During the first few years of writing this blog, I maintained an open comment policy with few restrictions on who could comment. In November 2011, however, I began experiencing a flood of spam comments, and as a result I had to implement a new comment policy that included comment moderation for new commenters and the requirement for all commenters to include their name (shown publicly) and e-mail address (not shown publicly). My hope was that the change would end the hundreds of spam comments I was getting each day while minimizing the inconvenience to those leaving valid comments.
Fortunately, the spate of spam has abated, and I think now I can relax the comment requirements. I think such measures do much to inhibit comments, as many people simply find it easier to leave comments at links on outreach sites (e.g. Facebook) rather than the post itself if they have to enter extra information in addition to the comment itself. Remote comments such as this are, of course, appreciated, but my greatest pleasure is in seeing and partaking in the conversations that develop on-site in the direct comments. I also realize that many people simply are not comfortable divulging their name and providing their e-mail address, no matter how secure the site is proclaimed to be. As a result, beginning today I have removed all comment moderation and the requirement to include name and e-mail address when leaving a comment. This means that anonymous comments are once again welcome. By eliminating as many barriers as possible to free, open communication, it is my hope that readers will not only find leaving comments here easy, but also feel comfortable doing so.
I’m not obsessed with blog stats, but every now and then it’s interesting to take a look and see what information I can glean from them. One of the stats provided by WordPress is “Referrers”—which sites readers came from. This is good information to know, as it can help guide decisions on which sites to put effort into as a referral site. It was precisely this stat that caused me to leave Google+ some months ago. I tried G+ for a time as an alternative to Facebook, cross-posting links to new posts and occasionally posting separate photos to maintain a consistent level of activity. But after several months I decided the interactions I was having on G+ weren’t very satisfying—no conversations about the subjects like what happens on Facebook, just brief comments of the “Nice shot” variety. Moreover, my WordPress Referrer stats showed virtually no traffic coming from G+. This was puzzling, as I found myself continually being added to G+ circles (thousands eventually, which in itself seemed very “spammish” to me), but since there was no automatic mechanism for linking new posts on G+ (like there is for Facebook and Twitter), I decided the tiny amount of traffic it drove was not worth the effort. I stopped posting to G+ (yet continued to be added to circles, which made me even more suspicious and eventually led me to deleting my G+ account altogether).
As my involvement with G+ waned, I became more involved with Twitter. I get Twitter—really, I do, although I had trouble getting it at first. It’s quick, it’s fun… it’s a great way to keep tabs on a lot of people who like to post links to things I am interested in. Nevertheless, I still find myself having trouble staying consistently involved with Twitter. My problem is the 140-character limit—again, I’m more interested in conversation than quips, and in this regard Facebook is a much less limiting—and thus more enjoyable—venue for interacting with like-minded individuals. I also find Twitter to be rather clumsy when it comes to sharing photos compared to Facebook’s more elegant (Google+ inspired?) model. If I can’t converse on Twitter the way I’d like to, then all I really have left to use Twitter for is to provide links to new posts on BitB. A few hundred followers may be modest, but one would still think it enough to drive a fairly good amount of traffic to the blog. Curiously, recent review of Referrer stats show this not to be the case. Over the past 30 days, only 43 visitors have come to BitB from Twitter—less than 1.5 per day! WordPress enables automatic linking of new posts on Twitter, so it doesn’t really take any effort on my part to maintain the account, but I still have to wonder if such little return warrants even this amount of effort.
Of course, search engines—primarily Google—reign supreme in driving traffic to BitB, with the past 30 days yielding 6,180 visits. But among non-search engine sites, where do most of my readers come from? Facebook! In the past 30 days, 232 visitors have clicked on a link to BitB through Facebook—either on my own page or that of somebody else who liked a post on BitB and provided a link to it. Considering how much fun I have on Facebook aside from providing links to posts on BitB—whether it be quick photos of experiences as they happen, enjoying photographs of other expert insect macrophotographers, or involvement in multi-party conversations about the finer points of insect taxonomy—the fact that it also drives a large amount of traffic to BitB almost seems like a bonus. People like to make fun of Facebook, and the recent exodus of many bug bloggers to Twitter and G+ cannot be ignored, but for me Facebook continues to be the supreme medium for online interaction.
I realize this a one-case study and don’t intend to generalize my experience to others. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. Why are Facebook users so much more likely to click on my links that Twitter or G+ users? What prompted thousands of G+ users to add me to their circles but almost none of them to actually click through to my content? Is my experience typical? Any insight on these questions would be appreciated.
I should also mention another significant referrer for BitB—Alex Wild. Combined stats from his Myrmecos and Compound Eye blogs over the past 30 days resulted in a cool 99 BitB referrals. While this is not quite at the same level as Facebook, it is remarkable for an individual blogger to be the source of so much traffic for my blog. I doubt Alex himself is responsible for all of these visits (although I’m sure he checks in from time to time), rather it is likely that a portion of the enormous reader base he has uses his sites as jumping off points for other bug blogs they like. No other bug blogger, and not even WordPress Reader or Blogger themselves, comes close to sending as much traffic to BitB as does Alex Wild. So, Alex… thank you!
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.
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.
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.
I recently came upon a post titled, What will I find if I google you?, written last year by Scientopia blogger gerty-z at Balanced Instability. Although written from the perspective of a new, tenure-track academician giving advice to students with similar aspirations, the main point of the post is relevant to probably any profession: “SEARCH COMMITTEES WILL GOOGLE YOU.” That this is true for industry as well as academia is a fact—over the course of my now three-decades-long career, the past 22 in industry, I have been involved in many a search committee, and particularly over the past 3–4 years a Google search has become a standard part of my resume screening process as I try to whittle down the 10 or so resumes that have survived my initial screening to those 3 to 5 candidates that I will recommend for an interview.
For me, the post had it’s intended effect, as I started wondering what, really, I would find if I googled myself. Of course, I’ve done this in the past, primarily in the early days of my online and social media presence and more out of trivial curiosity than as part of an effort to critically assess what impression the results might give to a prospective employer. Not that I am actively looking for another job—I love what I do, have a reasonable amount of autonomy, and am fairly compensated. Nevertheless, one never knows what opportunity or circumstance might arise and the timing of such, and a favorable online reputation is much easier to maintain than to create or repair on short notice. In my case, that presence is extensive—I’ve blogged regularly for almost five years now and participated to greater or lesser degree in most of the other social media outlets frequented by entomologists—BugGuide, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr, etc.—for much of that same period. This blog alone contains nearly 650 posts and averages somewhere between 500 to 1,000 words per post—that’s in the neighborhood of one-half million words tagged with my very searchable name. Add to that my 3,601 comments here, innumerable comments and mentions on other blogs (including 1,158 on BugGuide alone), and perhaps somewhat sillier musings over on FB and Twitter—well, whatever reputation I’ve accumulated by now I’m probably stuck with, good or bad!
I didn’t think I would find any problems, but gerty-z’s post did convince me that I should at least take the exercise. What if I did suddenly find myself on a candidate short list for that dream curatorship at the U.S. National Museum (right!)? Would Terry Erwin, Steve Lingafelter, and the other members of their search committee be impressed or concerned by what they found when they googled my name? I probably represent the best case scenario for a prospective employer wanting to search my online presence—my first and last names are both fairly uncommon, and add to that the fact that I always sign with my middle initial. Enclose all that in quotes and one has a very specific search term with little likelihood that the results will be diluted by other people. What did I find? 40,800 results! (I made sure to turn off “Personal” results so that I would see the same search results that somebody else googling my name would see). Nevertheless, the results were largely what I expected. The top 4 and 7 of the top 15 results (see below) linked directly to Beetles in the Bush or one of its posts, and all but one of the remaining top 15 results linked to my various online profiles—all but one of which are either professionally oriented or highlight my entomological expertise. That’s a good thing—I’m happy for anyone to see my list of publications, research interests, professional capabilities, etc. The one exception is Facebook, and that is the only social medium I use that might possibly contain content that someone, somewhere, might find objectionable (I generally stick to entomology and photos from travel or my family while avoiding contentious subjects, but sometimes my touch of irreverence sneaks through). Still, it’s not like one will find photos of drunken excess or poor choices on my FB page, so I think my relative FB risk is small. I doubt many prospective employers would look much past the top 15 results, especially with such a consistent picture of who I am (at least who I project myself to be) having already been painted by that point, but those who do choose to look further will find several dozen subsequent results largely linking to blogs on which I have left a comment or been mentioned by name (the latter usually referring back to Beetles in the Bush or thanking me for an insect identification). I also conducted the search on “Images”, and the result was largely the same—page after page of images from Beetles in the Bush or from other blogs on which I had left a comment or been mentioned by name.
gerty-z suggests that Google searches by potential employers have either neutral or negative impacts on their decisions but rarely have a positive impact since anything “awesome” about you that can be found online should also be in your application. I’m not sure I agree with this latter point. Awesome can include more than simply a long list of publications or multiple summaries of degrees earned and experience gained—things that are easy to include in a resume. Awesome can also include a well-practiced commitment to high quality writing, or consistent involvement in outreach activities, or demonstrated taxonomic expertise far beyond that implied by a list of publications, or even a solid foundation of knowledge in subjects beyond one’s immediate area of expertise but that nevertheless enhance perspective. These are concepts that are much more difficult to capture or highlight in a resume but that might tip the balance in a candidate’s favor if all other considerations are equal. The point is, don’t look at your online presence only as something to manage to prevent failure, but rather as a potential tool to help build a positive reputation and enhance the information provided in your application.
Yesterday Alex asked the question that has been on my mind for some time: Is Blogging Dead? He had some nice charts and graphs to illustrate the point, but in the end he thought not. Rather, he speculated, blogging provided an early social network structure that is now better served by Facebook and Google+. While some in blogging have left for these other platforms, there remains a dedicated contingent for whom blogging is the best platform to serve their needs.
There must have been a reason, however, that Alex asked the question in the first place, and in fact he is just the latest of many who have asked this same question with increasing frequency. The rise to pervasive dominance by Facebook (even better than sex) is an obvious factor, and although Google+ struggles to gain share, its better graphics-friendliness has cultivated a small but loyal following (hmm, sounds a little like another IBM vs. Mac). I don’t share Alex’s optimism about the future of blogging. I think social networks have not only pulled share from blogging platforms, but also made blogging irrelevant. The World Wide Web is now chock full of choices for information and entertainment, so much so that it is impossible to look at every site that might be of interest. Blogging takes too much time—why spend time reading long, prattling accounts of one person’s exploits when the short quips of 50 people can be read in the same amount of time? Limiting blogs to being primarily photo showcases doesn’t solve the problem—why spend time clicking through numerous individual sites to see photos that maybe you will like when all can be seen collated on a single page like Google+? Even the capability for interaction between the blogger and reader are better served by social networks—no logging in or word verification gauntlets; instead just a quick click of the “Like” button or, if the photo really struck a chord, a quick comment (“Cool photo!”). Gone are the long, interactive discussions following a post, having been replaced by greater reliance on use of the “Like” button for readers to indicate their approval. The sharp decline in appearance of new blogs and increasing dormancy of formerly active blogs (at least in the natural history realm) further illustrate the decline of blogging in the face of other online choices.
Where am I going with this? Obviously, as writer of ‘Beetles in the Bush’ I have a vested interest in the relevance of blogging. I’m beginning to feel, however, a little old school—like the Mom and Pop hardware store, offering an intimate, interactive experience to an increasingly hurried public that simply doesn’t have time for it. I’d like to know what your thoughts are? Is blogging really on the way out? Is Facebook-level quality for photos really just good enough, and if not is the showing of photos and exchange of ideas really better and more efficiently accomplished on Google+? Is all the extra information about natural history, learnings, etc. just an exercise in self-indulgence? I realize, of course, that any commentary received here will be skewed towards those still inclined to do such, and the thoughts of those who have already abandoned blogging for Facebook and Google+ will remain unknown—perhaps to the point that even this post was another exercise in self-indulgence. At any rate, I’ve been increasingly contemplating the future of individual blogs (and specifically natural history blogs, especially those by enthusiastic specialists) and what purpose they do/can/will/should serve. If everything I’ve said above is true, I personally don’t see how blogging per se can readily adapt to such realities—they essentially become a Facebook or Google+ stream of one!
p.s. These are expressions of an evolving thought process. Don’t expect any drastic changes here at BitB, at least in the near future!
In the nearly three years since moving ‘Beetles in the Bush’ to WordPress, I’ve enjoyed an almost spam-free existence. Rarely did I ever get more than just a few spam comments per day, and whatever spam I did get was flagged with nearly 100% accuracy by WordPress’ Akismet spam filter. So minor was the issue that I’ve been able to leave comment settings for the blog at their least restrictive—anonymous comments allowed with no comment moderation. Spam comments were held for review, while legitimate comments were published immediately. It was a simple matter to review the few spam comments that accumulated each day, confirm that they were indeed spam, then send them on to cyberoblivion. Occasionally a legitimate comment or two would also get flagged as spam (primarily for including more than one hyperlink in the comment—a common feature of spam comments), but I would find these during review and approve accordingly.
Until now, that is. Last month I had a post selected for WordPress’ ‘Freshly Pressed’ feature. It’s kind of a big deal to be featured on Freshly Pressed, as exposure to the whole WordPress community typically results in a surge of traffic. The surge is short-lived but commonly nets at least a few new readers, some of whom may become regulars. It’s the fourth time I’ve had a post selected for Freshly Pressed; however, unlike the previous three times, this time saw also a concordant sudden surge in spam comments. While the traffic has returned to more normal levels, unfortunately the spam comments have not—in the month since being Freshly Pressed I’ve been flooded with nearly 7,000 spam comments. That’s about 230 per day compared to only a handful of legitimate comments. I have neither the time nor the inclination to review several hundred spam comments every day just so I can rescue the occasional legitimate comment.
WordPress Support has no explanation for the surge in spam (I recall they made some reference to “the price of fame”). So, and I really hate to do this, I’m implementing some moderate restrictions on who can leave comments. I’m trying to do this, at least initially, in a way that legitimate commentors will notice hardly or not at all. You’ll have the least inconvenience if you are logged into your WordPress, Twitter, or Facebook account and already have an approved comment somewhere on this blog. For you nothing changes—you leave a comment and it is published immediately. If you are logged into one of these accounts but have not yet left a comment here, your first comment will be held for moderation. Once I approve it you get a free pass through approval from that point on and will see any future comments published immediately. If you are not logged into one of these accounts, you can either login using the buttons on the comment form, or alternatively you can complete the fields for your name, email address, and website. Only the website field is optional; your name and email address will be required information (but please note that your email will not be shown publicly!). Again, if you already have an approved comment on the site your comment will be published immediately, otherwise it will be held in moderation until I approve it (which then gives you a free pass for any future comments). Sadly, anonymous comments are no longer allowed.
I hope these restrictions don’t cause undue inconvenience, and I would be most grateful for your feedback if you find that these restrictions have affected your willingness to leave comments.