for frustration over writer’s block for more serious stuff, so I agree that blogging is one of the many ways of procrastination I use. Anyway, it would appear you have more readers than you think, so keep it up!

  17. Ok, another impact you can measure on this particular blog post is the fact that this is one of the first times I have ever posted a comment. Great post! I actually enjoy reading a wide range of blogs, including yours, and many of the ones you mentioned. Given my ignorance of the blogging world, I read based on topics that peak my interest, that cross my path on twitter usually, not how famous they are. However, I wonder if another good reason for blogging is to just practice voicing an opinion. It takes guts to sometimes put yourself and ideas out there, and I applaud all of you that do. I find it very difficult myself, and found it nearly impossible in my early career days. So, again, I am impressed with those of you doing this. Which is why I am starting my venture into the science-social-media world with twitter. Seems more manageable to me for the moment. But I greatly appreciate many posts, and never comment… Until now. So, I will try to comment more, but be sure that ones I really like, I certainly tweet about.

    • Thanks Pat. It’s another broader impact I’ll add to my metrics! But you’re absolutely right. Part of the reason I’m sometimes hesitant to post about papers by others is that it can be difficult to be critical when you’re not anonymous. Especially if the person you are critical of is more senior. Having a blog has helped in crafting that criticism so that it can be fair but still critical. I’ve got a blockbuster coming out about some upcoming papers in Frontiers, I’m going to blow the lid off the whole thing! :)

  18. If you blog because you expect tons of readers who care about you, meticulously follow everything you write and engage in discussing your writing with you, then you are going to get disappointed. That is not how it works.

    I write my blog because I think it is fun and I like to write. In essence the blog is my writing playground and gossip corner where I can gossip about subjects I like such as science and nature. My blog currently gets about 100-200 visitors a month, which is not too bad for a rather new blog written in a small language like Swedish (some people actually read it in other languages via Google translate!). As with almost all blogs, regardless of size, the majority of visitors come from Google or other search engines and only a few are regular readers.

    It is of course fun and motivating to be able to confirm that someone actually reads what I write, but I don’t tailor my blog posts based on which posts people actually visit. My blog is not going to change the world and most people that read it don’t really care about me, so there is no point in taking it too seriously.

  19. I hear there is a fascinating special issue coming up, and I look forward to the blogosphere lighting up about it! Well, hopefully a few tweets at least.

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  22. Thanks for this. I’ve got an obscure little blog that I haven’t written much for recently, though I have no plans to stop blogging. When I make the time and have the muse, the posts will come. A few years ago one person contacted me after having read my entire blog start to finish, and thanked me. I know at least someone, somewhere found it helpful. That’s enough to keep me going.

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  24. The internet works in mysterious ways, at least in terms of blog traffic. I found my way here through one of my phd students posting a link on Facebook. Usually I stumble on ‘new’ blogs (to me, that is) through RTs on Twitter.

    Since half a year I run a blog, and all the question and thoughts you bring up in your posts are things that resonate with my (limited) experience of blogging.

    To me there is only one reason: it is fun to write! It is fun to write in your own style about things you like (or at least piques your interest). It is creative! And it is fantastic when people give feedback, either through comments, but more common via tweets or FB. And for a Swede it is good practice to write more freely in English!

    Our blog is a group blog, and part of the reason I write is to inform about our papers, but also to keep a good group momentum – a feeling that we are doing something valuable. But the most important thing is to have fun, and hopefully – at least sometimes – be fun! Sometimes the posts are picked up and live a short life on the net, being tweeted and retweeted. I still, however, wait for the titans like Ed Young to find their way to our blog… (… and likely will wait in vain for ever, and ever and ever).

    If anyone of you bloggers are interested, feel free to visit the world of diseases and ducks at http://zoonoticecology.wordpress.com/

  25. Thanks for the much needed inspiration. I write one to two articles every week and my readership is about what you described in this post. I started seven months ago and I stay at it because I enjoy writing. It gives me a mental break from my job. Here’s to low readership blogging – Cheers!

    • No problem, and I’m glad it helped! Sometimes it’s nice knowing other people are going through the same sorts of issues. Blog posts always seem so ‘finished’, I think it helps to know there’s process behind them, and it’s not always pretty :)

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