Electronic writing and the numbers game

Sometimes, a thought comes in a moment and you just record it. You type it as fast as possible and there it is.

Just so close to perfect!

As it’s coming, if someone interrupts you, walks in the door or calls or sends an innocuous email, boom! The thought is gone.

Other times, you sit for hours, construct a piece with great labour, something complex, something you think is so nuanced and hardly anyone gets it. Nor do they like it much, other than a select few, who are concerned about the same stuff as you. Always.

You wonder what happened.

What you fail to do is that you can’t draw the reader in, can’t make them care unless they already do.

(Photo credit: owenwbrown)

One result of a medium so interactive, with such immediate feedback mechanism built in such as a blog, an e book or even an online article with the like and share buttons below is that you know immediately how many people are reading and liking or disliking what you sent out just seconds earlier.

Okay. The e book responses are perhaps a little slower but you know what I mean.

Pleasant surprise if something scribbled while waiting for coffee takes off and unpleasant surprise if something written laboriously for many hours does not.

The shelf life of this kind of writing is short. The slow and steady only occasionally wins the race and maybe never. [Perhaps there are stats available on whether the tortoise ever wins.]

Our immediate reaction after such a heady experience, in a good way or bad, is to do more of this and less of that, to make a judgement based on instant feedback, to infer something about our writing.

We try to theorize and learn and make a generalization out of the response. That’s who we are.

That is to say most writers are especially susceptible to this type of inference-based thinking because of the way their brains are traditionally wired. To make inferences from experience, to read the details but not necessarily always as a set of interrelated number but more as an an emotional response to the impression of the impact of them.

This kind of instantly available critique, in the form of hits and likes is great feedback to an extent.

But could there be some drawbacks to this method of assessment?

What if instant popularity is drawing more of only one kind of readers, the ones who are drawn in by catchy intros, witty sketches, nice quotes? What if, encouraged by these readers, one only cultivates the catchy side of one’s presentation?

What if, by going on cultivating a certain kind of eye-catching quality, one gets into a positive feedback loop? What if one loses confidence in labour and primarily starts concentrating on skimming the surface while reading other people too and producing more of the same catchiness in one’s own writing?

At the end of the day, the nuanced, laborious pieces can be worked on to become more catchy. To appeal to a more general audience perhaps.

But can the catchy be worked on to develop more substance?

Or are the in-depth and the catchy styles just meant for different forums to be produced and consumed by completely different kinds of writers and readers?

I think not. I think surface always has potential for depth and vice versa.

So are we merely comparing apples and oranges or is some depth being nipped off in the bud seduced by popularity?

Stalactites reflected on the surface of the water deep inside the Luray Caverns in Virginia (Photo credit MD)
Stalactites reflected on the surface of the water deep inside the Luray Caverns in Virginia. Just because. (Photo credit MD)

Some writing, which seems catchy can actually be quite “deep.” Even if it came together in a matter of moments its history as having beenΒ  produced by-the-way is actually quite deceptive.

Often, such writing is the result of hours of hard work behind the scenes, over many days. It might only seem like an instant when the process of conscious labour was distracted for a moment while waiting for coffee, when it all came together. Even writers themselves may not be aware that their brain works in mysterious ways.

So they begin to think–how did this small inspired piece just happen? How can I do more of them?

Apart from behind-the-scene hard work, there may be certain fortuitous circumstances that help a piece take off.

A post about Monday on Monday, for example, can take off on Monday. Or a post about bloggers on a forum on blogging posted at a time in the day when most bloggers are online might become a hit.

But the question is, do you want to keep writing about Mondays? Become a Monday sensation? Did you start out with another aim? Are you looking to move on to Tuesday?

On a more serious note, are you also looking beyond popularity to check if your posts are likely to survive the test of time and variety of audience? By time I don’t mean centuries or decades or years, just maybe 6 months, or maybe even a month? Is that part of your plan?

It depends on what kind of inference one is trying to draw from the success or failure of one’s writing. If one wants to create a forum to draw people in, like a site about cute kitten pictures, for example (wouldn’t one be great?) the spike in hits and likes is a good measure of the quality of presentation.

However, if one is trying an essay on the aesthetics of cuteness, one which might be more productive speculating on parameters of aesthetic sensibilities which might last at least a month or two (when the kitten is no longer a kitten), perhaps the measure of success or failure ought to be something else. Not just numbers.

40 thoughts on “Electronic writing and the numbers game”

  1. When I teach writing and lead critique workshops, particpants are not allowed to say they “like” something without saying why. In other words, “like” doesn’t mean anything unless it can be backed up with a good reason to like it – good characters, structure, turn of phrase. “Likes” are like Facebook “Friends” – meaningless as feedback except as popularity measures. “Comments” can offer better feedback although it takes more time for readers to write a comment. I don’t count the “likes” on my own sites, but I read and respond to every comment.


