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April 29, 2004

Blog flesh, blog bones. Academic superstar and newbie blogger Michael Bérubé confronts the seductive appeal of traffic statistics:
Seriously, it looks as if this site has had just over 20,000 visitors in April, which would give us three straight months at the 20,000 level. At some point this month I found myself actually getting into this site-meter thing—it’s sort of like the Arts and Humanities Citation Index on steroids (and that would be a bad thing). I even found out about that “ecosystem” over at The Truth Laid Bear and watched as I flitted back and forth between “adorable rodent” and “flappy bird,” wondering (a) whether an organism can, in fact, slide up and down the evolutionary ladder like that, and if so, what this means for the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and (b) WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING, wasting even a minute of the day checking whether I’m a flying squirrel or an emu or something?
With which words Bérubé left the dark wood. Sometimes the little voice that says “Hey, this is retarded” has our best interests at heart. [10:27 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Blog flesh, blog bones.:

alkali ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 10:31 PM:

... “Hey, this is retarded” ...

Given that Berube has a son with Down's, that's probably not what he was thinking.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 10:50 PM:

Huh. I had no idea Bérubé had a son with Downs', but you know something, that doesn't really change my opinion of freelancers who show up to try to collect on moral debts that aren't owed to them.

Having a loved one suffer some kind of neurological impairment really sucks. Tell you what, why don't you explain this to me. At length.

Alternately, how about you go fly a kite.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2004, 11:15 PM:

PNH: freelancers who show up to try to collect on moral debts that aren't owed to them

Er, what? Is there some subtext going on here that I’m not seeing? ’Cause Patrick, it looks to me like you’re unloading on Alkali for no reason.

chris ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 02:32 AM:

Patrick, I think Alkali was trying to make the point that calling someone or something "retarded" as an insult is a little insensitive. I'm sorry, but I think he's right.

Mr Ripley ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 03:52 AM:

"Having a loved one suffer some kind of neurological impairment really sucks. Tell you what, why don't you explain this to me. At length." No need: the egosurfing professor in question can do that himself. It's a really really good book, which I don't think will be perceived as an attempt to "show up to collect on moral debts" --there are also some moving things on the issue in the "Essays" section of his website.

Sander ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 07:30 AM:

chris, given that Berube has a child with Down's it might seem less likely that he would use the word "retarded" when transcribing that inner voice that would coax us away from obsessively monitoring that "ecosystem", Citation Indices, etc.

It seems to me that's all Alkali was pointing out. Patrick's just truthfully reporting what it sounds like to him when he hears that voice himself.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 07:40 AM:

What's most important about the traffic stats is who these people are, something about which the stats meters provide no information. Referrer logs give a clue, but that's not really enough.

Knowing the nature of one's audience is more important than a simple number indicating size.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 09:06 AM:

One further annecdote: About 10 years ago, I had a letter to the editor published in The New York Times. When i mentioned this to my mother and pointed out that my letter had been read by more people than everything else I'd ever published combined, my mother replied "that's because you're finally writing about something people want to read about."

Bérubé's blog readers are not really comparable to the ca. 600 readers of his first book who invest considerably more time and money into the reading experience. Also, one doesn't sell additional books every time someone pciks up the book, whereas repeat visitors clock in as additional readers.

Keith ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 09:30 AM:

While I agree about the ecosystem ratings, I have found the sitemeter stats useful for at least one purpose: You can see who has been visiting your site. That's how I found out I have a regular visitor from the State Department and was once also visited by the Department of Justice.

MD˛ ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 11:29 AM:

Can't help but envision a book of blog aphorisms, koans and tales now...

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 11:48 AM:

On the topic of the word retarded:

I know a couple of people who have relations who have Downs syndrome. They are far more comfortable with words like retarded than most of their friends. People say a lot of things -- most of which don't matter. Meaning and intent tend to be more important than the precisely pc phrase of the day.

Patrick didn't call Berube retarded. In fact, he didn't use the term in regard to a person at all. He used it in regard to a particular behavior. That difference is not trivial.

Finally, I really hate the "other people" attack mode. It begins with "other people might be offended by..." and goes on to trash the person addressed. This is the attack form of "the lurkers support me in email."

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 12:00 PM:

I have a special-needs daughter myself, and while I can't speak for Mr. Berube, it's obvious to me that Patrick was merely being whimsical. It's clear from the context that he was recognizing in himself the tendency we all have to ego-surf and ego-track, and was sharing some fellow-feeling with Mr. Berube at the tendency.

