Believe it or not (and I have some trouble believing it myself), I’ve written 235 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel over the not-quite-three-years of its existence. Some have made waves. Others have vanished into the deep waters of the internet without the hint of a ripple.
I got thinking about this because last month I wrote a post called Statistics in Excel, and when is a Results section too short?. It turned out, to my surprise, to be one of the “wave” ones: it was read just over 3,000 times in its first 48 hours. I’m pretty sure that’s more eyeballs than my entire body of published work (79 papers plus The Scientist’s Guide to Writing) gets in a year*. A few of my posts have been like that – not “viral” on a celebrity kind of scale, but read remarkably widely. They almost always surprise me. But I’m a scientist, and scientists like data, and WordPress provides some… so the plot above is a rank-frequency curve for the “lifetime” views of every post I’ve run since Scientist Sees Squirrel debuted**. I see two interesting things in the curve – one at each end.
The first thing is that there’s some pattern in what kind of posts go semi-viral. It’s not random. Posts about statistics (coded with green) are pretty popular (so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by Statistics in Excel). So are posts about peer review (coded with brown). Perhaps this is a signal that I should write more posts about these topics, but I’m not going to. Granted, I’ll continue to have stray thoughts about statistics and about peer review, and with the arrogance of the blogger, I’ll probably inflict them on you. But I don’t plan to go looking for semi-viral topics. That’s partly because having a post widely read makes me uncomfortable (and yes, I know this is weird). More importantly, the popular posts aren’t necessarily my favourite posts to write.
Which brings me to the second interesting pattern. My posts about the etymologies of Latin names (coded with pink) are… well, let’s say they have a niche audience, because that sounds better than “often, nobody cares”. And yet, I love writing posts about the etymologies of Latin names. (Haven’t read one of those? You’re not alone. I swear they’re more interesting than they sound. Try starting with this one.) I’m going to keep writing this kind of post, and mostly they’ll keep vanishing into the void achieving their niche audience, and that will just have to be that, I guess.
The J-shaped curve that’s so obvious in my post-popularity plot is a very general phenomenon. You’d get the same shape, more or less, if you plotted sales for all the books on Amazon, or radio plays for all the rock songs every recorded, the wealth of billionaires or the frequency of Amazonian trees, or any number of other things. Early in the development of the World Wide Web, there were many suggestions that digitalization and the internet would work to flatten these J-shaped curves, because there would be little cost for a consumer to find niche content or for a producer to distribute and promote it. I don’t have data at hand, but my understanding is that in fact, the opposite has been true: the internet has proven a spectacularly effective tool for concentrating attention (on the latest viral cat video), not leveling it. But digitization and the internet have at least allowed niche content to exist, so it can be found by its handful of avid consumers. My pet posts – my etymologies of Latin names – have their handful of avid readers. I’ll continue to write and post them for that handful (but mostly for me). Blogging lets me write what I’m interested in.
Sorry about that. I gather you’d all rather hear more about Statistics and Excel. Hey, this blog is free, and you get what you pay for. 🙂
© Stephen Heard December 7, 2017
*^Possibly much more, but I’d prefer not to think too hard about this.
**^These are raw view counts, uncorrected for age of post. Older posts have had more time to accumulate views. But pushing in the other direction, older posts first ran on a blog with a smaller audience. It would take more careful analysis than I want to do to tease these effects apart.