Playing the Wrong Machine
Obsessively Checking Stats Online Is a One-Armed Bandit that Leaves Your Writing Bankrupt
I just checked my Medium stats. Nobody has been visiting my posts here lately, likely because I haven’t written anything here lately.
So, time to work. Here are a few of my daily options/activities:
- Start to write something new.
- Remind Twitter and Facebook followers about something old that I’ve already reminded them about many times over.
- Post something old and attempt to pass it off as new.
- Retweet something someone else wrote because who has time to write something that clever themselves?
- Find even more clever things on Twitter.
Oh, and as long as I’m already on Twitter (I’m on Twitter! Have you heard of Twitter?!), I should make a joke about how I’d rather write a 140 character reminder than a funny bit about dogs or terrorists or sandwiches—immediately after which I will begin checking for favs or retweets.
So I make a joke at Donald Trump’s expense and don’t immediately see anybody giving a damn about that either, so I check favstar to make sure I’m not missing love that Twitter may or may not report back right away (if at all).
Speaking of love, I wonder if anybody’s been buying my books lately. Luckily, Amazon has some really handy sales analysis tools via Author Central. And if I’m not satisfied with the answers that Amazon gives, I can check my sales at the Random House Author Portal. Then I can send another tweet that snarkily reminds people that I wrote that one book they haven’t read yet so they should go check it out.
And finally if (when) I’m not happy with those figures either (I never am) I can go back and see if anybody has realized how hilarious my Donald Trump joke was (they haven’t).
This has been going on for a long time. For me it began when my first book was released and I realized I could check its overall sales rank, roughly comparing it to every other book sold by Amazon. How is You Are a Dog selling compared to Marley & Me; to The Art of Racing in the Rain; to Cesar’s Way?
Not well enough. Not ever. But that didn’t stop me from checking every day. Every hour. Every quarter hour.
Yes, there was a time when my “publicist” implied that she landed me a blurb in People magazine—it was supposed to be in one of those “books to buy the dog lover for Christmas” features. But what I didn’t know about my publicist was that she was far too good at sharing information that wasn’t yet confirmed, and the blurb never materialized, and my stats barely moved, and eventually my publicist was fired.
She had fed the beast though, and I kept checking Amazon, just in case I’d missed something at People magazine (how should I know if it came out or not—I didn’t have a subscription), or I’d been picked up at some other magazine, or the book fairy had sprinkled shill-dust over every bookseller in the land. I noted every movement, nearly every day, and at first it was kind of exciting, having my finger on the pulse of the national ambivalence.
Eventually it died down a bit, replaced by my interest in Google Analytics and flickr photo views. But then I was mentioned in USA Today, and my stats spiked through Christmas. Oh and that one Summer that a Charlotte school district included my book on its high school Summer reading list, and all summer long it looked as if I was North Carolina’s favorite author (though you know I wasn’t). My obsession seemed more reasonable during these times. I was just checking on how much of a difference these forms of publicity made, wasn’t I? Keeping track of my stats was the right thing to do. Wasn’t it my responsibility to track each promotional avenue so I would know how to publicise my next book?
Yeah. Maybe. If I was going to produce another book, and there were times I spent so much energy trying to move that dial that it put my entire future as a Write of Things into question.
I did produce another book, but it didn’t sell very well (this time my editor was fired before the book was even finished), and it’s now out of print. You would think a book out of print would quell my fascination with statistics, but it didn’t. And until recently I’ve wondered why I keep checking the stats. Why do I keep looking for meaning in numbers when I know damned well that the meaning is in the thing I produced, not in the waxing and waning interest of the everybody/nobody.
What I should have done (and what I should be doing right now, though it seems important to write this too, so I’ll finish this before I get back to that) is write the next book. Write the next thing. Ignore the stats and keep moving forward.
But the stats kept pulling me back in, despite the fact that I knew they were draining my energy, making it harder and harder to produce anything new. Each time I looked at what I hadn’t been selling or engaging or driving, I lost time and energy for creating something else. I was hooked—addicted, maybe—staring at a machine that kept showing me BUST.
This had to be the wrong machine, but I could not bring myself to step away.
Visiting the stats pages online feels almost precisely like pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit. Every time I see my stats spike even a little, it’s as if two cherries have just landed on the line and the third has gone just half a bar beyond it. I can see the cherry right there below the line.
“I almost had it this time. I was this close to winning a buck and a half!”