  2. In the end, I think the reason for a blog determines whether ‘likes’ are important.

    If the reason for the blog is to put out informative postings on an off-the-beaten-track subject that is only interesting to a tiny percentage of the population, then the potential for ‘likes’ is very small and the blogger will understand this and not have expectations of a huge following. However, if the blogger gets the greatest satisfaction through knowing that he/she is having an effect on the largest number of people possible, winning awards, getting interaction between readers and blogger, then going for the popularity contest is essential for writer satisfaction. There are also those who write because they will explode if they don’t. They may write about popular subjects by chance, but basically write what comes to mind and don’t really look for popularity, but are happily surprised when it falls in their lap.

    Each of us, by our reaction to the likes and comments we recieve, determines where we try to fit ourselves within the framework of the world of blogging.


  3. I think traditional theory says that you need to have some “flash” to draw in a reader who wouldn’t normally find a particular topic interesting. It’s what I have to do when I teach a library class to 2nd and 3rd graders. Sometimes I find a hook, sometimes I fail. And if you can’t be there in person to infuse your audience with your interest and enthusiasm, it’s doubly difficult. Sometimes the “flash” we think is interesting makes others yawn. I do think that some writers have a “knack” for making their topics interesting, Oliver Sacks and neuroscience for the layman, for example.


  4. Good point well made.
    I’m often amazed by really good work that appears to be not well supported. I wonder why these people have been here for a while and have not been ‘discovered’. Does time eventually take care of that? Or do these people drift away? Do others search as hard as I do or do they wait and let the good stuff come to them?
    Normally I have answers, today only questions.


  5. I agree with everything you have written on this piece. Another place where the like and subscribe button can be misleading is when you are targeted by people selling a company. If everyone who likes a certain post tries to sell me something. . . did they actually like my writing? Or did my blog just come up in a random draw? I find I have to write for myself first. I write what I care about and what matters to me. The numbers balance themselves out eventually.


  6. Great points in this, although it was a tad long, I do agree with everything you are saying. Bottom line, writing is a craft and you have to work at it constantly and you have to let it develop and grow and take shape by giving it distance for at least, the sake of objectivity (unless you’re a super genius) – and that is glacial, in terms of weight, space, and time. A worthwhile work is not done in an instant.


  7. I started my blog for no purpose but to write. It is my personal blog so looks for no niche only my thoughts on a page, which is what I called it. Now however I am toying with the idea of creating a niche blog on one topic. However I love my own blog. Even if I have a post ready, if it does not suit my mood, (humor, anger whatever) I cannot bring myself to post it. Posts like this are useful for people like me who find it hard to pin ourselves down. Sometimes I think the “like” button only serves to confuse us. Two of my biggest viewing posts were on “likes” and religion. Neither is something I wish to write regularly about so as you put it I will move on to Tuesday.


  8. Very interesting reading. It has made me think a bit more about my blog. I started it, or I thought I did, for me; to practice my writing and find my voice. I chose a blog as I felt I would “keep at it” more if I felt anyone was reading it. So far I’m just astounded anyone at all has read it! But surely if practicing writing was my aim, there are other forms I could have chosen… You are helping me think about my writing and reflect on it more. Thank you. πŸ˜€


  9. As usual, this post is thought-provoking. Early on, I looked at stats, both mine and high-traffic blogs. What I write is just different. I don’t look to the numbers to guide my writing and I don’t blanket the web with likes and comments to generate traffic to my blog. I’m more about the conversation part of the posts- reader comments are what make blogging fun (even if there are just a few comments :))


  10. As always, you got me thinking about this ever since I read it upon waking up in the morning, driving my son to school in the rain, and coming home and eating breakfast. πŸ™‚ So, here are my thoughts at this time..: I am not sure we can evaluate the effectiveness of posts based on relative likes over time between posts. I think it kind of boils down to answering the question of “what is the definition of “liking” a post?” For me, when I press the “like” button it means that I can relate to said post; I feel that it draws me in to something about my life, my experience in a real way, and then I emphatically press “like.” . For another person, it may mean “this post made me laugh so I like it,” Period. Or another person may hit the “like” button when a post expresses something provocative and brilliant, kind of like a piece of literature that is something to analyze. So do we really know what the “like” button means to everyone? There are times I comment, but don’t “Like” and visa versa. So when I see a post of mine has more “likes” than another, I figure it is a combination of reasons why they “liked” it. I never really know.
    Thanks as always for writing very likeable posts, whether in relatability qualities (not a word – comes up in red!), and other qualities…


    1. Great comment. Yes, an important measure of quality if one goes by the number of “likes” is what they mean but no one really knows. I mean, sometimes, even when you dislike strongly, you have no option to express the strength of your disapproval except to hit “like.” The same with shares. Apparently, research shows that one imp element of a great sharable post is something that elicits a very strong reaction/ emotion. But this (strong reaction) may not necessarily be an indicator of approval and hence of quality.


