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Posts Tagged ‘Blogging’

I always keep a close eye on the statistics for my blog. I’m not very concerned about sheer numbers, but I am fascinated by the location. Looking at the maps of recent visitors, I can see very clearly the divide between North and South. Sometimes, I can guess from the locations that one of several friends has stopped by, and other times, I wonder who is reading from Iceland or the Canary Islands. But there is one frequent visitor who intrigues me most of all.

This visitor drops by at least half a dozen times each week. Sometimes, they visit several times a day, and once they visited fourteen times in the same day. They prefer my blogs about Northwest Coast Art, although occasionally they will read more personal contents.

As much as I take pride in my writing, I doubt that anyone could impersonally admire it so much (or, perhaps, sneer at it). Surely, the thought keeps occurring to me, they must have some personal connection. Whenever their visits in a single day mount up, I start wondering if I am about to hear from them, yet they have never left a message, and I am starting to be convinced that they never will.

Perhaps they are too shy, or too uncertain of how I will respond? One way or the other, they seem to have strong feelings about me.

I have considered various people who could be the visitor. One person in particular seems a strong possibility, because about the same time that they visit my blog, they are often posting on Twitter as well. The times they don’t visit often correspond to when they are out or on holidays. I have been tempted frequently to phone them and satisfy my curiosity, but I am not completely certain of their identity, and the person I suspect has not acted as a friend, so I would add to their grievance if I did.

Still, I imagine a conversation with them, tentative at first, then increasingly relaxed as each of us explains ourselves, until at last we hang up friendly acquaintances. Yet while I am romantic enough to believe that former enemies can sometimes come to mutual respect, I am also realistic enough to know that seldom happens, and is so unlikely in this case as to be impossible. At any rate, I have promised myself that I will not approach them first.

This situation is not a great tragedy of my life. All the same, it has nagged at me for several years, and I would be glad of a resolution. However, if I’ve identified the visitor correctly, I know better than to ever expect one. So, whenever I am tempted to make contact, I force myself to wait, convinced that, by doing so, I am condemning my curiosity to remaining unfulfilled.

So if you are my phantom visitor, go ahead and contact me. I promise to be cordial (if wary) but I don’t promise to be waiting up to hear from you.

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I admit it: I’m addicted to site stats.

Not the number of visitors. This blog has never been about number of readers. If I cared about mere numbers, I would only write here about free and open source software (FOSS). Judging from the result when I have written about FOSS, I would get a minimum of 1500 visitors per day if I only wrote on that subject. But I can get even much higher numbers for my paid work, and the whole point of this blog is to write about different things than I do professionally.

Instead, what fascinates me is the information that I glean from WordPress and SiteMeter, the two sets of stats that I look at. I’m not at all surprised to see that most visitors come the northern hemisphere, with a scattering from Australia and India. However, who was that one who logged in from Antarctica? Tahiti? Nepal?

Some of those names, too, are evocative: Bellshill in the UK, Red Bud, Sticklerville and Storrs Mansfield in the United States, Tullinge in Sweden, and dozens more besides.

I’m fascinated, too, to see what people are reading on my blog. Somewhat to my chagrin, the most popular entry appears to be “What Makes a Canadian Canadian?” It’s a trivial piece I knocked off several Canada Days ago, and I’m irked that Canadians and foreigners alike seem fascinated by it at the expense of more thoughtful and original pieces. The same goes for “Why I’ve Never Joined Mensa,” an off-the-cuff piece that many Mensa members have taken as a frontal assault and a sign of unresolved conflicts. At times, I’ve been tempted to delete such pieces.

I’m more pleased at the popularity of “The First Nations Art of Birch Bark Biting” which has become a Wikipedia source; it was a good interview on a subject that’s new to most people.

I’m also tickled by the fact that “Napoleon and the invasion of Russia and the challenges of managing large projects,” is widely read, because it’s a tongue in cheek response to all the attempts by business writers to make their subjects glamorous by comparing their readers to heroic figures like samurais and Antarctic explorers. The Napoleon piece is also surprisingly popular at American military academies – so much so that I feel like disavowing all responsibility for how the next generation of officers in the United States turns out.

