From Baldur Bjarnason, the reality of writing on the web:
15. People will always prefer you to state the obvious and spout common sense. If you say anything that requires a bit of thinking, or that would require them to learn new skills or ideas, your audience will evaporate into nothing, no matter how important those new things are. (Also see point 8 above.) You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.
16. Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.
17. There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.
18. There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.
19.Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).
20. The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. It doesn’t matter if they agree with you or not, they will still flock to your cuss-filled rant.
21. Communities get the discourse they deserve. When either the inane and obvious, or frothing lunacy are all that get attention, then that’s all you end up getting. Moreover, it’s your own damn fault. People may well instapaper the good stuff fully intending to read it at some point in the future (hah!), but bile is the stuff they actually read and it certainly is the only thing they respond to.
There is some real truth in this, but not always. I have given up on trying to predict what will draw a lot of attention, positive and negative, outside of certain categories (if I dis your favorite technology or talk about social welfare, I will get many angry comments, if I mention climate change or my religion I will get the usual lunatics, if I post pictures of kittens or baby goats I will get many “awwws.”) It is true that an astonishing number of toss-off posts get a lot of attention, while the ones you labor over don’t, but that’s ok. When I taught writing, I remember dozens of students coming to me to say “But I thought it was a good paper.” My answers was always “That’s nice, but unfortunately, your opinion is not the critical one.” That remains true here – what I think of my work is not terribly important (actually, I think you could make a good case that writers in general are terrible judges of their own work.)
It is absolutely true that controversy and anger get you a lot more readers. I sometimes do both of those things, but I find that it isn’t good for my bloodpressure or stress level, and am content to be under-read and happy. Actually, I find that happiness may be the worst thing for a writer. As much as working on the net is interesting, and results in both learning a ton and also meeting wonderful, interesting people, it isn’t what makes me really happy. My LIFE is what makes me happy, and I find the more aware I am that my life is not my work – or rather that my life at home and my farm and my family are what really matters to me, the harder it is for me to work up a good head of steam of the sort that would bring in more ticked off readers. This is, for a writer, a genuine dilemma – the musings of happy people rarely get read. My maternity leave is winding up, and I find myself wondering whether I want to remain a writer for just that reason.
The last point, #21, I hope is true – although I suspect I’ve gotten better than I deserve. This blog has picked up some trolls, particularly in the last few months when I’ve been around a lot less, but generally speaking the culture of this blog has always been a really wonderful one. Most often the twits go away and find someone else to bother, simply because there isn’t enough excitement in a community that works from the assumption that others are acting in good faith. That is the great joy of this work – the discovery that I am lucky enough to have a body of thoughtful, intelligent commenters who are willing to buck the culture of the net and assume others are indeed, intelligent beings who deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt. If there is one thing about writing that does increase my net happiness, it is the majority of my commenters, from whom I get a great deal.