Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the statistical downsides of blogging

with 22 comments

Introduction

The stats on the 200+ posts I’ve written since I started blogging make it pretty clear that:

  1. Much of what I write does not get much attention – i.e. it is not of interest to most readers.
  2. An interesting post – a rare occurrence in itself  – is invariably followed by a series of uninteresting ones.

In this post, I ignore the very real possibility that my work is inherently uninteresting and discuss how the above observations can be explained via concepts of probability.

Base rate of uninteresting ideas

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled, Trumped by Conditionality, in which I used conditional probability to show that majority of the posts on this blog will be uninteresting despite my best efforts.  My argument was based on the following observations:

  1. There are many more uninteresting ideas than interesting ones.  In statistical terminology one would say that the base rate of uninteresting ideas is high.   This implies that if I write posts without filtering out bad ideas, I will write uninteresting posts far more frequently than interesting ones.
  2. The base rate as described above is inapplicable in real life because I do attempt to filter out the bad ideas. However, and this is the key:  my ability to distinguish between interesting and uninteresting topics is imperfect. In other words, although I can generally identify an interesting idea correctly , there is a small (but significant) chance that I will incorrectly identify an uninteresting topic as being interesting.

Now,  since uninteresting ideas vastly outnumber interesting ones and my ability to filter out uninteresting ideas is imperfect, it follows that  the majority of the topics I choose to write about will be uninteresting.   This is essentially the first point I made in the introduction.

Regression to the mean

The observation that good (i.e. interesting) posts are generally followed by a series of not so good ones is a consequence of a statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean.  In everyday language this refers to the common observation that an extreme event is generally followed by a less extreme one.   This is simply a consequence of the fact that for many commonly encountered phenomena extreme events are much less likely to occur than events that are close to the average.

In the case at hand we are concerned with the quality of writing. Although writers might improve through practice, it is pretty clear that they cannot write brilliant posts every time they put fingers to keyboard. This is particularly true of bloggers and syndicated columnists who have to produce pieces according to a timetable – regardless of practice or talent, it is impossible to produce high quality pieces on a regular basis.

It is worth noting that people often incorrectly ascribe causal explanations to phenomena that can be explained by regression to the mean.  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky describe the following example in their classic paper on decision-related cognitive biases:

…In a discussion of flight training, experienced instructors noted that praise for an exceptionally smooth landing is typically followed by a poorer landing on the next try, while harsh criticism after a rough landing is usually followed by an improvement on the next try. The instructors concluded that verbal rewards are detrimental to learning, while verbal punishments are beneficial, contrary to accepted psychological doctrine. This conclusion is unwarranted because of the presence of regression toward the mean. As in other cases of repeated examination, an improvement will usually follow a poor performance and a deterioration will usually follow an outstanding performance, even if the instructor does not respond to the trainee’s achievement on the first attempt

So, although I cannot avoid the disappointment that follows the high of writing a well-received post, I can take (perhaps, false) comfort in the possibility that I’m a victim of statistics.

In closing

Finally, l would be remiss if I did not consider an explanation which, though unpleasant, may well be true: there is the distinct possibility that everything I write about is uninteresting. Needless to say, I reckon the explanations (rationalisations?) offered above are far more likely to be correct🙂

Written by K

June 1, 2012 at 6:12 am

Posted in Probability, Statistics, Writing

Tagged with

22 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Now THAT was an interesting post. So statistically I should not bother reading your next few posts? But, as usual, no doubt I will read them anyway. The problem with your thesis is that you are considering stats related to blogs produced by yourself. Taking a wider view if global blogs are considered as a whole sample then my contention is that relatively your blogs are always on the high end of the bell curve. Surely regression has not yet occurred in your case?🙂

    Like

    Mike Hawkins

    June 1, 2012 at 6:28 am

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your very kind words. As much as I take heart from them, I cannot help but worry that my next n posts will be duds….:-)

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

  2. As Pauling noted, the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of them. I think the same goes for blog posts. They won’t all be good (and that’s assuming that good=attention-getting), and the ones that are “good” might be surprising to you, as you noted. I find the value of blogging to reside not in the posts themselves but in the things that it allows you to do–like write an award-winning book and connect with interesting people from far away places. So in that sense I’d say your blogging efforts have been pretty successful!😉

    Like

    mccricks

    June 1, 2012 at 6:38 am

    • Hi Scott,

      Thanks! Of course, you’re right that the value of blogging lies in things other than the number of hits. As you’ve noted in one of your posts, a blog is immensely helpful in organising one’s thoughts for a book or even a paper. Apart from that I have greatly benefited from the diverse thoughts that so many people have generously offered in their comments on this blog.

      On a related note, I hear your book is in press. Congratulations! I look forward to reading it.

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm

  3. K, All statistics fail to reveal the individual contributions of your work. You’ve got a singular source of technically qualified and meaningful information about project management topics.
    The key here is not only the meaningful content of posts, but the audience that can absorb that content.
    Quality wins over quantity.

    Like

    Glen B. Alleman

    June 1, 2012 at 7:48 am

    • Hi Glen,

      Thanks so much – your words mean a lot to me, especially as I am a big fan of your writings on project management.

