Thanks for letting me guest blog on Savage Minds this month! I’ll wrap up with some meta analysis about being an activist/anthropologist/blogger type.
I’m not a regular commenter on any websites, but sometimes I read long comment threads on controversial posts, spending enough time that I go into a kind of trance until something snaps me out of it and I’m disgusted by my own voyeurism. From these forays I’ve learned that people are quick to accuse commenters with unfamiliar screen names and unpopular opinions of being trolls, meaning they are only there to elicit a reaction. Writers can also troll for pageviews. (I don’t study online sociality or new media, so sorry if this sounds like The Internet 101: Beyond AOL.) Controversial posts often go up with the intention of eliciting reactions to raise pageviews, for monetary gain or fame or to raise awareness.
For the most part, I’m an outsider to that game. I think of my own blog as an archive of knowledge, there for the Googling, rather than part of a click-oriented news cycle. A “trending” category on my blog would probably just be an image of a skeleton covered in cobwebs. I reliably get a “great writing Doni!” comment from, you guessed it, Mom, but most people who look at my blog don’t leave comments. I do, however, monitor pageviews out of curiosity.
The most viewed post on my blog is usually a guest piece from 2009 about abandoned buildings in Detroit, which makes sense, it’s a sexy topic. Then last spring, I had a lot of views on a post I did speculating on all the bashing of bike hipsters I was encountering online. That was fascinating because a lot of people also left comments, so I got to find out what people were getting out of the post. Meat for the ethnographer!
I’d had a hunch that writing about the image of bicyclists-as-jerks would garner some interest, and when it worked, I started experimenting with posts that were meant to elicit comments. Was this the same thing as trolling? Was I emotionally removed from the content, a human fly creating some kind of neo-Malinowskian village where I could sit on the sidelines and scribble in my notebook? Not really.
To be perfectly honest, because I write openly as a situated subject (mixed race woman), I’m aware that my work could be dismissed, so I haven’t wanted to stir the pot too vigorously. Plus, as an anthropologist, I feel I should make an effort to understand and articulate multiple sides of an issue. So I don’t tend to write as scathingly now as I once did as an inexperienced blogger, when I didn’t think of myself as having an audience and said some things I regret. It’s been interesting, though, to see how much anthropology I can squeeze into topical posts about bikes, inequality, and other sustainability issues.
This week, I posted a reflection about a city that is revered among bike people, Copenhagen. It’s often put forth as an ideal solution to the problem of urban bike transportation, with many separated paths for bicycling and a significant amount of trips made by bike. I’d been having some knee jerk reactions to the Copenhagen worship for a while, but it wasn’t till I visited for myself in September that I got some material for a critique. It was tricky to write, because I wasn’t trying to knock the city; I was trying to call out the “god trick” that leads people to proselytize about Danish bike infrastructure design as though it doesn’t come from a particular time and place that may not be a great model for American urbanism.
I was thinking I’d get some pageviews, and there was indeed a jump (from about 70 a day to maybe 300 – I’m small potatoes). But, alas, none of these visitors left any comments! I have no idea what was drawing people to the post. That is, I know how they found it, mostly through a link had been posted on a sustainable transportation network, but I don’t know whether they thought my ideas made any sense. If this were a grant-supported effort where I needed to demonstrate impact, I’d be at a loss for how to do that. Fortunately, I’m just a grad student practicing how to sound less jargony, so there’s room to experiment some more.