Which is why when I learned via the Gambling Research Lab at the University of Waterloo that those “near misses” are—for some of us—tricking our brains into thinking we’ve actually won something, it rung me up like nine bars on the win lines, horizontal and diagonal, bells clanging and music caterwauling and a pretty woman in a mini-skirt bringing me a watered-down gin and tonic every thirty minutes. “This makes sense,” I said. “I think I’m winning something, even though I’m losing.”
Statistically speaking, when playing the slot machines and the last cherry doesn’t drop into place and we “almost win,” we haven’t almost won anything, but our brains may tell us otherwise. The machine’s decision “You Lose” was made the moment we pulled the lever, and the cherry hanging just beyond the win line is placed there specifically to reinforce the feeling that we lost by a hair. Our pleasure centers light up as if we just won something, and it gradually takes our money from us, one near-miss after another.
So it goes with web stats. “Look! Someone found my website by searching for “ranting farmers.” Therefore: “I am about to become the Farm Rant Guru!”
Or: “Rob Delaney faved my reply to a tweet by Rob Delaney! I’m about to become the Replying to Rob Delaney Guru!”
And: “I sold four copies of You Are a Dog in June compared to three copies in May so I’m about to become the Guy Who Can Live on Six Bucks a Month… Guru!”
In all three of the situations above, I haven’t really won anything, but my brain tells me I have. The cherry went just past the line. Or maybe I get four of my quarters back, even though I just put six into the machine. So I feed my “winnings” back into the machine, plus too more, hoping for the big win.
But the big win is not coming from this machine. It can’t. This machine is not designed to let me actually win. So long as I keep standing in front of it feeding in my quarters I will lose because I’m training my brain that losing is winning. The only way I win anything from this machine is if I walk away from it.
I suppose stats can be marginally important when it’s necessary to evaluate visits or eyeballs or engagement. It’s maybe good for advertisers and publishers (I suppose) when those advertisers or publishers actually know what they’re looking at when evaluating stats (they seldom seem to). But for a writer (I’M A WRITER), the stats themselves can become the activity telling the brain that it’s doing a super-great job. The stats may be flooding the pleasure centers in my brain with tiny bursts of “look how well your Tumblr post was received in Bangladesh!” And that is so dangerous that it terrifies me every time I consider it, because my eventual thought is “you have to stop looking at those stats,” followed directly by, “just this one more time.”
When I imagine what kind of human I was before the advent of statistical addiction, I know for a fact that I was flooding those pleasure centers by writing instead of obsessively checking my worldwide pulse. I’d finish a short story and immediately put it in an envelope to send it to The New Yorker, for instance, and even though I knew I had barely a glimmer of a chance, I’d usually get some kind of written response, and boom, I’d be back at my writing desk, finishing whatever I was working on that morning, or sending the thing I’d just gotten back to some other great magazine. I’d obsessively check to see if my mail had arrived (any of you remember the U.S. Postal Service?) to see if I had a response from a story or a poem or a joke or a query. Even the rejections made me happy, because they were a response to something I’d made, and as I became a stronger, more confident writer, the rejections usually included some form of praise. (+1)
I was lighting part of my brain that told me I’d lined up the three cherries—even though one of those cherries was just beyond the win line. But the thing I was doing to light up my brain was constructive. I wasn’t checking the pulse of the entire internet to see if it liked something I’d already published. I had to make something and do something with it before I got the reward, and for the most part it was in flux. I could change the thing when I got my response. I was still working on the thing I was checking.
Also, I was winning experience, and I was winning a relationship with editors, and I was learning to be a writer, even when the result was a cherry just past that damn line. The result of my action was not decided when I pulled the lever. When I pulled the lever on this older machine, my actions had a direct effect on whether I won or not, and the feedback I received from my win or loss helped me make a better pull the next time I played.
I miss that machine. That was the right machine to play.
I’m oversimplifying this a bit, to be sure. In the past I’ve had my reasons for not being able to do much but pull the lever on the stats machine—depression, grief, etc.—but that’s a topic to be written about elsewhere.
I’ve weaned myself from a lot of the stats pages. I don’t need them as much as I have in the past (he said, reaching for the “publish” button, a little bit shaky, hoping you will love him). And there are some new machines to be had out there that encourage something creative after each pull. This particular essay, for instance, would not exist without the engagement of people on Help Me Write who show up and say “Yes, please write this. I want to read it.”
So I’ve written it.
And published it too, hoping to ignore my stats altogether (though I’m guessing you know better).
Pleasure center engaged.
Now, back to work.