Am I a gorilla or an elephant?

Oy, it’s navel-gazing time in the science blogosphere, prompted by a post at Bayblab that reveals some resentment or justifiable concern (depending on your perspective) about the inevitable problem that always crops up in blogging: somebody always has more than someone else. Traffic and traffic-ranking services fuel a feed-forward loop that means that those that have, get more. And that means that those squatting atop the traffic ziggurat aren’t necessarily there because they are the very best, but because they tapped into fortunate combinations of attraction and attention early on. I’ll be the first to say that luck and timing are the big factors that put someone at the top of the heap in this game (although I think a little talent for the medium does play a role, at least in the sense of keeping one from slipping to the bottom.)

Somehow, I’ve ended up at the high end of my niche on the web, so of course everyone is making me part of the argument. I’m the 800 lb. gorilla, the beast you can’t ignore — is that good or bad? Does that PZ guy demolish the reputation of science across the web, or does he enhance it? Is he in it for the money, the fame, the glory, or the girls, and is all that a corrupting influence?

None of the above, of course. I would be writing the same stuff whether it was a 100 of you stopping by each month, or something over a million. What I write is just plain naked me, without contrivance or effort to write what someone else wants. I get paid a sum that’s actually helpful in staving off starvation, but not enough that I’m at all tempted to quit my day job … and I was doing the same thing when I was getting paid nothing. What I write I write because I feel like it, because I’ve got my hobbyhorses that need to be rocked, and not because I’m trying to meet some abstract standard that someone else set, no matter how well-meaning they might be. Love me or hate me, I’m just doing my thing.

You all are welcome to write a more popular blog. I’m not going to knife you on the way up, and I’m not even going to feel any resentment if you want to pass me by. This is not something I have any control over, and sincerely, I think there is an element of zen here: you aren’t going to get readers to flock to you by trying to get them to come to you. It just happens.

Well, except when you write a mildly inflammatory post and the bleary-eyed 800 lb. gorilla looks up and pokes you with a link.

Anyway, go read the various takes by Munger, Switek, and Laden. They’re pretty sensible.

By the way, I do have to address one specific accusation made at Bayblog, that I get most of my traffic from creationists. I know this isn’t true; creationist blogs rarely link to me, and even when they do, the traffic from those sites is laughably negligible. We actually have a bit of a dearth of creationist commenters; regulars here know that such visitors tend to get shredded fast. I’m afraid that most of the people who show up here are fans, not opponents.


  1. #1 LeeLeeONe
    February 27, 2008

    “What I write is just plain naked me, without contrivance or effort to write what someone else wants.”

    PZ, Professor: This is why you are #1, not only on my list, but on thousands and thousands of personal lists (i.e. a helluva lot of lists)!

    If I were Bill Gate’s or even a close relative, you could quit that “day” job. But you wouldn’t, I bet.

  2. #2 Glen Davidson
    February 27, 2008

    Good god man, you must know that you’re neither elephant nor gorilla, but a giant squid. Cephalopods rule by nature!

    Sheesh, bloggers.

    Glen D

  3. #3 rmp
    February 27, 2008

    “Plain naked me”. Come on PZ, you know that’s a cruel image to force upon us.

    OK, too obvious but I just couldn’t help myself.

  4. #4 Brownian, OM
    February 27, 2008

    Janine, according to Wikipedia, adult male gorillas range in weight from 310 to 440 lbs. Methinks someone’s spending a little too much time foraging and not nearly enough time grooming.

  5. #5 ERV
    February 27, 2008

    This has been ‘whiny hypocrite concern troll’ week on the blagosphere, apparently.

    I liked booby week better.

  6. #6 Doc Bill
    February 27, 2008

    Please clarify.

    Naked prose or prone naked?

