Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The State of the Blog: Year Two
Sophomore year is always tough.
The dewy newness of the freshman is gone.
The confidence and wisdom of junior year—maybe spent abroad, exploring new worlds—is still off in the hazy future, provided you can get across the long bridge of hard work between here and there.
The first week of my sophomore year at Northwestern I got in a fight with a member of the varsity basketball team and spent about three months sorting it out in mediation. Then came what is considered the worst winter in Chicago history; 90 inches of snow fell. "Extremely brutal" is how one news organization put it.
I toughed it out.
So it is with the second year of this blog, which I've come to refer to in tweets as EGD, which ends today. I'm tempted to call it my "fiscal year" but that would suggest this is an economic endeavor, and it really isn't. We did sell more ads this year than last—not only Eli's Cheesecake, which repeated its generous support in November and December, but the Ashman & Stein law firm, Bridgeport coffee, and Chicago Mailing Tube. The latter two paid in product. "I am rich in coffee," I've said, on a number of occasions, scooping dark, oily beans into the grinder for the morning pot.
How did I do? The numbers are up. Year One brought 385,679 hits, or 1,056 a day. Year Two brought in, as of Monday night, 499,423 hits—half a million by the time you read this— or 1,368 hits a day, a smidge more than 25 percent improvement. I'm not a businessman, but 25 percent is a good gain for the year.
Statistics can be deceiving, though. Yes, January was my best month—51,000 hits, and it seemed a milestone to pass 50,000 hits a month. But thousands of those were spambots -- I could tell by seeing the garbled come-ons that land in my spam folder. They latch onto certain posts for reasons mysterious. I can't tell you how dispiriting it was to notice action regarding a certain post—"Hey, lots of people are clicking on my Rocks for Fun report on that strange pasty cafe in Wisconsin. It must have gotten linked to by some Wisconsin tourism site!"--only to realize it's the work of robot web spiders hunting dupes.
The bad news seemed to outweigh the good, as befitting sophomore year. Poster sales sagged. I sold about 30 the first year. This year I sold 8. I do plan to fill a tube, jump on the Divvy, and put them up on the boardings around construction sites in obscure parts of the city. But haven't gotten around to that yet.
There is value that can't be measured. Not to other people; I'm not the one to judge that. But to me. When I wrote about Amanda Palmer, the singer, the paper was going to give it a full page, then ended up with a very unsatisfying 700 words. But I ran it full strength, 1,500 words, on the blog, and would have felt terrible were that outlet not there (Palmer's husband, the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, not only retweeted the post to his millions of followers, but sent me a nice note, which felt like validation).
I will admit somewhat sagging both in energy and in spirit. In the spring, I finished my next book for the University of Chicago Press, or more precisely, got about as close to the end of the year-long Zeno's Paradox process of securing the 80 or so legal permissions I need to print all the poems and songs and such that I quote without being sued. That, and the big piece for Mosaic, the London science and health web site, plus the column, plus this — it suddenly felt like a lot, and the endless spring of verbiage that I've been filling into jugs for years suddenly seemed a bare trickle.
Some days are very quiet—or the dozen people who hang around the comments section are always jabbering away, but the greater world is generally completely indifferent. And I begin to wonder if I'm creating a product—essays of a thousand words or so—that isn't wanted anymore. It's an antique form, like a villanelle, a dead fashion, like top hats.
So time to hang it up? The blog can be cut loose, like an iceberg breaking away from a glacier, to drift off melting in the vast ocean of the Internet. I've created this little island of my work, but like Tom Hanks, I'm going to die here if I don't lash together a raft and try to get myself back to civilization.
Not yet. In looking over the past year, trying to figure out whether the writing was something to be proud of, or just more Internet crap, I stumbled upon this post from Jan. 20, "These are not dark days," about the state of the newspaper. I had forgotten I wrote it—six months of writing will do that—and read it with simple interest, as if it had been written by someone else. I was impressed by its candor—difficult to assess the place you work at—and thought its Churchillian conclusion, "Never give up," might be apt here. It's not that I can't quit. I think I don't want to, not yet. This is still fun, most days, and still growing, robot spiders be damned.
And the bottom line is, this does have a purpose, to have a platform up and ready in case ... choosing his words carefully ... others platforms I'm on becomes unavailable. You don't stop painting the lifeboats just because the ship is still sailing, for now.
Also, a million hits is out there, sometimes in November at this pace. Like 50,000 hits a month, that seems something worth getting, ignoring the hard fact that a photo of Kim Kardashian's ass will do a million hits in an hour.
I can't write anything as dramatic as Kim Kardashian's ass, apparently. But I can try. And I'm a big advocate of that. "For us, there is only the trying," T.S. Eliot wrote in "East Coker" "The rest is not our business."
That sounds like a plan. So I'm going to try for a third year. Maybe junior year will be for me, as it is for so many others, when suddenly everything snaps into focus and the point of this endeavor becomes clear. It sure ain't here to sell posters.