Wednesday, December 27, 2017

If one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed it is worthwhile


In his latest 'mine is bigger than yours' boast Norman Lebrecht declares that " it would be remiss on our part not to indicate... statistical shortcomings". A very wise observation that I too will now turn my attention to. In his post Norman states "Slipped Disc is on course to reach 1.5 million readers this month. Google Analytics tells us pretty much who and where they are". But Google Analytics does not measure readers: it measures website traffic volume, which is a different thing altogether. Readers are human beings, traffic volume is a measure of visitors to a website, and those visitors may, or may not be, human. In fact independent research shows that more than half of visitors to websites are bots as opposed to humans. As an example 'feed fetcher' bots that refresh newsfeeds alone account for more than 12% of website traffic, with the Facebook 'feed fetcher' accounting for one third of that traffic.

So if Google Analytics is reporting Slipped Disc site traffic of almost 1.5 million visitors a month, it is statistically incorrect and factually wrong to interpret that as 1.5 million readers: in fact readership is likely to be less than half that number. It should also be noted that Norman uses the wording "1.5 million readers" and not "1.5 million unique readers". The omission of 'unique' may just be an example of the famed Lebrecht carelessness, or it may be that the figures given are for total site hits including returning visitors and not  unique site hits. These are two very different measures and if the 1.5 million does not de-duplicate returning visitors the total is again significantly overstated*.

Norman is celebrated for his pulp fiction. For the reasons above the veracity of his claimed 1.5 million readers can be questioned; but this notwithstanding there is little doubt that Slipped Disc's readership is considerably larger than OAOP's. However that is not something I am losing sleep over; because the truth is that we do not know and will never know with any accuracy what the readership by humans of either blog or any other online resource is. This problem is compounded by the distorting prism of the social media algorithms that determine who reads what online.

Classical music has become obsessed with social media metrics, yet hard evidence shows that chasing topline numbers for social media friends, followers, likes and website traffic is the equivalent of speculating in a currency with an unknown and unknowable value. For instance beleaguered BBC Radio 3 recently tweeted imploringly for more Twitter followers, a metric totally devalued by the widespread availability of free bots that generate Twitter followers and other non-human social media activity. Endorsement metrics, site traffic and other online measures are, when properly understood and used, useful tools. But when, as is increasingly happening, they become an end in themselves rather than a means to the end of wider reach and better quality, they become dangerous conceits.

An important but overlooked problem in the current euphoria about all things online is that many self-appointed classical authorities have only a superficial understanding of the internet. This is instanced by the not infrequent execution errors in Slipped Disc posts. In fact Norman's 'mine is bigger than yours' post provides a prime example. His link to On An Overgrown Path takes readers, at the time of writing, to the home page of my blog, rather than the post he is critiquing. This is because he has used a link to the generic On An Overgrown Path URL and not a permalink which would lead directly to the article he critiques. Not using the permalink facility means his readers see the current article at the top of the home page, and are left to search for the article he refers to.

If we allow classical music to be controlled by social media metrics it will become nothing more than click bait for the ears. The reality is that the chase for big numbers marginalises invaluable activities such as the outreach work of the L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc seen in my photos playing in the streets of Essaouira, Morocco - a country with no indigenous Western classical tradition. Classical music is not about 'mine is bigger than yours' bragging matches. L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc's artistic advisor Olivier Holt nailed it precisely when he said that "My role as conductor is to provoke curiosity and joy". Tawdry gossip may attract an impressively large audience of voyeurs and bots, but it does not provoke curiosity and joy. Instead of peddling click bait the classical music industry should heed the wise words of author and radio journalist Libby Purves:

To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is make - and publicize - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile".

* There is another reason to suggest that the readership of Slipped Disc is significantly less than the claimed 1.5 million per month. This reason veers into the anecdotal as opposed to independently corroborated, but it is nevertheless worth airing. After 13 years of blogging and 4128 published posts I have a pretty good intuitive feel for the dynamics of On An Overgrown Path's site traffic. When Norman linked to my blog with his recent post it struck me that the volume of traffic coming over from the link was noticeably lower that I would expect, given the claimed readership. This judgement was based on a detailed knowledge of the traffic coming from other large readership 'tastemaker' blogs such as Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise. Because of the problem of bots inflating traffic volumes I use two independent tools to measure OAOP's site traffic. One tool takes a liberal interpretation of site traffic and includes in its measure the majority of bot traffic. The other tool is more discriminatory and eliminates much of the non-human traffic. Due to the different ways the tools parse site traffic there is always a material variance in the level of traffic they report. But when I compared the site traffic at the peak of Slipped Disc referrals the variance was much greater than I have ever seen before. This would indicate that a significant part of the traffic bouncing on from Slipped Disc to OAOP was not human readers. It is also noticeable that since the Slipped Disc link OAOP has added a surprising number of Russian and other visitors of distinctly dodgy provenance.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

3 comments:

Paul MacAlindin said...

As a happy blogger, I enjoyed reading this. I would just like to air three points:

Firstly, "You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile". No. There will never be enough budget for the classical music industry, or indeed many other genres, to compete against the massive marketing campaigns and dumbed-down algorithms supporting the pop industry. And this is important, as attention is being soaked up by these powerful campaigns worldwide. But compete we must. We have to be not only smarter, but super smart, to get the power of our music across by stealth.

Secondly, UK orchestras have already learnt that live broadcast of concerts online, followed by YouTube uploads, may indeed increase reach, but it doesn't increase revenue. You still have to pay players and composers for mechanical rights which you won't recoup. Models like those from the Berlin Phil and Sydney Opera House (whose reach into China is huge) are exceptional because of their unique market positions.

Finally, I would point out a general misunderstanding of the use of social media, especially in many businesses led by digital migrants (aka older people). i think most folk get this point already. These platforms do not exist to pump out pictures about our marvellous activities. They are supposed to be a beginning of a conversation between individuals, not a corporate digital presence pretending to look cool. Of course, we can't control the conversation, but we MUST participate in a way that genuinely engages our followers, or we're wasting our time. Let's admit we're entitled to nothing, that our sophistication is genuinely uninteresting to many, often being The Emperor's New Clothes, and that to engage with a wider audience we have to stop being so afraid of ourselves. Are we really so boring as to write a blog about follower statistics, or just terrified our opinions might hurt funding opportunities and leave us vulnerable to backlash?

Pliable said...

Paul thank you for that thoughtful comment, and I can only agree with what you say.

This post and others in the thread have attracted a very large number of visitors - presumably including a fair number of humans. The site traffic is far higher than average, meaning the post has been circulated onwards. But despite the high volume of visitors comment and discussion has been virtually nil.

Social media, which includes blogs, is no longer about discussing a range of views. It has been devalued to a forum for simply confirming prejudices. If this post has been an anti-Brexit rant it would doubtless have been re-tweeted many, many times.

Pliable said...

It is worth noting that not one of the Slipped Disc groupies who salivated over Norman Lebrecht's post - "Good news for SD" from John Borslap and "Congratulations Norman... these age-demographic statistics are certainly encouraging" from the ironic titled statsfreak - has picked up on my argument that the claim of 1.5 million readers is, in fact, fake news.

Just another example of classical music's deep dislike for inconvenient truths.