89%: WordPress Stats, Social Media, and Other Catastrophes

This past August was the tenth anniversary of Transit, the Spanish film magazine I co-founded and, up until 2015, also co-edited. The current editorial team put up a special dossier with 16 texts by different authors. You can find autobiographical forays, semi-fictive narratives, audiovisual essays, reflections about film criticism and cinephilia, and surveys of this last decade’s film landscape. If you can’t read Spanish, your bad – because it is an amazing collection.

Adrian Martin and I contributed to this dossier with a text titled “The Container and the Contents”, where we pose ourselves the question: what is a film magazine in the digital age? To preserve the coherence and wider scope of our collaboration, I decided to leave out some thoughts that, while expanding on issues raised by our text (readership, social media, a sense of disaggregation), mainly concern me and this blog. Not that the editors of Transit were opposed to personal essays (in fact, they encouraged them); but, by personal, I don’t think they meant the kind of narcissistic, manic-depressive, unhinged account I’ll be developing here. You have been warned; now keep reading at your own peril!

When, fifteen months ago, I started this blog, I became reacquainted with that wonderful feature: WordPress Stats. I happen to look at this blog’s stats more often than I should – not because I have any love for numbers, but because, when it comes to readership, stats are often all you get. Checking stats is, of course, stupid – not to mention, depressing. Confessing that you look at stats is even more stupid, for it will destroy your public image (in case you have one of those) as a properly adjusted and mature human being. The intelligent thing to do is to worry about your writing and not about its reception, which you can’t control anyway.

But, alas, I’m neither adjusted nor mature. And I’m certainly not intelligent. On the contrary: I’m childish, and needy, and I often get caught in the abyss that stands between one text and the next. While I’m writing, I’m fine; after writing, not so good. And not knowing what/if something happens to the reader who encounters one of my texts is something I have not yet learnt to live with. Let me take this opportunity, then, to express my profound admiration for those who keep writing books that no one reads, books for which they receive no response. I, too, dream of writing a book someday – but (first) I’ll need to get rich, because the expenses of the psychological treatment I’ll require (afterwards) will be monumental!

In my previous life, I worked as a waitress. And I swear to you: I got more feedback then than I’ve ever gotten as a film critic. With feedback I don’t mean “One beer and a hamburger, love” or “Get me the cheque”. I mean all kinds of very formal comments about my way of doing things. My coffee, for instance, was unanimously praised; I excelled at getting the perfect temperature, density and proportions, to which I added my veritable master touch: the creation of a thick, top layer of delicious cream – not to be mistaken with that airy, bubbly foam that results from a bad contact (yes, like in electricity) between milk and vapouriser. Once I was told that my ham and cheese sandwiches were a sensual experience of the highest order – and they were also an aesthetic experience for those people who used to gaze inside them, enchanted and hypnotised by that bi-coloured, elastic band of distinguishable but undetachable elements. And what to say about the intense one-word expressions of complicity I received when I surreptitiously poured an extra bit of alcohol into the nocturnal drinks of regulars?

Don’t misunderstand me: working as a waitress was no fun for me. I’m an extremely moody and reactive person – temperamental traits that don’t rank high in the profession. There were moments of tension: arguments with guys who believed that, since they were paying for a meal, the service (oh, how I hate this word!) should invariably come accompanied by a big, dead-doll-smile. Smiles are like any expression of joy: if they pour out naturally, it’s beautiful, but they can’t be forced. The other problem was that I fervently refused to comply with one of the most ingrained mottos of the business: when a boss told me (and all my bosses did tell me this at some point) that “the customer is always right”, my reason and my anger had to reply: “Except when he is not”. This, needless to say, did not sit well with my bosses …

My new freelance autonomy makes it easier for me to say no. No to coerced smiles; no to capitalistic slogans. No to tips, no to shitty jobs, no to blow jobs. No to texts I don’t wanna write. No to approaches I don’t wanna take. But also: no to eating in fancy restaurants, no to buying the last technological gadget, no to going on holidays (because, don’t be fooled, so much saying no has its own costs). Some days I work more hours than I ever did in a shift as a waitress, and I do it happily. And when it’s time to go to bed, I don’t have to deal with some crazy Neapolitan tourist who, deeply offended because I have told his son that he’s tasted enough ice-cream flavours (it’s 2 a.m, there are 46 kinds of ice-cream, and that teenage brat has already sampled 20 of them!), sends the police to the place. Fortunately, I don’t have to handle customers anymore. Now I can, at last, interact with readers, spectators, cinephiles, human beings. But: do I?