Then there’s the searches that land readers on my site. Since I’m one of the few bloggers on Northwest Coast art, often the name of an artist suggests my blog. Only two or three each day appear to get to the blog by searching on my name. Other search items are mostly mundane, although I’ve been surprised to see searches like “why do we never see baby crows” turn up frequently, because I never heard that people believed that – where I live, I see baby crows regularly at the right time of year.

However, my greatest interest in stats is trying to guess exactly who some visitors might be. If I get a visitor from Sarasota who uses Linux, then I can be fairly sure that one of several former colleagues from Linux.com have dropped by. Similarly, most visitors from Terrace, B.C. are most likely one of my artist friends.

But who is the visitor from West Hartford Connecticut who looks at “An Encounter with Male Supremacists” several times a day? I suspect a male supremacist, since the frequent visits suggest obsession; it’s not a particularly positive article.

I sometimes think, too, that one of the daily visitors from a fixed Google account must be a former colleague with whom I no longer talk. Without watching too closely, I have noticed that the visits apparently coincide with the colleague’s schedule, changing when I know they have changed time zones, or not appearing at all when they busy at an event. However, I haven’t made a lot of effort to investigate to rule out coincidence, having a long list of more important things to do, starting with — well, with everything, really. Still, I wonder, now and then.

I suppose that stats are meant for site managers who are eager to draw more people to their site, and to cater more precisely to their audience. However, my own stat-browsing has no such serious purpose. For me, the stats are ground for interest and speculation, with the speculation all the more interesting because I almost never get to find out whether my guesses are right.

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Just because a number has a couple of zeroes in it doesn’t make it special. Still, I notice that, with my last entry, I have now posted five hundred entries to this blog. Not bad, for a blogger who doesn’t believe in blogging.

By that, I mean that the average blog has all the excitement of a wet dish towel. The problem isn’t that the topic is personal, or about everyday joys and angsts – a skilled writer can make any topic absorbing, even when the topic sounds uninteresting in the abstract. But a few paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness can rarely persuade me to read. Even when I know the writer, reading such material is a chore. And, when I don’t know the writer, their outpourings often seem an expression of self-importance more than anything else.

That’s why, when I started this blog, I decided to ignore what everyone else was doing. I wasn’t going to write stream-of-consciousness, but short essays, with a central topic, a beginning and an end, and an organized middle. So, for the most part, that’s what I’ve done with each of the past 500 entries.

The result is often entries between 800 and 1200 words (or even more), which people occasionally tell me is far too long for a blog entry. And, had I listened, I probably would have far more readers; give people what they think they want, and you’ll never lack an audience.

However, because I have no trouble getting an audience for my paid writing, I’ve never worried much about how many people read this blog. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was to publish pieces that I wrote purely for myself – sometimes to warm up before starting my professional work, sometimes to wind down at the end of the day, and, sometimes to get down a line of discussion that formed spontaneously in my mind as I exercised or cooked.

For these selfish reasons, I’ve never worried too much about the size of the blog’s audience. I know that, if I chose to write about free and open source software, as I do for pay, I could get more than 1800 readers a day, because two or three times I have. But, on the whole, I’m content to laze along with 130-150 daily readers, writing — as the coat of arms of the Dukes of Denver would have it — as my whimsy takes me.

Overall, I’ve no complaints, so I plan to keep going the same way for the next five hundred entries. And if that sounds arrogant, that’s okay. I don’t suppose I’ll be any fond of other approaches to blogging at the end of the next five hundred entries than I am now – or than I was four years ago when I started.

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A few days ago, I received an invitation to participate in a study about why people blog. I deleted it without a reply, partly because I never answer phone or email surveys on the grounds that I always have something better to do. Also, I suspect that, as someone who makes a living through writing, I am not a typical blogger, so my replies wouldn’t help the study much. Still, having recently written my 400th post, the question seems legitimate: Why do I blog?

