The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift

One annual tradition of this blog is to take a look back at the numbers and assess the Weekly Sift’s popularity. It’s sort of a compromise with myself: I avoid the tendency to focus week-by-week on how the posts perform, as well as the temptation to pander to a wider audience at the expense of my regular readers. But at the same time, the point of doing a blog is to have readers, so I need to notice what does or doesn’t get a response.

One event that pulls this question into focus happened in 2011, when “Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say” suddenly hit it big with over 50,000 page views in a single day — still a Sift record. For a long time, it was the blog’s most popular post, with more than double the number of hits of posts I thought were more substantial. (No doubt one-hit-wonder bands feel the same way.) Not that there was anything wrong with “Six True Things”, but I had the hunch that its popularity had more to do with its formulaic clickbait title than with its content. For months afterward, I resisted the temptation to come up with “Six More True Things Politicians Can’t Say”. (I still use the X-things format when appropriate, like this year’s “The Four Big Lies of the Republican Convention“.)

So anyway, I think about these things once a year.

As I’ve explained in previous years, various measures of this blog’s popularity have been in contradictory trends for several years: Year after year it has more regular readers but fewer (and less explosive) viral posts. I think the lack of viral posts is largely the result of changes in Facebook’s algorithms, which make it harder for a link to spread without paying Facebook to promote it (which I never do). That certainly is a factor that has been felt across the blogosphere, but it’s hard to say if that’s the whole explanation. Maybe I just don’t write ’em like I used to.

So anyway, if you look at total hits on the site, as measured by WordPress, that statistic peaked at 782K in 2015, and then declined each year until it hit 188K in 2019. 2019’s numbers would have been even lower without “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?“, which got 17K hits because a Google algorithm called it to the attention of people interested in the Second Amendment, who positively hated it. It picked up 303 comments, almost all of them negative. (“Take this article, crumble it up nice and tight and shove it up your ass.”) I believe this is my only post that ever went negatively viral, by spreading from one hater to another. (Though 2011’s “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, with 28K hits and 283 far more mixed comments, was arguably another one.) I picture gun-nuts all over the country sending each other the link with a comment like: “Look at this! Can you believe this shit?”

This year, driven by the election and the amount of quarantine time we all spent browsing the internet, total hits rebounded to over 200K, and should wind up around 205K. Comparisons to 2015 tell a clear story: Over 400K of 2015’s hits came from two viral posts: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” (which posted in 2014, but got most of its hits in 2015) and “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. “The Distress of the Privileged“, which came out in 2012, chipped in another 50K.

Those kind of single-post numbers have been out of reach for a long time. “Not a Tea Party” and “Distress” garnered an additional 14K hits in 2020 — I have no idea what sets them on new runs — but the most popular new posts of 2020 had far more modest numbers: “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)” (6.6K), “The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives” (5.9K), and “In the Land of ‘No We Can’t’” (3.7K). “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” (2.9K) came out two weeks ago and hasn’t finished its run yet, so it should go over 3K in the next day or two.

On the other hand, WordPress also tells me that 6032 people now follow the blog. I have no idea exactly what that number includes, how often those six thousand folks read the posts WordPress emails them, whether they forward those emails to their friends, or how many people read the Sift through some other blog-following service. But the apples-to-apples on that 6032 is 3820 in 2015. I started noticing Facebook numbers in 2018, when the Sift’s page had 978 follows; it now has 1166.

A mixed measure of readership is hits on the homepage, weeklysift.com. Those hits are of two types: (1) regular readers who have the blog bookmarked so they can check it regularly, and (2) people who come across some viral post and then look at the homepage to see what else the blog does. I have no idea how to separate the two. That number peaked at 101K in 2016, then declined each year to 66K last year before rebounding somewhat this year to around 69-70K.

Hits on the weekly summaries — which again are mainly read by regulars — are up significantly. Years ago, 300 hits was a good number for a summary, but much higher numbers are common now: April 20’s “Off the Table” got nearly a thousand views.

Finally, the number — and I would argue, the quality — of the comments has been going up for some while. The Sift now has what I said I wanted several years ago: a commenting community. There are now discussions I don’t feel I need to get involved in, because I had my say already and you guys are doing fine. A few years ago, I felt like I had to respond whenever a commenter pushed a false right-wing talking point, because otherwise the blog would be a vehicle for disinformation. But these days, there are regular commenters who take care of that.

There were 1407 comments in 2015 (again, most of them responding to the small number of viral posts). This year had somewhat more: 1540 with a week to go; 1570 if you count the last week of 2019 to make a full year. So a smaller number of hits on the website is leading to more comments. Substance is hard to quantify, but my impression is that in the past more comments were pretty simple agreements or disagreements. If you look at “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” from two weeks ago, the comments are almost more interesting than the post.

Next year, I’m going to face the same problem as all political media: How do I draw attention without the five-alarm dumpster fire of the Trump presidency? I’m thinking about it. Maybe it’s finally time for “Six More True Things”.

