It’s been an interesting week here thinking about things online.
It started off with a coffee date with my pal On The Public Record, whose blog of the same name is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of California’s arcane water policy. OTPR and I were making observations about the different sorts of relationships between blog writers and the readers of same, and OTPR made what I thought was a rather cogent observation, to wit: There are fans, and then there are friends.
Of course there are other categories too. Trolls, for instance, who are sort of the mirror image of “fans.” There are drive-bys and casual acquaintances and random well-intended commenters who may venture into a place a few times and then amble off. It takes all kinds of commenters to make an online world.
But most regulars at any particular blog, aside from trolls and deliberate antagonists, can generally be pigeonholed into “friend” or “fan.” There are probably lots of differences delineable between the two categories, but the important distinguishing mark, to OTPR’s way of thinking, was this:
Fans feel you owe them something.
I had a lot of fans at Creek Running North a couple years ago. I don’t have so many of them now. From January 1 to June 30 of 2009, Coyote Crossing got about 38,000 visits. Creek Running North, in the same period in 2007, got over 160,000. There are a number of reasons for that difference, including the increase in RSS feed use and an overall decrease in blog readership among low-to-middle end blogs, the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the fact that a bunch of that 2007 traffic was brought by Zeke, the fact that I spent the intervening time bewailing the loss of my dog and then picking a few blogfights I shouldn’t oughta, which drove some folks away, and then stopped doing both those things, which drove away the people that showed up because of them. I closed CRN and stopped blogging altogether for a couple of months last year, and when I started up again it was emphatically as a niche writer. And I don’t post every day like I used to, in part because I’m doing other writing.
There’s lots of noise in that statistical signal, and trying to tease it all out is a bit of a fool’s errand. But the result is inarguable: 23 percent of the traffic means a lot fewer fans. Most of the people that stop by regularly to comment I consider friends rather than fans. Every once in a while, though, a fan drops in.
The day after coffee with OTPR I got email from (what would appear to be) two different such fans. Each of them informed me that I was letting them down by not taking sides in an online argument. Each of them referred to different arguments to which I was putatively obliged to hie myself. This is blessedly uncommon, but there are one or two examples of the phenomenon that regular readers might remember taking place here this year. Close on the heels of the second one, a third “fan” emailed to let me know that I might have missed something derisive that another blogger said about me a year and a half ago, and provided a link.
It was one of those days where I was sorry my traffic hadn’t dropped even farther here. This is not a good feeling for someone who hopes to make a living by writing to cultivate, this desire for fewer readers. Fortunately, I got better. I think.
Almost by coincidence, I wandered over to Kate Harding’s joint later that day and saw, a couple posts down, an explanation of changes that were going to be taking place there. Those changes, summed up: Kate and her talented co-bloggers were now going to be writing about what they wanted to write about rather than what they have been expected to write about — which, in the specific case of their blog, is feminism and fat acceptance. From that post:
[I]ncreasingly, there have been headaches and frustrations that have made this feel a bit like the kind of job where, if they didn’t pay you, you’d have no motivation to show up every day. Thousand-comment threads. Blogwars we tried to stay out of but somehow got dragged into anyway, without any of us saying a fucking word. Constant arguments about whether the boundaries we’ve set for our own space are appropriate. That sort of thing.
But most troubling of all is the expectation of leadership on our parts — of a movement, a community, a fatosphere — just because we’re a high-traffic blog. Some people have argued that whether we asked for a leadership role or not, that traffic means we’ve got it, so we have a responsibility to accept that our position means certain things. Like that we must be more democratic about what goes on here, we must weigh in on blogwars, we must set an example, we must respond promptly to all assertions that we are, in some manner, Doing It Wrong.
But you know what? No. It’s a fucking blog. … A lot of people refuse to accept our self-identification as bloggers — no more, no less — and keep insisting that as long as Shapely Prose remains the most visible blog in the fatosphere, we have an obligation to “lead” it in ways that are never clearly defined and involve some highly mobile goalposts.
There’s more, go read it, it’s good.
The notion that a writer you admire owes you something in return for that admiration isn’t new, and has been remarked upon by the finest cultural critics.
A difference between friends and fans: say you need to stop blogging for a while, and friends will likely say something like “bummer, but of course do what you need to do” or “excellent, because I want to read that book you’ve been procrastinating on” or “just in time, too, because dinner’s ready.” A fan says “No,” sometimes with an extra few dozen “o”s appended as a bit of self-deprecation.
Being a fan isn’t, I hasten to add, a character flaw. It’s a near-inevitable result of the way things work in mass communication. The whole notion that bloggers are actual humans with actual feelings still doesn’t quite sink in all the way, even for those of us have learned better as the result of shameful experience. There is the tendency to treat us as a form of entertainment, a bit of regularly scheduled programming. This unconscious assumption is destructive whether you like or dislike the person you’re so reifying.
Someone reminded me the other day, as I was whining about blogwars and such, that I was at one point widely linked and highly regarded when I was involved in more expressly combative political blogging. She was right, and much of that high regard was wonderful stuff. But it’s an interesting thing. For a lot of people, that regard only goes so far. Stop saying things people agree with, and no matter how well-argued, thoughtful, heartfelt, or compellingly written your arguments may be, the degree to which you are well-regarded will decline. Keep saying the things for which you have earned the regard, and the expectations grow. You are told — as Kate and cronies were, referenced above, and as I was — that your abundant traffic obligates you to write this or that, to rise up and smite the designated side in the usual high school cafeteria spats.
The legacy of all that regard, for me, is one occasional and boring right wing troll, a couple more determined and much more hostile stalker trolls slightly to the left of the first, a few instances (duly and quietly forwarded to me by actual friends) of former “allies” gleefully dissecting my divorce and the other ways in which my life sorta disintegrated over the first few months of 2008, and an ungainly archive from which about a third of the comments disappeared in a database crash, including some of my favorites.
The legacy of friendships made in that process is much more valuable, of course. It’s interesting to note that of all the people I met out in the wide world of political blogging — of the many dozens of people I considered colleagues, six checked in on me in 2008 to see if I was alive. [Edit: Oops. I meant seven.]
That’s not including all the hard core regulars here, of course, without whom 2008 would have been a whole lot more difficult, and friends from other blogging arenas like Dave and Beth and Carl. Let me stop there. My point isn’t to make lists, if for no other reason than that due to the ADD I’ll leave someone out that I don’t want to. My point is to make the distinction between friends — which each of the people mentioned here rather unambiguously are, though I’ve tested many of those friendships — and fans. Friends wondered how I was doing. Fans just figured the Creek Running North show was on hiatus.
I look at what I’ve written since June of 2008. Some of it is intensely personal, some of it so much so that it might be utterly incomprehensible to anyone not me. Given the lack of traction the stuff has found online, it’s unsurprising that my fan base has evanesced. But aside from this week, I haven’t been looking much at my fan base. I look at the world instead. I look at the utter lack of mainstream interest in June 2008 in saving a place like the Ivanpah Valley from paving for greenwashed industrial solar, whose sole purpose, aside from making money, is to make urban dwellers feel virtuous as they crank up their air conditioning. A year ago I would have considered it impossible that a New York Times reporter would speak up for the Ivanpah Valley. But it happened last week.
Is it hubris to think my writing made a difference? Possibly. All I know is I’ve spent my life wandering from one boulder to the next and trying to push each one. A lot of other people leaned into this one, and my contribution may have been just a tiny fraction of the total. Still, it is damn good to feel it move.
That’s the kind of regard a guy could get used to.