Writing for Pageviews

When writing Rethinking RSS the other day, I started reflecting on my process for discovering and consuming new and interesting writing. This time around I zeroed in less on the specifics, though — Tweetbot, Instapaper, and Reeder — , more on the jobs I use those and other services to complete, and how that methodology could bode ill for the current metric by which website owners determine success, attain profitability, and measure popularity.

If you have spent any time outlining your version of success, your manifesto likely included at least one reference to pageviews. Many writers believe this a great measure for determining the popularity of their work, and they are not necessarily wrong: great work will, eventually, get noticed; however, predicating your entire self-worth, in addition to that of your writing, on the whims of others is asinine: if Homer came back from the dead today, started a blog at Tumblr, and wrote another epic, the fact that no one read it would not devalue his work in the least. Thus, as Jamie Ryan once said, “So no, page views are not a good measurement of success”.

Thankfully, this is not a groundbreaking revelation: many of the conversations on these topics I have witnessed lately have progressively focused on this imperfect metric less and less. To say that it has completely fallen to the wayside, however, could not be farther from the truth; and in fact, we are very far from reaching a point where we measure “success” — however it is defined — by something so intangible as influence (good try though, Klout) and authority. Having come to this unfortunate realization, it begs the question, “When will we cease to evaluate success, profitability, and popularity based on something so inherently flawed as pageviews?”

The last time I visited Marco Arment’s website was for the URL to his article on headphones and coffee. Not so that I could read it, though, for I had already done so months prior, but instead so that I could incorporate it into a link blog post of my own. Yet, despite the infrequency with which I open Marco.org in my web browser, I have read every single article he has posted since shortly after he and Dan Benjamin started the now-defunct Build & Analyze in 2010. The same goes for other sites, such as Shawn Blanc’s and John Gruber’s: I cannot remember the last time I actually visited either, but I have read every single thing they have written for coming on four years now. Each Marco, Shawn, and John have all seen but a handful of pageviews from me in the last four years, yet I feel confident in ranking myself amongst their greatest fans.

As generic bins with the sole purpose of enabling us to time-shift our reading experience have continued to rise in popularity, pageviews have simultaneously continued to lose their meaning. Today, I can see a link to an article from Shawn Blanc, open it in Reeder, send the URL to Drafts, and write a post about it whenever I have a spare moment, all without ever opening Shawn’s site. Substitute “Instapaper”, “Pocket”, “Pinboard”, or any other, similar service for “Reeder” in that equation, and the problems with this approach become increasingly more obvious. Whats more, I highly doubt that I am alone in this way: those aforementioned sites and services are hugely popular, and for what else than to do exactly what I detailed above — namely, skip the middleman (the site owner) and provide a single location at which to find everything you have deemed worthy for reading at a later date? So let me ask you once more, “When will we cease to evaluate success, profitability, and popularity based on something so inherently flawed as pageviews?”