When does blogging become worth it?

A misconception about blogging is that one needs X number of readers before it's worthwhile, where X is some dauntingly high number. But actually, you only need Y readers, such that when you write something good, there is a non-trivial probability that it will get shared to X number of readers. You don't need assurance that all of your good pieces will reach X number of readers; a glimmer of reasonable possibility is more than enough to motivate your gameplay. Cue that study about mice working more for probabilistic rewards than certain rewards. Thus, blogging becomes worthwhile dramatically sooner than the popular misconception has it.

I never expected to write so much, but I discovered that once I had a hammer, nails were everywhere, and that supply creates its own demand. I believe that someone who has been well-educated will think of something worth writing at least once a week; to a surprising extent, this has been true.

Gwern

It is difficult for me to estimate values for X and Y, as these values are contingent on your aspirations and areas of interest. But I can certainly say that for me, the threshold where regular blogging became naturally self-motivating, when it turned from an aspiration and exercise in discipline to an active appetite, came sooner than I was planning for.

How many people do you need in your "audience" for your writing effort to feel worthwhile? I have high intrinsic motivation, so I think for me that number has always been relatively low. If yours is higher, then adjust my calculations accordingly. Three years ago, I might have thought the following (of course, these figures change over time due to hedonic adaption, etc.). I always expect most people to skip my weirdest or worst stuff, but if I could know that about 100 people would read all my best pieces, that would have been enough to keep me pumped for quite a while. I mean, aspiring writers before the internet had to write for a very long time with virtually no readers before they had any chance of gaining even 100 readers, so even just 100 readers should really feel like an extraordinary privilege and motivation.

Now, if you start with zero readers, let's say a brand new blog and you don't know anybody. A desired audience of 100 readers might seem unattainable, but remember, you don't need 100 people to know and like and read all your blog posts. All you need is a non-trivial probability of winning 100 readers in order for this desired audience to trigger effective motivation. So how do we estimate Y, the number of guaranteed readers you need to have a non-trivial probability of winning 100 readers total? And how do we define the non-trivial probability? Well, it will depend on the influence of the Y readers. A small number of people who can get it out to a large number of others, or a larger number of less influential people who will get it out to the same number of others. It will also depend on your personality characteristics, such as intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

Let's say you can find only 10 people of the 7.5 billion people in the world, who will at least take a quick look at whatever you write. Virtually anyone can get this from some forum on the internet, like a subreddit related to the themes of your writing. A very quick Google says that the average Twitter user has 200 followers. Accounting for Twitter's unpredictable algorithm, let's say a random retweet from a random person is worth 5 views of your post. Pulling this out of my ass, but trying to be conservative. Let's assume you write something really good, which we'll define as being irresistibly compelling to the few people in your initial targeted audience base. Still, some will be too busy or distracted to share it, so even if it's irresistible, let's say only 20% of them share it with someone via Twitter. What this means is that when you write something good, it will very likely be read by at least 20 people (the first 10, then 2*5, so 10+10=20). Now, 20 people is not yet close to your desired 100, but the insight is that you're already 20% of the way to your goal and you literally just started from nothing. Now factor in the tail chance that one of those tweets gets retweeted by someone influential, and it's perfectly possible your post might randomly hit your 100-reader goal right out of the gate. But that's still rare at this point, this isn't quite yet a non-trivial probability of getting 100 readers. Yet, you can already see it on the horizon of attainability. If you are blessed with high intrinsic motivation, even this small glimmer of external hope might be enough to keep you churning.

Aside: Having analytics on your site really helps with the gamification. I suppose at some margins it could be perverse or destructive to get overly obsessed with the traffic data, but starting out I think it's hedonically productive on net.

If you have less intrinsic motivation and you need better chances than this to consider blogging a worthwhile venture, you could try to increase the initial number of people you give your work to. Or you could try to impress one person who is a little more influential. You could increase your volume. You can pursue any number of specific methods, suited to the strengths of your temperament, and avoiding the weaknesses of your temperament, to raise these numbers.

And of course, we're talking only about your genuinely good posts. Some, and perhaps many of your posts will go nowhere, but that's normal.

If your response to my perspective here is that it's hard to come up with so many ideas for posts, or that you're not getting even these small numbers of readers for your best posts, then maybe you just don't have that much to say, or you have nothing of value to offer anyone. Even still you're not yet hopeless: you could still try increasing your intrinsic motivation, and put all your eggs in the basket of enjoying the process and not caring what people think. Some figures have turned this into a very high art form, winning many readers in the long run. If you can't do that and you need external validation to keep writing, and you can't win for yourself these minimal quantities of nearly guaranteed external validation, then you're not a writer. You're a needy dumbass. You might still be qualified for a career in journalism.

But if you have even a few things to say, blogging is probably more worthwhile than you think.

