Ribbonfarm at the Crossroads

Talk about a recession. Ribbonfarm is off to a very slow start in 2009, going by posting frequency. Between January 1 and May 5, I wrote a total of just 15 posts. Or less than a post a week. In 2008, I was posting twice as frequently, with 80 posts, or about 1.5 posts a week. The last couple of weeks were the slowest. Thanks to a hectic and messy apartment move, I posted nothing for 2 weeks, the longest break I’ve taken since I started in July 2007. There’s a mystery behind this slowdown that I’ll share, which I solved by looking at some numbers. The answer revealed some uncomfortable truths about my blogging. This led me to realize that a change has gradually been creeping up on this blog and that I have to make some key decisions soon, most of them rather unpleasant for me to even consider. I have an idea of where I want to go next, and I expect a few of you might have some thoughts to add. More on the ‘whither ribbonfarm?’ questions later. First, an overdue roundup.

The Roundup: January-April 2009.

  1. How to Draw and Judge Quadrant Diagrams with 5 comments earned quite a few retweets on Twitter. Apparently nobody has taken an unnecessarily earnest look at the foundations of the ubiquitous 2×2 matrix before.
  2. Coworking: “I’m Outta Here” by Jones, Sundsted and Bacigalupo with 10 comments was a review of a book and a future-of-work movement: informal working collectives that aspire to combine the benefits of a workplace social life with the perils and rewards of oddball work-life patterns.
  3. Design and Architecture was my first twitter-inspired piece and involved playing my favorite game: analyzing words with fuzzy meanings. People seem to be either completely bemused that I try to do this sort of thing, or delighted about it. And never the twain shall meet.
  4. The Slash Effect yet another “future of work” book review, drew 6 comments and some pretty interesting discussion about the hidden dynamics within careers where people try to wear two or more substantially different hats.
  5. The Tragedy of Wiio’s Law was a piece on the basic dynamics of the moment of chemistry/electric spark moment between two people when a relationship starts.
  6. Succession Planning: Marshall Goldsmith vs. Eric Raymond primarily a review of the book by Goldsmith, got no comments (I rarely get any discussion of book reviews, but I know they are popular from the number of emails/blog responses and retweets). More on the future of work theme.
  7. Fools and their Money Metaphors was an outlier even for me, with the broad variance in stuff I write about. A speculative article about how metaphors probably drive money-related human behaviors more than mathematical acumen.
  8. The Solemn Whimsies of Larry Morris, one of my rare art-related pieces. I seem to enjoy writing these though they are among the less-read sorts of posts. Gotta feed the soul too I guess.
  9. The Training of the Organization Man continued my deep-dive series on William Whyte’s “Organization Man,” now at 3 parts. After I finish this, I am never doing such a deep review again. Quite the marathon, but am definitely learning a lot about close reading through this series.
  10. Health and the Happy Hamster was yet another outlier, an article about why it is hard to be healthy. As the one cynical commenter pointed out, the piece is probably an extended rationalization of my own laziness, but seriously, I think this subject deserves more probing than it gets.
  11. Who: The A Method for Hiring by Smart and Street a book review, straight up. Surprisingly for a book review, it got quite a bit of discussion, at 5 comments.
  12. Trust in the Age of Twitter My only “whimsical visual” piece so far this year. I don’t know how sites like xkcd do it. These take me less time to execute, but as much time (or more) to think up. This one isn’t particularly inspired, but still, good practice.
  13. Enculturation Recapitulates Civilization my own favorite piece of the lot, which as usual, nobody else seemed to get. Zero comments.
  14. The Cloudworker, Layoffs and The Disposable American I set a personal record with this piece: a post weighing in at more than 6000 words. With this, I am thinking of ending my formal “cloudworker” series, and moving the theme to “one-off” mode. Apparently struck a chord, since I got quite a few cappuccinos for this one, in addition to 6 comments.
  15. Allenism, Taylorism and the Day I Rode the Thundercloud nearly broke the comment record, with 15 (and a few cappuccinos), thanks to going viral within the GTD community. When I was at the GTD Summit a couple of months after, several people recognized me from this piece and came up and talked to me. Now that’s viral.

A major hat-tip due to comment0r RG/Ganesh, who single-handedly drove my comments/posts ratio into very healthy regions, and in the ‘quadrant diagram’ piece, actually ended up putting more valuable thinking in his comments than I delivered in my original piece.