In many ways, I can more easily explain the reasons that do not motivate me. I do not blog for attention. I get enough attention, positive and negative, from my professional writing, and, like many writers, I have enough of a love/hate relationship with that attention that I feel no need to find more.

For the same reason, I do not need to assert to the world that I am writer. Since 2004, I have written approximately 850 articles that I have been paid for. That makes me a journalist by any reasonable definition, even if one obsessive critic always likes to follow my name with “who calls himself a journalist,” as if to create doubts in people’s minds that I am one.

Say what you like about the purity of amateur writing – or of so-called “indie” publication or what we used to call vanity publishing in a more honest era – there is nothing like having other people pay you and asking you to write for them to make yourself think of yourself as a writer. After the first fifty or sixty publications, the truth starts to seep in. I still get a small thrill at publication, or when a story of mine gets picked up on Slashdot, but not as much as I did six years ago. Largely, I take publication for granted, since in six years I have only had one story rejected, and a couple heavily queried.

Nor do I blog for the ego satisfaction of building an audience. Although my blog sometimes touches on free and open source software (FOSS), the general subject of my professional writing, I usually only blog on FOSS when I have something to say that I could not turn into an article for which I could get paid. I know that I could easily get a couple of thousand visitors a day if I blogged about FOSS, because those are the sorts of numbers that I have when I do. But I don’t mind in the least that this blog lopes alone at one-tenth of those numbers. If anything, I prefer the lower numbers, because I can often tell when friends have logged on.

So why do I blog ? I mean as opposed to writing in general, which is an even more complicated and difficult question to answer.

Partly because I’m writing anyway. Most of my blog posts begin as an entry in the journal that I’ve kept for years. A few journal entries are too private to go out, and remain safely in their password-protected file, but many are transferred directly into the blog.

Those that are transferred to the blog are usually on subjects that I don’t generally get paid to write about – increasingly, on Northwest Coast art. Often, they are warmups at the start of my writing day, or what’s left of my writing energies at the end of the day.

However, there is one great difference in a piece of writing done for a journal and one for eventual blog publication: for a public piece of writing, I am far more concerned with structure. Nobody – I hope – will ever see my journal entries, so they can be unfiltered streams of consciousness, in which I pay little attention to how ideas are arranged. But, when I publish anything that other eyes will see, I feel an obligation – both to myself and to readers – to organize it.

Accordingly, I do not write what most people do in a blog. My blog entries are small personal essays, which is one reason why they are much longer than a typical blog entry. By following this rule, I make a journal entry not just self-expression, but an exercise in structure. By writing blog entries as essays, I force myself to practice the art I follow, and, I hope, become more skilled in it. At the very least, I write more easily because of this rule.

Of course, this orientation sets limits on my subject matter. I rarely write about my partner to preserve her privacy, and there are huge chunks of my life that are unlikely to appear in a blog because I won’t share them.

Yet, even so, I never have any serious problems finding a subject. Writing is one of those things that I do, and this blog, essentially, is for practice.

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Several times in the last few months, I’ve closed discussion on one of my blogs. Each time, some people have howled in outrage. Their anger makes them nearly inarticulate, but their position is apparently that I have no right to stop discussion. I am an enemy of free speech, they proclaim, a censor and cowardly, and downright evil as well.

I don’t see that, myself.

For one thing, free speech is not an absolute right, even if you believe that it should be. It is limited by laws against libel, hate-crimes, and terrorism, among others. Nor can you invoke free speech as a defense against mischief.

Admittedly, violations of these laws appear dozens of time each day on the Internet, and most of them are not prosecuted unless someone complains. Even in 2010, the Internet retains more of a frontier unruliness than other forms of media. But the point is that idea that free speech is unlimited is disproved with a moment’s thought.

Moreover, in each of these cases, some of these limits seemed to apply. Whether they actually would have been grounds for legal actions, I can’t say, of course. However, I think that erring on the side of caution is reasonable, especially since at least one determined commenter seems to have been required to close down his own blog.