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Comments

  • Roger  On December 28, 2020 at 11:26 am

    If this matters to you: about twice a month on my little blog http://www.rogerogreen.com, I just post links. I’ve linked to you at least four times in those posts in 2020, plus at least twice more in other posts. Whether I link to you depends on the content, of course (hey, the Weekly Sift has said it already so I don’t have to), but also if it’ll still be relevant two or three weeks out.

    That’s not a flaw in your writing but rather the rapid pace that events in rumpworld operate. And my links, unsurprisingly are almost always to one of your posts that are NOT the weekly summaries though they contain good stuff.

  • Marte  On December 28, 2020 at 11:47 am

    This was very interesting! I receive the posts in my email each Monday. I had no idea you were on Facebook. DUH. I will like the page the next time I sign in. I have been limiting my Facebook time and am much happier for that! I always read all your posts every week because I find them so truthful and thoughtful, but have not commented before. All the best est in 2021 and happy New Year.

    • nicknielsensc  On December 28, 2020 at 11:15 pm

      I didn’t get onto Facebook until 2009 or 2010, and that was only at the urging of friends from another on-line forum that was being destroyed by new management. Mostly what I do onFB these days is message with family, post links to news articles, and respond to the comments on those links.

      All that said, one of the first lessons I learned was to click on my name in the page header and work from there, because the feed is garbage.

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On December 28, 2020 at 11:49 am

    Dr. Muder, I think having your own WP site makes sense, keeping FB going is fine, but I think you are a few years behind on where your audience is, let alone where they are going. Keep everything you are doing going; keep the WP site running, keep mirroring your content to FB, but you should have migrated your primary reflection of weeklysift.com to reddit a few years ago. What you write, each week, is literally r/BestOf content and should be recognized as such.
    It’s not too late (nothing is ever too late), I would recommend you get your subreddit, and every week put your weekly post on your subreddit.

    As far as parler, 4chan, et al – let’s not go there just yet 😉 I think they are toxic cesspools that will be shut down eventually and driven underground. I’m not convinced reddit will escape the same fate Facebook will have coming, but of all the “social media” platforms out there to extend to, reddit is by far the lesser of all evils, and there is a tremendous amount of good content on it.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On December 28, 2020 at 12:01 pm

      Parler may not need to be shut down, as the free market seems to be taking care of that. Parler experienced a sharp rise in interest right after the election, but since then, engagement has plummeted. There’s only so many times people want to hear “the election was stolen” before it gets boring, especially now that the posts talking about “how Trump can still win” aren’t as relevant as they might have been on Nov. 4.

    • weeklysift  On December 31, 2020 at 10:49 am

      I have to admit, the idea of getting my own subreddit never occurred to me. A couple years ago I briefly tried mirroring featured posts to Medium, but after a few weeks of getting 10 readers or so, I realized that building a following there was much more complicated than just “If you build it, they will come.”

      Every blogger has to balance energy between writing and marketing. I’ve consistently shortchanged marketing because I enjoy writing so much more.

      • Kelly Schoenhofen  On December 31, 2020 at 12:54 pm

        Super. I took the opportunity to land-grab r/weeklysift after my original post, if you can point me to your email address/reddit account I will transfer it to you ASAP. I know that good things take work, and maybe work is the last thing you want to put into another media platform, but a minimal amount here might go a really long way!
        I have no idea if you can get my email address from my WP.com account (I don’t know if they federate any account visibility to WP sites I use the account on), so if you want it still, email me at kelly dot schoenhofen at gmail dot com (yes, it’s super complex).

  • Ricky Greenwald  On December 28, 2020 at 11:57 am

    It’s not so bad to have a big hit every so often, or even to try for one. Brings more people into the conversation. Some of them will stay.

  • ookpik  On December 28, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    I’m one of the people reading every email but rarely able to think if something intelligent to say in comments. You do a terrific job; please keep up the good work. (And email me if you ever need another proofreader! That’s not a criticism—I can only remember catching a couple of typos—just wanting to help out.)

  • Diane  On December 28, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Read a story about Heather Cox Richardsons Letters from an American in NYT this week. She is on substack. I think you may be cosmic twins.

    • weeklysift  On December 31, 2020 at 10:44 am

      I recognize a lot of my own thought processes when I read her stuff, which I do. I am deeply envious of the kind of stamina that lets her write at that length and quality day after day.

  • Anonymous  On December 28, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    I am also an email subscriber and did not know that you have a facebook page. I will sign in to FB and “like” your page to give your numbers a boost. I have shared links to your WordPress blog on facebook when you have written something that pertains to political discussions I have with friends on FB. I have had FB friends thank me for making them aware of your writing. It would be interesting to know the demographic details of your readership.

  • larsblog1  On December 28, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    Love your stuff, keep it coming! Thanks!