The Slowdown Drill-down

Paradoxically, my subscriber count grew in this slow period by about 50%, from 276 to 415. To compare, my posting frequency in 2008 (during the year I wrote 80 articles) averaged around 1.5/week and the subscriber count grew from 30 to 276. Web analytics are fun, since you can measure every damn thing. Turns out my productivity hasn’t dropped. The overall average post length on ribbonfarm is around 1554 words. In 2009 I’ve been averaging 2715 words/post. Or nearly twice as long. Posts rarely went north of 2000 words in 2008.

For calibration, a typical feature story in the New Yorker is around 4000 words.

So what changed in 2009? Several things. First, I moved from my quasi-bachelor pad existence in Rochester to finally sharing a home with my wife in Washington, DC, after nearly 2 years of living apart. Then, my project teams at work expanded, and critical milestone events began to draw close. And to top it all off, I started writing my book, which currently is half done, with Chapter 4 of a planned 9 complete. It seems likely to weigh in at the 50,000 word weight class.

Add to that the fact that I’ve been keeping to a committed once-a-week paid blogging gig over at enterprise2blog.com, and have also been posting occasionally at gtdtimes.com, and it is becoming clear that I am actually working much harder at my blogging and overall writing, not less. I don’t think I can keep this up. Something’s gotta give.

So, more work, more demanding personal life and a writing brain-state that has been in “50,000 word” gear. And self-imposed pressure from out-blogging gigs.

This isn’t sustainable, I’ve been telling myself. I’ve got to write smarter, not harder, and keep it “fun” rather than letting it slide into “work.”

Which brings me to the first of my “Whither ribbonfarm?” questions.

Whither Ribbonfarm?

Here are the questions I’ve been pondering. They are the same questions I was asking myself a year ago, but now I don’t have the luxury of kicking the tin can forward in time. My post-length inflation and messy set of pressures is dictating that I need to do something now in the “write smarter, not harder” direction, or risk losing the joy of writing and basic first-principles thinking that is the raison d’etre of this blog.

  1. Should I force myself to go through the hard learning curve of moving to a more frequent sub-500 word posting pattern? All the evidence from elsewhere points to the fact that blogging is at least partly a frequency game. Should I yield to the call of the apparent sweet spot of the medium, or continue stressing its upper limit? Going shorter without getting shallower is seriously hard.
  2. Should I quit my off-ribbonfarm gigs and concentrate on cultivating this site? I actually get paid for writing elsewhere, but the money is nominal and does more for my vanity than my financial health.
  3. I’ve also bucked another golden rule of blogging, which is to focus on a niche. My writing is all over the place, and I generally tire of a theme after maybe a dozen posts.  Should I try to confine myself to a theme and enjoy the almost-certain faster subscriber growth rate, or stick to a variety act and enjoy the writing and exploration more?
  4. Clearly this blog will change when the baby is born. I mean the book. I am running a couple of months behind schedule, but I still hope to finish it this year. Along the way, I am generating quite a lot of interesting material that will not go into the book. I’ve been thinking of a separate book blog, but that’s way too much work. Would book-theme blogging as a thread on this site be interesting or annoying? How should I do book-blogging at all?
  5. I’ll admit it, nearly 2 years into the game, I’ve been having bouts of doubt. Is this even worth it? To me? To readers? Should I just quit the blogging scene altogether and just stick to book writing? Clearly, I am more comfortable with long-form writing after all. This question of course, I don’t take seriously, since I enjoy ribbonfarm too much, but it pays to occasionally ask the question.
  6. Possibly the biggest question, which is not the same as the “focusing on a niche” question, is whether I should abandon one or more themes and suffer the audience loss. One significant benefit of twitter is that I can clearly see the contours of my audience demographics, simply by seeing what sort of twitter follows correlate with subscriber spikes following new posts. So I know that my audience roughly segments out into the following big categories: a) people interested in social media (even though I no longer write on that on this site) b) people interested in the future of work c) people interested in general business/management/HR stuff d) people interested in introspective philosophy and self-improvement e) people interested in technology (and the sociology of technology) f) people interested in everything, just like me. Though my blog isn’t a ‘business,’ the basic business question of ‘which customers do you want?’ applies.

I have come to some conclusions, but before I execute my decisions, I thought it might be enlightening for me to hear anything you guys have to say. If you don’t want to post in the comments, you can always email me.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Yes … Maybe … Variety … Interesting … Keep at it … Jettison one or two that are the least interesting to you …

  2. Venkat,

    Your first three questions are easy to respond to. Short replies to those with a summary note below.

