Sunday, May 31, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.6: Aesop's Progress - The Israeli Influencer


Part 6: The Israeli Influencer

In March 2014, Israel read a story. By that I mean, it felt like everyone there read it. The home page at the time was showing Job Well Done. This log graphic seems to show a healthy mix of viewers. There were none of the weird, esoteric browsers in the records on the day this happened. The most popular browsers and all of the big OSes were represented. It appears that a thousand individuals in a tiny country, all with fairly standard computers, not phones, were online at NotZen.

Someone in Israel, it seemed, could recommend a story and generate a thousand readers. And for Israel, that turned out to be only the beginning.

But first, AdSense and AdWords would produce another change in the attention of aggregation sites.

In May 2014, the site received Google approval to use AdSense. Going through the process felt weird. Google makes almost all of its money from ads. You’d think the company would be eager to have sites sign up.

On the surface, that’s the case. But underneath the campaign for ads, there is a bot that automatically approves sites. Until I applied, that bot hadn’t looked at the NotZen site. When, on my request, it did scroll through the homepage, it decided that NotZen was not a real site. The articles didn’t have enough text structured in the right form.

I had to appeal to a human. When I got through to one, fortunately, the human agreed that the bot wasn’t able to make sense of stories with dialogue. The Google employee allowed AdSense on NotZen. It changed the site.

Some of the change was for the worse – product ads, awkwardly placed for viewing by non-materialistic people. But along with the ads came the presence of different referring engines. One of those engines resided in Turkey.

When Turkey started sending readers to NotZen, the site got a spike in AdSense earnings. Whatever Google was doing there, it was working. The Turkish readers were clicking on ads alongside the stories. That seemed so unlikely that I blamed it on smartphones. I figured the Turks were accidentally clicking ads.

Later, my wife thought of another possible reason: readers in Turkey saw different ads than readers in the U.S. Maybe they were relevant. Maybe they even got referred to NotZen stories in a way that made sense.

In May 2014, Turkey readership actually passed the U.S. for the month. Also, I saw that someone there was still using a Nokia phone.

The trend continued in June. The log summaries made it appear that Turkish citizens owned plenty of Android phones and Windows computers but not a whole lot of Apple products. It seemed believable.

Also in June, the Dalvik browser made an appearance but that’s just another way of saying it was Firefox starting up within Android, probably. (Dalvik was an old Android virtual machine. A web browser running in it gave two identification strings and Blogspot didn’t understand that yet.)

Likewise, the GSA browser appeared in the logs because someone visited the site with a Google Search Appliance. In a way, I’m surprised there aren’t more entries for like these.

By the end of June 2014, Israel rose to third place in the overall readership. About eighty percent of their readers total, though, probably only read a single story. The Ukrainians had visited more steadily. Sometimes they’d browsed as few hundred people basically at the same time, sometimes as just a few dozen.

Although the Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese, and Americans seemed to be attracted to stories about love and peace, the Turkish readers, in contrast, seemed interested in stories about transcendence. That seems like a good thing to me, personally.

In September, Israeli readers noticed a second story. This one was Thoughtless Competition. As before, the Israelis browsed to the main page of the blog, not to the dedicated story link.

It seemed to be an emerging pattern. Someone decided they liked the current entry on NotZen, recommended it, and sent the homepage link to others, who actually read it.

Whoever that person was, they had been influential again. This time, they’d brought in over fifteen hundred readers at once. There was no spike in referring sites. The lack of an obvious source made it look personal, maybe a method as simple as a link sent out in an email newsletter.

In September of 2014, the NotZen site saw over 3,800 readers in a month for the first time. The surge came thanks in part to Israel, again, although it also came from the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, and China.

Eight of the top nine NotZen audiences turned out not to be from English speaking countries. Their citizens might read English some and they might use translation services. Mostly, I think those eight countries all have traditions of education and of reading for pleasure. It seems to be the most likely source of the readership differences.

In February of 2015, readers in Israel discovered Immunity. It’s a parable that deals, in part, with deliberate ignorance and its consequences.

It’s true that some folks love to argue for the sake of appearing smart. Behaviors like that, coupled with lack of attention to practical details (for instance, not understanding that an ice maker needs a water line), lead to a sort of popular disdain for intellectuals.

The consequences of deliberate ignorance as an emotional response, though, are pretty severe. The failure to understand the science behind our homes, our tools, and our medicines affects anti-intellectuals and their families, friends, and neighbors. There’s a social aspect of deliberate ignorance that can make it irresponsible to let it resolve itself.

