I like numbers, and I have always enjoyed trying to quantify subjective things. Throughout the past year, it's been interesting for me to attempt to quantify reader reaction to this blog. I try to write about things at the intersection of my personal interests, the interests of readers, and the stated purpose of this space (Programming and Development). Here's my take on what I am seeing and how it can be analyzed.
In terms of methodology, my measures are somewhat imperfect. I have incoming links from other blogs showing third-party interest in the posts; I have the “thumbs up” voting system numbers; and there is the volume of reader feedback. Reader feedback can also be loosely divided into three portions: threads ignited by the original piece but barely related; threads directly about the topic the original poster discusses; and simple commentary like kudos, flames, typo notices, and so on. I am also somewhat taking into account blog posts by other TechRepublic contributors to the Programming and Development space, but I'm primarily looking at my own blog posts.
The topics that seems to receive the most back links overlays quite nicely with the pieces that tend to get a medium-to-high number of “thumbs up” votes and that is the how-to pieces and reviews, which are primarily written by Tony Patton and Peter Mikhalenko. Good job, guys! It is pretty clear that these pieces are much appreciated by readers.
It's interesting that the opinion pieces written by me or Rex Baldazo usually only get a few links back and a few “thumbs up” votes. However, when we do get those votes, we get a lot. The trend seems to be that our highest voted pieces outpoll the highest voted “fact” items, but the “fact” items nearly always outpoll “opinion.”
In terms of reader feedback, my pieces definitely tend to spark the most discussion. The “fact” items tend to generate extraordinarily little feedback. Gladly, I can only recall a few times in which near brawls erupted in the forums, and even heated disagreement rarely became uncivil. Feedback on the “opinion” pieces, naturally, strayed quite a bit more from the original item than the “fact” pieces. Only in very rare cases did we get any “minor commentary” posts (kudos, flames, typo notices), and they were almost always just typo issues. Thanks for not flaming us! I also took a look at who seems to be making up the “frequent commenters” and the “infrequent” or “one-time” commenters.
From this information, I have drawn the following conclusions:
- Readers use the “thumbs up” votes quite specifically to indicate a post is useful. This is in stark contrast to reader behavior in most other blogs I have seen. In most blogs, a positive vote means “I agree”, and a negative vote means “I disagree.” Readers will not vote for a piece in this area unless it truly is useful.
- “Thought provoking” or “interesting” is not sufficient to get a vote. Lack of votes does not mean something is bad or that the readers do not like it — it just means that they probably will not print it and stick it on their desk to refer to later.
- The average person who comments back is typically a high to intermediate or expert programmer or at that same level in some segment of IT. You are also mature, experienced users of forums, and most of you can remember BBSs, judging by the etiquette displayed. I am not going to name any names (you know who you are, and I’m sure to forget someone), but overall I see two groups of commenters: “old hands” and “eager newcomers.”
- A surprisingly high number of you seem to have multiple decades in the industry.
- Some topics receive really high volumes of "white noise" commentary; these are nearly exclusively “religious” topics. At this point, posting something on them feels almost like trolling. These topics include:
- The topic of education is surprisingly popular. The readership here seems to have a huge interest in how the next generation of programmers comes about — from kindergarten through grad school. While I infrequently write about education (I'm guessing 10% of my posts are about education), probably 25% - 35% of the comments are on education-related posts. If the feedback wasn’t so darned amazingly insightful, I would almost think of this as a “troll” topic. It is really cool to see how much vested interest you seem to have in the next generation!
- Rants get few votes and little commentary. Point taken. I am actually rather embarrassed at some of my rants from a year or two ago.
- Most readers use mainstream tools and languages, but few of them are happy with them. It's a sad state of affairs.
- Most readers want to be working in a more “Agile” environment — or at least they want more direct access to the end user. At the same time, I get the impression that few readers believe that their organization is capable of not mangling and botching “Agile,” and therefore see the need for a more “Waterfall” approach. This jives with my experience as well. (Perhaps I am just projecting my beliefs onto the readers with this one.)
— Language choice* (caveat below)
— Programming style such as indentation, notation, use of comments, etc.
— Stupid bosses and coworkers
* Language-related items can be quite interesting and non-troll-esque if handled properly. The author of the original piece has to set the tone by basing conclusions on person experience and fact, and show both of them. When written like this, the conversation is great. I can bring up problems with OO, Java, VB.NET, Perl, etc. without flame wars, and the readers seem to like reading (and writing back!) about it quite a bit when done like this. When done wrong, it is just trolling.
There is one last conclusion, which I am saving for next week. Here are a few hints: There is a "sleeper" topic out there that I write about a lot; it receives little feedback (unless I write about it from the angle of something else that people care about like language or tools), and "industry experts" are burning a lot of bytes writing about it too. If you listen to the experts, this is the topic of the rest of this decade and all of next. Feedback in the TechRepublic forums, elsewhere, and all over indicates that most developers could not care less. Next week, I will be closing out the year (or starting the next one!) with this topic. I am sure you can all guess it already.
Happy holidays, and have a safe Christmas and New Year’s!
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.