Blogging about faith: What do you want to read?

 

Veneza47

St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

In the 3 years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written more than 700 posts. Some of my favourites have dealt with religion and in particular Christianity. Among them:

But of late I’ve written about it a lot less. That’s partly been because there’s been a lot of politics to discuss lately and that’s a subject I find it easier to write about, so I get drawn to that. But mostly it’s been because I’ve been struggling for inspiration.

I regret that. While I’m very far from being any kind of theology expert, faith is a topic I like writing about. There’s a much greater plurality of views amongst my readers on religion and philosophy than there is on politics and (surprisingly) of the two it seems to be the one where it’s easier to have frank but friendly discussions between people of different views.

So I’d like to go back to writing about it but for that I need topics. So for the first time I’m throwing this blog open to requests.

Are you a non-Christian who’d like a Christian perspective on something? Are a conservative Christian looking for a liberal Christian perspective? Are you a liberal Christian looking to have your prejudices reinforced? Are you interested in agnosticism? If so let me know and I will see what I can do.

I’m also very open to hosting guest posts if there is something you want to write and want a place to host it.

 

Photo credit: By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) – taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2292943

Why twitter is irrelevant to bloggers

Twitter produces a huge flurry of activities yet is strangely isolated from the rest of the internet.

 

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how social media has changed blogging. Essentially blogs no longer gets views primarily because of links from other blogs. Instead traffic now comes in large part through views on social media.

But not all social media is equal. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently wrote about the failure of his attempts to generate interests in his articles for the magazine using twitter:

Every good media organization knows that the road to traffic leads through Facebook rather than Twitter. Even so, I thought the sharing economy of the Internet shared a bit more than this.

A tweet with 10,000 interactions is an exception, and I was interested in the rule. So I went to Twitter’s user analytics page to download the data on my 100 most popular tweets of the last year. If I could prove to my bosses (and to myself) that Twitter could, even occasionally, deliver meaningful audiences, it might validate my infatuation. Alas, my most popular tweets averaged a click-through rate of about 1.7 percent, still quite near the rate of conversions on flash-media East Asian display ads. Without revealing numbers that will get me in trouble with my bosses, I concluded that my prodigious use of Twitter in the last 30 days has cumulatively driven less traffic to TheAtlantic.com than one of my below-average stories.

………………………………………………………………..

It’s fair to come away from these metrics thinking that Twitter is worthless. But that’s an unsophisticated conclusion. The more sophisticated takeaway is that Twitter is worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to your website, because Twitter is not a portal for outbound links, but rather a homepage for self-contained pictures and observations. (The irony is that the more journalists consider Twitter a portal, the better Twitter becomes as a home for other people to stay, including other journalists.)

With this in mind I went and looked at the stats page for this blog. A grand total of 0.43% of all its views were referred by twitter. I get a relatively larger amount from Facebook. However, much to surprise, it transpires that the biggest source of views here are not social media at all but search engines. A fact I have no idea what to make of.

The strange death of the liberal blogosphere

There’s an interesting discussion going on a number of Lib Dem blogs about the declining number of Lib Dem blogs.

Mark Valladares has collated some figures on the number of active blogs on the aggregator site Lib Dem blogs. He finds this peaked at 235 in 2011 but is now down to 109. This is the lowest level since 2007.

He largely attributes this to the decline of the party in general. By contrast, Alex Marsh and Jonathan Calder suggest that this is more a reflection of the shrinking of the blogosphere as a whole.

I’m inclined to the later view. Firstly, because I think Marsh provides better evidence. Secondly, because of the news that the godfather of blogging Andrew Sullivan is retiring, I’ve been mulling precisely this broader issue. Particularly interesting was a piece I read by Ezra Klein arguing:

….at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. “I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion.”

There is a dilemma here: do bloggers conform to the conventions of social media or reject it? Do we follow Rosenberg and write posts that are easy to disseminate on facebook or twitter? Or do we instead retain all the kinks that make blogging distinct from tweeting or posting?