At the time I wrote Immunity, there had been a few outbreaks of old, nearly-forgotten diseases in the U.S. It seemed clear to me that, if the American anti-vaccination trend continued, more outbreaks would come. I picked an eradicated disease and decided to use it for my explanation.

Thiomersal, the other main technical key to the story, has been removed from U.S. vaccines. That probably wasn’t a good move or at least not a necessary one. It doesn’t seem to break down in the human body; there’s no sign that it does harm except to molds and bacteria; and its replacements are also preservatives and have similar but less studied properties.

If preservatives do damage, it’s likely to be because they are weakly antibiotic. They influence our personal biomes. If preservative compounds are causing harm, they’re doing it in a widespread fashion – in our foods, cosmetics, paints, and wooden furniture. Vaccines might be the least likely way to encounter a preservative.

I’d gotten used to the graph growing in a regular fashion. In the spring of 2015, though, I could see that Israel had skewed the readership trends again.

This is what happened when Israel liked Immunity. Previously, the Israelis had only browsed to the main page. This time, some of them went to the dedicated story link. Some may have even looked at other stories.

This bump in the chart appears to be a reaction to Always Land in July 2015. The Peace Process story might have had some appeal, too. By this time, the influencer in Israel, whoever or whatever that is, could apparently bring over two thousand six hundred folks to the site in just one day. This is for a small and until that day, unknown story, after all.

Next: NotZen Continues

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.5: Aesop's Progress - The Mystery of the Ukraine


Part 5: The Mystery of the Ukraine 

The first week of January 2014 was the one in which the Ukraine passed the U.S. in readership.

Normally, Firefox and Chrome are the browsers on top, week to week. That week, Internet Explorer rose to the top. The change implied that the readers in the Ukraine had a lot of Internet Explorer browsers on their desktops.

You might have expected a stronger Firefox and Chrome presence in the Ukraine. I’d have figured on seeing more Linux. Apparently, that wasn’t the way.

By the end of January 2014, the site hit a new high in monthly readers logged. There were more than 1,300 for the month. Of course, as an acquaintance pointed out, I had no assurance that this was the number of people actually reading all the way through a story.

The number of real people seeing each tale could have been greater, due to aggregator sites skimming off the text and re-publishing it as their own. It could have been less, too, because the same sort of web robots could generate hits in the logs while doing nothing else.

Since there’s not much I could do to get a more accurate sense of readership, I decided I had to accept the log numbers. The bot hits appeared to be a small fraction of the total. Plus, if each aggregator hit led to one extra, real person reading a story off-site, then the Blogspot totals would be accurate.

At this point, in a very short period of time, the Ukraine had risen from a tiny presence to third place in all time readers.

My sense of the Ukrainian readers was that, however they found out about NotZen stories, they were most attracted to those about love, peace, and friendship.

I remember noticing the pattern and discussing it with a friend, Sharon. For reasons that could be seen as Buddhist, I didn’t like it. Stories that are emotionally difficult are often more worthwhile than those with a happy resolution. The pattern of bumps in readership was apparent, though, and I flirted with the idea of playing to it.

At the core, that’s not what the stories are for, so the concept was impossible to execute. As you have probably seen, not all of these stories are friendly ones. They’re what they needed to be at the time.

The story that appeared just before June 30 was Tribes. I can see how that one might have appealed in the Ukraine at the time.

Next: The Israeli Influencer

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.4: Aesop's Progress - Rise of the Influencers


Part 4: Rise of the Influencers

In first week of January 2014, the story called 'Parroting the Instructor' surged in readership. It was a bump that started when I recommended the link to a project management instructor. He was more than a fun teacher; he was also the author of project management books. I’m pretty sure that he was - and still is - a strong, positive persuader of others. Maybe he recommended the story to other teachers or to his students in classes. I'm just guessing. But it's an educated guess. And I still haven't thought of any other good reason for the bump in readers.

The effect in the logs reminded me of the other people who had recommended NotZen stories. Some of those people and their websites had been influential. Among them:

  • One of my brothers
  • A Buddhist clown (yes, really) who I’d met via Diaspora
  • A True Land group leader on Google Plus

These people determined for themselves whether a story was worthwhile. And then they spread the news. The True Land monk, Denis Wallez, was perhaps the most influential, not only because of his online presence but because his own, careful writing. His explanation of critical points of Buddhist philosophy affected me personally and inspired some of my later stories. His work appeared in Plus groups and on his own website.

When people like these recommended a story, dozens or hundreds of people browsed to it.