It seems to me one would have to be awfully sensitive to be offended at his use of the word "retarded" in the context he used it.

One time when my daughters were much younger than they are now, Emma gave a toy to one of her young friends and a little while later, tried to take it back. I told her that no, she couldn't do that; that was being an Indian giver.

My friend, the mother of the other girl, really blew up at me. She said she found that term extremely offensive. I felt dumbfounded, embarrassed and pissed off. I explained that the term originated because of how white men had violated all those land treaties with the Indians, and that to be an Indian giver meant you were doing what our ancestors had done to the Indians. Not the reverse, as she seemed to interpret it.

But my friend felt strongly that the term is misunderstood often enough to mean that Native Americans are untrustworthy, and therefore, that the term shouldn't be used at all. After she explained, I could see her point, though I'm still not entirely sure I agree with it.

Seeing alkali's post, I'm reminded a bit of that exchange. The main difference is, she spoke to me in person, and in private.

My own little rule of online etiquette is that it is at least as rude -- if not moreso -- to scold someone publicly who has knowingly gored one's ox, as it is to unknowingly gore someone's ox.


alkali ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 12:56 PM:

Patrick (and others):

I am genuinely sorry to have caused offense. I appreciate that no one likes a language cop, but I just found that word jarring in this particular context. Berube is best known outside the blogosphere for a book about his son with Down's, and I assumed that Patrick did not know that (or that it had slipped his mind). I had hoped that because I saw the post relatively soon after it appeared, my comment might have nudged along a small edit. The tone I was going for was "Hey, pal, X.Y.Z.," and not, "I should have you know, sir, ..." Clearly, I misfired wildly.

One would think that after 10 years of e-mail, Usenet, listservs and blog-commenting, I would be more adept at turning tone-of-voice signals into typescript, but in that regard (and in so many other areas of endeavor) I continue to surprise myself with my own inadequacy. I did not mean to call into question Patrick's goodwill, which I do not doubt, and I apologize for that implication.

Ms. Mixon: I agree that such comments are more appropriately made in private. I confess that it did not even occur to me to send an e-mail, because I so infrequently look at my own spam-clogged mailbox these days. I had sort of hoped that if there had been an edit that my comment would have been deleted. In hindsight, I'm not sure what the best course of action would be, other than to obey my grandmother's admonition, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and be proved one."

Again, my apologies.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 12:57 PM:

I really miss "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Indian giver be the name of the Lord."

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 12:59 PM:

LauraJMixon - I had understood that there was an actual cultural conflict at work there: in some Native American cultures, the recipient of a gift was required to show appreciation (chiefly, IIRC, by using the gift appropriately, rather than by reciprocating or thanking the giver). If the giver saw that the gift was unappreciated, s/he interpreted that as if the gift were unwanted, and took it back. This was required to avoid offending the recipient with unwanted gifts.

Naturally European-acculturated people didn't understand this, and a new slur was born.

This may be entirely apocryphal, since I'm going by memory (and can't remember where I got this information). Even if it does have a basis in fact, I agree that it's probably best not to use the term.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 01:15 PM:

Gosh, and here I was feeling proud and pleased because I'd finally made it up to slithery reptile. Sigh.


julia ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 02:29 PM:

Actually, Technorati is by orders of magnitude a more accurate guide to who links to you. TTLB was organized with a bit of selection bias built in.

It's probably a bit of selection bias of my own, but when I hear the word "retarded" it's most often is used to describe undeveloped emotional maturity and not cognitive dysfunction. I'd thought that usage had mostly died out.

Now that I think about it, I'm fairly sure that people who have the cognitively challenged in their lives and families could tell me differently (and how much does that suck? The world never does seem to grow up) but that usage wouldn't have popped into my head if someone hadn't brought it up.

Michael Bérubé ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 02:36 PM:

Though this might throw the thread into realms of self-referentiality even the blogosphere would find difficult to accommodate, I just wanted to chime in to say (a) thanks to Patrick for seconding my sense that the ego-surfing and site-meter-checking phenomenon (I thought it was called "vanity googling") is an invitation to madness, (b) Kathryn is of course right that comparing 600 readers of an academic book and X thousand readers of an academic's blog is like comparing adorable rodents and flappy birds, (c) Keith is right to point out that finding out who's been visiting or referring can be very useful (I didn't turn up any Minions of Ashcroft haunting my site, but I did, happily, run across former bandmates from the 1980s), and (d) last but not least, I'm not at all offended by the word "retarded."

But I am still relatively new to this, have only recently updated my blogroll (my apologies to all the bloggers, including Teresa, whom I've been reading for months w/o blogrolling), and am just beginning to consider putting .jpgs on the site. Oh, and one more thing-- I was just checking in to see what Patrick was writing about these days. Wasn't egosurfing. Honest.

Now back to the Citation Index. . . .

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2004, 03:05 PM:

alkali, understood. A very gracious response. (and truth be told, I wondered whether I should send an email to *you* rather than posting here, and decided since the discussion was already in play in a public forum, I shouldn't...I hope my own chiding wasn't too sharp, as I could understand in principle why you raised the issue.)

Xopher, really? Now I have to do some research to see which rendition is accurate. If what you say is true, the phrase (which is used pejoratively) would be inappropriate. I have the perfect book to use for research, too; I just bought this nifty reference on word origins, out from Oxford press.


neil gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 12:47 AM:

I have to admit that I love getting to go backstage every month and look at the website statistics, mostly because they show where people are coming from. I like knowing that as of last month Wyoming has finally overtaken North Dakota at the bottom of the monthly US states tables, or discovering the countries that only one person came in from (last month -Macedonia, Mongolia, Rwanda and Panama). I like knowing that there are people there. I'd not keep a website journal if no-one was reading it (I've never successfully kept a diary for more than four days in the past). So I don't think it's that silly just to want to know you've got readers. On the other hand, if it turns into that thing where haggard authors tell you they check their Amazon sales statistics twice a day, probably just to make sure they exist, it's probably better just to walk away...

Hlvictoria ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 04:09 AM:

Hmmm how do you install a thing that tracks the states your visitors come from? Nedstat tracks countries for me, but I never heard of states before...

My name is Victoria, and I am a sitemeter addict.

And, like Berube, I've promised myself that I will no longer care whether I am an adorable rodent or a flappy bird (lol I've also thought that no one can ever de-evolve like that).

So there. Recognition is a first step, isn't it? Now how do I cure myself from my blogging addiction? ;)

Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 07:53 AM:

Seconding Victoria (which is the name of an Australian State & towns, rivers, etc in places formerly known as The British Empah) when she asks about how you tell where visitors come from.

Are you depending on some sort of equivalent of blogchalking or yahoo or technorati profiles, where people enter information about themselves and the sitemeter tracks that back? Remember the discussion in the Journalism thread about people in one place logging into the system through networks located in another?

I guess the explanation would be somewhere on whatever the place is you're using to track, so a pointer would be useful.

Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 01:06 PM:

Hit statistics can be misleading. I got three thousand hits from one forum last month, but they weren't downloading my music or even looking at my site. Rather, someone was using one of my images as an avatar.

Similarly, the songs on my site get noticeably more hits than complete plays or downloads. The only thing I would really want to count is the latter. I ended up writing a perl script that operates directly on the weblog, since I couldn't find a service that counted anything but hits. I hope that doesn't put me into the "obsessed" category--it was fun.

Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 02:56 PM:

Dunno -- my website gives information through something called Statistics Server, which tells me where about 50% of the people coming in are from. It's off, of course -- it thinks all the AOL people are coming in from Virginia, for example, and the 50% it doesn't recognise could be coming in from anywhere.

Looking at it right now I'm not sure how it works, because a lot of the ones I'd assume were coming in with a country code (eg nl. fi.) it doesn't recognise as having a location. On the other hand I can see people in from Harvard.edu, which it's correctly tagged as Massachusetts, USA.

julia ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2004, 11:58 PM:

I love this with much of a muchness, although like most cool new toys that do something you never knew you needed done until you find out you can, it gets to be too much work after a while.

Derek Lowe ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2004, 03:47 PM:

The Geobytes people that Julia linked to also sell a relatively inexpensive service that will track geographic locations of visitors - a SiteMeter with cities and states attached.

That's how I found out that I have a semi-regular reader in Mauritius, for example.

Since I blog about pharmaceuticals and chemistry, the city names are often enough for me to tell what organizations the traffic is coming from. Although when I had a Google-search referral for "ricin+production", I have to say that it was unnerving to find that it was from a volatile ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia. That's still my only visitor from Bishkek.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 07:03 PM:

Alkali, thank you; I also apologize for overreacting.