October 13, 2013

What Kind of TV Show is Your Blog?

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Some television shows are written in such a way that each episode is entirely self-contained. One could randomly select any episode from such a show and watch it without feeling lost. While such a viewer would probably still have a different experience from a viewer who had seen every previous episode of the show, he or she would at least not feel completely clueless.

This is certainly not true of everything on TV. There are a number of shows, many of them quite popular, that require the viewer to have seen nearly all of the previous episodes to have any idea what is going on. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and the Walking Dead are just a few memorable examples. There is nothing inherently good or bad about designing a show like this, but they do pose a bit of a barrier to a new viewer. To get into such a show already in progress, one really needs to go back to the beginning and watch in the order in which episodes aired.

Of these two types of shows (i.e., the single-episode sort and the serial sort), which type sounds most like your blog? And is that a conscious decision on your part?

Most atheist blogs, including this one, are probably not pure examples of either approach. Can you imagine how annoying it would be to regular readers for an atheist blogger to provide a definition of atheism in every single post in which it was addressed? That would get old quickly, and yet, that is what a pure example of the single-episode sort of blog might look like. And how annoying would it be if a blogger only wrote about topics that regular readers would understand? New readers would see little reason to return to such a blog.

The way most bloggers try to navigate this split is with links. When we write new posts, we often link back to old ones to provide some context to those who will need it. We recognize that our regular readers probably won't need the links but that providing them will be essential to new readers who might be unfamiliar with some aspect of a post. What we try to avoid is explaining everything all over again in each post. If we did that, we'd be able to do little more than write the same post over-and-over.

Imagine a reader who has never heard anything about the conflict and infighting in the atheist community who lands on this post. Such a reader would likely be confused because he or she would lack the context required to understand it. It would be a bit like me trying to start watching The Wire mid-way through the series. The situation might be improved if the reader took the time to follow some of the links, but some will not do so.

I think many bloggers expect that truly curious readers will expend some effort to answer their own questions. They will read the previous posts to which we have linked (usually for their benefit), use Google, and the like. When they comment on a post by demanding examples, examples we and countless other bloggers have provided previously, we tend to get frustrated. I have yet to encounter a blogger who has sufficient time to respond to every commenter by providing the numerous examples which may be requested, many of which are likely distributed across multiple posts written over months or years.

At the same time, we don't always provide context terribly well, at least I don't. I find that it requires intentional effort on my part to stop and ask myself what sort of context might be necessary and how best to include it. We want to avoid too many links in a post, and yet, we have to anticipate demands for more information from those who are unwilling to search for the information they request. It can be a tricky balance to navigate.