Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blog Retrospective

I started blogging a little over 3 years ago, as something of an experiment.  Lance had given up blogging, and I had been a reasonably frequent and opinionated commenter on his blog, enough so that people often asked when I would start my own.  I hadn't planned on it, but Lance's stepping down (which, later, turned out to be temporary) felt like it had left a hole.  I hoped that I might provide, in my own way, a community forum for discussing issues, and a connection point for the areas I'm interested in -- algorithms (or theory more broadly), networking, and information theory.

In the end I'm not sure how well I achieved the various goals.  I don't feel this blog has ever become a strong authority (or hub, in Kleinberg's language) in the way that I might have liked.  Commenting has been sparse with infrequent spikes;  longer more detailed discussions seem rare.  Perhaps this is just hard to do -- people have, on the whole, better things to do with their time.  Or perhaps (probably?) it represents flaws in my posts.  Certainly one wish I think I had going in is that my posts would be more technical, but technical posts take a great deal of time, and are, quite frankly, hard.  I'm ever-impressed by what Dick Lipton is doing, in terms of technical depth, at his blog;  it's a wonder to me.

On the other hand, I'm amazed and pleased to find that people read this blog, and have enjoyed the "behind-the-scenes" look at life and work as a professor.  Everywhere I've gone in the last few years, there are people who tell me they've been reading it.  I've never implemented tools to tell the size of my readership, but anecdotally it must be larger than I think.  (The joy of low expectations.)  It's opened the doors to lots of interesting discussions about research, the state of computer science, what being a professor is like, and a whole range of various things.  And from what I can tell, it has given the different communities I was targeting a better idea of what each of them is like, in terms of culture and process.  That perhaps hasn't always been a good thing, but overall I'll view it as a success.

I didn't realize when I began how much blogging would raise my "visibility", but that seems to have been a pleasant side effect.  I'll admit, I'm glad to have been able to take advantage of that.  Perhaps I'll be invited to give fewer talks now that I'm giving up the blog.  Or fewer PCs.  Maybe at this point that's not all bad.  Or maybe stopping will force me to explore other positive ways of raising my visibility, perhaps by writing another book.   

Overall, I've had a great deal of fun blogging, and that alone has made it worthwhile.  Over the last several months, however, I've found blogging less enjoyable.  Some of that must just be fatigue;  I suppose I've been running out of things to write, making writing harder.  But also there have been fewer comments, and -- as discussed in this post over at the Complexity blog -- there has been much more of an unpleasant tone in (anonymous) comments (across many blogs) of late.  It's a sign for me that, as fun as this all has been, it's time for me to stop.  My new position has provided a good excuse, but I probably would have stopped anyway.

Perhaps blogging has just been the latest Internet fad -- perhaps our social networks can't support the number and diversity of blogs that we have, and our attention is now moving elsewhere.  (Like, back to work.)  I'd like to think not.  I think the latest P=NP? phenomenon is an excellent demonstration of the potential power and importance of blogs.  (Again, Dick Lipton's blog was a wonder.)  I hope that all the bloggers we have in our community keep going, that new bloggers come into the picture, and that we use blogging -- or whatever new tools come along -- to enhance communication within and across our communities.  As an example, I've spent some time the past few days looking around at the CS Theory StackExchange Q and A site, prompted by Suresh's posts.  I'm not quite sure what to make of it yet, but it's been fun to explore and seems to have interesting potential.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading, and especially to those of you who have been taking the time to provide thoughtful comments.  I wouldn't have continued for as long as I did without you.  I've enjoyed this experiment, and I'm gratified to think that some of you have enjoyed it to.  I'm sure I'll still be around, offering my opinion at other places.  And I hope when you see me around (physically), even though I'm not blogging, you'll consider trying to strike up a conversation with me;  I'm sure we can find things to talk about, and, without the blog, I'll be missing this type of conversation.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm an Italian postdoc and I don't remember how I found your blog a little more than a year ago. I always read your blog and it is really an authority in my opinion (on the top 3 on my list of ~30 scientific blogs). I would like to underline that I always read your blog because of its contents; ironically, I discovered more about your position only when I came to Harvard few months ago.

I'm really sorry about your decision, but here I just would like to thank you for all the interesting posts you proposed.

myle said...