At any rate, I have no desire to be involved, however indirectly, in a court action. And, in the case of one blog, I would be irresponsible if I exposed the company that owns the site to litigation. These motivations are not a matter of courage so much as caution. If I am going to be dragged into a legal action, it is going to be for something worth fighting for, and not because I provided a forum for the indiscreet and feckless.

However, my strongest motivation was that I simply lacked the time to either police my blog every half hour or to enter into discussions that were unfolding in which, so far as I can see, there was little to distinguish one set of claims from another.

I have been writing about free and open source software for five years now, and I have gained a limited amount of recognition. That recognition is not on the scale of a Linus Torvalds’ or a Richard Stallmans’, but it does mean that I get a lot of email and other contacts – so much that I can only answer some of it if I hope to get any writing done. Unless I am contacted by a friend or an unusually interesting stranger, I generally try to limit an exchange to a couple of communications.

I don’t always follow this rule strictly, but when someone is repetitive, abusive, and fails to address what I have to say, I am sure to apply it. By nature, I am easy-going and love to talk, but trying to hold a discussion with such people leaves a deadening feeling of futility. They are not going to sway me by bludgeoning tactics, and all too clearly, I am not going to convince them in a discussion. So why should I waste my time? A couple of exchanges is enough for them to have a say, and for me to know the type of people with whom I am dealing.

In other words, I choose to focus on the people who are interesting to have in a discussion, and/or can teach me something. So far as I’m concerned, declining to spend much time on the obsessive is not censorship, any more than refusing to publish bad writers in an anthology you are editing is censorship. It’s selection, plain and simple. i am hardly the only person I know who has to resort to this kind of selection in order to do what’s important to them, either.

Nor can I navigate the rights and wrongs of the feud that, in a couple of cases, is the reason for me shutting down comments. Both sides accuse the other of criminal behavior, and both sides claim to present evidence. However, all I can tell for sure is that I don’t want to be involved. Being hectored, abused, and threatened two or three times a day makes me even less likely to want to get involved; attempts to intimidate only make me stubborn, and, when people act like spammers, I treat them like spammers.

At any rate, to talk about censorship on the Internet is more of a rhetorical flourish than a reference to reality. If I refuse to post someone’s comments, that’s two out of – what? Several billion sites? If a commenter can’t find a place to publish what I won’t, they aren’t trying.

Under all these circumstances, you’ll excuse me if I find myself unmoved by the accusations when I close comments. I don’t do so quickly or easily, because I value freedom of expression myself. But I do so to create a space to work, and so I can focus on what’s important.

The peace of mind that results tells me, more than anything else, that I am doing the right thing.

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Nine months ago, Linux.com stopped publishing. Four months later, the announcement came that its web address had been bought by the Linux Foundation. The change wasn’t the end of independent news about the free and open source software (FOSS)community, but it has left a gap that is still unfilled. And, although as a ex-stringer for Linux.com, my bias is obvious, I can’t help thinking that the community is poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong: Under the Linux Foundation, Linux.com is far more of a community site than the old version ever was, and often more imaginative, too. I’ve written the occasional article for the new version of the site, and hope to write more for it in the future. But the Linux Foundation has never pretended to be interested in a news site, and it runs far more how-tos than news stories. When it does run news, it tends to mention the bare facts, and add some off-the-cuff commentary. The new site simply has different priorities from the old.

Other news sites exist, but many of them appear to be limping along on starvation budgets. Most stories on Linux Planet and Linux Today are recycled, with the exception of editorials and blog entries by editor Carl Schroder. Datamation and Linux Pro Magazine publish only a few new stories online each week. The Heise publishes more, but is spotty in its coverage, and rarely has stories of more than five hundred words. The most consistent producer of new stories is LWN, and its stories are handicapped by the fact that the site publishes its main edition weekly, which means that its in-depth coverage tends to be confined to ongoing rather than breaking news.