    1. As you yourself put it so well: Going shorter without getting shallower is seriously hard.

    2. Whether you can and should do other gigs is entirely your call. It is also irrelevant to ribbonfarm readers. You decide, based on time/inclination. Hint: did you pick up any new habit after attending the GTD summit ;-)

    3. Niche focus shiche focus hocus pocus. I like the variety but also think it hardly qualifies to be called all over the place. In fact your themes seem to cluster around thinking, ‘deep’ communication and social aspects of technology and organization.

    The above also boils down to one thing: what kind of readers do you want to attract regularly to ribbonfarm. Many so-called popular blogs put me off with the gush-gush, self-indulgent, self-promoting and simplified-to-the-point-of-dumbing down nuggets. And often thriving in a mutual admiration circle of guest posting. Puh-lease, if that is a even remotely the kind of popularity and subscription quantity you have in your mind…

    4. Tough to recommend what is ‘right’ for you and your book blog. If you maintain the style and some variety (could we settle for a 3:1), it doesn’t matter whether you expand on your book or someone else’s here.

    5. A rare unclear, circular, self-answered non-question from you. Enough said.

    6. The right question but one that you need to answer. My two-bit is that you cannot base your assessment solely on web identities or analytics.

    FWIW, I can share the key reasons that makes me check out ribbonfarm regularly (more frequently in recent weeks):

    -Non-shallow posts on any topic, laying out the contours of your thoughts, opening up interesting new perspectives, somewhat provocative

    -Lots of references that often are not the obvious connections

    -Freely opinionated but with care to offer multiple/balanced views, even at the cost of verbosity. You don’t just lob catchy sound bytes (though you have some new coinages to your credit).

    I know these are the same reasons that would not attract thousands to ribbonfarm but go there at your own peril. Maybe your book will be the first of a bestseller series linked to their own blogs with professional online marketing and tens of thousands of followers…

    Bottomline: Keep thinking and writing medium-to-long posts at whatever frequency you can muster (what was that about enjoying too much? Remember talents and strengths from Buckingham/Gallup!) but don’t ponder so much–especially self-referentially–it always leads to bouts of doubt. I am not buying you a cappuccino, using an Indian credit card at the current INR to USD rates, but promise to do so next time I happen to be in DC or whenever you come to Mumbai.

  3. I’d rather you carried on with infrequent but interesting/random/insightful/Ribbonfarmesque posting than shortened and frequent or heaven forbid not at all. Use the other outlets to do the focused stuff as requested by them, I enjoy reading the enterprise 2.0 stuff particularly, but this should continue to be your outlet in your style.

  4. I agree with a lot of Ganesh’s points. To expand on a couple of them:

    1. I think people have a natural length in which they like to write. I have a similar problem to you: I can’t do short blog posts, I feel I have to explore a topic in some depth in order to do it justice. I suggest that you continue the long-form posting, and skimp on the frequency if you need to. If you want to do short-form posting, do it through some other medium like Twitter or del.icio.us tagging where the form itself enforces brevity.

    3. Like Ganesh, I think you don’t have a niche per se but rather a singular perspective on a group of related broad questions and issues. Again, I have the same problem as you — I lose interest in a specific narrow topic after writing a few times on it and saying everything I’m personally capable of and interested in saying about it.

    The reason I read Ribbonfarm is for the serendipity factor — true serendipity, not mere novelty. You’re the opposite of someone like Andrew Sullivan. I like reading Sullivan, but his blog is extremely predictable in the range of topics he addresses and the things he writes about them — it’s the blogging equivalent of a mass-market best-seller or a hit TV show.

    6. Regarding “which customers do you want”, I think realistically your audience is unlikely to be broad; as noted above, you’re just not a mass-market least-common-denominator blogger. I agree with Ganesh that you shouldn’t worry over-much about your audience, but just write what you think is interesting; it will likely take a while, but I think your audience will find you — which reminds me of the advice Bob Lefsetz is always giving musical artists: Concentrate on making something great, cultivate the fans you have, and don’t try for the quick kill and the sell out — but at the same time realize that success is far from guaranteed and that unless you’re truly great (and sometimes even then) this may always be just a personal sideline and not something that will replace the day job.

    P.S. Since Ganesh couldn’t buy you a cappuccino, I’ll buy you one for both of us.

  5. I used to blog once a week. But after a couple of years I stearted to loose the drive. I found that I had said most of what I wanted to say. I found that I didn’t care as much about being heard. I found that I was actually more interested in making stuff than talking about making stuff. And slowly my attention turned to other things that were more rewarding.

    Since then I don’t post much, and when I do its for me and not for an audience. I’ve also trimmed my list of blog that I read down to about 20. This gave me back several hour a week. Then I realized that stepping out of the echo chamber was the best thing to do.

