Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Done and Learned

Well, with some effort, I’ve made it to 100 essays. Such a lengthy labor of love couldn’t be sustained with any cold, calculating cynicism. On the contrary, writing essays “under a democratic sky” requires the temperament of a White House speechwriter: a sunny optimistic faith in people and ideas. In this I have much in common with other Internet writers. Even to keep a humble web log (blog) about one’s life requires a ray of optimism about the world. Having done 100 essays, I’ve learned some things about the web.

So many blogs don’t make it this far, blogs that start out with such high hopes and dreams. I suppose we all want to think our lives matter, that we have something to offer. (We do) We all want some attention; we don’t want to be alone. As western writer Louis L’amour pointed out, (in my own words) ‘When I am on a horse on a lonely trail and I see a double rainbow by a waterfall I want to say, “Hey look at that!”’ … Of course, my “blog” is an essay site, so although I too have hopes and dreams, my postings are not nearly as personal as a blogger’s would be. No reader knows if I even have a horse. (I don’t)

What have I done and learned, here on this brave new cyber frontier?

The prevailing wisdom is that a good blog will have a very clear, very narrow theme. Maybe I’m unwise. For my series of essays I have been applying what I had learned from doing creative movement, public speaking and rhythmic gymnastics: the principle of variety. I know the stage should be used in all areas, at high, medium and floor level, and used with a variety of speed and pace. This is what judges look for, and this is why, for my essays, I used a variety of lengths and topics, all related to citizenship. And besides, otherwise I would have been just too bored!

Another reason for variety is a tip from a small businessman, Barry, of Barry’s Books. It was at CON-Version, the local science fiction and fantasy convention, during a panel on small business, that Barry told us about inventory: “Only stock your shelves half full when you open your new store” he said. It may not seem economical to have shelves half empty, but it sure beats needing to have a sale to get rid of inventory that just doesn’t move, that drags you down. Start by stocking only half your shelves, and then customer feedback, from what they buy, will show you what to stock.

Like Barry, I once dreamed of learning what golden nuggets my readers wanted. This dream never panned out. For customer feedback I’ve always relied on comments, right up until a few months ago when Google’s e-blogger finally added, or I finally noticed, a statistics feature. (I never wanted to download a visible hit counter: too undignified) Unfortunately, the comments I’ve received have not been statistically relevant, while the stats feature is equally inconclusive as to what people like. Happily, I’ve always known my essay blog, despite attracting very few comments, was at least being read because once a month, when I checked the “see my complete profile” page, I would find that several people had clicked to go there.

Of course, if most folks don’t go to the essay section at the bookstore, then they won’t go to my essay site on the web, either. And that’s OK. Yet… surely I’m not the only reader out there, am I? My own pattern is clear: If I find a site by an author I like I then I start reading lots of her entries, or essays, in order. I may also mix up my reading by constantly returning to her home page and checking the table of contents/archives/index. Naturally, I have my dreams of attracting readers who share my reading pattern … but I really shouldn’t: Now that I have a stats feature I can say with some assurance that… none of my readers are like me. 

Instead, my poor home page gets lonely, while individual pages get all the hits. (On the other hand, some e-blogger users say the stats feature is broken, and doesn’t show home page hits) I don’t think people ever click on the “see older post” button. The nice thing about being a confident middle-aged man is I can smile and say, “Hmm. This reader didn’t click on “newer post,” eh? Well, that’s his loss.”

I was so glad to see that my old Vietnam book review, for my university student newspaper, was getting lots of hits, presumably from other male baby boomers, still trying to understand what happened to us. Then one day I clued in: My review was probably being found by innocent school kids doing research. Sigh! But that’s OK.

My “statistics thingy” includes a listing of search terms used. Such an amusing list. This week I got three hits for a 1960’s jingle, one that I had buried midway through my Brass Cannon essay, “you can eat them on the run, eat them just for fun.” Why? Were new interns at Kellogs being given make-work?

I was much more pleased this week when someone found that jingle essay by combining the search terms “Heinlein” and “Brass Cannon.” This was sweet because so few would think to do so. (You can see Heinlein’s cannon, lovingly restored, being fired on Youtube) I was also pleased months ago when some idealistic intellectual found that same essay after we both liked the same paragraph-length quotation: his search term had been the start of the quote, as referenced by Clive James, in Cultural Amnesia.

This week someone in Ireland combined terms to search “Battlestar Galactica" and "post 9/11.” This was sweet because originally a troll had rudely disagreed with my essay, being sure BSG had nothing whatsoever to do with those terrible days. (What? Did he, for example, think the Galactica’s photo board, for missing and dead loved ones, was purely coincidental?) Also this week someone tried the term “panhandling essays”: I wonder if the searcher was disappointed that I was looking at the big picture and being anti-beggar. Other searches this week were for “who are surfers essay” and “why surfers surf essay”: I wonder if those searchers wanted an essay on heroes confronting the waves, not my piece on pathetic web surfers.

It was the web surfers, or “clickers,” that dimmed my enthusiasm for putting links in my pieces. Rather than repeat that emotional lesson of my previous essay, I will use a logical lesson from the book A Taste For Honey.

According to my childhood memory… This book was a 1940’s horror-mystery, recommended by Boris Karloff, where a beekeeper uses swarms of bees to get away with murder. The amateur detective was probably meant to be Mycroft Holmes; the viewpoint character was an ordinary guy who liked fresh honey. One day, walking along a quiet country road, this man sees a new sign that is just too far up the embankment to read. He climbs up and finds an advertisement for honey. As it happens, his usual beekeeper has just been accidentally stung to death (murdered, but he doesn’t know that yet) so he goes to the address on the sign. There he finds Holmes.

As it turns out, Holmes had planted that sign as a screening device. He needed a local partner, who had to be someone curious, someone observant enough to notice a sign was new, and someone adventurous enough to climb up to read it. And, of course, it had to be someone who could convincingly go to the suspect’s bee farm to buy honey.

So I’ve decided to be like Holmes. Rather than make a link, even a link to my own lonely essays, rather than risk casting pearls before swine, I would rather leave those pages for anyone who is active and curious enough to adventurously type up a search term to see what she will find. Or at least take the initiative to go to my home page. Those who are upset at this, those who want all their links handed to them on a silver platter, are probably not intent seekers of knowledge but merely clickers: incurious, frivolous clickers. I feel no guilt at filtering them out, as Holmes would, by denying them their all-too-easy links.

…After 100 posts, what’s next? For now, mostly some re-runs. Since I am canceling my old web site (it has a yearly fee) I need to move some old essays from that site over to my blog. The time I save by not “having” to compose new stuff I can put towards creating my new curriculum. As you may recall from my last essay, I am creating from scratch a leadership course for five staff at work, a course that will be requiring a lot of my attention.

For now, as Holmes would say, “Cheerio!”

Sean Crawford
In her majesty’s dominion of Canada
March 2011


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  2. I won't delete Emily, but I see her as pond scum.
    I checked her profile: she had 77 hits but not a single thing written. Her "comment" is a hoax, aimed at the same sort of lazy people who destroyed Enron and put the rest of us into a recession.