  • Marvin  On December 28, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    I am subscribed to your blog via email, and this is my preferred means of getting your articles. I absolutely despise the Facebook interface with its constant flood of irrelevant content being shoved at me. So I won’t be following you on Facebook. (As an aside, I’d love to peek at the Facebook algorithms. I’d bet a cup of coffee that thoughtful content is downrated and emotional, irrational content is uprated.) My guess is that many people who faithfully read every word you write are subscribed by email, and it appears that there is no good measure of this faithful following.

  • Daughter Number Three  On December 28, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    I’m one of the people who has the home page bookmarked and visits every Monday, but doesn’t follow. I share particular posts on Twitter and on my own blog, which (I hope) drives tiny bits of traffic your way. Thanks for your writing – I look forward to it every Monday.

  • rmc0917  On December 28, 2020 at 2:47 pm

    Doug, who about “Ten Fake News things you THOUGHT you knew”?

  • Kat  On December 28, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Since you are considering these things, I read all your weekly posts – but I ‘subscribe’ by using the Feedly newsreader. I also follow you on Facebook and Twitter – which is handy for promoting a specific post to friends, relations and total strangers! (I loathe getting emailed newsletters! Yeah, guess I am weird that way.) Thank you for the thought you put into these!

  • alandesmet  On December 28, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    I read every article you post, but via RSS, so I suspect I don’t appear in your usual visitor numbers. I only pop by to occasionally engage with the comments.

  • Meghan  On December 28, 2020 at 6:36 pm

    I have read your articles just about every week for the past at least 5 years (maybe 7?). Monday as “weekly sift day” has become so much a part of my routine that I don’t even really think about it anymore. Your site’s homepage comes up on a google tab as one of my “most visited sites” and that’s always how I come to the page – I don’t even know if I have it bookmarked, I definitely am not subscribed to anything.
    I just wanted to comment because I appreciate the quality and intelligence of what your write. As one of the silent weekly readers, I just wanted you to know that what you write has an impact.
    Thank you for doing this every week – I have learned so much.

  • ecjspokane  On December 28, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    Hi.

    You are doing very well just keeping us informed about what’s going on
    in government that’s questionable or dubious, if not outright illegal.
    Please continue to do that. Biden looks like he’s loaded his
    administration with a lot of old political cronies and hints of
    corruption so he needs to be held to account.

    I don’t know how the trackers note all the people who read your blog
    every day and consider what it said. That might be the biggest sign of
    your impact.

    Take care and Happy New Year. Hopefully it’s better but there a so many
    ways it can go wrong in the current state of the country.

    Eric C Johnson
    Spokane WA

  • Jan  On December 28, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    I receive and read your email every week. I have forwarded it a few times to friends, because you just make so much sense and actively try not to inflate the issues. It’s very refreshing. You articles help remind me that the whole world has not gone crazy.

    Keep doing what you do best!

  • John Messerly  On December 28, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    I look forward to reading your posts every week. I’ve often posted them to Reddit and occasionally summarized a few on my website reasonandmeaning.com

    Your posts are carefully and conscientiously crafted—paradigms of intellectual clarity. They are the manifestations of a well-trained mind. (No doubt the result of years of mathematical thinking.) Thanks for your efforts.

    John G Messerly, PhD

  • Cathy Strasser  On December 29, 2020 at 7:34 am

    I am another long time reader and I receive your posts by email each week. Since I read your first post about tracking readers a couple of years ago, I have tried to visit your page to read comments and be counted as a reader. I hope this helps. I also value your measured, fact based posts and look forward to reading them each week. I also share them regularly with a few close friends/relatives. Keep up the good work!
    PS, I agree with Diane in an earlier comment about you and Heather Cox Richardson being cosmic twins!

  • Chrs  On December 29, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    Another RSS reader here. I read nearly all the articles, but only visit the site of I have something to contribute.

  • Michel S.  On December 29, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    I’m one of those regular readers that probably never get counted, since I read the articles through the RSS feed using newsblur.com (which presumably caches the entries for everyone doing that, rather than fetching the feed directly).

    Not sure if WP has a good way of tracking this. I could imagine embedding some image URL in each article would work, the same way marketers track who reads their emails — privacy minefield though.

  • Lou Doench  On December 31, 2020 at 10:00 am

    I follow on RSS but always click thru to the main page. Your blog is a blast to read, I’ve taken to sharing your posts to our small private FB liberalism news reader group and it’s been a big hit.

  • Tracy Flanigan  On January 1, 2021 at 9:57 am

    I get your writings emailed to me and usually read them that day, though it’s Friday and I’m now just getting to them. I’ve recommended you to others. Thank you!

  • ccyager  On January 1, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    I receive your posts by email every week, and after reading them at Weeklysift.com, I share them to Facebook on one of my blogs’ Facebook pages. I look forward to reading your thoughts and analyses. They help me understand my own thoughts and reactions to the world. Thank you for writing and keep up the good work!

Trackbacks

  • By The Long December | The Weekly Sift on December 28, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are my end-of-the-year summaries: “The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift” and “The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the […]

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