When I left the Ministry of Finance in October 2005, I resumed my earlier life as a columnist for Business Standard. I also embarked on an experiment in `the new media': writing a blog. I have made my work available through a web page on the Internet for a long time (from 1995 onwards), but blogging was new. I thought I should give it a try for a year, and then take stock about whether it's worth doing beyond. Now it's December 2006, and the blog has been in operation for a year, so it's time to review the experiment. Is it efficient for me to expend time blogging? I thought I should write some notes about my experiences with the statistics that I have, in the hope of helping others who are mulling over blogs, from the viewpoint of reading and writing them.
There are two competing visions of blogging. On one hand, the intellectual snob sees blogging as undisciplined journalism that does not pass the market test. Without worrying about wordcount, without worrying about what an editor or a referee thinks, a person is free to rant without any checks and balances. Joseph Conrad said about newspapers: Written by fools to be read by imbeciles - perhaps this applies even more for blogs. As Joseph Rago says about blogs:
Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .
A lot is made about the quality control that's done by google. But I am a bit skeptical about how well this works. If a lot of low quality blogs and websites link to each other, then pagerank picks up the material revered by the plebs. Pagerank was just great in the old days of the Internet, when university folk dominated the content and the links. In a situation like the academic literature, the pagerank algorithm as utilised by google scholar is great. But respecting link counts as a means to judging expertise in today's Internet? It makes me queasy.
On the other hand, blogging could be the new Gutenberg invention. The bulk of blog content is indeed petabytes of teenage angst; sophomoric tales drawing in millions of riveted sophomores. But there can be a long tail (link) of genuine intellectual content. Intellectual discussions through blogs could be a computer age implementation of the non-intermediated interaction of scientists in the 17th century.
I think there is room for optimism. As one specific example, in the field of international finance / international macroeconomics, blogs appear to be occupying a delicate and interesting middle road between newspapers and working papers. As an example, this blog entry on Christmas day is fascinating and unique. You just can't find such content if you aren't reading blogs. Conversely, until blogging came along, this middle road between the newspapers and the working papers did not exist.
Why write a blog? In India, we don't have the intellectual life of a Western university. I am a recluse. In my normal life, I don't meet too many people. I thought that by exposing my ideas and interests in a blog, I would hear from people who are thinking about similar issues.
In terms of sheer dissemination of ideas, it felt like a bright thing to get an exposure to the growth of the Internet in India. For more and more young people, google is the first port of call when knowledge is needed. There are perhaps 10 million people in India who read the web regularly. This number is growing at a rapid pace - perhaps doubling every five years. So even though blogging is slightly exotic today - and many people doing economics and public policy do not presently read the web - it seems like a good idea to lay the foundations for a future where everyone in India is a user of the web and quite a few people use RSS feedreaders also.
When I first created a home page on the web in 1995, that was a bit exotic, but over the years, it has become clear that this was a good bet to have placed. Starting a blog, ten years later, sounded like a similar bet to place.
I have tried to curtail the time spent on the effort, focusing on the bare core of getting some ideas out and avoiding all complexity in doing so. My apologies if the page looks bare, lacks the obligatory blogroll of the (97) RSS feeds that I read, says nothing about me, etc. Similarly I have no time for google ads. I have tried to put in the minimum possible time on the overhead, so as to minimise the opportunity cost of the blogging experiment. My main business is to think; blogging is a tool for discussion and dissemination. To paraphrase Leo Rosten, the only good reason to write a blog entry is that you can't help it.
The experience of blogging
I think the main goal - of discussions and debate with faraway people - has worked pretty well. Some of this traffic is in the comments, but a lot of it is in personal email. Somehow, many people (particularly those high up the food chain) are not comfortable writing comments on the blog. But through either channel, I have benefited in three ways. Sometimes, I get pointed to new work that I might otherwise have missed. Sometimes, I get persuaded that I was flat wrong on something. I love it when that happens. Sometimes, I get forced to respond to disagreement and clarify an argument, which is good for improving my thoughts.
As I said, this was an experiment in new media. There aren't many people in the academic or public policy world in India yet, who are blogging. Jayanth Varma is the first name that comes to mind, and I have enjoyed discussing many issues through the blog as the medium. Perhaps, over time, there will be more people blogging and we will see more debate intermediated through the blogs. The development of such an `ecosystem' would also help in terms of having more links running across the blogs, which would foster the google style meritocracy. Currently, because there are few Indian blogs, there are few links going around, and that makes it harder for a blogwriter to get noticed.
I found it's relatively inexpensive for me to write blog entries. When I write for Business Standard, there is the discipline of 1050 words: I have learned to look out for ideas that fit with 1050 words: the idea shouldn't require more words or less words. In blogging, I'm free to write 100 words or 1000 words (or more). That makes it easier to write. My entries are of two kinds. Sometimes I am merely pointing the reader to something nice that I read. At other times, I felt something about a question and I'm proposing an idea or an argument which I hope is new. In order to minimise the time expended on blogging, I try to not expend words on stuff that is already well understood and agreed-upon, amongst thinking folk. You won't find me saying that labour reforms in India are very important.
