Monday, December 30, 2013

The story so far...

    The year is off-balance, out-of-whack. Not just this year. Every year. And I'm not referring to the crazy stuff that happens, the shoves and kicks and twists to reality that send us muttering along our way. 
    I mean off balance as in number of days. The second half of the year, the six months of July, August, September, October, November and December, has 184 days, while the first half -- January, February, March, April, May and June--contains only 181.
    You'd think people would know that generally. I didn't; I just assumed a rough balance, maybe 182 in the first half, 183 in the second, with the leap year day added to February balancing it every four years. But no.
   And if you're wondering why I was counting the days, tomorrow marks the end of the first six months of the blog, and I was wondering how I am doing. The Blogger platform tosses you a bunch of statistics, but not a daily average. So I had to take the total page views —168,000 -- and divide by the number of days in six months -- 184 (well, 183, since Dec. 31 hasn't happened yet) -- to get my daily average of 918.
     That isn't good from a mass media perspective. Not good from a Drudge Report, straddle-the-earth-like-a-colossus point of view. But it seems pretty good to me, and given the complete obscurity of most blogs, can be considered adequate. Others seem impressed. My pal Vanessa Grail, who writes the Messy Nessy Chic blog in Paris, told me it took her a year to get 30,000 page views a month, and I had that going out of the gate in July.
     Though it pretty much stayed there, after a big dip, to about 22,000 a month in August and September, then back up to 31,000, 32,000 a month. Lower in December, to 28,000, still around a thousand a day. Not a lot of improvement. But a little. The biggest change I noticed is the average bottom has raised. It used to be, if things got quiet, I could have a day when only 400 people looked at the blog -- the high is around 2,000, which I've hit on a few busy days. Now the worst it ever gets is around 700. If the thing tops 1,000, as it usually does now, I feel I've done my job for the day.
     Of course those are numbers, and the fact that I'm pondering them at all shows a shift in attitude. Numbers are essentially meaningless when it comes to judging writing, or should be. Though I suppose it isn't any different than brooding over book sales. The number of views seems more a function of how vigorously I tweet each post, and who re-tweets it, than the content itself. The question I am more concerned with is: does writing every day lower the quality of my work? Am I burning out, running out of steam? I don't feel like I'm shoveling ill-considered garbage online just to have something to post, and nobody has yet complained about that -- perhaps I shouldn't give them the idea. But someone would. The online world is not known for its kindness, and I figure, were the blog some tossed-off, shoddy thing, trolls would be lining up to gleefully tell me. Maybe that's coming.
     Although, the big advantage of blogging, as a form of writing, is that it can be easily improved. While I try to let the posts be—there are other tasks to do—only fixing typos, sometimes I go back once or twice or six times, reread the thing and fiddle with it, or add an additional thought, such as this one, which came to me Monday over a breakfast of Earl Grey and homemade banana bread fresh from the oven. Sometimes, in lifting out a sentence to fling out on Twitter, I'll improve the sentence, then sharpen it here as well. Posts at the end of the day tend to be better, more polished, less buggy, than they were at midnight, when Blogger automatically posts them.
     Blogger lists your top posts, and it's an interesting motley of themes. The most popular post, chiding Chicago's most famous chef, "Time to Stick a Fork in Charlie Trotter," didn't create a stir when it was written at the end of August. Then he died Nov. 5 and search engines grabbed it, getting 2,000 hits that day, and now it has more than 4,500. Yet close behind, the second most popular post, "Some companies you can't forgive," is about the Caribou Coffee shop in Northbrook washing away a gay pride window painting, and the whole idea of boycotting companies. Why that one? No idea. Maybe because Dan Savage retweeted it to his 160,000 followers. That must be it. In close third there is a long post on visiting colleges -- I assume, since it touches on eight schools, that creates a large built-in audience.
    Some of the posts have surprisingly long tails. I wrote something in the middle of September, based on a single exclamation of my older son, "That's not tellable, mother." It seemed a small family vignette, something written more for my benefit than anybody else's. But it can get 20, 30 hits a day (it's had 33 today), months after it went up, and is one of my top 10 all time popular posts. People seem to like family vignettes -- "Burning down Nevada," a chapter in my unpublished family vacation book, is another favorite, in seventh place. I'm considering putting the whole book up this August, but can't decide if doing so will help it get printed eventually, or make that an even more distant possibility.
      A lot of this is mysterious to me. I don't know why 4 percent of my audience is in China -- I have to assume it's a random effect of hundreds of millions of Chinese searching stuff, and doesn't involve any actual readers. I wrote a post trying to flush them out. Nothing. In third place is Ukraine, with 3,700 or so hits -- again why? I assume Russian mobsters, looking for sites to hack. But maybe it's just some odd online echo.
      What else? The Sun-Times seems to have accepted the existence of the blog, the way a lion will allow a tiny bird to alight on its shoulder. The two still aren't officially connected, though of course on days when I have a column in the paper, I link to it here, and that both reduces the burden of generating content, and I assume drives readers toward the paper's web site, which might explain why it's tolerated by them. While a rare reader will occasionally object to the name, what notice it has gotten has been positive. There was a lively debate over "The Connoisseur Trap," my take on the Lyric Opera's production of "La Traviata," and I was flattered when Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, left a comment. It's nice when that happens, when someone significant, like the great Gene Weingarten, of the Washington Post, retweets something, or the blog gets mentioned on the Economist's Midwest bureau chief's web site. Another plus: I had an advertiser for the past two months, Eli's Cheesecake -- thank you Marc Schulman -- and plowed the bulk of what he paid back into promoting the blog, in the form of a Hatch Show Print poster, which is being produced in Nashville as we speak, and will be on the streets in Chicago, and on display here, in a few weeks.
Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago
      Writing this hasn't been a particular strain, more a quotidian obligation, like flossing. Although, unlike flossing, I manage to actually do it when I'm supposed to. That could be a new use for something like Facebook -- provide social pressure for small but necessary tasks. "Hey Bill, I see on Facebook that you haven't cleaned your gutters yet..." But I have never missed a day, so chalk one up for mulish consistency, if nothing else (and yes, the echo of Emerson's "foolish consistency" is intentional. We be lit'rary round these parts).
      The jumbo first half of's first year ends tomorrow. I plan to continue this for another six months, an easier task, since they second half is short three days, and then re-assess again. My goal for the next six months is to somehow double my daily average, from almost 1,000 to nearly 2,000. It's seems doable. I don't think a poster will do that, but maybe just mere persistence will count for something. It often does in life.
     The first half of the year, by the way, is three days shorter because it contains February, of course, with only 28 days, this year at least, as opposed to, oh, August in the second half, with its 31 days. We don't divide the year into halves, usually -- why would we? -- so one half being larger is not the sort of thing you'd notice. I think that's why I like writing this -- I  often learn new stuff, and I hope you do too. But even though you stop by for your own purposes, or because you're a random passerby from China, I still appreciate it. Thank you for reading.