What I know is this: when I worked as a waitress, people did pay for the service (that word again!) and did comment on the opus (which was nice); as a film critic, I don’t make a salary anymore and I rarely get a comment.

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That was a long digression, but don’t complain. You are getting to know me better, and I needed to warm-up. Now, we can go back to WordPress Stats.

Some weeks ago, I happened to look at something called “referrers” – that is: sites that direct readers to my blog. I got a bit of a shock when I realised that 89% of the visits I get come from links posted on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t know if this percentage is representative for other blogs or film magazines, but 89% … Fuck! What does this mean? To begin with, it means that if I weren’t on Twitter and Facebook (in fact, I’m not on Facebook anymore, but my wonderful boyfriend is kind enough to post my stuff there), this blog would barely have readers. It means that, if I want to be read (and I want!), I’m forever enslaved to social media. A fearful thought to hold in your mind and your bones!

Let’s take a more specific feature of WordPress Stats: views per post. To do this in all fairness and as a proper case study, I’m going to pick my text on Philippe Garrel’s Liberté, la nuit since, in terms of number of views, it stands at the exact midpoint of the spectrum. Published in May 2019, this post has gathered 110 views so far. I’m writing this and I can already hear your objections, but don’t rush. You know, as well as I do, that views are not reads – let alone meaningful reads. That’s why I’ve come up with a formula whose accuracy (I’ll admit) is dubious, to say the least: V/p ÷ 5 = R/p. Let me translate this sophisticated mathematical equation for you: the number of views of any given post, divided by 5, equals the number of reads of said post. A fallacy? Perhaps, but one grounded in my own online reading patterns (i.e., for every text I read, there are four that I abandon after a few paragraphs).

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m losing my rational footing and turning this text into the confession of a deranged mind. And perhaps you are right. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Keep an open mind because, now, we’ll apply this travesty of a formula in order to get objective, reliable data. That’s how our 110 views become 22 reads. And we are not yet finished because now – if we only knew how – we still should subtract from this number all those readers for whom the text means little or nothing. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet come up with the proper equation to calculate this. But, if you ask me, the final number could very well be zero …

Of course, I do not know for sure if the result would end up being zero. Because, most of the time, I’m told nothing at all. And it’s here that WordPress Stats reveal their true absurdity. No matter the number you begin with, the equations you formulate, or the results you get. The thing is: there’s no way of knowing the effects your writing has on other people – unless there is some kind of response from the reader.

There’s a genre of story I’ve always enjoyed: those about famous writers receiving letters from their readers. The letters are often nice, but not especially profound or refined. And, yet, the very gesture of writing a letter, stamping it, posting it in the mail, is endowed with a ceremonial aspect that carries its own significance. This has been lost with the arrival of e-mail, social media, online blogs and magazines. Today, if a reader wants to communicate with a writer, he can type a few words that will land instantly in the other’s inbox, feed or comments section. You would think that, now that the specialness of the gesture is gone, the writing itself – even if only in an attempt to make up for this loss – would become richer. Well, you’d be a fool, as I am. In fact, some people have argued that what happens is precisely the opposite: that the disembodied nature of the Internet and the rise of social media have led to an impoverishment not just of language, but also of our capacity to communicate and interact with each other.

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In the Transit dossier, there’s a wonderful text by Covadonga G. Lahera where she relates the path that she has taken from involvement in cinema and film criticism to the search for more embodied, collective and earthbound practices. In our conversations, she’s often referred to her dissatisfaction with virtual life and social media, and to the need for establishing relations that are not predominantly intellectual, that are open to the presence of one’s own and the other’s body. The title of her text (“From Another Place”) resonates with me, because I’m also concerned with the question of finding a place from which to live and to write. However, I feel differently about the presence/absence dichotomy. To put it succintly: for me, the sense of frustration that pervades virtual life is the same I feel about life, period.

I understand how, for some people, the absence of the other’s body can be an obstacle to building meaningful relationships. For me, though, it isn’t. I believe that true encounters between people who don’t share the same space (perhaps not even the same time!) can happen – after all, the bodies of writer and reader have always been apart, this is not a feature exclusive to the Internet age. And, when these encounters take place, language – which doesn’t operate only intellectually, but does all kinds of things to these bodies – can become the touch that overcomes distance. But knowing that is not the same thing as being able to do that. So, the frustration I feel bursts in this gap. And, hence, here I am, collecting useless data to substitute for what cannot be known: if I have managed to touch the reader.