Possibly, I’ve missed one or two sites. Also, some blogs or planets provide news and insightful commentary in their own limited subject matter. Yet the fact remains: the FOSS community has less independent news than it had a year ago.

No doubt some people in the community are hardly aware of the fact. They are busy with their own projects and jobs, and have only a passing interest in what is happening in the rest of the community. Still, from the countless comments I’ve had from people who assume that I’ve disappeared, the old Linux.com was where much of the community went to be informed, and they haven’t moved to the other news sites (if they had, they would know where I’ve been, because I’ve written for most of the other sites in the last nine months).

This lack of news concerns me – and not just as a writer who might benefit if the situation changed. The FOSS community is a complex, quickly changing place, and reliable sources of information can help it to function. Although news sites cannot cover everything, and their selection of what to cover may mean that some events are omitted or under-emphasized, they make the effort of keeping informed much easier for each of their readers. Without news sites, keeping informed requires much more effort. In effect, the sites make the effort for all their readers.

Nor is that a bad thing, so long as the sites make good faith efforts to be thorough and uphold journalistic integrity. If they sometimes make mistakes, they will also publish followups. If they publish a commentary expressing one side of a controversial subject, the next week they may publish another commentary that gives the other side. Although individual articles may fail to meet the highest standards, the overall result of having news site is a better informed community – and an informed community, of course, is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic, grassroots organization like FOSS.

Theoretically, blogs could fill the current gap in news sites. And, in practice, that is where many community members are probably turning. But, while I have nothing against blogs (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing one), they are only a partial substitute for a news site with journalistic standards.

Blogs can announce news, and comment on it. However, with few exceptions, their writers are less likely than journalists to investigate news, or attempt to balance their sources. Most blogs tend to be short on detail, and to miss nuance. All too easily, they serve to repeat rumors and half-truths that a journalist is more likely to investigate and debunk as necessary. Few bloggers even attempt to uphold journalistic standards, which means that you frequently have to be familiar with the blogger’s previous works before knowing if they are a trustworthy source of information. As flawed as journalism often is, at its best, it holds to higher standards than bloggers and is more reliable overall.

As both a reader and a journalist, I would like to see the gap in FOSS news site filled. The question is, how is that possible? So long as they are under budgetary restraints, the remnant news sites are unlikely to increase their coverage. A group of writers might start a new site, but they would need to have other income while they built audience and revenue. Could an investor or a philanthropist help without compromising the independence of a new site?

The question has no easy answer. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that finding any answer is important.

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Much to my bemusement, I see that James Maguire has listed this blog as one of the top 200 technology blogs, in the GNU/Linux/ Free and Open Source category.

James is my editor at Datamation, who shows amazing toleration for my inability to edit my own work, so I already know him for a decent sort. So, I figure he just needed to round out the spaces he had allotted for the category. Not that I don’t appreciate the honor, but I can see myself clearly enough to know that I don’t deserve it.

For one thing, look at the company I’m keeping. My entries here certainly aren’t a match for the varied articles at Linux.com, which is also on the list. Nor do they come close to the combination of astute legal analysis and wonky opinion on Groklaw. As for equating my efforts here with the industry analysis in the blogs of Mark Shuttleworth, Jim Zemlin, or Matt Assay – no way, man, as we used to say in my increasingly distant youth. I mean, I didn’t call this blog “Off the Wall” at random, you know what I mean?

What is really ironic is that, when I started this blog, I intended it as a place where I could write about things other than free and open source software. At the very most, it would be a sandbox for ideas that weren’t ready to be articles, or ones that I didn’t think I could sell. Nor do I often write on such topics, although I have plenty to say about my life as a journalist who covers such topics.

Yet, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that, when I do cover free and open source topics directly, the posts attract an entire order of magnitude more readers than my other topics. And I mean that literally, without any exaggeration whatsoever. So, maybe James is right, and this is a technology blog after all.

Anyway, I was taught that, if someone pays you a compliment, you say thanks and smile warmly – especially if the compliment isn’t true. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, figuratively speaking.

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