    Hopefully I’m not disuading you from blogging — you are after all one of the 20 I read. But I do want to say that you shouldn’t put any pressure on yourself to blog. Pressure kills the fun, and without fun you’ve lost the point of it.

  6. I think everything you write ought to be guest blog entries for other, much bigger, blogs. And Ribbonfarm should become a selection of summary links to those blog entries. People who read your stuff and like your eclectic interests would find their way back here to learn more about your work, and subscribe to your feed.

    I love what you do, but it doesn’t make sense to drain your energies writing long and complex articles that only 500 people will read. Build your brand by finding established publishing platforms who will expose your work to a wider audience. And I’d ditch the Ribbonfarm thing entirely and register a site in your own name.

  7. I like Erik’s idea – guest posts only with links to Ribbonfarm for a while. Maybe put your twitter stream right on this page too so we can see at a glance what you are linking to there. You just reunited with your wife!! Go out to dinner, get a massage, go for a walk on the Mall. Your posts are superb to almost any other site I read, but you deserve a break.

  8. 1. Write your natural length. Your posts dive into many serendipitous arguments (not by design) and that truly separates you from everyday bloggers :) Don’t skimp…make infrequent posts, if you will! After having watched you for over 10 years now, it is definitely hard to read a shallow post from you. VGResque quality is what I come for!
    2. To my ‘uninitiated’ mind, I would think that Ribbonfarm should be priority. There are very few addresses where your audience will find such singular diversity!
    3. Why do you call your writing niche? Niche is generally not meant for all…and I believe that your writing is for anybody :), unless you feel happy with the word niche. Your writing has lot of variety, but your themes are not all over the place. ’Gehen chintan’ makes you a very likable writer
    4. Book blogging or otherwise…do it!
    5. This is a rhetorical question – you have already answered it. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die(Albert Camus)
    6. Your variety in the thinking pattern allows for a lot of tangential strings. Perhaps you want to get into specifics like what Srinath does on his blogs!
    You actually want a break now. You had done that sometime in 2001-02 I think – and the same pangs have resurfaced again! Take a break, but come back to Ribbonfarm :)

  9. Thanks everybody, for the excellent comments. It is gratifying to find out that at least a few readers find ribbonfarm posts interesting to comment/tweet opinions about the site’s direction.

    The specifics of your comments validate for me what I was hoping was true: that there is enough coherence here that I can presume to call it a ‘voice.’

    My preliminary sense of direction is that I do need to drive towards a shorter average, say 1000-1200 words, but still well above the norm. I’d like to believe that my ideas always deserve 2500 words-plus treatments, but if I look at things honestly, length inflation is at least partly due to laziness and the lack of a teacher/editor yelling at me to tighten things up :). As people on a long-winded BBS I used to frequent often said, by way of excusing themselves, “I don’t have time to be brief.”

    Erik and Dorothy: I would actually love to become a completely ‘distributed’ writer with this blog serving just as an index, but that actually seems to involve more work, rather than less, since finding a large enough set of guest-blogging spots with enough thematic variety to host any idea I might come up with… that’ll take way more time investment in marketing myself than I have available. Perhaps when/if ribbonfarm gets sufficiently large to attract enough high-quality inbound guest-blogging requests…maybe I should put up a page explicitly stating an guest-spot-seeking agenda.

    But thanks again guys. You’ve helped me clarify my thoughts. Now it only remains to pick a couple of change vectors and start.

  10. You are welcome, Venkat.

    Next time you wish to bump up the comments/posts ratio, ask readers for criticism on your style, frequency, length, bias and anything else. Given the questions you asked in this way and seemingly tied to an important decision, one had to refrain from, uh, you know… ;-) Just kidding.

  11. If you want a simple formula, here it is: get a list of episodes and plot summaries from a long-running TV show or mini-series, say M*A*S*H or perhaps ER. Adjust your style to match the plot or format of each episode either in order, or at random or in some way that the episode appeals to you. I mention MASH because you’re already partways there: you’ve got letters-home episodes, the incompetent higher-up is taught a lesson episode, the otherwise-decent people rebelling against a system that is senseless/unjust episode, etc. You’ll stay fresher longer by using something outside your own imagination as a guide, and series television is hard to beat — more variety than Ovid, more humor than Sophocles. In any event, keep on doing, and best of luck to you.

  12. otoburb says:

    Venkat, I thought of this post specifically while I was on a flight back home.

    Suffice it to say that, for me, your written voice is one of the very few that clearly articulates fleeting thoughts and ideas that have crossed my mind that I’ve never been able to solidify and organize myself.

    This is a rare gift that we all appreciate and continue to follow.

    Many thanks.