Sullivan himself seems to argue for the later approach:

“Since I’ll be out of blogging soon and won’t have to immediately recant and correct myself, let me conjecture a different future. We may be at peak scale in terms of opinion/aggregation/curation websites right now. At some point, the sponsored content machine in which magazines moonlight as advertising and p.r. companies will sputter as readers cannot tell the difference between propaganda and honest argument, and have long since forgotten which site they read anything on. A site that lacks a cohering and distinct identity can become simply a competitor for an endless and often fruitless search for links, tweets and likes. At some point, readers will want a place they know and love and trust and that they will support with their own money. And they will want a return to more of the intimacy and personality of the original blogosphere.

In other words: I think blogging will have a big revival in the near future. I think the more successful sites will be those with smaller scale and more identity and a stronger connection with readers.”

And I can see the logic of that applied to the Lib Dem blogs. For example, if each post has to be freestanding then one couldn’t have running jokes like Jonathan Calder’s alter ego as Lord Bonkers. And part of the value of a post on electoral law by Mark Pack derives from the fact that most of his readers know his reputation and therefore trust that the post’s contents are broadly accurate.

There is, however, a flipside. It may be true that in the future we will see readers seek out something closer to the original blogosphere but for the time being going down that road probably means fewer readers.

I have seen this with my own outpost. When I resumed blogging 18 months ago I put a lot of effort into creating interconnected series of posts on particular topics. They just weren’t getting the attention to justify the extra effort involved.

By contrast, my posts that did get read were those that could be used as a source to pack up a post on social media. So, for example, my post with the self-explanatory title ‘Joss Whedon co-wrote Toy Story’ has on occasion got thousands of views a day after being shared widely on reddit, twitter and a tumblr with another self-explanatory title ‘Facts and Chicks’. A fraction of the tremendous number of people seeing the fact on those sites want to explore it further. That produces a still substantial flow of views to my site.

So why don’t I write all my posts about similar things? It’s the same reason I generally write posts that are longer than many readers would ideally want. I’m only partly writing to be read. Much of the appeal of keeping a blog is that I enjoy writing and the sense of having an audience is an impetus to sit down and type. The size of that audience is therefore not of overriding importance for me. I’d therefore suggest that any discussion of blogging ought to take account of the fact that there may well be a supply where there is not necessarily a huge demand.

A joyous heretic: More on Andrew Sullivan

A couple of days ago I wrote an obituary for Andrew Sullivan’s blogging career. Over at his blog on the Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates also mourns. The two men had an interesting relationship. Coates was exceedingly critical of Sullivan’s decision as editor of the New Republic to publish extracts of a book positing a correlation between race and IQ. Yet the two men became colleagues and Coates writes that:

“when I first started blogging, I had two models in mind—Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, and I only knew about Matt because of Andrew.”

And goes on to write of his influence that:

“…Andrew has never been a prophet, so much as a joyous heretic. Andrew taught me that you do not have to pretend to be smarter than you are. And when you have made the error of pretending to be smarter, or when you simply have been wrong, you can say so and you can say it straight—without self-apology, without self-justifying garnish, without “if I have offended.” And there is a large body of deeply curious readers who accept this, who want this, who do not so much expect you to be right, as they expect you to be honest. When I read Andrew, I generally thought he was dedicated to the work of being honest. I did not think he was always honest. I don’t think anyone can be. But I thought he held “honesty” as a standard—something can’t be said of the large number of charlatans in this business.

Honesty demands not just that you accept your errors, but that your errors are integral to developing a rigorous sense of study. I have found this to be true in, well, just about everything in life. But it was from Andrew that I learned to apply it in this particular form of writing. I am indebted to him. And I will miss him—no matter how much I think he’s wrong, no matter the future of blogging.”

The meaning of Andrew Sullivan

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Andrew Sullivan or his blog the Dish, and will therefore regard the news that he is giving up blogging as not especially worthy of note. But for me this is a momentous announcement. I’ve been reading about politics online for a decade now yet the Dish remains perhaps my most treasured discovery. It took me from being a rather straightforward Orange Book liberal to something rather stranger. This was even though he rarely wrote about the UK. Instead what he did was expose me to a very peculiar worldview.

Indeed peculiarity was perhaps Sullivan’s key trait. Political writing is generally a very tribal enterprise yet he was utterly individual. He was: an American literary institution who grew up in East Grinstead, a Tory boy and self-described conservative who was an early Obama booster and came to hate the Republican Party with a fury few left-wingers could and most perhaps strikingly he was a conservative Catholic who is now married to another man. This made him so much more interesting than most political bloggers: you usually guess the contents of their posts before reading them, that was impossible with Sullivan.