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Which takes us back to WordPress Stats. 110 views per post. Is this a lot? Is it too little? Does it really matter? Will I stop whining? Can’t I just shut up and be grateful for whatever readers I have? In fact, I am grateful, even very grateful, to those who read or watch any of my pieces. But what I can’t do is just be grateful. Not when I know that what I’m writing here could potentially (we’ll come back to this word) reach the whole, English-speaking cinephile world. What? An outlandishly pretentious thought? You think I’m not being humble enough … I really hope that next time you’re going to catch a plane, download a film, or purchase something at Amazon, humility holds you back.

I accept (and even embrace) the minority character of what I do but, if one takes into account the Internet’s power to go beyond spatio-temporal restrictions, 110 views (which, remember, translates into 22 reads) can’t be considered very much. Recently, Philippe Garrel had a retrospective at the French Cinémathèque. It would be interesting to know how many people attended the screening of Liberté, la nuit on October 20th. Did any of these spectators read, by any chance, my text? Do they know it exists? If I had published it in the cultural supplement of a major newspaper or in some specialised French magazine, if it had been shared by enough people, perhaps my text would have gained some more readers.

Let’s do this again from a different angle, for I have hit momentum and now there’s no backtracking. This time, we’ll look at views per country. This includes all-time views (15 months) for all I’ve published so far (33 posts). Let’s take Bulgaria (just because I once had a Bulgarian boyfriend): 10 views. Let’s take Greece (just because I’d like to live forever on its islands): 37 views. Let’s take Denmark (because to be or not to be read is the question): 16 views. South Africa: 18; New Zealand: 14; Taiwan: 8; Uruguay: 8; Tunisia: 7; Russia: 6. I don’t want you to think that I’m playing tricks, so let’s take Italy (for three of my pieces are about Italian films): 62 views. I’m perfectly aware that English is not an official language in most of these countries, but I think it is safe to assume that, today, a good number of cinephiles from around the world can read English (certainly they can read my English, which is neither stylistically florid nor rich in vocabulary). Believe me, I am grateful for those 62 views from Italy. But I am also a bit puzzled that, after these 15 months, only a handful of Italian cinephiles know this blog, or have felt the curiosity to access it.

So, we arrive to my final point (yes, it’s been a long build-up): circulation. And, in terms of circulation, the Internet has proven disappointing. Let me clarify in advance that disappointing does not mean useless, or worse than before. As a film critic, I’ve known no life before the Internet; but as a precocious poet and essayist (!), I bloomed in the analogue era. And, while nowadays I often get depressed, I’ve never been so hopelessly depressed as in 1997 when, after completing a book of poetry with heavy Lorquian (from Federico García Lorca) touches and a very pompous title, I tried to circulate it. Naive as I was, I sent this book to plenty of literary awards committees, spending ridiculous amounts of money in postage. I passed it on to relatives, friends, boyfriends, one-night stands. I offered my tortuous and tortured book to people: people with real bodies and presences, people who were part of my everyday, non-mediated life. And they did not care to read it. So, I’m not gonna be the one to hail the physical over the virtual; nor I am going to say that my life was better without the Internet.

And, yet, there’s a huge difference between the Internet’s potential and Internet reality. Or, at least, between what I thought the Internet promised and what it has ended up delivering. Perhaps you are familiar with the title of a poem by Spanish writer Gabriel Celaya: “Poetry is a weapon loaded with the future”. But I bet you don’t know about another, much more marginal poet, who once remarked: “Yes, yes, poetry is a weapon loaded with the future. But, from time to time, one must shoot it”. And, indeed, one must! Because the Internet may make texts easily accessible, but it does not make them automatically accessed. This is our job. As it is our job to make meaningful distinctions between those texts.

I’d love to wake up, one day, and discover that what I write does not need me. That I don’t have to be constantly coming up with self-advertising strategies, ingenious tweets, and periodical reminders to catch the attention of potential readers (see, the shade of potentiality looms large … ). That I have managed – that my texts have managed – to generate enough interest amongst a few people who, moved by their own curiosity and desire, will visit this site to check if something new has been published or to re-read that old piece which meant something to them. But, things being as they are (remember the stats: 89%), it turns out that my texts, much to my chagrin, do need my prompting.

Twice in the life of this blog, however, something weird has happened. I was sinking in that silly despair that often takes hold of me twice in a row (because I must be the only imbecile in this world who still feels a bit of respect for that ‘publish’ button, I always leave a gap between the completion of a piece and its actual publication, therefore doubling my anxiety unnecesarily). Anyway, suddenly I was startled by a WordPress notification that cheerfully announced: “Your stats are booming! Laugh Motel is getting lots of traffic”. Wait, what? Yes, it was happening. Below, I present you photographic evidence that proves how two of my posts received about ten times more views than average (and about 25/30 times more views than my two least accesed texts!).