I was pleasantly reading your blog even though I didn't comment your posts.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts so far. For the younger ones (I am undergraduate student from far away) it is really important. :D

Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed your posts on papers. If you won't be blogging, what do you think you will do to replace those posts?

Mark Reitblatt said...

As a long-time reader, first-time commenter, thanks for all the effort you've put into this blog. I'm sorry that more of us didn't contribute to the commenter-community. Speaking for myself, I can't bring myself to write a comment until I've put as much thought into the comment as you've put into the post. I just rarely manage to reach that bar. Well, maybe this one time...

Anonymous said...

Nooooooooo! Please don't go. If you quit blogging, then I'm quitting computer science!!!

sushant said...

I have been reading your blog for a long time but rarely comment on posts :) It is an excellent blog with a nice mix of technical and not-so-technical content. I'll certainly miss it.

Anonymous said...

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Standa said...

Ditto Mark, as a long-time reader and a first-time commenter, thanks for this great blog. Btw, a great talk at MSR in Cambridge the other day.

Anonymous said...

Another long time reader here. PhD student still thinking what path will I chose after I defend my thesis. Your behind the scenes posts have been a joy reading and they have helped me figure out how the real life of a professor might be. Good luck from Spain.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog ever since it started probably. But never commented though. Thank you. I like the humility in the tone you use while discussing any topic.

Jeremy Hurwitz said...

I too am a long-time reader and first-time commenter. I never realized (well, never really thought about) how important the feedback was to you.

As a reader, I find it annoying when someone posts content-less comments, such as "Great post! I greatly enjoyed it.", since it makes it harder to find the interesting responses. As a result, I only post if I have a substantial question or comment.

To the other commenters: Do you feel the same way?

To Michael: What's your take on this as the author?

Thank you again for the great blog. I'm sorry to see it go.

Ghalib said...

Yet another long-time reader, first-time commenter here. As Jeremy comments above, I was also surprised at the importance of feedback to you. I (maybe mistakenly) always assumed you were too busy to follow comments much.

Selfishly on my part, I reckon it's a real shame that this blog is coming to an end; it's only one of two CS-related blogs I read.

To Jeremy: I feel the same as you regarding 'contentless' posts. Big part of the reason behind me never commenting.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

I'll be sorry to see the blog go, I normally read Dick Lipton's, Bill and Lance's and your blog. I also read Terry Tao and Gowers, but those are maths blogs.

Anyway, thanks for your contributions,

Cheers,

Serdar

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the posts. As a somewhat clueless PhD student, this blog has been a revelation in terms of understanding the CS community. Often, having your nose down to the work leads us to ignore meta-research questions about the social processes and rituals that are fundamental to how our community operates, what it considers important, etc. I especially enjoyed your insightful posts on such topics. And now that I have your explicit permission, I'll certainly approach you at one of the conferences, without feeling too weird :-)

Anonymous said...

I am an EE phd student. I have been reading your blog for a long time. And it is very fun for me to discover what a professor in computer science personally thinks about many of the subjects in academia.

I am very sorry to see that you decided not to continue blogging, but I really thank you for your interesting posts.

This is actually my first comment. However, it is also going to be the last one. Sigh... I wish I had commented more than this.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Thanks to everyone for commenting -- especially the first-time commenters. Don't feel bad about not commenting before (several of you said something like this, including Anon #15); as I've said, the main reason for stopping the blog isn't the lack of feedback, but instead is my new position. It's already sucking up a fair bit of time.

Anon #3: Maybe when I have a new paper I want to publicize, I'll try to sneak a post on another blog. :)

Anon #5: Please don't quit computer science. I think you'll find it's a very enjoyable subject.

Anon #7: I was going to end the blog with "So long and thanks for all the fish," but thought it was a bit much. Perfect for a comment, though!

Standa: Glad you liked the Swoopo talk.

Anon #10: It's so rare I hear myself associated with "humility" that I think I'll bask in your comment for a while.

Jeremy: I agree, "Great post" comments aren't, themselves, all that useful. However, it still suggests that, at least in terms of starting conversations, perhaps I could have done a better job. Maybe I should have been more confrontational and obnoxious, or thrown out some really goofy ideas.

Ghalib: I may not always have responded to comments -- I often felt that could cut short conversations, or be too heavy-handed -- but I certainly read them all!

Anon #14: Do say hi at conferences. At one of the last conferences I went to, I had a great conversation with an ex-student and blog reader who just came up to say hi; it was a very nice experience, at least for me.

Again, thanks all!

Anonymous said...

Your lament about the poor success of blogging is due in large part to its poor design for the task that people try to use it for. As a group communication medium blogs and web-forums are insane: No aggregation, data is inseparable from display, etc. Contrast with usenet which, despite its various flaws, had correct design intentions and is still *light-years* ahead of this RSS and web forum catastophe. Contrast the use-behaviour: I have to maintain dozens of accounts at different sites, check those different sites manually, unless they have an RSS or e-mail notification system where I have to leave my e-mail client logon to each site individually and post a complicated message in a browser's *textbox*. I usually have to subscribe to each comment feed for a topic separately. Is it any wonder conversations don't persist for long periods of time? Look at the effort you need to follow them and participate in them. Usenet: one usenet client, everything goes there and I can respond to posts directly from there with proper software for composing messages. It is orders of magnitude easier.

These stack-exchange sites don't fix any of this, they don't even recognize the problems.

Arvind Subramanian said...

Dear Prof Mitzenmacher,

I discovered your blog quite late( Googled you, after reading some of your papers), and I have really found your blog to be informative and engaging.

Perhaps you might not have noticed, but your blog features in the top 50 CS blogs listed over here:

http://www.mastersincomputerscience.net/top-50-computer-science-blogs.html

You do have quite a following out there, albeit, silently... Sincerely hope that this is just a sabbatical, and that you return soon :)

Noel said...

Thanks for writing the blog. I didn't comment much on the technical posts as it isn't my area of expertise; I imagine the situation is the same for many. Your posts have made me more interested in your work however!

Steve Tate said...

Just thought I'd throw in my 2 cents as a long-time (quiet) reader. I've really enjoyed your blog and want to thank you for taking the time that it obviously takes. As my career progressed from being a theoretician to doing security but still following theory to taking an administrative role and spending even less time following theory, your blog helped me keep a little connected and it was fun to see what was going on in the theory world. Of course, Dick Lipton's blog helps too, but I had fun reading what you had to say about less technical things like chairing STOC (as a former STOC chair) and theory PCs (which really do run quite differently from the more applied PCs I'm on these days).

Take care, and I hope you enjoy the new position - some days I love the administrative role and some days I hate it, but it is certainly a way to make a big impact on your university and your program.

EERac said...

This has been an excellent blog and I'll be sad to see it go (although I'm optimistic that, like Lance, you'll return). Although many of your posts are nontechnical, they often provided valuable insights into the workings of academia. I imagine that many students do not get this from their advisor.

Perhaps (again, like Lance) you could set up a twitter account as a lightweight means of staying in touch with the community. I have no doubt that even the nontechnical blog posts you've been writing take a good deal of time. People radically underestimate how much time and practice it takes to blog well, and as such it tends to be an under appreciate use of one's time. Like you, I am shocked at how prolific Lipton has been.

Finally, in terms of traffic/comments, doesn't blogger have analytics built in (since they are both google products)? You've stated several times that you're surprised many people read the blog but do not comment. When I read blogs, I do not generally comment on more than %1 - %2 of what I read, and I can't help but feel that's above average. I think that even in a very specialized blog, that vast majority of readers are destined to remain silent.

Savannah said...

Beautiful. I love your blog. You are invited to check out my blog.

Anonymous said...

As a long-time reader from China, reading your blog and comments also helps me to improve my English:-).
Thanks, Michael!

Matt Welsh said...

Michael, your blog was actually the inspiration for me starting my own (or at least realizing that it was ok post the behind the scenes of a Harvard CS prof!). Thanks for all you have done.

rjlipton said...

Thanks for your hard work. It will be missed.

kmayerpatel said...

MBC will be missed. It also would have made a great name for a band.

openid said...

I have kept up with your blog more or less frequently to sync up on the latest in your world since taking your class through Extension. I honestly will be sorry to see it go. If anything, it was a great way to keep up on your output. I have enjoyed reading your papers. Also, it seemed to me you had a particular interest in sparking interest in Computer Science and gaining converts to the field. I believe your CS evangelism is one aspect of the blog that will be particularly missed.