A Tale of Two Blogs

In April 2012, I wrote a post called “Is blogging dead?” – Another view in response to Alex‘s previous day’s post (Is Blogging Dead?). While Alex acknowledged that blogging provided an early social network structure now better served by Facebook and Google+, he also maintained that there still remained a dedicated contingent for whom blogging best served their needs. As a committed blogger myself, I really wanted to share Alex’s optimism—but I just couldn’t. Something told me that blogging was at a crossroads, and the future wasn’t rosy. Why did I feel this way? My site stats didn’t suggest trouble ahead—from February 2009 (shortly after I moved Beetles in the Bush to WordPress) until April 2012, site visits—and presumably readership—had increased steadily (see chart below based on weekly stats, with the periodic surges due to posts I wrote that got picked up by Freshly Pressed). Not like one of the big blogs, of course, but still not bad for a natural history blog aimed at a specialty audience. Rather, it was the decline of comments and coincident increase in the use of Twitter, Facebook, G+, etc. as the platforms of choice for social interaction among those for whom blogs previously fulfilled that need. To me it seemed inevitable—why invest in clicking through to individual blogs and reading a 500- to 1,500-word post when one could read several hundred 140-character headlines, quipping an equally short reply to as many of them as desired, all on one site. Maximum interaction, maximum information (depending on your definition of “information”), minimum fuss.

Site stats - February 2009 to April 2012.

Site stats – February 2009 to April 2012.

Ironically, almost immediately after I wrote that post the decline that I predicted began with my own blog. The chart below shows BitB site stats (again, on a weekly basis), picking up where the above chart left off until the end of March 2013. As precipitously as site visits rose during the previous three years, they declined during the following one year. There are those who contend that “People who say blogging is dead either already have a blog that died, or they have no blog at all.” That may be true now, at least based on site stats and the now rather low frequency of comments, but it most certainly was not the case when I first voiced this opinion last year. In fact, that a Google search of “Is blogging dead” can turn up nearly 100,000 search results (with quotation marks!) shows that a whole lot of people are still asking the question.

Site stats – April 2012 to March 2013.

This is not to say that blogs cannot still be successful. I suggest that the platform has matured, undergone consolidation and weeded out the weakest contributors. By weak, I don’t mean poor quality of content, but rather lack of ability or resources to frequently and consistently provide that content and target it to a relatively large audience. Early adopters who carved out a niche and built a strong brand had the best chance of surviving this maturation, and among the specialty blogs dealing with natural history and entomology it seems those who act as clearing houses for information from across the discipline, serve as an interface for commercial/educational ventures, or focus on the “bizarre” or contentious are most likely to attract and retain followers. Of course, an alternate hypothesis is that my writing suddenly got boring and my photos suck—take your pick.

As for what this means for Beetles in the Bush, I’m not really sure yet. During the past month (and for the first time since I started writing this blog in earnest), I’ve backed off on what until then had been a very consistent 2–3 posts per week schedule. Quite clearly, this will not help if my goal is to find some way to reverse the downward trend, as frequency of posts ranks almost as high as quality of content in keeping a blog successful. I used to tell myself that I would write regardless of who was reading, because it was something I needed to do (and enjoyed doing) for myself, and I truly believe that was the case when I said it. But perhaps I’ve now gotten what I needed out of the blog—my writing skills are far superior to when I started; I can sit down and pound out not only a blog post, but research reports, status updates, manuscripts, etc. in record time. I used to agonize over every word; now it seems my fingers can hardly keep up with the words as they pour out of my mind. If one of my goals when I started blogging was to make myself a better writer (and it was), then in that regard I have succeeded. I’m also now a vastly more knowledgeable entomologist, having taken the time to learn a lot more not just about beetles, but insects across many taxa, the habitats in which they live, the ecological communities they are a part of, and the landscapes that harbour them. For the first time, I consider myself not just an entomologist, but a natural historian in the truest sense of the word. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine not writing for BitB, but I think now the impulse to write a post will be based much more on inspiration and less so on the calendar. I truly hope that the reduced posting frequency doesn’t further accelerate the decline, but if it does then that is the only possible outcome.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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24 Responses to A Tale of Two Blogs

  1. I hope your inspiration visits you rather more often than not🙂 I am have learned a lot from BitB. Thanks.

  2. I agree – some of us gain a great deal of pleasure from learning directly from bloggers such as you….I hope you remain regularly inspired!

