In the Paleolithic era, before there was a MySpace or a YouTube, those who obsessively tracked the size of their audience were mostly television and radio executives or magazine and newspaper publishers. In order to set advertising rates (and claim bragging rights), they needed to know how many people were watching, listening and reading.
But now, in the Web 2.0 era, it seems we're all publishers and broadcasters - from the 14-year old with a MySpace page, to the 34-year-old who's started a blog on state and local politics, to the octogenarian jazz buff who records a weekly podcast from his retirement home. As a result, many of us have become obsessed with audience metrics of our own, seeking a tally of how many people we're reaching as something of a touchstone - an indicator of our influence, popularity, or coolness. And some are looking to the numbers as a possible escape hatch, allowing them to think about turning their self-publishing hobby into a business by building an audience large enough to attract advertisers.
In the early days of the Web, some sites sported "page counters," which displayed how many times a given page had been visited. But metrics weren't anywhere near as prevalent as they are today, and the software to do counting and analysis wasn't free, as much of it is now.
These days, on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, it's easy to see how many times a photo of that big party has been viewed. On MySpace, the popular site for
digital schmoozing, teenagers fret over how many times their profile has been viewed, and how many people have agreed to "friend" them, making a tenuous online connection that adds one's photo to a roll call of friends. (Presidential candidates worry about these kinds of things, too: After Barack Obama got off to a very fast start in collecting friends on MySpace, Hillary Clinton must be relieved to see herself pulling almost even.) Aspiring bands and filmmakers eye the tally of how many times their songs or videos have been played, and every blogger religiously examines line graphs showing visits to her site, eager to see whether the readership is growing, stagnant, or shrinking.
"I've seen bloggers get depressed because the number of readers doesn't move, or it goes down," says Scott Beale, a San Francisco photographer and blogger who maintains the site Laughing Squid. On the flip side, a readership on the upswing is "a motivational thing," Beale says, "and you get an idea of what kind of blog posts people like." (Laughing Squid is the 628th most-linked-to blog on the Internet, out of an estimated total of 75 million, according to Technorati, a service that gauges the popularity of blogs.)
For some of the micro-publishers who produce blogs, audio podcasts and skeins of short videos, keeping tabs on the audience is the key to thinking about advertising; they may have ambitions to quit their day job and support themselves by selling ads or sponsorships around their creative work. For most, though, it's just a new way of gauging whether what they do is having an impact.
"We want that feeling that people are actually paying attention," says Dan Klass, a Los Angeles actor and comedian who produces a podcast called "The Bitterest Pill," which reaches nearly 10,000 listeners. "But part of your ego can live and die by those metrics. You start to worry if you're still relevant."
Andy Plesser, a public relations executive who publishes a video blog called Beet.tv, checks a Web page several times throughout the day that shows information about which other sites are sending visitors his way. "I look at it first thing in the morning, at the office during client calls, and before I go to sleep," he says, via e-mail. "More alarmingly, I have it bookmarked on my BlackBerry, and I find myself hitting refresh repeatedly." Plesser confesses to checking his stats even while he's in the car commuting to work (only when it's stopped, he insists).
As a journalist who writes about innovation for a number of newspapers and magazines, I've long appreciated the jolt of validation I get from seeing an article of mine in print somewhere: If my work is being read, all must be right with the world. On occasion, it is nice to get an e-mail from a reader, or read a letter to the editor (even one taking issue with one of my pieces.) But blogging, podcasting and producing Internet videos, which I've only begun doing in the past two years, provide a deeper and more nuanced kind of feedback, and allow you to see your work in the context of the larger Internet community.
In the world of blogging, analytics software such as StatCounter, SiteMeter and Google Analytics, all available for free, can tell you which of your posts are the most popular. It's also easy to see how readers are finding you - which other Web sites are linking to those popular posts - and to keep tabs on which posts generate the most comments from readers. A feature called "trackback" allows you to weave into your blog a list of links to other blogs that are discussing your post, along with a snippet of what they're saying about it.
Although you can't discern exactly who is reading your blog, you can often see which companies they're coming from. Because my blog, CinemaTech, focuses on new technologies that are changing the entertainment industry, seeing visitors from Pixar.com, TiVo.com, and Sony.com is encouraging information about the composition of my tiny little audience.
