"No immediate commercial potential ... that I can see"

Sent: Saturday, October 18, 2003 4:06 PM

An old friend wrote that perhaps I should take some time off "from whatever it is that I am doing that is mute and write write write."

And I replied:

I appreciate the suggestion very much. I don't quite know what to do with it, but I am taking it under consideration. Yesterday, in fact, really was a dedicated writing day for me.

My back was screwed up (first time I've ever done that - a sure sign of old age approaching, I suppose) and so I could not fill the trailer with stuff to haul to the dump, and I did not feel like working on the website I am starting to build to sell off most of my mountain of way-too-long-unused totally-cool-stuff.

I am selling everything I am not using because I am finally tired of taking care of it (life is too short). And because I have turned off almost all my work-stream, which means that life is far less irritating, but almost no work going out also means almost no money coming in.  Which means that eventually I have to figure out something to write about that is something that someone else wants something written about, again. You know the drill.

But lately the funky-looking glass with the broken handle and chips around the rim, the one that holds the rest of my life, has been looking pretty damned empty. Too many old friends have been running out of gas lately, getting weak, getting cancer, discovering the fact of their mortality. So the value of my time, at least time spent doing stuff that is not really worth doing just to get by, is finally getting clear to me.

So I have decided to sell the most valuable of the baggage that I have been carrying around to buy some more time. And so that I don't leave such a mess behind for others to deal with when I go. It's not a particularly original idea but it seems like a good one, and I assume I can go back to fixing computer networks or writing funding proposals and Excel macros when I am too feeble to climb mountains or kayak in the surf.

Anyway I came to the office yesterday with a bag of ice to lean on and rather like magic, discovered that my inbox was full of great stuff, yours included, so I leaned back against the ice and wrote and wrote and wrote some more.

This morning in response to your observation that I should be writing more and more and more instead of just sitting mute, I wrote another reasonably juicy page or so that was directed at you, and that built on the stuff I was writing yesterday, but I did it on sweetie's machine, using a web-mail interface that I crashed right after it was all done, and it went (metaphorically) "poof ..."" and silently vanished into the bit bucket. So it goes. Non-attachment lesson #1 for the day. We all know that T.E. Lawrence lost the whole first manuscript to Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Left it on the train on his way to London to hand it over to the publisher.
The world may well be a better place as a result of the rewrite.

Some of the lost letter was about Tango, and my confusion about my sweetie's involvement in tango, but the most important part of what I wrote related to the operation of my website, which is what the good stuff that comes up in these email dialogues ultimately morphs into and which is my main outlet for writing these days.

And I talked at length about the stochastic nature of website traffic, how web pages behave like slot machines in Las Vegas in many ways, but differ in others, and to demonstrate the differences, I discussed how I track and respond to the traffic (google search strings provide rather revealing indications of viewer's interest, they but don't give me a clue about what to write to attract or hold the searchers' interest) and I speculated a bit about how if I were more diligent I could actually connect with the readers in an interactive way - which is the part of the story that I am going to recreate right now:

It started with a discussion of writing for publication and the irony of having once had a pair of editors at the same magazine who totally disagreed about the quality of my writing. One of them loved it and felt like it was camera-ready as long as it had been spellchecked and the other editor hated almost everything about it, And rewrote many sections after I turned it in, cutting and changing text in ways that often subtracted the entire point of the paragraph. It's still that way: I have a string of fans who read this shit online and claim to love it, and I have people who I collaborate with on projects who feel the need to rewrite every single line. I assume that there is more writing for publication in my future, writing with a real purpose, but right now I am just writing into the void.

Anyhow, my inability to decide what to write about or who to write for has led me to choose to run my own soapbox online rather than try to cooperate with the kids running the local indynewspaper, except to occasionally give them free hardware (my old 19 and 20 inch monitors) and free tech support when they screw up and delete the majority of the issue and all the artwork for the display ads 10 hours before it's supposed to go to press. I just can't see the point of dealing with editors and deadlines just for the thrill of it these days. Some months they have more readers than I do, some months I have more readers than they do. It all depends on what people decide to type into Google, I guess.

So here is where it perhaps gets interesting again:

I can detect rather subtle increases in traffic on each of my pages. Increased traffic spikes indicate that a page has been discovered by someone and that it is now being passed around - that the address has been sent from one person to a few friends and now it has started to expand at the third or fourth level - each person in the chain sends it to a few and presto!, suddenly I have little a chain reaction going.

The premise is that if I really "watch" it happening, then perhaps I can "exploit it" and append links to related stuff to the page that is suddenly in ascendence and thus make the adventure suddenly more fun for the readers.

What i want to do is get them writing back to the friend who sent it to them in the first place with a "Hey ... did you see the stuff he wrote about getting trapped inside the blown-over row of sani-cans in the big windstorm at burningman?!!! funniest thing I've ever read!!" and they shoot back the link, that connects the original person to the "new" burningman stuff that wasn't part of the original page yesterday. And on and on. That's the fantasy, anyway. No immediate commercial potential that I can see, but there is obviously more to life.

I am convinced that what makes these pages work is their dynamism - and I can see evidence to support this pretty clearly: if I don't make changes, traffic subsides rather abruptly.  Some aspects are difficult to track: lots of people copy stuff off pages into email rather than sending links. And people only need to play an MP3 file once to decide if they want to download it and once they download it I have no idea how many times they play it. So it's never going to really be an exact science.

The detection threshold at the moment is 20 hits. That means that I see page traffic in units of 20 page requests. This is a bit too coarse for what I want to do, but I don't see a way to justify spending a lot of money for finer resolution at the moment.

©(mostly) Joe Breskin 2003
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