  3. smccann27 says:

    As a larval blogger myself, this is a bit depressing! I enjoy your posts and I too hope that you keep i up!
    But I guess the writing is on the “Wall” as it were.I will continue my work at the same schedule, because I am nowhere near the stage of writing elegance or even natural history knowledge you have achieved. But please do remember that you are an inspiration.to those of us starting out in this form of popular writing.

  4. ggsims says:

    Ted,
    Even as an old Luddite, I take great pleasure in “browsing” through blogs each morning, eagerly clicking on my favorites to see what I can learn today–Beetles in the Bush, Dragonfly Woman, Myremecos, Not Rocket Science, Bug Girl, biologistsoup, and several more.

    Each blogger has his/her own and unique style–light and informative, fun and exciting, stern and cranky–and the bloggers seem like old friends, even though I’ve only “really” met one or two. Blogging may turn out to be the PBS of the internet, NOT the “Keeping up with the Kardashians”. It ain’t for everyone, but then it shouldn’t try to be.

  5. Dan Mays says:

    “Sometimes we just need to keep writing because it is important.” ~ anonymous ~

    OK, Ted . . . enough of the melancholy. You are beginning to sound like an engineer — over-analyzing everything and thereby overlooking the real issue.

    Statistics can be a useful tool when applied within a proper context. However, it is of little value when you force data into places it does not belong. (I am confident that you already know this.)

    I want what I read to be to be well-written; which means substantive and concise. The same conditions apply to the comments that I wish to read. Lord knows that the other popular social media forms contain considerably more “verbal diarrhea” and/or “mental mush” than substance. Mirroring the quality of your blogging, the comments may be rather few in numbers, but those that are posted tend to actually have something to say.

    What we (and I believe you) do not need is a bunch of vacuous chatter cluttering up your comment section. Personally, I don’t want to have to wade through a bunch of that crap just to find a few scattered nuggets of intelligence.

    What I DO find delightful is that your prose often achieves a level that nothing more needs to be said.

  6. Henry Robison says:

    Please continue to post as often as you can because many of us out here truly love your inspired photography and natural history writitngs. I have learned much from your blog and continue to read every post! Good luck with your continued blogging experience Ted!

  7. I hope you’ll continue to write at your own pace Ted, as I greatly enjoy your stories & photos!

  8. Anna says:

    I don’t comment often, but do read every post. I also enjoy learning, looking at your spectacular photos, and reading your blog. I hope you are encouraged to continue, as long as you are enjoying what you are doing your enthusiasm will come through in great posts. Blogs may be maturing as a media form, but newspapers and journals have been around a while too. Blogging has helped me learn to write too, and I hope to reach your quality of posts. Thanks for blogging.

  9. Joe Warfel says:

    I read your blog frequently and as an avid photographer enjoy your photos a lot. I certainly hope you find it worthwhile to continue your blog posts at whatever pace that suits and pleases you. I’m sure there are many more who think the same.

    Can’t imagine how one would have written so thoroughly and thoughtfully this exact blog post in the cursory, short attention span and what often seems infantile manner of twitter posts.

    Please keep up the good work, much appreciated!

  10. I greatly appreciate these supportive comments, and you guys truly are the audience that I think about when I write these posts. That said, the point of this post wasn’t to fish for compliments and seek motivation for continuing, but rather to provide a post-mortem on what has already happened. Your opinions aside, the numbers don’t lie – readership has dropped precipitously over the past year. I don’t take it personally and, in fact, consider my recent writing and photography to be as good as ever. Nevertheless, good writing and photography alone aren’t enough to keep pace with the changing desires of the broader online audience.