Reasons for keeping track
Of course, readership and demographics matter only to me, the Rupert Murdoch of my mini-media empire. If the information does anything, it simply prods me to continue committing 15 or 20 minutes a day to producing a post or two, and it makes me feel accountable to my readers.
But among the ranks of self-publishers, there are some who hope to make it a self-sustaining business. And they fixate on metrics for the same reason that TV execs and magazine publishers do: as a lure to potential advertisers and underwriters.
Klass says he is hoping to be able to attract enough money in sponsorships for "The Bitterest Pill" so that his podcast can be his primary focus - or, he says, "I'd like to develop the show so it's more appropriate for NPR or talk radio. I'd like to sell out." So for him, growing the size of his audience matters.
Kendal Miller, a Chicagoan who co-edits a blog about digital video called FreshDV, says he monitors FreshDV's traffic much more closely than traffic to his personal site. Like Klass, Miller and his co-editor are hoping to build a business around their blog, which publishes news items, product reviews and video dispatches from industry trade shows. Miller notes that traffic statistics are also important in persuading equipment makers to send them products for review. Brian Ibbott, who produces about 10 podcasts every week from his home near Denver, quit his full-time job in a tech-support department last May. Since then, he hasn't paid quite as much attention to his metrics, though he says his most popular podcast, Coverville, reaches about 35,000 people. "I used to check my stats constantly," Ibbott says. "These days, I have less time."
Whether a self-publisher is trying to cultivate a business or not, there's a strong temptation to rely on metrics in the same way that "big media" executives watch a new magazine's circulation, or a new radio host's Arbitron numbers - as a compass that guides them toward or away from certain kinds of content and coverage.
At FreshDV, a "first look" at a new camera from Panasonic drew a big audience of video buffs, a phenomenon that Miller and his co-editor noted and that will affect their decisions about future coverage. Justine Ezarik, a freelance designer in Pittsburgh who produces a series of Internet videos at www.mommypackmylunch.com, says she has noticed that many of the most popular online video series (such as "Diggnation," produced in San Francisco) focus on tech topics. She's thinking of creating a new show for that audience.
Video creators have discovered that putting a pretty woman in their videos, ideally clad in a tight T-shirt, can help attract viewers, something their print and TV compatriots already knew, Klass observes. Bloggers know that lists - whether of the best mafia movies or the worst trades in baseball - frequently cause traffic to spike, by enticing other sites to link to them. (A post designed to generate links is referred to as "link bait.") One of Guy Kawasaki's most popular posts is just such a list: "The Top Ten Lies of Venture Capitalists."
Kawasaki is a Silicon Valley author and entrepreneur whose blog, "How to Change the World," shows up at No. 21 on Technorati's list of the most influential blogs. He contends that all bloggers care about metrics, no matter how well-known or obscure. Via e-mail, he quips, "There are two kinds of bloggers: those that obsess about their Technorati rankings, and those that lie and say they don't."
"Human beings are social animals," says Technorati founder David Sifry. "We want to know who we are, and where we stand. But I would just caution against people who use this kind of data to judge their worth as a human being." (Easy for Sifry to say; his blog is among the 1,000 most influential.)
It may be hard to ignore the metrics that are increasingly attached to everything we publish on the Internet; some online party invitations now even bear information about how many people plan to attend and how many are on the fence perhaps waiting for a better offer.
But metrics on the Internet aren't likely to exert the kind of tyranny that they do in traditional media. Because Internet self-publishing is free (save for the time it takes to produce a podcast or snap a series of Flickr photos), it isn't subject to the same economics as television, radio, or publishing. Whereas it'd be almost impossible to keep a low-rated sitcom on the air for years, or continue cranking out a glossy magazine with only a handful of readers, Internet self-publishers can endure for years, fueled only by passion for a topic or an art form. That's allowing millions of flowers to bloom. YouTube reported last year that it was receiving about 65,000 new videos every day. Technorati estimates about 120,000 new blogs are created daily, and the site Podcast Alley counts more than 30,000 podcasts.
Everyone's a blogger
One concern, however, looms on the horizon for all those creators: In a world where everyone is busy churning out videos, blog entries, and podcasts (and counting the number of people who tune in), do we run the risk of having no one left to watch?