A Few Random Thoughts About Independent Blogs, Which Turn Into Some Musings About Dirty Feed, Which Probably Won’t Interest Many People At All, But It Was Useful For Me To Work Out A Few Things In My Head, And I’ve Written It Now Anyway So I Might As Well Publish It
Two blogs I follow have redesigned recently: Jason Kottke’s kottke.org back in September, and Andy Baio’s waxy.org this month. Both have used their redesigns to muse on the nature of independent self-hosted blogs, rather than just sticking all your writing on Medium and the like.
I can only echo what Andy Baio says:
“Ultimately, it comes down to two things: ownership and control.
Last week, Twitter announced they’re shutting down Vine. Twitter, itself, may be acquired and changed in some terrible way. It’s not hard to imagine a post-Verizon Yahoo selling off Tumblr. Medium keeps pivoting, trying to find a successful revenue model. There’s no guarantee any of these platforms will be around in their current state in a year, let alone ten years from now.
Here, I control my words. Nobody can shut this site down, run annoying ads on it, or sell it to a phone company. Nobody can tell me what I can or can’t say, and I have complete control over the way it’s displayed. Nobody except me can change the URL structure, breaking 14 years of links to content on the web.”
At the very real risk of being both self-indulgent and exceedingly smug: Dirty Feed is one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. And one of the reasons for that – a couple of guest posts aside in the site’s early days – is that it is entirely my own. Nobody else can control it, fuck around with it, or tell me what to do with it. If Dirty Feed moved to a service akin to Medium, I wouldn’t find it nearly as appealing to write.
Dirty Feed is, of course, an entirely different proposition to a site like kottke.org, or Daring Fireball. Those kinds of sites earn a living for their writer. I very deliberately not only make absolutely no money from Dirty Feed, but don’t ever intend to.
I make my living from directing TV channels, and it strikes me how lucky I am to have a job which I love and doesn’t involve writing or running my own business. People talk about the freedom of getting up in the morning and being your own boss, and not answering to anyone. For some people that must work brilliantly. I used to fantasise about it myself.
But these days? I would hate the idea that getting food on the table is reliant on me writing. The fact that I have a job which gives me immense satisfaction and absolutely isn’t my own business is something I’m grateful for every single day. (And a lot of that is down to pure luck.)
A steady job and separately being able to do exactly what I want with Dirty Feed is my idea of freedom. Doing things like this would freak me the fuck out. I hold no romantic view of working for myself. I want to work for someone else, please.
Andy Baio’s description of the “independent, single-author blog” reminds me of the group blog I was part of between 2005 and 2009: Noise to Signal. I am very proud of some of the things we did on that site, but there’s no doubt about it: I’m so much happier working on my own site now, where I don’t have to answer to anybody.
What does it say about me that I prefer having absolute control than working as a group? Perhaps nothing positive. Or perhaps it’s simply that everybody has to spend their entire life constructively working with others… and it’s nice to have something where you can just tell people to fuck off.
“But the ecosystem for independent publications is fundamentally broken. Getting discovered, building a readership, and profiting from your work as an independent writer are all much, much harder than they used to be.”
As detailed above, I don’t have to worry about making any kind of money with my writing. (Which is really just as well.) But people discovering this site and building a readership is still important to me. How is Dirty Feed doing in this area as an independent blog?
Sometimes people are reticent when it comes to talking about their site stats. I’m happy to share some of mine – with the obvious health warning that any website stats have in terms of their reliability. Looking at pieces from last month: slagging off Digital Spy got around 400 hits, as did slagging off an old documentary from 2005. Earlier in the year, some other pieces did better: analysing the pilot of Fawlty Towers got just over 1000 hits1, and looking at the title sequence to Blockbusters got around 1150.
Occasionally a piece will really take off, at least by this site’s standards. Looking back to pieces posted last year, my piece on the live 2005 Quatermass Experiment has racked up around 2600 views. My most popular piece over the last couple of years has been on what John Cleese hates about Fawlty Towers, which has had over 7000 hits so far – helped by the 40th anniversary of the show, of course.
These stats are more than some blogs get, but are practically rounding errors compared to some sites. Still, in some ways, I find some of the smaller figures more comforting. An article going vaguely viral is lots of fun, but I find the idea that some people will consistently show up for some of the smaller posts I make on the site to be a lovely thing. If I picture 300 people sitting and reading an article of mine in a room together, that’s a lot of people who care about the kind of things I write. I don’t need thousands of views to feel good about that.
Still, there’s always the posts that don’t do much. I thought this piece on Serial might get widely linked to; it’s very short, but I thought made an interesting point about a very popular show. Instead, it barely scraped 125 views. The same goes for this article about a bizarre Twitter account; it got no more than 120 hits. (I blame the deliberately boring headline for that – the piece only works if it starts off quite dry before the bizarre shit kicks in, but I think people thought they were going to get something too dull.) Even weirder, this follow-up piece on Blockbusters didn’t even scrape 100 views, despite the previous article on the title sequence getting well over 1000. Who can predict what people are going to react to?
Believe it or not, I do have a policy about the kinds of things I post on Dirty Feed. That policy is simple: I usually have nothing to say about anything straightforward which hasn’t already been said. You can see this most clearly in the reviews of Doctor Who I used to write. I’m simply entirely the wrong person to write a Doctor Who review: there are so many other people doing that, a large percentage of which can do it far better than me, so what exactly is the point in trying?
Instead, I try and look at material from a different angle. So when I’m writing about the 2005 version of The Quatermass Experiment, I don’t compare the show to the original 50s version: I take a look at why the DVD version isn’t the same programme which was broadcast live. When writing about Yes, Minister, I don’t analyse the show’s political standpoint: I talk about how linear television can be more than just a box running in a corner. When talking about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I manage to twist the conversation around to talk about Python instead.