    (Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A” Please be answer “A”)

  7. #7 Zeno
    February 27, 2008

    Traffic is nice, of course, and it’s fun when there’s a rush to your blog, because that makes you think that you put up something good, but popularity is sort of a fluke. My big rushes have come from links here and at Crooks & Liars (the most recent one for merely posting an old Fry & Laurie bit on “Kickin’ Ass” [see me blogwhore]). But there is an upside to low traffic, and that’s recognizing your regulars, like the Huntsville reader who is always one of the first to read one of my posts, often within minutes of my posting it. And my Harvard regular, whoever that is. Fans! At a mega-popular site like this, PZ can probably barely keep track of the people who natter on in the comments, let alone the lurkers who keep quiet. And since my blog is merely a hobby rather than an effort to bring Truth to the Universe (while incidentally smiting Evil), I’m okay on the fringes of the blogosphere’s ecosystem. I will, however, still smite Evil occasionally, just to keep my hand in.

  8. #8 Chris Clarke
    February 27, 2008

    I got to the comment that included this:

    Anyway taking a pay-cheque for blogging is just silly. More importantly it robs bloggers of their power to contribute something original to culture.

    … and decided not to read further lest I flame.

    I’m as sensitive to the whole long tail issue as anyone, and I try very hard to spread what little traffic I have around to blogs with less of it. I have benefitted, traffic wise, from PZ’s doing the same — and he did so back when he was just a moderately large orangutan. There are systemic problems with ranking blogs by traffic, and that writer has a point about writing what the audience wants rather than what needs to be written. Though it’s not precisely the point s/he thinks it is.

    But if you’re writing material whose quality is so low that getting paid for it would be “just silly,” that might be part of your problem right there. I didn’t see much in the way of writing ability over there that would cause me to go back. There are plenty of smaller, less-trafficked blogs deserving of more attention where the blogger/s in question can construct a clear, non-ambiguous, and even artful post.

  9. #9 mjfgates
    February 27, 2008

    I, for one, welcome our… no, no, that’s just silly. I can say that the few bloggers I’ve personally thrown money at, I threw money at precisely because they were contributing original things. Well, also because it’s kind of fun to be able to send them mail saying “Write! Write FASTER, slave! *wssshh-CRACK*”, but that’s differnt.

  10. #10 foxfire
    February 27, 2008

    First we get the self-defined morality police (“Moral Majority” types) and now we have potential self-defined blog traffic cops? Kiss my a$$ you whiny losers.

    My traffic goes to PZ (and ERV for the same reasons, btw) because he writes well, addresses topics that interest me, responds to comments (not every one, but enough) and because a whole bunch of the folks who comment are also interesting, well educated, creative, informative and downright hilarious.

    Keep it up PZ – you gotta go for the one-ton King Kong award!!

  11. #11 MAJeff
    February 27, 2008

    Not to get into the elephant/gorilla/squid debate for the evening, but I miss Dr. Bérubé’s dangeral presence among the evil-blog-professoriate.

  12. #12 foxfire
    February 27, 2008

    Patrick @26

    I just saw that (I was unable to access the blog for a while as it was out of service – a few minutes later the “you have all been part of…” post showed up). I can only concur with the first comment (“bullshit”).

    Bee’s post above (#25) is terrific and I share his/her reason for liking Pharyngula – I first found it after I saw a post at RD net where Dawkins mentioned PZ’s blog.

    The “Part2″ at Bayblab states:

    Why do we blog about science? For us at the bayblab, it was just an extension to our conversations about science that tended to take place in the “cool” bay of the lab, the only place with a decent sound system. It wasn’t initially intended to be public, it was just an efficient way to share stories among us so that we could have some conversation fodder

    Well, Bayblabers, I guess that kinda explains why people like Bee and I come here to Pharyngula. PZ writes for folks who love science and who snotty grad students might kick out from their “cool” blog because they were just layfolk.

    Take a clue Bayblabers and check out ERV’s blog. She’s a grad student too. Only she is not snotty, can write for a layperson as well as technical experts and is stunningly eloquent, entertaining, educational and downright human.