  1. Eli's is your sponsor...I must have missed that. It explains why whenever I post a link to your blog on my Facebook page, a picture of Eli's Cheesecake accompanies it. :-)

  2. Congratulations, Neil. We look forward to iut every Go...well, you know.

  3. Thanks for your work. (Apparently you caught what I caught in your explanation before I did...)

  4. Love the blog, looking forward to the next 6 months.

    If you want more views, I think you should change the way you use twitter. There's really no reason to follow you on twitter since the only thing you tweet are links to your posts, repeatedly. Posting nothing other than links to the same post, up to 10 times/post, abuses the goodwill of your followers. If you give people a reason to follow you on twitter, when you do tweet a link to a post -- two or three times, max, not nine or ten -- you'll get more views and more retweets.

    Whoever told you that twitter is merely an ad network and the only use for it is to publish self-links, over and over and over, gave you really bad advice.

    Of the writers I follow on twitter, you are my favorite but have the fewest followers by far. You should easily have 10x the number of followers on twitter.

  5. That makes sense, thanks. I've found that every time I tweet it, the viewers bump up, so figured I should do it more often. I don't do it more than once an hour, so figure by then whoever saw it before isn't seeing it now -- since I follow 500 people, I miss most tweets. I'll try three times a day — certainly easier for me — and see what happens. Thanks again.