February 3, 2014

Giving the People What They Want: Blogging Controversy and Conflict

Controversy legend
Controversy legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the end of 2013 approached, I was faced with the task of identifying Atheist Revolution's most popular posts of 2013. It was an easy enough thing to do, but I was not terribly thrilled with the results. Of the posts written in 2013, the one that received the most page views was the one about PZ Myers publishing allegations against Michael Shermer. I initially found this rather discouraging. What did it say about my readers, I wondered, that this post ended up being far more popular than anything else I wrote in 2013? I soon realized that this was not fair since most of the traffic captured by this post was not from regular readers but from search engine traffic. Google Analytics confirmed this suspicion. Why was this post so popular? Because conflict and controversy draw in the crowds. Is it any wonder that some bloggers are tempted to use this insight to promote themselves?

I certainly wrote better posts about more important subjects in 2013. As we atheists know quite well, the popularity of an idea has little to do with the merit of the idea. I suspect the same is true of blog posts. The fact that a post drew lots of traffic does not make it a good post or even one that is worth reading.

Advice From the Professional Bloggers

I read a few blogs written by "professional bloggers" who earn a living blogging about...well...blogging. These blogs are aimed at an audience who is seeking to make a living from their blogging. While this does not describe me even remotely, I like to read such blogs because they often share tips about new blogging tools or methods for improving one's blog that I sometimes find useful. Much of what they share is aimed at people who use their blogs to sell products, but I have still managed to pick up some helpful information here and there.

One of the suggestions made by virtually all of these bloggers again and again is that we bloggers should not just monitor our statistics but that we should use them to shape our work. And the most obvious way to do that is to look at what has been popular and provide more of it. If your posts about the many inconsistencies found within the Christian bible, for example, tend to take off and bring you considerable traffic, you are encouraged to write more posts about biblical inconsistencies. This simple idea begins by acknowledging that every blog niche is unique and that an individual blogger must learn what his or her audience wants. Once we know what is popular - what our audience desires - we are well-positioned to give them more of it.

And what do people want? If my blog stats are any indication, they want controversy, big names, and open conflict. Few will admit it; many will even go out of their way to deny that they have any interest in this stuff. And yet, the numbers tell a different story. Is it any wonder that we have seen the rise of "drama blogs" and "rage blogging" as more bloggers have decided to give the people what they want? Want more readers? Write more of what they want. It does not get much simpler than that, and it is difficult to blame those who opt to pursue this strategy.

The appeal of giving the people what they want is obvious. You will be rewarded with more traffic, more ad revenue, and more rapid growth. You can make a name for yourself quite easily. So what's the problem? Why isn't everybody doing this?

The Downside of Chasing Controversy

Before you run out and start a new rage blog, consider the possibility that there may be a downside to this sort of thing. Chasing conflict and controversy will almost certainly increase the criticism leveled against you. Many people will be vocal in their opposition to what you are doing. Sure, you can just dismiss them as being jealous of your new popularity, but constant negative attention may come to take a toll. Instead of becoming famous, you may have to settle for becoming notorious. You'll certainly develop a reputation; it just might not be the one you were hoping for.

While I have no question that controversy and conflict can bring significant spikes in blog traffic, I am not convinced that this is the best way to build a consistent base of regular readers. It seems possible that some of the strategies one could use to boost search engine traffic might be so off-putting to readers that one ends up with few returning visitors. Depending on why someone is blogging and what one hopes to accomplish from it, this could be problematic. On the other hand, if one is not interested in return readers as much as one is looking to maximize pageviews, controversy may be just the ticket.

Remembering Why You Blog

The question of how much one should focus on controversy and conflict is a personal one that each blogger must decide for himself or herself. There isn't a single correct answer because what is correct will depend on what the individual blogger is hoping to accomplish and what he or she can live with in terms of the potential consequences of this sort of blogging. Thus, this question is probably inseparable from the question of why one blogs in the first place.

I'm not going to start chasing controversy and conflict for their own sake because that is not the kind of blog I want to write. If that means I end up with less search engine traffic than I might otherwise have, then I'll have to be content with that. I do not make this decision out of some sense of moral superiority; I do so for the selfish reason that it just isn't what I want. I suppose I can't condemn someone else for doing what draws the readers; it just isn't for me. I'm not doing this to make a living, gain fame, or grind an axe.

None of this means that I will ignore controversy and conflict. If I find it sufficiently interesting or relevant, I may write about it. As for chasing it or using it strategically to boost traffic, I think I'll continue to leave that to others.