Archive | January 28, 2014

Below the line

I am going to address a paradox, discuss user effort and delve into my deepest motivations. This means going off topic. So, an early warning, this isn’t about cricket (although one cricket-naïve friend of mine thinks that might be true of the blog as a whole.)

I am descending, plunging below the surface of blogs. I am looking at the sub-blog realm of comments.

Seasoned bloggers, Backwatersman and Brian Carpenter, reflected on the changing experience of composing and publishing their thoughts on the game over the last five to ten years in comments to my recent review of blog posts in 2013. Brian noted:

It seems that these days fewer people comment on blogs. If they like something they retweet or favourite it, rather than taking the time to engage with it to the extent of commenting.

As a blogger with an inclination for numbers, I’ll respond first to another of Brian’s observations: “Interestingly, there’s never much correlation between numbers of comments and numbers of readers.” Plotted below are those data for Declaration Game (red squares are quiz posts).

blog comments.pdf-page-001

Brian’s right – but why? My guess is that it is because of the source of those surges of readers. They follow (very gratefully received) plugs from bigger names. Proportionately fewer readers of bigger blogs comment on what they read and they don’t alter that behaviour when on a detour to a more minor outlet. Commenting is also, however trivially, about establishing a relationship. A first time (or occasional) visitor is less likely to take the time.

Time is such a telling factor. All the concentration and coincidence of technology that enables blogging has made it absurdly easy to publish. Commenting on a piece can be just as easy. Very often, however, the effort (outside of the composing and typing of the response) is greater than that required to publish it in the first place. The threat of spam (Declaration Game has a spam to comment ratio of 99:1) sees bloggers erect barriers to their sites. It might seem extreme to call the requirement to recognise and type a dozen characters to prove you are human, a ‘barrier’. But that process, alongside an identity registration, often takes longer than is required to read the piece that inspires the comment. Add the fiddliness of a smart phone and many bloggers who want and deserve comments are deterring them.

But not all bloggers place their work behind those particular barriers, instead using programmes that detect spam. Readers, myself included, now have such a low effort threshold that the enthusiasm to contribute a comment evaporates in minutes. And there’s the immediate alternative way of expressing approval – Twitter – which also enables the reader of the blog to do the blogger the favour of promoting their piece.

I have come to the view that some bloggers (definitely not Brian and Backwatersman) don’t really want comments. That’s fair enough – so much of the pleasure of blogging is in the composition. Why then leave the comment function in place? A small number of cricket bloggers make no response to an interrogative comment or bat it away, refuting the point made. We could debate whether it’s a lack of humility or an excess of insecurity, but I have moved on and their writing doesn’t get the attention it probably merits.

I have asked myself the question, “Why do I want to get comments on my writing?” The uncomfortable consequence of delving deeply into my own motivations is the discovery of how shallow I am. The number one reason that I want comments, I have realised, is to have readers tell me how good, clever, etc I am. Some way behind this need for praise, is the enjoyment of discussion, of someone adding to, redirecting or correcting the argument of my piece. I think this attends to a basic need I must have to be taken seriously.

This exercise in self-examination has made me realise that there is a third kind of feedback that I don’t think I have received that would be the most beneficial to me. It is the kind of feedback that (I imagine) is routine in the mainstream media. It’s the input of the editor: highlighting what is unclear; suggesting alternative structure or challenging a lapse in style, an over-reliance on cliché. With the bloggers’ feted freedom to write whatever they want to write comes the custody of repeating mistakes and not developing as a writer.

Readers who contribute comments to Declaration Game are highly likely to either blog themselves, or know me. (This acts as a protection against the below the belt, below the line discourse that soils major websites: insults, rants and threats.)  In wishing for a more engaged readership, bloggers should acknowledge that confidence plays a part in who wants to appear below the line. Many readers are ‘shy’ or less committed to the subject and the medium. We should just be grateful that they visit and, all being well, read from beginning to end.

I have mentioned site accessibility, bloggers’ responses and motivation, as well as readers’ confidence as factors determining comment quantity. There is one cricket blog (and possibly more) where the action below the line, day after day, sizzles. Here is a recent example from the exceptional King Cricket – Dale Steyn: Lord Megachief of Gold. How do ‘they’ (is the ‘we’, royal?) do it? Simply put: seven years of day-in, day-out excellence. Short, fun posts, usually around mainstream issues, which don’t intimidate or close off other points of view. There’s a regular cast of commenters, but look what happened when King Cricket appealed for thoughts on the future direction of the site: Why in blazes do you read this website? Over 100 commenters, many surfacing for the first time to give feedback.

All that’s left for me to say is: What do you think? Am I great? Have I missed the point? Do I rely too much on cliché and commonly used constructions? How can I write with more impact?