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?

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

8 responses to “Below the line”

  1. Bossman says :

    This is a very interesting debate.

    Blogs have a variety of purposes, but it appears, most have them, have little to do with making money.

    U can get a readership base .. But, consistently – spam far outweighs genuine comments, (as u noted), which makes me think, human readers, are far less than we think.

    Writing is a personal choice. I follow cricket blogs, becos I like cricket, and want to understand the politics behind it, as well as the personalities.

    Writing about cricket, can involve many different topics .. and I would like to see more articles about how poorly the paying public are generally treated at grounds (it’s my belief . TV revenue, so far outweighs everything, paying spectators, are just a sideshow,).

    I love your blog .. It’s v well written, and consistently interesting. I hope u get better feedback etc.

    • chrisps says :

      Bossman

      Thank you for those thoughts. I’m kicking myself for not making the point that I feel really generously treated by my commenters.

      I am sure many followers of the game would agree with your observation about how the paying public is treated at grounds. 90% of the professional cricket I watch is at Lord’s, which is far from typical. Backwatersman (whose blog you can find by following the link from his comment on this piece – or from the blognoscenti list on the right sidebar) watches a lot of county cricket and his posts often consider the facilities and atmosphere at the ground. Put it this way, if you are planning to visit a ground in the East Midlands for the first time (or first time in a while), refer to Backwatersman for advice.

      Best wishes, Chris

  2. backwatersman says :

    Chris

    I’m uncomfortably aware that I don’t comment as often as I should (particularly as I always enjoy receiving comments on my own writing). I’m certainly guilty of using RT-ing as a substitute for the “good stuff – keep it up!” type of comment. (I suppose in my defence there are only four of five cricket blogs I always read (including yours and Brian’s) and, as they are consistently good, I would be making the same comment on every post.)

    Another plea in mitigation would be that not commenting can be a kind of back-handed compliment and again the culprit is a lack of time. If I find a post particularly thought provoking then I’d want to do it justice in making a comment, which would take time that I often feel I don’t have to spend on my own writing, so – rather than say something inadequate I say nothing. So a lack of comment doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of appreciation.

    It is a pity that there isn’t more debate and dialogue, though I think that’s part of a general malaise on the internet – and, at least, the cricketing portion of it generally (in my experience) manages to maintain a degree of civility that’s absent elsewhere. With regard to politics, for instance, there is almost no genuine dialogue (certainly not between those with opposing points of view), merely sniping from entrenched positions and the formation of Twitter-mobs.

    So all is not lost!

    BW/Nick

    • chrisps says :

      Nick, you shouldn’t be pleading guilty to anything. You’ve articulated the sorts of things that inhibit us all from engaging in lengthy debate – not least, we want to get on with our own writing.

      I think we may be wrong blaming Twitter. There’s bound to be more interaction, with obvious limitations, with Twitter than without it. And a lot of what I enjoy reading on Twitter (cricketing Clash tracks, anybody? I mean, Craig White Riot!) would not feature in a blog. All is not lost – unless you’re an England cricketer.

      Chris

  3. Rajiv says :

    Chris
    I really enjoy your writing style, so I read your blog for the pleasure of it, but have not commented before. Just because, as you say, the motivation only lasts a few minutes. I also read on my phone, which is difficult to type on.

    Keep em coming!
    Rajiv

    • chrisps says :

      Rajiv, very kind of you to comment. I’m already thinking of what I can write about this summer’s Test series that will be so inflammatory, that it will get you back here! Chris

  4. Brian Carpenter says :

    Well, Chris, it’s nice to see I was right about that, anyway.

    Like Nick, I often read something (and I read many more than five blogs regularly) which I like and want to comment on, but don’t feel that I have time to do it justice. In these cases I’ll keep it in my inbox and reply when I have the time. This is often a week or more after I originally read the piece, which means that I then have to read it again to remind myself why I thought it was worthy of comment in the first place. This can be good, because on second reading different things can stand out, and events have usually moved on, meaning that different factors can influence your response. Sometimes, unfortunately, I just never get round to commenting, and we move on.

    I don’t think you’re shallow. I think that everyone (surely?) likes comments for the reasons you state. In my case, I tend to lack confidence in my writing (or at least, while I like it – obviously – I worry about other people ‘getting it’ in the same way), so I’m happy to hear from anyone who’s prepared to take the time to comment, especially, of course, if they’re complimentary. Unless comments are completely oblique/weird (I’ve had a few of those) or rude (very, very few, if any), I always reply to them, even if it’s just to say thank you. I’m never very impressed if I leave a comment on a blog and the writer doesn’t bother with even a basic acknowledgement. To me it’s just good manners to do so.

    Of all the comments I’ve ever received, my favourite is one which I had very early on (it must have been in 2006 or 2007) from someone in Sri Lanka who said that he enjoyed the blog but that he often couldn’t access the Web because of power cuts caused by air raid bombing (the Sri Lankan civil war was still going on then). It was quite humbling to think that someone in such a situation was reading my blog and gave me the impetus to continue, when, like a lot of people,I could have fallen by the wayside as a result of perceived (or actual) lack of readers.

    As it’s the sort of thing I generally haven’t got the time or inclination to do these days, I particularly like your statistical pieces. As I mentioned when we met, you ought to think about joining the ACSH. You’d like it, and they’d like you.

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, that single Sri Lankan reader is worth 100s of visitors who arrive by following a link promoted by someone on Twitter, but imagine if he hadn’t commented. It’s the best argument for the power of comments.

      I shall follow-up your ACSH recommendation. Chris

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