Against the Epistemic Status

I've been considering the idea of assigning an "epistemic status" to each of my blog posts, in the fashion of Scott Alexander. Basically: adding an addendum at the top of each blog post indicating the degree to which I really believe what is said in the blog post. Perhaps I no longer believe what I wrote a year ago — in that case, I might add an epistemic status warning readers that I no longer believe it. That's the idea.

I've decided I'm against epistemic statuses. TLDR: I think at best they are useless, begging the problem they seek to address; and at worst, I think they could very well decrease the total, long-run truth-value obtained within a writing/reading community.

The epistemic status gives a false sense of rigor and humility. One reason is because there's no epistemic status for the epistemic status. An ES is not a confidence interval, derived by some transparent calculation procedure. It is probably more subjective and error-prone than the full blog post. One reason I never post an ES — when I've sometimes had the urge to, especially after weaker posts — is that I always feel so radically unsure of my post-writing impressions that for an ES to actually increase the transparency/reliability of the post, I feel like I'd have to say I'm also utterly unsure of the ES, and so on to infinite regression. Thus, tacking on an ES at the top of the article feels to me primarily like rational self-skepticism/humility-signaling, which doesn't in any way solve the problem. Also, from the reader's perspective, the epistemic status begs the question of how reliable any blog post is, because they still have to decide whether they trust the epistemic status. For new visitors, the epistemic status therefore solves no problem, and merely adds text while bumping the trust/credibility problem up a level.

The practice of adding post-hoc epistemic statuses lends to the entire blog an impression of always being epistemically up to date, but I don't feel I will ever have the time or conscientiousness to really keep all the posts' epistemic statuses up to date with my current judgment. Therefore if I simply overlook some old posts I don't really care about anymore, and readers see there is no epistemic status downgrading them, they might reasonably infer I still fully own those beliefs.

For return visitors and regular readers of a blog, the ES is essentially an appeal to one's own authority, a cashing-in on past trust and cultural capital earned by the author's substantive content.

Ultimately, every claim I make, or inference I imply, nested in every article I write, nested in every collection of articles, has to be given some level of credence by each individual reader. Whether one line is a joke or not, whether one claim is likely to be true or mistaken — these are questions every reader must make for themselves based on whatever information they have about my claims, and the project I'm embarked on, and my reliability as a source. Assigning an ES to each unit I publish would be to lull the reader's vigilance into an unjustifiably comfortable slumber. It might make them feel like I can take care of their meta-rationality for them, when in fact it's an irreducible existential burden for all thinking adults. I don't want my readers to feel like they are cast adrift in the wilderness, but alas they are. So I don't really want to make them feel otherwise.

I think the normal presumptions about the nature of blogging are meta-rationally superior to epistemic statuses. It's just a blog: take everything with a huge grain of salt, but if something is really well demonstrated and supported then believe it, as you see fit. If you see a post from three years ago, of course the author has probably changed their views to some degree. The best response to this is to read more contemporary posts, to judge for yourself what this author really thinks on the whole. If a reader doesn't care to do this, no epistemic status is going to ensure their initial exposure is lodged into their long-term memory correctly. Such a person will either never remember the blog post or, if they are so unwise as to memorize and repeat to their friends something I reported in one blog post three years ago, I suspect they would bulldoze right over even the most cautious epistemic status warnings.

Better is to just put super-wide confidence intervals on everything one writes. Some things I say will be dumb, biased, and/or mistaken. But some things I write will — hopefully — get closer to way bigger truths than I can even appreciate! If you assign epistemic statuses to your blog posts, you really should also say when and where you think you are super correct. Most sane people will not want to place at the top of a blog post "Epistemic status: I feel a 5% chance that the claims below could change the course of world history." But any serious and passionate intellectual gets some taste of this genuine feeling every now and then! Thus, if this epistemic status business does not include such self-aggrandizing caveats, that too might be systematically biasing. I'd rather just give one big caveat about my whole body of writing, that it is merely the inspired guesswork of one person trying their best to be correct. Implicitly, some stuff will be more wrong than it might seem, and some stuff will be even more right than it seems. The only commitment one needs to make is to do one's best, in a way that updates moving forward, rather than attempting to move backward with post-hoc re-evaluations.

I admit that some of my intuition on this question is due to my temperament: I like to work fast, always move forward, never look back. I can do the disciplined work of editing but I'm not exceptionally high in Orderliness; I run mostly on the dopaminergic movements of exploration, inspiration and creation, adding just enough conscientiousness to complete things responsibly. As far as bloggers and "content creators" go, I'm high-variance: I put out a lot of high-quality stuff that I take very seriously, but I also put out a lot of random stuff sometimes bordering on bad comedy. So part of what I wrote above is just rationalizing all of this. But this is also my personal alternative to the epistemic status: self-conscious reflections weaved immanently into any given unit of production.

Stay up to date on all my projects around the web. No spam, don't worry.

This site participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. The Privacy Policy can be found here. The content of this website is licensed under a CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION 4.0 INTERNATIONAL LICENSE.

rss-square linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram