Microfame, blogs and churn rates

Back in August (see how behind I’ve been with my blog reading?!) Danny O’Brien chewed on a question that is very close to being a question that’s very close to my heart. Danny’s questions is ‘How famous do you want to be?‘.

The fame question appeared in 1997. We were futzing around doing an NTK Live in Soho, and Stew Lee turned up to watch. He was very impressed with all the cabling and the recording equipment and the laptops we were using, and asked how many people were listening to the show online. Standing next to the streaming server, I could answer him instantly: maybe twenty or so (there were probably about seventy people watching the show at the venue). He looked very disappointed, and probably a bit defensively, I found myself asking him The First Question. How many people do you need to be famous for?

In a more recent update (thank god Danny doesn’t blog daily, otherwise I’d be way too far behind), Danny says:

The fame piece got a big reaction, and has been looking increasingly fascinating topic for me. Like Life Hacks, I’ve got this strong sense that this is rich new topic that may be too big for me to explore on my own. I’m doing my best.

I’m not surprised it got a big reaction. There are a lot of people kicking about who would like to be either famous or, in the very least, middling-to-famous. As one of those people, (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to admit it in public, but I have always made a crap fan, and would rather have them than be one), I am obviously very interested in Danny’s conclusions, as and when he draws them.

However, once Danny has answered his question, my question will remain. Once we can say ‘X is how many people you need to be famous for’, we will still need to answer ‘But how do I know how many people I am famous for?’.

In the blogosphere one could argue that such metrics are easily gathered by server stats, but that’s really not true. These days I get most of my referrals to Chocolate and Vodka from Google, so the chances are that most people who swing past there are on their way somewhere else. In particular the guys (and I assume that they *are* guys) looking for ‘hot messy chocolate fuck’ (yes, they’re being more selective in their search terms now) are not actually going to CnV because they know who I am, but because they think they’re gonna get to see some pr0n.

How terribly disappointing for them.

But my point is, visitor numbers can only give you a hint as to for how many people you are famous. It’s sort of a null hypothesis thing – if you have no visitors then you are likely not to be famous, but having lots of visitors doesn’t necessarily mean that they are visiting because they know who you are. It might just mean that Google throws up your blog for lots of different search terms.

So what are the markers of the 1500+ fans microfame?

YASN popularity? Ok, so the size of your Orkut friends pool is not going to give you any true indication of your microfame status because mostly people aren’t friends with their fans. Besides, some unscrupulous people have engaged in Orksluttery, befriending anyone who asked them, at least until the novelty wore off and the ‘no donut for you naughty server’ 404 messages ceased to be amusing and started to crawl up one’s nose like an earwig with a taste for mucous.

Having your own IRC channel? Ooh, laughable. Doesn’t take much to set one up, doesn’t mean you’re famous. Just that you have an ego the size of, er, well, mine.

Your own wiki? Cf. above.

Technorati rank? You might say that the people in Technorati Top 100 are pretty much guaranteed to be famous to some extent, but it doesn’t help the rest of us. One’s blog ranking might be interpreted to indicate relative fame, because one could argue that people are linking to you purposefully, but it doesn’t give you any absolute data about number of fans, just number of people linking to you.

PageRank doesn’t help – it says nothing about relative levels of fame, just how well you do in Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Although the above only refers to the blogosphere, the same issues are prevalent in other areas of our lives too.

Here’s an anecdote. I used to be really active amongst Welsh learners, trying very hard to improve the resources available online and to encourage people to not just take up the language but to persevere with their studies. When I went to the Eisteddfod (a big Welsh language festival), people would sometimes come up to me, knowing who I was because of what I’d done with Clwb Malu Cachu. Now, I may well have been microfamous then, but I really had no way of telling.

In a sense, it was not knowing where I stood, not knowing whether my efforts were being appreciated by anyone at all, that resulted in a feeling of isolation from the rest of the learning community. That feeling of isolation was exacerbated by geography and by the fact that I was a learner-turned-teacher who wasn’t completely fluent and couldn’t take part in monolingual Welsh discussions. Thus I was isolated by physical location and by language – rather ironic for one concerned with teaching languages online.

Ultimately, that feeling of isolation, and the failure to find out what my position within the Welsh community was, lead to my almost complete withdrawal from it.

I am starting, by this point in this post, to write myself into some understanding of why I am interested – concerned, even – in knowing what my level of microfame is, and why it’s important in terms of blogging. Status within the community always has been important to us human beings, and it doesn’t matter whether that community is online or offline, we want to know where we stand.

Whilst I was at BlogTalk 2 earlier this year, Stefan Glänzer presented a paper called Does Blogging Suck? Some of the reasons he gave for blogging sucking were:

– no readers
– no comments
– no trackbacks
– no attention

Blogs have a notoriously high churn rate, with people bailing out when they suffer from the above symptoms. According to Glänzer only 18% of new blogs survive their first month. Before giving up, many bloggers write epitaphs:

– Is anybody reading?
– test test test
– I think I need a break … I will be back …

These are all essentially pleas for feedback and for confirmation that one is not writing in isolation. The blogger is trying to find out what their status is in the community, and when they fail, they abandon the blog on the assumption (correct or otherwise) that they in fact are not a part of any community. In essence, they are attempting to climb onto the ladder which may at some point lead them to a pre-fame status, and thence onwards and upwards to microfame and beyond.

If we can understand how people feel about factors such as microfame, maybe we can better understand what drives people to both start and abandon blogging. Maybe then we can understand how to protect business blogging against the sort of churn rate that personal blogging suffers.

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