      1. For that reason alone I give readers the option to rate each post on a 5 star scale. Of course, the whole thing is moot right now because I have hardly any readers, but, hey, I’m thinking ahead….


  11. It’s like you read my thoughts. There’s so much to unpack in this excellent post. I can’t help likening this to my thoughts about querying agents or publishers. Everything boils down to a logline–a quick one-sentence synopsis of the book you’re trying to sell. Everything becomes a soundbite to be digested quickly in our busy world. So while the “likes” provide instant gratification, I have some concern about this form of grading. I flash back to wanting to be liked in fifth grade and sometimes failing.


  12. Thanks for the thought provoking, and very poignant, article. This is a problem that started long before I had a blog. For me it started in college. I majored in creative writing (which amounts to an English degree with all your electives being workshops) and attended many workshop classes. There’s a very sharp edge between value and detriment, and unfortunately the bias of my college made 95% of them worthless unless you fell into their thinly defined lines of “acceptable literature”. Naturally we want our work to be read, and liked, so it’s easy to succumb to the dark side of immediate interactions. I know it took me a long to to shake off the stigma of genre writing I picked up from my college career.

    At the same time, and to come back from Moaning Michael Land, thankfully the immediacy of the interwebs has made for great blogs like yours for us to congregate and collaborate and get our words out to an audience which appreciates our particular flair.

    Keep up the great work!


    1. I love this congregation. And yes, “highbrow” lit can be just as dogmatic in its parameters of acceptability as the so called shallowness of genre lit. And both trammel themselves up in formulas held up by apprentices and cult following except that genre lit consciously does so and “highbrow” art is reluctant to admit it. And then the great break the norms.


  13. You are quite brilliant at getting inside the writer’s mind and articulating the struggles with blogging! Everything you said is so true. It’s an interesting journey to see what resonates with people. Some pieces that take 15 minutes gets more hits than a post that took days of quiet contemplation. My motto is: don’t stick with a shtick. Show the various colors of life’s journey and moods. Silly, stupid, profound, thoughtful… Whatever! Great post.


  14. enjoyed this…the subject is one I have been contemplating lately…I strive for quality, and yes I think a few of my posts go right over the heads of my readers, with them not getting certain inferences or obscure references, while my fluff pieces are well received but this happens in poetry…I have put a lot of thought into presentation of my work and have chosen to do what is contrary to attracting attention and what I refer to as false traffic…Basically I don’t write to be commercially successful but to say something I feel needs to be said, it is my hope that it stands the test of time, but that is not for me to decide…


  15. This post came at a good time for me. I posted a long article about my reaction to David Shields’ book How Literature Saved my Life and got almost no views. I knew my audience is interested in running more than books, but it was still disappointing as I had worked on and off on this post for literally weeks. Sometimes writers have to accept that they are writing mainly for themselves. Or, in my case, I have to find a different audience.


    1. Finding a diff audience is key. Unfortunately, unlike a techie audience for tech blogs, not all literature aficionados are online. Hence, a challenging task to find them.


  16. Provocative piece of writing.
    “Some writing, which seems catchy can actually be quite β€œdeep.” ” So true. I remember reading “Simple writing is most difficult to write” (Little diff from catchy but in the same drift.)
    I think the measure of success will always be numbers(fortunately or unfortunately) but that should never change what one wants to write. You can’t write and not be true to yourself. That won’t last for long or Will it??


  17. “I think surface always has potential for depth and vice versa” Yes! This is what I believe as well. You will get a lot of views with a catchy title and a crafty first sentence, but the true goal (I think) is a multitude of thoughtful comments – and that only comes with depth. A perfect blog post has both.


  18. It’s such an easy trap, isn’t it? The lure of “I’m so good, my work matters so much, that X number of people read and comment” makes it ever so much harder to plainly speak your truth and let the readership fall where it may. BUT! If the idea you share profoundly impacts one person, just ONE, then how can you not call it worthwhile? Depending on what your influence brings forth in that ONE, it may be even MORE valuable than just stirring small comment or amusement from hundreds of others. Numbers lie.


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