Thursday 21 July 2022

Finding your audience

I felt really vulnerable starting my blog up again.

Now I realise I needn't of worried. No-one's going to read it. Unless I make them.

I started blogging in December 2006. Fun fact: I registered my blogspot account because I wanted to leave a comment on another blogspot site, Jim and Mary Barr's Over the net (2006-2016). Over the net - Best of 3. It was a table-tennis reference; one that I've lived with now for 16 years. 

Once I had the blog, I used it as a way of documenting all the internetty things I was learning about, as the newly crowned Web Editor at the National Library of New Zealand.  It was auto-didactic: I was self-training, I was practicing, and I was self-consciously surfing the breaking wave of Web 2.0.

My first post was on Tomma Abts winning the Turner Prize. Don't know why - probably, that was the big international art news that day. I think I was practicing making text into links? The formatting is all fucked up, but I think it's important to leave it that way. Posterity and all that.

In that first month I drew attention to other NZ art blogs, like Peter Peryer (miss you, Peter, online and IRL). You can see me there following the web writing precepts I'd been taught: break links out on a new line, tell readers where you are sending them. No rickrolling just yet.

I also shared the things I was learning about. Like posting about social tagging. That entry references Remember that? was a social tagging website - a place where you described and shared links, like a public folder of your best photocopied articles. Personally, I became a Ma.gnolia user and also fooled around with Stumbleupon. Web content was so precious that we turned cataloguing it into a social activity.

This was the time when the big search engines released the year's top search terms at Christmas time. When people wrote rules for corporate blogging (we wrote so many rules during this period). When Time's Person of the Year was - us. I posted about my desire to attend a [Tim] O'Reilly conference. 

God we were nerds.

Anyway. My point. In 2006 you could start a blog, and it would be a rare enough beast that people would read it. In fact, I posted about how Technorati searched 29.6 million blogs and less than one in a million was a museum blog. People read what I posted. Me and the small number of other NZ art bloggers linked to each other, and developed and shared a readership. 

For years, my blog had one foot in the web world and one in the art world, and hung out a lot where the two converged. I was also one of the OG bloggers at NLNZ, where we wrote our hopes and dreams into the LibraryTech blog.  I've just discovered they ported that content over into the current site, and  you can still find my old posts with this utterly endearing bio statement:

There's actually a post on that site that shows how blogs slid into the emerging social media world. It's about one of the "tbreaktweets" we sent from the Library's Twitter account (set up on Jan 2009, first in thank you very much). Tbreaktweets was me and my friend Chelsea; we sent out tweets linking to stuff we loved in the collections twice a day, when our middle-aged colleagues headed off to the pyramid (the Library's then-staff kitchen) for morning and afternoon tea. The blog post was about how a PapersPast article about a hyponotised lobster that we tweeted got picked up by BoingBoing and went viral. 

[Remind me sometime to tell you about running the NLNZ blog when we did the 2008 web harvest and received death threats from enraged sysadmins. Good times.]

Like most people who spend a lot of time online, I've flirted with a bunch of platforms, some that have been long-lived, many that haven't. I've created reams of content and lost them to the ether . Through it all, I've kept this blog. It's a treasure trove for me, of talks and magazine articles and radio appearances that I have faithfully archived here. It's also, inadvertently, a kind of unedited memoir, hundreds of diary entries that might not be about me but are from me

I've come back to the blog this winter. It pretty much went on hiatus when I started at Te Papa in 2018, and went fully quiescent when I became Tumu Whakarae at the start of 2020. 

Partly this was because blogging (where I have always been deliberately candid) felt too risky. Partly it was because in this role I communicate all the time but don't often have time to think of new things. And partly was just that I was on a massive learning curve and had no spare puff for it.

Now I do have mental space - but I'm not sure I have an audience.

A friend DM'd me about my re-emergence:
I have very mixed feelings about the idea of public writing again. I don't know if I feel more vulnerable about it now or if I'm just less willing to tolerate the anxiety it always produced. Maybe it's also that the conversations I'm able to have in the classroom can stand in for some of the kind of responsiveness I used to get when writing/podcasting. But I have lots of things I am thinking about now, so it would be nice to find a space for them.

And I wrote back:

The thing I've found funny about it is that your "audience" is so fragmented now. I've found that in order to bring something to people, I'm sharing it over a plethora of platforms. Which makes me feel so attention-seeking! But then I figure if you're publishing, you want it to be read, so you might as well put that last little extra bit of effort in. 

The first long form piece I wrote in this comeback, on career cycles and trajectories, I shared on Twitter (4621 followers), LinkedIn (over 500 connections), and via the weekly pānui I write to all staff at Te Papa (this week, that email list has 614 addresses). It's had nearly 1100 views.

The second was a reflection on Kate Camp's memoir, You probably think this song is about you. That one I tweeted, and shared via email with a couple of non-social media users. And (having talked to Duncan Greive about it on The Fold recently and simply remembered that I had it) I revived my Tiny Letter and sent it out there too. On my blog it's had 164 hits; on Tiny Letter it went out to 195 subscribers, and I've had about 10 sign ups since then. Tiny Letter seems to reach people who have abandoned Twitter; no-one, it seems, just visits blogs any more.   

I don't know how to feel about those stats. I write to be read, after all: I'm making an effort to be seen (shouty as that seems at times). I have the luxury of wanting an audience but not needing it (I've listened to a lot of Duncan's interviews with Substack writers, after all).

So, is this a lament for the wide-open spaces and close communities of the pre-2010 internet? Not really. I'm more just curious about how my own publishing history has changed, as a online content creator now for more than 15 years. I've been publishing online, about my work and my life, for almost my whole working life. I've experimented with loads of platforms, and usually I've followed or found a community on them (the absolute nicest was probably that intense few years of reviewing on Goodreads). I am nostalgic for peak-blog (and Google Reader - miss you mate). But you can't lament change. Instead, you just keep writing about it. 

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