    The choice for me is how to respond to a dwindling audience. I’ve already said I won’t stop, so don’t worry about that – I still have personal reasons for needing this blog as an outlet for my thoughts, photography, etc. (and besides, I really want to reach 1,000,000 hits!). However, as each blog reader has their personal tastes, the needs/desires of each blog writer too are unique. While I enjoy the writing, I also enjoy the conversations they stimulate. It’s kind of like the difference between a lecture and the social hour that follows – giving a lecture is fun, but the real stimulation comes afterwards during the social hour, where new connections and ideas are forged. I’ll continue to “give lectures” but need to decide whether a change of strategy is needed versus sticking with what I know (and like) best and accept the consequences.

  11. tomajhardin says:

    I enjoy Beetles in the Bush, especially the macro photography !!
    Thanks

  12. macromite says:

    I’m not sure that the number of comments is an especially good metric for a natural history blog. Political blogs generate lots of comments because they stimulate passions, but a natural history blog, when it is well done, seems more likely to stimulate reflection or appreciation than passions or a surge of comments. Setting aside contests/challenges/mysteries, I would expect that your most commented on posts would be ones that broached a contentious topic (like controlled burns in natural areas).

    This certainly seems to be true at Myrmecos – Alex sparks a commentary wildfire every now and then with some inane comment, and although his ant posts generally elicit a fair number of comments (mostly from the ant mafia), many of his posts have few comments. For example, the 28 April post on Ze Frank’s True Facts about the Sea Pig has one comment. I thoroughly enjoyed the linked video and passed it on to two friends who also appreciated it, but none of us felt the need to comment on how we busted our guts laughing.

    Looking at your second graph, it looks more like you have built a steady following with perhaps a seasonal drop off in the winter?

    • Below is a graph from Feb 2009 to today pooled on a monthly basis – numbers go up steadily from Feb 2009 to April 2012, then drop sharply from Apr 2012 to today. There is no seasonal pattern, and the numbers over the past three months resemble those from back in late 2010. I wish I could just say there really is no problem, but again the numbers suggest that BitB readership has dropped by more than half in the span of just one year – that’s troubling no matter how you slice it. The real question is whether this is a problem with my blog or with blogs in general. I don’t have access to the stats of other blogs (except on sites like Nature Blog Network, whose numbers I don’t fully trust for a variety of reasons), so it’s difficult for me to know what’s happening with readership of other bug blogs. However, just focusing on BitB I suspect five years of talking about the same thing has led to a feeling of ‘sameness’ for some people.
      Feb 2009 to May 2013 - monthly

  13. Jan says:

    Ted, it’s not your blog only that has down readership. I have looked at some personal (non science blogs) for seven yrs. and they seem to be down too. Blogging was a new toy for quite a while and everyone and their uncle wanted to do it. Most blogs I randomly ran across were garbage.

    I think you should do it if and because you WANT to do it. Keep your writing skills up. Be a mentor to the select few who DO choose to come and read. Teach those of us who enjoy your really good sentence construction and writing style coupled with your enthusiasm for the subjects that inspire you. Consider this blog as a legacy that you are creating for all of us, or for your family, or for posterity, or whatever… for those of the future. If you get tired of it, stop.
    Or slow down.
    Or keep it up at its current level.
    There is always plenty to read in the archives.

    I consider your knowledge and presentation very excellent, and I do read when I can… it’s a hobby for me, on and off, when I’m in the mood to read, etc. I appreciate very much your efforts and will not complain because YOU ARE GIVING THIS TO ME FOR FREE and I cannot complain… it’s valuable to me, as I live in a remote part of the Midwest and would never buy books (low income)… and I was interested in native Midwestern plants to a much greater degree at one time and your blog helps me keep up a few reading and science skills that I don’t use in my everyday life anymore…. But don’t do it for me. You don’t owe me a thing. Do it for you.
    I don’t know what else to tell you. I think you should consider your blog as a lovely, long natural history book, or journal, and keep it up for that reason if you want to. Damn the stats, damn the qty. of comments — do it because you want to do it!

    That is all.

    Oh and I agree with the comments of Dan Mays and most of what macromite wrote, too (re macromite’s 2nd paragraph, he’s right… I value your blog for its ORIGINAL content, not that which you’ve just copied and pasted as some bit of entertainment for me. I can get that from all the garbage-y email pass-alongs that my old lady friends email to me, or from watching Late Nite with David Letterman 🙂.