He’d had an impressive career before taking up blogging. His 1995 book Virtually Normal made him one of the first people of note to call for equal marriage. This might be a mainstream, and in some circles even trite, position but then it was a confounding notion. It offended not only those who thought the gay community was not worthy of response but many within that community who saw it as caving to the norms of a hetro-orientated world. He also had a controversial tenure as editor of the New Republic.

However, it is blogging that defines his legacy. This is in part because he was one of the first to use it as a medium to discuss politics: not many other people were blogging about Bush v Gore. But it was also a product of the individuality I discussed earlier. Such a quality is perhaps easy to generate when you have plenty of time to reflect on your position and thousands of words to convey your personal twist on it. Doing the same in a medium like blogging that involves rapidly producing reactive bursts requires a truly huge personality.

And when I encountered that personality a decade it was a revelation. His biggest intellectual influence was the Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Sullivan described him as:

“While not denying that the truth exists, the [Oakeshottian] conservative is content to say merely that his grasp on it is always provisional. He begins with the assumption that the human mind is fallible, that it can delude itself, make mistakes, or see only so far ahead.” In light of this extreme fallibility, human beings should err on the side of inaction. Claims to certainty—in religion, or political ideology—are invariably hubristic. We have to build our politics on “the radical acceptance of what we cannot know for sure”.

What made Sullivan fascinating was that he saw in this not an argument against the left. He would attack those who held to a position dogmatically almost regardless of what that position was. For example, he criticised both Pope Benedict and Sam Harris. However, the group whose dogmatism he appeared find most objectionable were those people in America who also called themselves conservatives. He came to see the invasion of Iraq as a classic case of violence being used in the service of a utopian project. And he clearly found the spectacle of the likes of Sarah Palin luxuriating in their ignorance and close mindedness almost unbearable.

I don’t, however, mean to make him sound like a man just spitting bile. Reading his posts gave one the impression not of listening to someone shouting at the TV but rather of eavesdropping in an erudite conversation. Like his friend Christopher Hitchens, he had a talent for inserting poetry into his pugilism. There was also a pleasantly self-reflective quality to his blogging. Writing constantly led to what he called “grotesque over-sharing”. We, therefore, read in his own words about his foibles, doubts and demons. This was a refreshing antidote to the smug certainty that too often percolates online. And Sullivan’s blog avoided the worst repository of the smugness: the comments section. He handled conversations with his readers via emails, some of which he posted extracts from and his responses to in posts.

The result was that the blog became more than the sum of the parts. Individual posts were well written and interesting but the real fascination came from seeing how it all came together to make Andrew Sullivan’s worldview, and how that in turn interacted with the community that emerged around the Dish.

This is why there is something epochal about Sullivan stepping away from his keyboard. As Ezra Klein explains for Vox:

Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first is that, at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

There’s a lot of truth to this. As my own reading grew increasingly mediated by Facebook and Twitter, I read the Dish less regularly. And that frankly is clearly a loss. You would be searching for a long time before you found an individual post that was as interesting as Andrew Sullivan as an individual.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I’d recommend Johann Harri’s profile of Sullivan.

Post I Wish I had Written – How Blogging Makes You A Better Writer

In this excellent post, blogging pioneer and creator of the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan explains why blogging has improved his writing. This is particularly impressive given that he was already being an accomplished writer when he started blogging:

When I started blogging – writing as clearly, briefly and colloquially as possible – I worried that my ability to write longer essays or books would suffer. The brain muscles associated with longer compositions, structured essays, or book-length arguments like Virtually Normal might atrophy. My writing might become what Leon Wieseltier would derisively call typing (even as I have never witnessed a faster writer than Wieseltier).

But I was wrong. What it did was help me unclog some of my longer pieces and books – I wrote The Conservative Soul while blogging round the clock – and make them clearer and more succinct. The thing about blogging is that it forces you to stop throat-clearing, its chatty, provisional nature mandates simplicity and clarity, and it punishes long-winded guff. I’ve found that the writing skills of interns improve much faster with blogging than they did with old media writing – and I’m lucky enough to have witnessed both in action as a one-time editor of The New Republic and as the pied piper of the Dish.

He also has interesting observations about how the internet seems to improving the writing of school students. It seems to encourage them to write more and with an audience in mind.