The Week Link
Wednesday 7 March 2001

The Week Think

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

It starts small. You build a webpage. There's not much on it apart from a hit-counter. Your friends visit the page. The counter goes up: 20, 30. You obsessively check your page. The counter keeps going up: 80, 90. After a while, you put more on your page—which turns into a site—and the counter goes up faster than your friends and your checking can account for: 200, 300.

At some point, you learn that hit-counters are passé. You feel self-conscious about yours (900, 1000) and wonder whether you should remove it. None of the really cool sites have hit-counters. Finally, you remove it: 3000, nothing.

Hits are like salaries: openly discussing the figures is considered gauche. But we all have access to our own site stats, and we all check to see how many people are visiting, like Scrooge McDuck counting coins in his Money Bin. Unlike McDuck, though, we can't judge what our stats are worth, because nobody else lists theirs. Is a thousand hits good? Is ten thousand bad? Who knows? Aren't half of them from spiders anyway?

So we disconnect from our stats. We pretend they don't matter. We check them less and less. They no longer excite us. And at some point, some of us just stop. Walk away from the web. Nobody's listening. Nobody emails. Those numbers aren't readers, they're just numbers.


I bought into the 'hit counters are uncool' theory. I pulled the counter off the first page of this site after only six months. As far as you know, I have no visitors except you. I've built all this—325 pages and counting—for myself, and for you. And since you're just passing through anyway, that makes me the world's biggest narcissist. Just like every other personal website creator. Right?


Nine years ago, I walked onto a stage and performed a sketch in front of an audience of maybe forty people. No big deal in the grand scheme of things. But that performance gave a high like no other. Other people were appreciating something I wrote. They had given up their time and money to be there. That meant something.

Eleven years ago, a news magazine published some of my cartoons. Every one of its hundred thousand readers would have seen them: they might skim past some of the longer articles, but not the cartoons. A hundred thousand people were appreciating something I drew. That meant something, too.

Experiences like that can shape careers. People have spent their lives onstage or writing books on the strength of less. Why? Because they want to connect with an audience. They want their work to mean something to someone: someone other than themselves.

For most artists, this is their main reason for continuing. Art will never make them rich; compared to most professions, it'll hardly even pay the bills. Yet in the world of the 'personal web' we pretend this doesn't matter. We hide our hits and talk of 'obsessively checking' our stats as if it's a dirty little secret.

Actors 'obsessively check their stats' every moment they're on stage and hear the crowd laughing and applauding. They have instant feedback, and use it to improve their work. Comedians drop jokes and tighten others on the basis of the laughs they get. They change their pace, increase their emphasis, draw out the moment to give the audience time to laugh.

Writers obsessively check their sales figures, and the size of them can determine whether or not their next book gets published or even written. Television producers obsessively check their ratings: their jobs depend on them. Painters obsessively check visitor numbers to their exhibitions: if they're too low, the gallery won't sell much of their work. The size and nature of an audience has real implications for any artist, however much we cling to romantic ideals about creating for art's sake alone.

Audience numbers have implications for an audience, too. Watch a comedy movie in a crowded theatre. Now watch it alone in front of your TV. Which was funnier? There's a good reason why most sitcoms have laugh-tracks. Comedy movies don't because the cinema audience provides the laughs; watched at home on video, such movies often fall flat.

You read something differently if you know it has a readership of 100 or 100,000. You may not read an obscure piece at all; or you may read it and do what you can to spread the word about how good it is. Reading a piece with a high readership gives you a sense of what's popular, what's part of the zeitgeist, what audiences or editors are looking for. It also tells you what's already been done, so that you don't bore your own audience by saying things they've already heard.

Site statistics matter. Public site statistics matter. Not just for dotcoms, but for the personal web. One notable personal-web figure instinctively understands this, perhaps because he was once in advertising. Those millions of hits send out a message to every new visitor that here is someone worth paying attention to.

What would we learn if there was a hit-counter on High, low—would it matter? Perhaps when others complain about 'A-List' members X, Y and Z, we could remind them that X gets only a hundred hits a day, which isn't exactly high-rotation radio play. Or we could tell them that yes, Y gets a thousand hits a day, and if you watch how she does it you might learn something. Or when Z quits weblogging because half his audience has stopped reading, we could remind him that half of a thousand unique hosts a day is still ten times what we get.


But what do hit figures really mean, anyway?

An individual hit means a little. A visit by a 'unique host' means a little more. Repeat visits mean more again. Depending on what sort of logs you have access to, you can read all sorts of things into your stats. A lot of people might look once and turn away. That's bad. But when a lot of people look at the cover of a book yet don't end up buying it—not so bad. A lot of people might read only one small item on your whole site. Oo, that's bad. But when more people read the snippets column of the Saturday paper than the four-page feature article in the lift-out magazine—not so bad.

If your site is fairly broad, with different sections reflecting different aspects of your diverse personality, no single person other than you will ever read all of it. That is not failure. That is what makes you unique. Enjoy it.


So: time to put my money where my mouth is. Here are my stats from August-September 1999, the first two months in which this site was public. It was a lot smaller then, and so was my audience:

Server statistics for the period 14/7/99 11:11:45 AM to 1/10/99 10:18:12 AM
Total number of [requests] = 8237
Total number of visits = 538 (A visit is a group of accesses separated by 600s.)
Number of [distinct hosts] accessing this server = 256

Twenty or thirty people a week. I was pretty stoked.

No No No!

[8 March 2001: Having conducted this little thought experiment I've now gone cold on the whole idea. Well, I like it in principle, but it still feels like airing one's dirty laundry in practice. So I don't think I will sprinkle hit-counters around the place after all. On balance, I think my position is that as a reader and writer I'm curious to know what other people's stats are, and as a writer I'd rather keep my stats to myself. Yep, selfish and hypocritical, that's me. I'll leave those stats I've quoted up there, though. I've made my bed out of dirty laundry, so now I'm going to lie in it.]

[10 March 2001: I've now gone even more cold on the idea. So I've scribbled out those recent stats—although you can still see my ancient ones, for what it's worth. Sorry. Sometimes I play with an idea and then change my mind completely. Show the world your stats if you like. Don't if you don't like. Who cares? It's only a website. (I'm talking to myself here, you know.)]

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