How much effect or influence can our blogs ever hope to have? We talk a lot about doing this for ourselves, and about the importance of writing what we want to, regardless of how many people are reading. And yet it would be a superhuman blogger indeed who did not obsessively check stats, at least in the early stages, and gain a potent little thrill whenever a post attracts substantial traffic. So what if you wanted to reach out to find a specific audience or actively influence public opinion? What chances would there be of that happening?
What’s brought this to my mind is a very intriguing post over at Novel Readings, in which Rohan quotes from three lit-bloggers who are expressing a certain amount of regret, or what I might suspect to be hurt (they are male bloggers and would probably prefer a different choice of verb) that careful, lengthy, studied posts about less mainstream writers gain so little internet attention. My sense is that an audience always exists for such writing, but the real difficulty lies in finding it. In the comments, Rohan told an interesting anecdote to illuminate one part of the problem:
‘Recently an essay I wrote for Open Letters Monthly was linked to by Arts & Letters Daily (which was, of course, pretty exciting for me). The essay got a lot of hits–around 5000 the first day or so. In my by-line there’s a link to this blog, which got more hits than usual that first day, but nothing like 5000 (not even double its usual average of 100-ish). And I did not gain one subscriber on Google Reader. In other words, as far as I can tell, most of the people who read the article were simply not interested in looking at my blog writing.’
Rohan’s concern here is that readers who turn to Arts and Letters may have a certain prejudice against the very idea of the blog, having heard that we are shallow, solipsistic types who write two line reviews with pretty pictures. And this fear may well be justified; an internet apartheid seems to be rapidly developing, whereby writers who get paid for their work, some of which must needs be displayed online, are deeply hostile (inevitably) towards those who do it for free. Blogging has not always received good publicity from the online publications that might otherwise have sent traffic our way, even though – especially though – some of it is more than equal in quality.
But I also feel that the vastness of the web is producing its own issues now. When there are millions of blogs that could possibly be read out there, the inevitable consequence is a dissolution into insularity. When I first started writing and reading blogs, I had the impression of a huge virtual city, teeming with life. Now, four years later and several thousand book blogs richer, it feels more like I live in a blog village that is part of a network of other villages – all of which I could visit if I could follow the right pathways, except of course no signposts exist. It’s hard to track down blogs I really appreciate. I can arduously work my way through the blogrolls of others, I can google for reviews of the kinds of books I like and hope that produces good results (not just a bunch of blogs that no longer update). But what attracts one blogger to another is profoundly subjective and often unquantifiable, a matter of style, a question of voice. There’s no other way of tracking blogs down than individually, by trial and error and hours of visiting.
So, supposing I wanted to promote the study of the arts in these troubled times, and here I am with a book blog, all ready to use. How best to use it? Of course I can just keep writing and hoping that people ‘stumble upon’ me, in that most apt name. But what if I want to find other like-minded souls? I’ve been considering the possibility of running an online class through the blog, but my regular readers are all too smart to need any such thing. How to find people who might appreciate it, who do not read this blog already? I can’t put posters up in the internet, or put my name down on any sort of calendar of events.
Which brings me to the (still) depressing thought that the rules of marketing dominate here as elsewhere. That if I want to attract attention, I have to produce something high-concept and on-trend (I put my rubber gloves on to type those words, ugh!) so that search engines can bring traffic my way. But once again, I’m preaching to the converted, I’m only attracting an audience who already possess a degree of knowledge – how to reach those who don’t know that there is something out there to know?
All of which leads me to ask this: is the internet (and by extension blogging) destined only ever to be a popular medium? Which is to say, obsessed with the products, people and issues that are already popular? How are we to promote the eccentric, the obscure, the thing that no one is talking about? It strikes me as very necessary, but is this possible any more?