The Analytics Conundrum
At my last, and perhaps final, job, as a staff writer for The Dissolve, I never looked at the analytics involving page-views and clicks and overall popularity. I know how obsessive my brain can be. So I knew that if I started thinking about how popular or unpopular my articles were I would never be able to stop thinking about page-views, and obsessing about page-views and gauging my worth as a human being and writer exclusively on the basis of how many people looked at yesterday’s content.
In hindsight, this was probably a mistake. But I knew that for me, thinking about analytics was going to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Either they were going to be a part of my life and I was going to think about them obsessively, to the detriment of more productive and healthy concerns , or I was going to have to swear them off completely.
Analytics began to feel like Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it could never be closed, and I’d have to live with the fallout forever. Alternately, they were like the Apple that tempted Eve, and as soon as I started paying attention to them, the Garden of Eden phase of my career would come to an abrupt end and I would be corrupted. Hopelessly, irrevocably corrupted. Thirdly—no, actually two clumsy, obvious metaphors are enough.
I held analytics at arm’s lengths partially because I want to continue to think about things other than analytics. But I also stopped because looking at analytics, and caring about analytics, and being emotionally, as well as financially invested in analytics, connects me to elements of myself that I feel self-conscious about at best, and outright hate at worst.
It connects me to my boundless and never-satiated ambition, which has been both an engine that has powered my career and a curse that’s wreaked havoc with my psyche and fragile self-esteem. It also connects me to greed, to materialism, to my desire to have stuff and be important and matter in a capitalist society where the difference between the winners and losers is increasingly measured in page-views and advertising revenue.
I never stopped paying attention to popularity altogether. That would be foolish. But I paid attention to more abstract signifiers of success, like comments or re-tweets or praise on social media as opposed to the raw data of how many times an article has been read on any given day, week or month.
Needless to say, I have a very complicated relationship with analytics because I have a very complicated relationship with money, capitalism, greed, ambition, success, popularity and pop-culture media. So when I started Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, part of me wanted to never look at the analytics so that I wouldn’t be unduly influenced by them. That lasted a couple of days until my sister-in-law and webmaster Romy showed me how to access them. Now I look at them more than is probably healthy, at least several times a day.
And looking at the analytics for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place’s first couple of weeks has definitely affected my thinking and the way I see the site, its strengths, its weaknesses and its future.
I’m not sure I ever had the luxury of not caring about how often my articles were read, but I particularly do not have that luxury as the owner, proprietor, Editor-in-Chief, staff writer and sole writer of a fragile and new small business in a brutal economy and a brutal field like pop culture media.
I’ve made the idea of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place as a place of pure, untainted purity something of a running gag on the website but on some level I really do believe that this site has a rare and wonderful opportunity to do something, if not completely pure (that would be impossible) than at least something less dictated by commerce and calculation than the rest of pop culture media. This is my deeply sincere attempt to do something that is, at the very least, a little bit different, a little more personal, a little more raw and real.
But of course I can never really be truly pure. No one can. We’re all tainted by capitalism, with the exception of wily old Bernie “Sweet Dick” Sanders, who has a weird disease that leaves him immune to capitalism’s evil.
The trick is to find that balance between what I want to do, and what’s important and funny and interesting to me, and what’s important and funny and interesting to my audience. I’m not necessarily writing for a mass audience at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. I feel like I’m writing for my audience but it’s extraordinarily important to me that you’re happy with what I’m doing, and paying attention to analytics is a concrete way of keeping track of what interests you and what doesn’t.
At Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place I’m a writer trying to build a body of work that will stand the test of time and that I can be proud of (and if I can support my family financially in the process, so much the better) but I’m also a neophyte small businessman trying to satisfy his loyal customers and attract new ones. And since, with the exception of my sister-in-law/webmaster, this is a one-person shop, I’m the guy who does everything. I do all the writing, the conceptualizing, the organizing, the posting, the planning. That also means that it falls upon me to also be the guy who checks analytics and worries about page-views and money. It turns out I’m surprisingly okay with that role, so far at least.