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Being as I am (i.e., a perpetually unsatisfied person), it annoyed me a little bit that this happened with the two posts of this blog that have the most unsexy titles I’ve ever conceived. But being, again, as I am (i.e., someone who does not conceive of a relation with the outside that does not pass through what I write), I felt so overjoyed by the reception of these two pieces that this present text – which I’ve been crafting in my head for a long time – seemed, suddenly, totally unnecessary and whimsical. How to explain what happened here? What was the secret of this sudden success? Did I fool people into thinking that I had written, for once, on a general topic, when I was actually doing the same as I do in all my other pieces (to work the text, to hold onto the particulars)? In fact, as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing that sets these two posts apart from the rest: they were widely shared in social media, by many, many people. Moreover, in these two cases, I did receive some response from readers. And, for once, I’ve even been quoted!

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To end, I’d like to say a few words about sharing and social media – and, to keep it short (because this text is already long enough), I’ll stick just to Twitter. I know that Twitter is used in a myriad of ways, by different people, and with different purposes. Forgive me for not going here into the detailed analysis of a platform that showcases a dizzying variety of content: from fake news to quotes by fine writers, from beautiful film grabs to uninspired memes, from videos of funny babies to pictures of cute cats, not to mention opinions, lots of opinions … My research into Twitter promises to be a never-ending affair, for I’m as yet far from understanding its subtle intricacies. But, here, I’ll limit my scope to the usefulness of Twitter as a tool for sharing either my work or the work of others, giving special emphasis to the politics of retweeting (with and without comment). I’m fully aware that this sounds like the bad précis of a bad academic paper, but do not panic: I’ll give you the short version.

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There are people who retweet as if there was no tomorrow, and people with a strict ‘no retweet’ policy. There are those who shove ten clichés into a tweet before sharing the last hype/woke piece that, by the time of this umpteenth retweet, has already received more attention than it deserves; the numbing power of consensus never ceases to amaze me. There are people who do not share, comment or retweet, but like – and aren’t likes nice? Yes, they are, especially if you consider its icon instead of its real function. (I myself would pick, any day, the full, red heart over those two silly arrows that look like the square of Hell). But, let’s be clear: a like and a retweet are two very different gestures. A like is a private declaration, a retweet is a public acknowledgement that helps the text circulate. There are suckers for the prestigious source who would starve to death before sharing (and perhaps reading) something that does not come with the seal of authority: I despise these people. There are others who retweet by impulse, what they like and when they feel like it: I like these people, but I also think that Twitter is a monster that needs careful taming. And, then, there are individuals who include this very telling warning on their profiles: “Retweets are not endorsements, opinions are my own”. Well, I’d rather you keep your opinions to yourself and endorse your retweets!

Where am I going with all this? Well, you must have realised already that I am extremely modest, so I’ll say it straight out: the way I see it, my retweet policy is the best. I may not share or retweet a lot; I’m hard to please. But when I do it, it’s because what I’m sharing is worth it. It’s because it has given me something that I’d like to pass on to you. It’s because, yes, I endorse it. One thing I avoid is blind or charitable retweeting. I know there are people who do this out of a sense of generosity: they want to give visibility to the work of others (even if they themselves haven’t, can’t or won’t read what they are retweeting). Taking into account the inmense abundance of things being produced today, I believe this move, even if made with the best intentions, is questionable. In the face of social media and its erasure of every distinction amidst the incessant unfolding of content, we need to take some responsibility for what we share. That is making a difference: saying this speaks to me, this has value (not value in the sense of some legitimised cultural excellence, but value as in nuances, ideas, expressions, qualities, moves, tones that affect you, that mean something to you). To again use a weaponry metaphor (blame it on the times), we need less machine gun firing and more sharpshooting.

That said, nothing appeals to me less than being regarded as a moralist. Rules are necessary, but exceptions are exciting. Exceptions test the limits of the rule. Exceptions are marginal, like me. I like exceptions. So, I imagine (and even expect) that there are particular reasons and situations that would demand from you, as well as from me, the breaking of this sharing-in-social-media-rule that I’ve just been arguing so brilliantly. And, given the opportunity, I encourage you to do so! As a general principle, though, I think it’s a pretty good one: hack the algorithm, go against the inertia, give something of yourself when you share.

If you happen to be the one reader (out of five) who has made it this far: now you are free. Free to dismiss all I’ve written here as just a bunch of egomaniacal ramblings calling for attention. Or free to consider it as not just that. What I’d like best, though, is that you feel compelled to give it some thought.


© Cristina Álvarez López, November 2019