How Many People Will Read What You Write?

I followed a link from Barbara Fletcher's site to an article about blogging on the MSNBC site. Since I'm new to the world of blogging and am trying to understand it, I thought a populist perspective might be useful.

I wasn't disappointed. One line in particular stood out. Describing why bloggers blog, the article says, "Motives include a blogger’s need for attention, a mania to share information and, above all, a desire to be a participant and not a potato."

"Not a potato", eh? I know what a couch potato is, and I believe I've heard the term "mouse potato". (Actually, I just searched for it on Google and got 4,250 hits.) But I suspect the term will end up having multiple contradictory definitions, like the word "hacker" does. (I consider myself a hacker and wince when some TV pundit uses the term as a synonym for "cracker" or "computer felon".)

I think the word the writer could have used (if the average reader knew what it meant) was "lurker". Lurkers are the bane of messaging systems: they slurp up resources and give nothing back.

If I may digress, this reminds me of an amusing (possibly true) story I once heard from a BBS sysop. His single-line system was constantly tied up by one fellow who never posted a single message. One day the sysop cut in to the lurker's session and asked him, "Why don't you participate?" The other fellow responded, "But I do! I read every single message!" There you have a good example of somebody who doesn't understand what "interactive" means.

Anyway, when it comes to blogging, you can't be a lurker. If you don't write, people won't visit your site; and if you don't want people to read your stuff, you might as well scribble your thoughts in one of those diaries with the little locks on them. That way your thoughts will remain private as long as nobody has a bobby-pin.

It's a tidy little arrangement we've got here: the writers write, and the lurkers lurk. People get what they want. In fact, I'd guess that most bloggers would like more people to lurk on their site. It might be interesting to consider the numbers involved in this.

I've run many messaging systems over the years. Most of them were designed to encourage participation and one of them (the Pyroto Mountain system) barely works at all unless you do contribute your thoughts. For most pure messaging systems, though, I estimate that there are between 10 and 100 lurkers for every person who writes regularly. Then you have systems such as Fark, which is halfway between a blog and a bulletin board: a quick analysis of today's numbers shows that slightly less than one percent of the people who cruise its links bother to comment. So that 1-in-100 figure I mentioned seems to be inherent to the population rather than the medium.

If I can expand on what Andy Warhol predicted, it seems that one day every blogger will have their 15 minutes of fame – and their one hundred readers.

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