Over time, I have gained confidence and am writing more of longer and more-substantive pieces on the blog. Another simple source of bigger wordcounts, of course, is the greater inclusion of external text for the purpose of writing commentary, and making more self-contained and hence readable blog entries. I seem to have done this less in the early months.
In my experience, blogging fits the old-style intellectual better, as opposed to the modern specialise-and-publish mode of academics. A good academic today is supposed to focus on one thing, and specialise and specialise to a point where he knows everything about a narrow field. Speaking for me, I have always had a lack-of-specialisation syndrome. I like to survey a field from high above, absorb the big picture, and make links across fields. Blogging has accentuated my lack of specialisation; it has increased my breadth and that comes at the price of depth. If your ambition is to be a successful academic, this is probably not a bright thing to do.
Blogging has helped me by giving me `an intellectual diary' of my life. I tend to write about the stuff that I'm reading and the places where an idea strikes me. In the world before blogging, these experiences would rush through my brain and then subside, and retrival of old information and old ideas from the human brain is hard. I'm getting old, and my in-core searches aren't as good as they used to be. The blog serves as a searchable log of what I was thinking and what I was writing. Of course, blogging helps in taking a rough idea into something written down, which always improves clarity. I remember once, I thought I had a great idea on how to do municipal wifi, but when I started actually writing it down, I realised the idea was broken.
Later on, when something comes up, I find myself saying "I faintly recall reading something by XXX about this; I had blogged it; let me look it up from my blog". This often happens when I am writing email - instead of writing a few paragraphs of an argument, I find I'm often able to just google it in my own blog and serve up the URL. So blogging has helped me to improve my information management.
Some statistics about one year of blogging
Usage of the blog: I only setup measurement through sitemeter from July 2006 onwards. The data shows:
I find it useful to think that in 24 hours of a day, if there are 10 pageviews an hour, this is 240 pageviews a day or 7,200 pageviews a month. So these statistics reflect a utilisation of under 10 pageviews per hour, as yet. These numbers are small when compared with the successful economics blogs of the West, where 240 pageviews a day isn't much.
These numbers for usage surely overstate the genuine utilisation of the blog, for every now and then, we landup at some page through google, and at a glance, we know it's not right. But those users get counted as `visits' or `page views'. When pages views exceeds visits, it suggests a person who wandered around, so it's less likely that it was a wrong number.
A certain growth of the usage of the blog is inevitable and non-informative. On one hand, the stock of content on the blog goes up linearly through time, which leads to more search engine users landing up on some blog entry. In addition, there is a geometric growth of Internet usage in India. These two factors should give strong growth of the usage of the blog, regardless of how much sense I am writing.
Where are the readers?: In the early days of my personal home page, there was a skew in favour of readers outside the country, since India had problems in telecom policy. Now, it looks like the majority of the readers of my blog are in India. The data shows: 51% India, 27% US, 4% UK, and then other smaller shares.
RSS subscribers: I first used an RSS feed that is produced by blogspot. But they don't give me interesting information about utilisation. That feed URL continues to work, but in January 2006, I switched to exhibiting an RSS feed from feedburner.com. I have data for how users of this (feedburner) feed has grown. It seems to have added an average of roughly 10 subscribers per month, and has roughly 120 subscribers at the end of a year.
Users of the RSS feed make up only a small fraction of the usage of the blog. The bulk of blog users seem to either landup by searching for a string on google, or going to google and looking for "ajay shah blog".
Users requested me to modify my blog settings so that the full blog entry appears in the RSS feed. It is possible for a user to then only use an RSS feedreader and never show up at the blog.
Choice of service provider
Anyone who thinks of writing a blog has to think of a place where this will be implemented. Overall, I think blogspot has been a good provider:
- I do my authoring by writing HTML files and emailing them to a stated address using a very convenient one-liner:
$ mutt -a file.html -s "Title" address < /dev/null
- Blogspot has had severe performance problems. Hopefully they're google and know how to solve them.
- The insertion of .jpg files into a blog entry is painful.
- Blogspot does not give out any statistics about usage, RSS feed subscriptions, etc.
- Finally, the blogspot search is extremely broken, to a point where I have experimented with offering alternative search facilities on my blog. Hmm, they're google - shouldn't they know how to search!?
So I would say that while blogspot is good, it's not yet there.
I feel relatively safe dealing with google on various kinds of evil things like my blog vanishing suddenly when a government gets unhappy. One of the nice things about blogspot is a sensible, almost-hand-written structure of URLs, which makes it easy to do a recursive wget. Just to be safe, I periodically do a wget through which the entire blog is backed up on my notebook. And, because the blogspot search is very broken, I hunt down stuff on my own blog by grepping within these files.
If you find this look back at blogging to be of interest, you might like to read an article I wrote in Business Standard, looking back at the newspaper opinion piece, when I moved into the Ministry of Finance in 2001. It ran under the title Last ride together. In the event, this proved to not be the last ride :-) but only a four-year hiatus.