When Denis Wallez recommended the story Best after it was posted in January 2015, folks in the Buddhism interest group started giving it +1. Readership went up. The same thing happened earlier when he praised and reposted Bridge of Promise to the Buddhist and Taoist communities.

Meanwhile, slightly removed from the individual recommendations, the aggregation sites with an interest in NotZen also made their impacts. There must have been people behind the sites, of course. I still don’t know who they are. They left some clues for me, though. For one thing, they came from these three countries:

  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Israel

Early in 2014, these aggregators started looming over everything else.

Next: The Mystery of the Ukraine

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.3: Aesop's Progress - It's Growing


Part 3: It's Growing

Although the blog site never had links to Chinese social media (because I would have had to know the language to do that), somehow Chinese readers found the stories. After eight months, China had become the number two country in NotZen readership.

Naturally, at this point it was a distant second. The surprise was that China appeared at all.

Around the same time, two stories, Mercy and Focus, seemed to be drawing more attention than the others. As I looked through the logs, I saw that a third story, The Heavy Staff, had been translated into French.

I traced down the French version after getting curious about a referring site. The referring site ended up being another blog - in French. That writer, who lived in Quebec, had translated the story and had also politely linked back to the original. Most other folks aren’t so polite. If the same thing has been done at other times, I’ll never know.

By April of 2013, China overtook the United States on a weekly readership basis. I think that I saved this screen due to a ‘China again, WTF?’ reaction. The site also started averaging a couple hundred readers per week. A significant portion of them came from out of the country.

The Chinese web browsers seemed not to identify themselves in ways that Blogspot could parse. That’s why the browser named “;” makes an appearance. There’s more of that than anything else.

Later, the “;” entries disappeared. I think that Blogspot learned to translate the Chinese.

Individual stories started making comebacks in readership. I wasn’t always clear on why. It might have come from someone liking it, posting a link to it, and finally the link getting noticed. Whatever the process was, it took time to happen.

In this log entry, the older stories getting readers were Parroting the Instructor and Self-Discipline. I thought I had a clue about the first one. It was due to a particularly influential person.

Regardless of the trending stories and referring sites, readership from mainland China faded. I was never sure of the reasons. The United States finished on top in the logs again, week after week, even though the landscape of countries and technology kept shifting underneath.

Although readership in China seemed to fade - due to lack of interest or to the Great Firewall or to a search engine grabbing the page contents and re-packaging them in Chinese - other countries outside of the U.S. started to climb. Israel made an appearance. Russia and the Ukraine showed up.

In November 2013, despite a lack of Chinese browsers, NotZen got more hits than ever from Baidu, the main Chinese search engine.

I’m not precisely sure if the Baidu search engine rose up to fill a need. If the site got blocked by the Great Firewall of China how did Baidu get through? If the site wasn’t blocked, why did the Chinese browsers disappear? One logical answer would be that the few readers there ever were in China stopped browsing to but that doesn’t match with the Baidu searches of the site trending upward.

I don’t have the answers and, possibly, I don't even have the right questions.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208.2: Aesop's Progress - It's Small


Part 2: It's Small

Early on, hardly anyone clicked on the link to any story. Most of the readers came from a small, kind, and rather literature-oriented subset of my friends. After them came folks who I was meeting in social media platforms. Diaspora had good interest groups for philosophy and Buddhism. The best platform early on was Google Plus.

If you’ve relied on Facebook for all your social connections, this part is hard to describe. In Google Plus, there were interest groups that shared articles and held discussions about them. On Diaspora and Friendica, the articles were even more interesting (although lack of vetting was a problem). The interest groups in those services and a few others seemed to be the equivalent of college classrooms.

Everyone in the groups joined in a discussion on Buddhism, for instance, because they genuinely wanted to trade ideas about it. That’s different from the Facebook neighborhood of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Your uncle may not want to hear about your hobby. In an interest group, they do.

As you can see in the traffic sources chart, there are signs that the social media sites were, somehow, linking more distant readers to the stories. The (France) site appears. So does, an aggregator service that tries to be international. A reference also appears. That one belongs to a service owned by Twitter.

I think that it was through these channels that readers in European countries started to triangulate on the site.

By late December 2012, a Russian site made its appearance as a referrer (troll-face-ru). I read about how it was a blog aggregator. According to online author complaints, the site was grabbing material from all over the world and re-packaging it for a Russian audience. Some writers were mad because they were losing advertising money. At the time, I had no ads.

And anyway, the site was tiny, tiny, tiny.