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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Too many readers could kill you

In the age we live in, it is not enough to write quality blog content, you also need a new quality in followers, because reading and writing are inseparably related in more ways than it has been in traditional author-reader relationship.

Take comments for example. It is well known, that sites with better comment quality help the author to become better author, since the commentators act as a computing cloud that thinks along with the author, fixes mistakes and proposes new ideas. With a site where the comments go out of hand, you would actually have the fast spiral of silence for more sensible people and according to the game theory you will end up with quite low quality comments. That´s a big loss for a blog.

Secondly, with every author there comes a trail of references that his or her postings generate. The references to the blog, criticism and feedback will position the blogger or a journalist more than he or she can ever directly influence. And it is obvious that with quality followers, your trail will look better on the internet and with bunch of stupid ones you would have some ugly noise around. So, according to this logic, a quality reader-cloud is actually a big asset, it is your extension, your newsroom, your editorial team and of course, also a devoted audience.

Jason Calacanis and Michael Arlington are extremely popular bloggers and today we saw them both speaking up against anonymous and less anonymous violence (here and here) that is taking place in and around the blogosphere. Both articles are good and their analysis is sound. I liked Jason´s especially. But there is one thing that bothers me about all this. It is the fact that so many people take more and bigger readership numbers as signs of progress and quality when they are not. Has it also been the case with these two great writers whom I admire a lot?

May be this mindset comes from the advertising age where more contacts has been mostly regarded as an ultimate goal? Or may be there is a straight analogy with book sales - the more sales, the more money? But hey, it is blog, it is for free. Or may be it gives the authors the feeling of importance? If you think calmly, then the fact that you are popular, does not necessarily mean quality nor even impact. The more clicks, the more readers, the more of this and that may overshadow the grim reality that not every person is intellectually ready and able to participate in your game and the presence of such persons will actually drive your real admirers away and one day may be even scare you yourself s***less. Is that really me who created this monster following?

That is actually one of the reasons I do not like to write in Estonian newspapers. The problem is that newspapers like to sell my article to as many people as possible. They might even use banners on streets for that purposes. In the end the article will reach 80 per cent of people, whom I am not interested in addressing. If possible, I would just try to talk to the 20 per cent, but this is not so feasible for the general interest newspaper. So, in the end I am just satisfied with writing to the 2 per cent in my blog.

Of course, I am oversimplifying a bit, but you get the point. "Go sell yourself!" is a recommendation to apply with care. If you want build up a really powerful ecosystem on your site, you should go and make friends and followers, not numbers. At the same time I am not anti-selling, I am just stressing that selling for sellings sake will destroy you more easily now, or at least its alternative costs can be high.

And of course, there is this unwanted popularity. The brightest minds are just so good in what they do, that this just attracts attention. Hopeful wannabes and trendy people will arrive and soon there will be crowds. And then the spammers and griefers arrive and then it all looks like a big festival place for a while until it falls down under its own weight. You have to either change your profile and accept the lighter nature of content or find ways to get less popular.

Yes, getting less popular may be a thing to do deliberately. It may make sense to cool down the growth numbers artificially. In some ways it can also work out economically, since where there is deficit, there is also more money. It is possible, that here we can see new kinds of revenue models coming, those that are based upon scarcity, more closed clubs and even membership fees may make kind of a comeback. Just speculating of course, but why not.

I am not the best expert, but it seems inevitable, that the web scene gets much less anonymous anyway, so this is good news for the bloggers and as both Jason and Michael pointed out in their posts (the latter by not allowing comments on the posting), less anonymity seems to be inevitable for humans need the system of checks and balances to act nice and this may solve some of the violence problems.

This moment in time may actually also signal the moment of breaking an illusion that many people still have from the beginning of the nineties when the web users were intellectually above average. That may have given raise to the belief that internet, technology can make us better humans. No such thing.

Anyway, we all know that on the web there are many good ways to measure the quality of audience and modern advertisers are actually looking into much more properties than just number of readers and their clicking habits. Why do we fall into the trap of this one number then, when it comes to our own blogs, stories?

Let us focus on the real reader, let us see her face, let us have quality time and why not being paid according to this. Let´s forget the overall score, let us look into skills, empathy and all that makes us human. Let us invite this frightened intellectual cloud back and domesticate it again.