  14. James C. Trager says:

    I enjoy reading this blog, but if you decide to put your energies elsewhere, I will read the book that results …🙂

  15. I’ve been keeping a close eye on this trend too, Ted. My overall traffic plateaued over 2 years ago. I haven’t lost any, but a greater and greater proportion comes from internet search results, new posts seems to be picking up slightly less traffic unless I promote them on FB or twitter.

    I’m not terribly bothered by the gradual decline of the blog. The audience is still out there in the ether, bigger and chattier than ever. We are instead at a moveable feast (as it were) and the conversations are moving to facebook and twitter. The challenge seems to be figuring out what content is best blogged, and which is best microblogged.

    • I wouldn’t be bothered by a plateau in readership, either. A 62% drop in 10 months, however, is downright alarming.

      You’ve done a good job adapting to the “microblogging” trend to promote your blog and your photography, but I think even you will admit that a high posting frequency (daily at a minimum) is required for microblogging to work in that regard.

  16. Dan Mays says:

    I’m not so sure that I agree with your assessment of “microblogging”, Ted. At least in my mind, I tend to associate diligent daily blogging entries as smacking of a commercial enterprise with an obvious goal of increased sales. That is not the case with your efforts. Your blog is content-driven. Posting just to post would prove to be a waste of my (and your) time.

    Much of the joy that we receive from our six-legged obsession comes from the excitement garnered from sharing; not from some arbitrary numerical “competition”.

    I also subscribe to a blog written by a fine arts painter. The ebb and flow of demand for works of art is notoriously cyclical. This painter wisely admonishes his readership to concentrate on infusing their art with the best quality that is within them. Concentrate on quality and the “numbers” will take care (at least eventually) of themselves.

    • Hi Dan – the context is a little different for Alex, as he has a photography business that he is supporting – constant outreach is an important part of that enterprise. “Microblogging” refers not to frequent, small posts on the main blog, but regular updates on Facebook and Twitter that are at least partially intended to maintain name recognition and strengthen its connection to his blog as a portal to his photography business. My situation, of course, is rather different, and the use of microblogging in that manner isn’t something I find either useful or all that interesting.

      I will add that it is easy to say let the numbers fall where they may, but I think its normal for people to feel more motivated to write when they sense that others are interested in what they have to say, and vice versa. That’s not to say that the simple act of writing doesn’t have value even if nobody else reads (and I have benefited greatly from five years of writing this blog), but there are times when an author needs an audience.

  17. Jon Quist says:

    Well stated in the last paragraph. I have noticed a difference in quality from your beginning posts to the ones I read now. It is obvious that you put a lot of care into this blog: perfecting photography, writing skills, related articles, etc.

    It seems as though you have this pretty thought through, but I do hope you continue to act upon “inspired posting” whenever it comes your way.

  18. Pingback: The Week on Sunday #31 | Splendour Awaits

  19. Dorian Patkus says:

    I used to visit this site frequently because the weekly posts showed up in my Google + feed regularly in early 2012 and then these posts stopped appearing for unknown reasons. I got busy with other stuff, You seem to be posting less and my nature interests follow a seasonal cycle currently interrupted by nonscheduled moving about the lower 48. Alex Wild’s posts show up regularly in my Google + page SO MUCH that I am familiar with his commonly offered prints. When I’m aware an interesting blogger posts something I intend to visit whether it is Crystal Ernst or Tavi Gevinson or one of my relatives on facebook. Heaven help me if I find Ted’s equivalent on wild/native plants! {suggestions welcome!😉 }

    • I know Alex is a big fan of G+. I tried it for a few months but decided I didn’t like it, and I especially didn’t like having to manually cross-post to G+ whenever I wrote a post – FB and Twitter do it automatically. I never saw many G+ referrals in the site stats, so you must be one of the few people that actually came here from G+.

      My now less frequent posting schedule is a consequence of declining readership and not the cause. I consistently posted 2-3 times/week for over five years until just the past couple of months, but the slide in readership began more than a year ago.

      I do the occasional botany post!🙂

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