It’s a policy which occasionally opens me up to accusations that I’m missing the point. In some ways, that’s exactly what I do here. But the actual point of something is generally better covered elsewhere. I want to go and investigate what’s in the undergrowth over there instead, and see if I can dig up something interesting that nobody’s talked about.
If I wrote the obvious article, it’d be rubbish because so many people could do it better than I could. I rely on the novelty of the obscure. Although for me, the fun part is that the things I cover on here are often mainstream pieces of work, viewed through a peculiar filter. You can’t get a more mainstream sitcom than Hi-de-Hi!… but this is not a mainstream article on it.
By the way, sorry Seb, I nicked your format but made it shit.
It’s all very well being proud that I’ve kept my blog self-hosted and independent. But it’s notable that by far the most substantial source of hits for Dirty Feed is Twitter. On a day I post an article, it’s often responsible for 90% of my total hits. Sometimes fewer, if some kind soul posts a link on Facebook too.2
Despite Dirty Feed being hosted on my own server and being entirely under my control, there’s no avoiding that I rely on an outside service to let people know about what and when I’m posting. If I wanted to leave Twitter tomorrow, I’d find it difficult, because people would no longer find my stuff. I’m effectively tied to it. That’s not really a great situation.
One thing Andy Baio says:
“There are undoubtedly new blogs starting, and many more happily spinning along in various niches, but they’re not really part of the cultural conversation anymore.”
I think I get what he means. But I also wonder exactly what the “cultural conversation” is. After all, we’re constantly hearing that the audience for everything is fragmenting. That has its own advantages and disadvantages, but one result of this fragmentation is that it’s impossible to nail down what the “cultural conversation” is, because everybody is having a different cultural conversation.
Which means in some parts of my life, blogs are still very important, just as they have been for years. And in other parts of my life, blogs have never been important, and continue not to be.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a real point here: of course independent, self-hosted blogs aren’t as common as they used to be. But I struggle with anyone trying to define what the “cultural conversation” is for the world. We’ve all got our own cultural conversations going on – and many, many different ones at that.
Recently I’ve changed the way I’ve been writing on Dirty Feed. There are fewer long showpiece posts, and more frequent shorter posts. (I’ve written 20 pieces over the past four months; in comparison, it took me a year to post that many times previously.) The main reason for this is simply to try and get better at writing. To make a ridiculously overblown and pompous analogy: I’ve criticised the development of Final Fantasy XV for taking ten years; Square Enix would have pushed RPGs forward much faster by making two or three games in that time, rather than obsessing over a huge leap. But in my own small corner of the web, I was doing the same thing: throwing too much into only writing bigger articles. That was no way to actually improve my writing in a consistent manner.
The results have been mixed from a readership point of view: fewer showpiece articles mean there’s a smaller chance of a piece really taking off. But I’m more pleased with the site currently than I have been for ages: I’ve covering everything from bad journalism, to strange abandoned websites, to feminism in the classroom, to edits made to repeats of live programmes, to dodgy podcast archives. It feels like a nice mix of material, and I don’t always manage that. Yet it all manages to feel very specific to Dirty Feed rather than the kind of thing which you could read anywhere, which is something I’ve started to care about more and more recently. I want the site to feel unique, and I think the posts over the last few months fit that quite well.
I have a great deal of respect for Jason Kottke, and a quick perusal of kottke.org’s About page shows that he needs no validation from the likes of me. The man has more influence on the web in a day than I’ll manage in a lifetime.
Having said that, I’ll admit that I find his style of blogging to be slightly unsatisfying. His site is really a linkblog these days, albeit with more thoughtful contextualisation than most. There’s certainly no arguing with the success of kottke.org, and it was the current format which gave the site the kind of “velocity” about which I could only dream.
But I always feel like I want something… more. Some longer articles, mixed in with the links. Exactly like Daring Fireball, in fact. We’re all different, and both Jason and his audience are happy with the site. Hey, it’s still sat in my own list of bookmarks. For me though, I couldn’t be happy writing a blog without doing some deeper writing every now and again.
I used to run a personal blog over on ofla.info, between 2004-05. (I deleted it ages ago, which is ridiculous and entirely against my policy these days, but most of it is available on the Wayback Machine.) It’s quite interesting to see the beginnings of the kind of stuff I now post here, and which things I now entirely avoid. This piece from May 2005 for instance eventually became this September 2012 Dirty Feed piece. On the other hand, fucking hell, I actually thought this was something I wanted to put on the internet.3
The biggest difference between then and now though, is the sheer number of comments I used to get for even the silliest post over on ofla.info, compared to what I get on Dirty Feed now. And the reason for that is so obvious it’s hardly worth saying: the rise of social media.
More than anything else, I miss the fact that longer feedback used to be more easy to come by. People send me some very nice tweets now, but 140 characters isn’t as useful as a nice comment, and it’s sad to have the feedback to an article buried away on another service which you don’t control. Email is rare. I wish people responded to my stuff with their own blog posts which I could link to, and it happens occasionally… but not often. If we want independent blogs to survive, we need to fix the feedback situation. There are plenty of solutions which try, but none of them feel quite right to me yet.
Liking comments sometimes seems an unfashionable opinion these days. Of course, most comment sections on newspaper sites and the like are an absolute shitshow. Moreover, as a white heterosexual man, of course I don’t attract the horrific unpleasantness that some do, and I’m aware that saying “wah I want more nice comments” is perhaps a somewhat distasteful request in the context of that vile and abusive behaviour. But still, for quieter sites like this one, comments can be really useful. There must be some kind of solution which would be better for the web as a whole. We’ve just got to figure out what it is.