Friday, March 16, 2012

writing, sharing, privacy ...

As this is the 1000th entry in my blog on blogspot, I think I can get away with a bit of navel-gazing re. what I’m trying to achieve, what I’m sharing and why, privacy issues, and all that.

First some history

Back in the early noughties, I was very happily addicted to manually updating my rather large website, and I didn’t get the point of these new-fangled blogs at all. Only in 2006, on joining MySpace, where you had a blog by default, whether you wanted or not, did I start to try this timeline format and began to enjoy it. As a control freak, however, one wants to have more order in one’s thoughts than simply a chronological one, so I looked for some platform where I could maintain at least some sort of logical connectedness of the kind I had on my website. I tried Yahoo360 (as my website was on Yahoo’s Geocities and that blended in seamlessly), but after running various formats in parallel, I ended up using blogspot as the primary blog (though I did post copies of entries in MySpace for a while, until that site turned into a ghost town).

I do like the way Blogspot allows finding blogposts easily by date, by keyword, and by search, and with the additional “link-within” app I think the connectivity between things is practically perfect for me.


What to share and when

My main justification for blogging is of course to find additional audiences for my writing published in books and magazines. I like to think of it as a funnel, where, with luck, the media that have wider audiences with shorter attention times guide some of these audiences on to the media that require a bit more concentration, so for instance: twitter – blog – magazine article – book. I don’t have much evidence that this funnel is actually working and pulling the crowds in, but hey, there’s no harm in trying.

In addition, I do like to share random bits that I happen to be interested in with the wider world (if only because sometimes there are so few people interested in the same thing that the next person may be quite far away, so there would be no use shouting in the street or going to the pub to talk about these interests). A lot of this random sharing, when it is just a link or a picture has now migrated to Twitter, and for my own photos I mainly use flickr, so the blog is left with the somewhat more text-heavy stuff, such as short excerpts of science journalism pieces (funnelling towards the full-length piece), rants on politics, economy, life, and raves about music and movies. I also try to review every book I read, though in recent months I didn’t find time to read anything beyond the books I was commissioned to review anyway.

With these things, there is still enough material to do 3-4 blog entries a week (have done fewer in the last few months, as I had two book projects to finish at the same time, which swallowed a lot of my spare time). Ideally, it would be great to do daily posts on a variety of subjects, maybe visiting each area no more often than once a week. People writing about how to monetise blogs say you have to find a niche and stick to it, but that approach would hold no interest for me. I can do niche business with the existing niche magazines any time I want, but the beauty of blogging for me is that I can write on the whole spectrum of my interests, without having a chemistry editor complaining that there isn’t enough chemistry in my story.

To give an impression of what I blog about, these are the 20 most-used tags in the first 999 blog entries:

1-10
sciencejournalism 202 (label for science stuff published elsewhere)
sciencenews 182 (for science stuff not published elsewhere)
oxford 147
photo 114 (for every entry that contains one of my photos)
bookreview 86
currentbiology 85
biochemistry 84
environment 77
germany 72
medicine 63
11-20
pop 63
shakira 56
rants 55
nanoworld 54
literature 52
astrobiology 48
travel 48
history_of_science 47
genome 45
miscellaneous 44

So adding the first two labels together gives us a science content of 38%. Sounds about right.


What not to share

Given the recent developments around Google, Facebook et al, one has to consider privacy issues as well. Personally, I’d like to believe that I’m too weird for any algorithms to figure out what ads I might click on. As evidence I can point to amazon.com who have tried to figure me out pretty much since the company started in the US and haven’t succeeded to this day. What their bots can’t get their heads round is that I buy books and other things in different countries (have used US, UK, DE, FR and ES versions of amazon), and for different people (not always ticking the gift options), and that I also use their site as an author, as a marketplace vendor, not to mention as a reviewer – in which case I look up the details of the book, but get it sent via a magazine I write for. After 15 years or so, suggestions I get from amazon are still mostly useless – if it is something I’m interested in, I normally own it already. So good luck to google if they want to work out who I am, I’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Having said that, it is of course only sensible to withhold information when I can gain no benefit by revealing it. If only because nasty people from some “intelligence” agencies I could think of will probably be working on ways of tapping into Google’s information on people already. I don’t reveal my address, don’t say where my tweets are from, and seeing the recent cross-platform information sharing that google is starting now, I may want to do something to protect my searches.

In Facebook, I don’t fill in most of the details that the site asks for, and I happily accept friendships from random people who I don’t really know (as my profile is public, it doesn’t make any difference anyway). Just to confuse Facebook a bit more, I occasionally switch the language I use the site in. I don’t use the like button outside of facebook, and generally only create cross-links to divert traffic out of facebook, not to pull it in. I see facebook as a human zoo where people are caged for the benefit of the visitors / advertisers, so I still prefer the wild open spaces of the web to the zoos.


Who reads what

I haven’t done any serious visitors statistics on my blog, but the occasional look at the tracker that runs at the bottom of the right hand side column suggests that there is only modest traffic, some 20-30 visits per day, and that most of it comes from searches. There was a time when tweeting blog entries helped, but that has stopped working, not sure why. Tweeting links to a specific photo on flickr still gives me 15 extra clicks within a minute, but tweeting a blog entry gives one or two at best.

Google searches are especially successful in attracting visitors to topics that aren’t adequately covered by the English language media, e.g. Spanish language pop music or cinema. So if somebody using a search engine set to English as the preferred language looks for information on movies like Julio Medem’s Caotica Ana or Shakira’s impact on society, they are likely to end up on my blog. (Amazingly I get Medem and Shakira related visits practically on a daily basis, while areas where I can actually claim some level of expertise, like nanotechnology or extremophiles, pull in much less traffic, presumably because they are adequately covered by higher-ranking sites.) Other popular search terms include the philosophy of Lady Gaga and that of capitalism as well, the Headington shark and the architecture of Santiago Calatrava. For further popular search terms see this analysis I did in 2010.

All in all, I’m still happy with what this blog enables me to do and communicate, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

1 comment:

Paul Halpern said...

Congratulations on your 1000th entry! Wow, that's impressive. I agree that the "data-mining" of blogs for advertisements is disturbing, and often think about the privacy issues.

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