Monday, December 30, 2013

When the Crowds are Gone and I'm All Alone

Dan Ariely:

Consider the work of writing, for example. Once upon a time, I wrote academic papers with an eye on promotion. But I also hoped — and still hope — that they might actually influence something in the world. How hard would I work on an academic paper if I knew for sure that only a few people would ever read it? What if I knew for sure that no one would ever read my work? Would I still do it? Much of what I do in life, including writing my blog posts, articles, and these pages, is driven by ego motivations that link my effort to the meaning that I hope the readers of these words will find in them. Without an audience, I would have very little motivation to work as hard as I do.

Now think about blogging. The number of blogs out there is astounding, and it seems that almost everyone has a blog or is thinking about starting one. Why are blogs so popular? Not only is it because so many people have the desire to write; after all, people wrote before blogs were invented. It is also because blogs have two features that distinguish them from other forms of writing. First, they provide the hope or the illusion that someone else will read one's writing. After all, the moment a blogger presses the "publish" button, the blog can be consumed by anybody in the world, and with so many people connected, somebody, or at least a few people, should stumble upon the blog. Indeed, the "number of views" statistic is a highly motivating feature in the blogosphere because it lets the blogger know exactly how many people have at least seen the posting. Blogs also provide readers with the ability to leave their reactions and comments — gratifying for both the blogger, who now has a verifiable audience, and the reader-cum-writer. Most blogs have very low readership —perhaps only the blogger's mother or best friend reads them — but even writing for one person, compared to writing for nobody, seems to be enough to compel millions of people to blog.

Of course, most of those people give up after the novelty fades, too — I just happened to see a citation claiming that 60% of blogs are inactive within four months. As for me, I've published over 1700 posts, most of which have only gotten a few dozen pageviews each. My most-viewed post is one from a few years ago where I included an image of a stone carving of Priapus in a post about Tiger Woods's rampant horndoggery. Once I removed the image out of irritation with the attention, I finally stopped getting daily visits from Eastern Europeans with a weird thing for pictures of giant stone schlongs. And thus, my chance at the big time of blogging was gone...

I find the concept of the audience to be useful — envisioning even a generic reader helps keep one's prose from getting lost in solipsist shorthand. But I still firmly believe that the dividing line between good conversation and rabble babble gets crossed very quickly; in fact, I'd probably revise that earlier estimate downward, from twenty participants to ten. People think and act differently when part of a group than they do as individuals; they raise their voice to be heard above a din and act more extreme to stand out from the crowd. Once the audience is too numerous to maintain personal relationships, things will go the way of most sites with large comment sections.

True, having even a tiny audience can provide a little extra motivation and enjoyment, but still, most of it comes from the writing itself, from the thrill of fine-tuning one's thoughts and expressing them with even a modicum of style. When I read perspectives like Ariely's, I can hardly believe my good fortune — it's like I've discovered an ongoing free lunch buffet, or a perpetual motion machine. What makes me so odd? Why do I feel both motivated and gratified by the chance to work unobserved and live unnoticed? Long may it continue in any event.