    Kinda like PZ. In layfolk terms: U kan B teh Gorilla or U can be cheezeburger.

  13. #13 Holydust
    February 27, 2008

    Oh yes, foxfire — I forgot to mention that I came to Pharyngula first after reading the God Delusion and hearing about it twice (or three times?) in the book. I had to come see what this clever man was talking about? And I’ve been happily perusing ever since.

    I’m actually considering offering the link to my still-confused-on-ID father — because he has gotten the unshakable impression from anti-athiest blogs that Dawkins is an incorrigible snob who thinks all religious people are utter imbeciles. Whether or not that’s true, I’ve tried to convince my father that not all athiests are mean-spirted, snarling jackals. I’m hoping PZ’s blog is just the place to show him that… hoping. Cross fingers.

  14. #14 foxfire
    February 27, 2008

    That was supposed to be Patrick @27 and Bee@26. Sorry!

    I was so just annoyed: “Social Engineering” experiment my ass. These clowns would fit right in at Faux News.

  15. #15 inkadu
    February 27, 2008

    I come for the God-bashing, but I stay for the calamari.

  16. #16 bayman
    February 28, 2008

    Thanks for responding. There might be luck behind the popularity of your blog, but I think it’s good thing the gorilla is benevolent. I do appreciate the fact that you are open to annoying critics and supportive of other bloggers.

    I can’t say that I envy your traffic. Must be a pain in the ass to always be the scapegoat for people like us.

    I do however envy the number of comments you get, although I’d wish them to be more diverse and argumentative. I did also notice that virtually no creationists comment on your creationism posts. I find this intriguing as well. There are indeed mysterious forces at play in the blogosphere…

  17. #17 Matt Penfold
    February 28, 2008

    One of the criticisms levelled at PZ and others is that they do not blog enough on real science. They have been pretty much eviscerated over the stupidity of that comment, but there is something I would like to add.

    I enjoy PZ’s blog, both the more poltitical/cultural stuff and the more scientific stuff. PZ pointed out that the science stuff takes longer to write, and in general is more effort. I can quite understand that. What I would add to that is it takes more effort to read. Not in a bad way, when PZ blogs on real science he is always clear and understandable. But the posts tend to be longer, and require a bit more thinking on the part of the reader. I may be about to say something that will make me look a total idiot, but I am not always in the mood to put in that extra effort, often because I am reading the blog first thing in the morning or last thing at night. It is the same as not always wanting to read a book that is explaining complex ideas at night in bed: Sometimes some lighter fluff is what you want.

    What I do is tend to bookmark such posts to read when I have the time, normally at the weekends.

  18. #18 Nobody
    February 28, 2008

    Bayblog is utterly full of it. The vast, VAST majority of commenters in this place are part the jabbering PSH (Pharyngula Sycophantic Horde).

  19. #19 paul lurquin
    February 28, 2008

    Not a gorilla, not an elephant…

    He is a walrus, goo goo g’joob…!

  20. #20 Owen
    February 28, 2008

    PZ’s a protean blogger, obviously.

  21. #21 the_astrocreep
    February 28, 2008

    If you’re interested, I came up with a visual representation of PZ Myers as a 900 pound gorillaphant. I just took it to the next level:

  22. #22 VWXYNot?
    February 29, 2008

    I just wanted to pop up and defend the Bayblab. It’s actually pretty good most of the time – let the dust settle and check it out some time. There are multiple contributors, so you can ignore any posts written by the guy who caused all the controversy, whether it really was intentional or not.

    I’m selective over which posts I read here, too – there are a lot of US politics posts that just don’t really interest me, and yes, the same culture wars themes do tend to pop up again and again. But the many posts that do interest me make it worthwhile. There’s no law that you have to read and enjoy every single post on every blog you read! (Luckily, or I’d spend all day here).