Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

supporting good writing

Until recently, the remarkable Matthew Battles, of Hilobrow fame, was writing a column for Gearfuse. Then the editor of Gearfuse parted company with Matthew in this oddly snarky way: you ain’t gettin’ the pageviews, smart boy, so move on along. We’re dumbin’ down.

This has prompted a conversation among some of us on Twitter, led by Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library, about whether those of us who enjoy good writing on the web — writing like Matthew’s — need to make sure we support it by leaving comments on posts we like. Sarah has in fact committed herself to doing just that, though not without some reservations.

Well . . . I am puzzled. I have considered these issues occasionally on this blog, but have never been able to find a solution to the problem of trolling, much less the far more complex problem of how to register proper appreciation for the sites and posts I really like. I tend to think that adding a comment in praise of a post might make the author feel better, but if what the site Authorities want is page views, do comments help? Wouldn't tweeting the link (and re-tweeting when the author announces new posts) be more helpful? I suppose it depends on what kind of help is most wanted, and by whom, but . . . Any thoughts?


  • Tweeting and retweeting are definitely more valuable since they tend to produce a marginal increase in the number of pageviews. A comment must be seen by someone who is already familiar with the post, so it adds nothing. But a tweet/retweet exposes it to a larger audience (and one that may keep the cycle going by retweeting the link) which, over time, can have a significant impact on the average pageviews per post.

  • I think you're right: comments might serve primarily the author (though as I know and you know, it's always nice as a writer to get feedback!) but tweeting/retweeting probably generates more page views.

    The trick is to manage what some writers do, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, creating a bustling and thoughtful commenting community that might actually serve to draw people to your work. I'm not sure exactly how he's managed that: he writes about provocative subjects, but gets insightful responses, not trolls.

    I'm certainly aware that my comments haven't necessarily led to more page views or to conversation. But as a blogger, I love it when people do leave traces of their reading on my posts. So I'm happy to do that for the writers I like. Even if I had left comments on Matthew's posts, though, I don't think it would have saved him at Gearfuse.

  • The question of comments is vexing one; one want to take commenting as a proxy for traffic and a measure of impact—but given the nature of most commenting, attracting a great deal of it can seem like a Faustian bargain at best. Nate Silver at the NYTimes recently used comment threads to quantify the relative value of unpaid blogs versus edited content at HuffPo; his case is a compelling one, but the data are questionable at best.

    Sarah's right; commenting more wouldn't have saved me. It's important (to me) to note that traffic at Gearfuse didn't drop during my tenure. In fact it was ticking upwards after a precipitous drop before my arrival (which occurred during a period of several weeks when no new posts were published at the site between the departure of the previous editor and my arrival); the failure of the site during my tenure was really caused by faulty planning on the part of the publisher, who bet the farm on an advertising deal that didn't pan out. Whether we would have edged up into profitability is questionable—but I didn't have enough time to find out.

    Reservations aside, however, I think it's important for us to engage in comment, especially at sites we consider worthwhile or important. One of my Pyrrhic victories at Gearfuse came with a post about cyborgs that attracted a great deal of comment—all of which occurred off-site, most of it in an invitational google doc. Seeing those hundreds of comments pop up at Gearfuse wouldn't have been enough to save my job, but it would have been satisfying. And fostering those conversations where they begin seems to me a great way of making sure that conversation, and not fragmentation, is what happens with discourse on what I've taken to calling "the good Internet."

    Comment tendered gratefully!

  • Last week I had the good fortune of being allowed free rein as a guest-blogger for James Fallows at The Atlantic. Before this week began my wife asked, "Do you think being on The Atlantic you'll finally get some reaction?" To which I replied, "Well if I don't, I'll know that it's something about how I express myself and not because I'm writing off in some unknown corner of the internet."

    The writing was well-received and prominently positioned on the website.

    But when the week was over, I had received four private notes from friends and five responses from readers; four thoughtful and one trollish. By comparison, an Atlantic article that I took head on in one of my posts received over 200 comments.

    The most reblogged/twittered/tumbled item of the week was a post of a very lovely wind-powered, man-made machine-animal.

    Different mediums favor different forms and different forms favor different ideas; and this all loops back on how different forms are able to support themselves. I tolerate advertising on TV, but find significantly less intrusive advertising on the iNet fantastically intrusive. I thought "targetted" advertising would be less objectionable, until I was subjected to it and I felt like I was being hounded.

    Some answer may be found here:


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