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm

  4. I agree with Glen B. Alleman. I have a HUGE reader queue (headlines of various blogs/feeds) to sift through every day. But I always make a point of checking out these posts (as I did this time) because the quality of the arguement is substantially and reliably higher.

    Like

    Ben

    June 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for reading my posts and for your very kind feedback!

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm

  5. Conversely, your posts are thought-provoking leading to contemplation rather than huge swarms of comments or huge swarms of subscribers. I for one, like to be provoked into thought, shown new ways to consider things, and anything that challenges the status quo in an intelligent, thought way. Keep up the very good work.

    Like

    FS

    June 1, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    • Hi FS,

      Thanks for your very kind and encouraging words!

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 2, 2012 at 11:05 pm

  6. Kailash, do your stats reflect people (like myself) who primarily read your posts when they come in email as opposed to going to the website? If not, your numbers might be artificially low.

    BTW I share the fear re “everything I write about is uninteresting” given the low readership (and even lower, pretty much nonexistent commenting) on my own blog posts🙂

    Al

    Like

    Al

    June 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    • Hi Al,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m pretty sure the stats exclude email subscribers, and now I know (from your and Bob’s responses) that a non-zero number of them read the posts that are sent out🙂.

      Regarding readership, I went through a very long phase where I was lucky to get a double digit number of hits a day.

      Thanks again for stopping by and taking the time to write a comment – I truly appreciate it.

      Regards,

      K

      Like

      K

      June 2, 2012 at 11:06 pm

  7. I am a silent and enthusiastic reader of these posts – always learning. Thank you.

    Like

    Bob Corrick

    June 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    • PS I said “posts” – actually I read the email digest, re Al’s comment. Your book is on my Amazon wish list,

      Like

      Bob Corrick

      June 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      • Thanks Bob!

        I am humbled by your comments, and hope that I can continue to occasionally write stuff that you will find worthwhile. Any feedback/comments on the book would be very welcome and greatly appreciated.

        Regards,

        K.

        Like

        K

        June 2, 2012 at 11:09 pm

  8. Another thought – we are all interested in different things at different times. Each post, while regularly satisfying the core group of commenters above, has the potential to be the most important and valuable thing some (random) person reads that month.

    Like

    Craig Brown

    June 3, 2012 at 11:36 am

    • Hi Craig,

      Thanks for your comment, You’re absolutely right, my argument assumes that a post is either interesting or its not, completely ignoring the fact that what is interesting to people is indeed time dependent and also subjective (as Barnaby mentions below).

      Regards,

      K.

      Like

      K

      June 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm

  9. I think whether or not a post is interesting is subjective. I think this was a duff post, but will making a point of catching the next one😉

    Like

    Barnaby Davies

    June 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    • Hi Barnaby,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right of course – what is interesting and what is not is indeed subjective. Perhaps a better measure would be “popular” as judged by the number of hits, comments or tweets.

      Thanks again – I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment,

      Regards,

      K.

      PS (added as an update): After posting this response I remembered that I had detailed some of the assumptions underlying the interesting/non-interesting criterion in the earlier post that I’ve mentioned in the above article.

      Like

      K

      June 3, 2012 at 9:31 pm

  10. K, I wonder if there are simple ways to make existing posts ‘more’ interesting.

    The addition of images to old posts, or summarizing posts in images could add quite a bit of interest capture to old posts. I also think that people can more easily share and remember pictures than words and analysis. These can even be ‘new’ posts that re frame old posts. It never hurts (especially when key observations and beliefs are important) to repeat a message, even if you have said it before.

    It’s important to note that the older something is, typically, the less relevant it will be (and relevancy impacts interest levels in such a direct way). Sometimes even just a new date/time stamp on a post can make a difference.

    Beyond pictures and other summation activities the audience breadth and reach does matter (as you outline w/ colleagues). So you could take existing posts that are interesting (or uninteresting) and re-word or submit them to various other online magazines, websites, and locations. The purpose is not to re-build the posts. Just tweak them slightly and expose them to new audiences.

    Since you have done most of the writing it will be less effort, and you can see if a different audience makes a difference than the one you attract at a personal level, through the excellent book, or through your direct network.

    Like

    Richard Harbridge

    June 6, 2012 at 5:18 am

    • I find all your posts interesting by the way. Though not all of them are always immediately applicable or relevant.

      Like

      Richard Harbridge

      June 6, 2012 at 5:19 am

      • Hi Richard,

        Many thanks for your comments.

        The chronological format of a blog makes it inevitable that potentially interesting articles get buried in the archives. Your suggestions on possible ways to deal with this are very helpful, especially as I currently rely on search engines to keep stuff in circulation. Search engines can be somewhat unreliable and capricious- they often latch on to posts that (IMO) are not very good and are also subject to arbitrary changes in search algorithms.

        Your idea of recasting posts for other forums or even republishing them are good ways to increase exposure of selected posts. I will definitely follow-up on this.

        Thanks again for stopping by to read and comment. I hope to see you again soon!

        Regards,

        Kailash.

        PS: When you get a chance, it would be terrific if you could send through your feedback/comments on the book.

        Like

        K

        June 7, 2012 at 6:00 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: