Whatever 2020: Top Posts and General Notes

John Scalzi

This was a pretty good year for Whatever in terms of visitorship. Not only that, but for the first time in a couple of years the majority of the most popular posts on the site were posts that were written in the calendar year. And not just posts by me! Athena has made her presence known in the traffic department. Let’s talk about all of this, shall we?

First, here are the 10 most popular posts on Whatever in 2020, in terms of total readership, in descending order:

  1. When Friends Fuck Up, and So Do I
  2. Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
  3. Thoughts on Pixel Buds 2: The Buddening
  4. Heartbreak is Not a Joke, or, The Tragedy of Kristoff
  5. Generation X and Trans Lives
  6. How to Make a Schadenfreude Pie
  7. My Thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Internet Speed Update
  9. The Sound of a Landslide Not Happening
  10. Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again

So, eight out of ten posts were written in 2020. “Straight White Male” is a perennial in the Top Ten — it’s assigned a lot in college these days so at least some traffic for it comes from academia — and I imagine the popularity of the Schadenfreude Pie post was tied in with the election and Trump losing it. So that would explain those two.

But there is another, interesting factor coloring this popularity listing: Whatever is on the Google News list of sources it serves up to folks, and when we’re writing about media or technology in particular, we seem to get a bump. This would explain the high rankings of my Pixel Buds review and my observation on (finally) getting not-terrible internet access, which are things that might not otherwise have ranked highly. Also Athena’s pieces on Frozen 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2.

It’s interesting to me that these are the pieces that see the most flow-through from Google News, and not, say, stuff on science fiction; if I were to remove the two archive pieces from the “Top Ten” list, the next two top posts would be my thoughts on cameras in the age of cell phones, and then my talking about how my Google Chromecast puts my Dish Network subscription in doubt. Perhaps my future is as a tech pundit, with Athena doing entertainment reviews. Who needs any new novels from me, right?

Oh, stop looking at me like that. I’m gonna keep writing novels, I swear. Likewise, Whatever will not be turning into solely a tech/entertainment site; Athena and I will still be writing on whatever we feel like writing about. It’s right there in the title. But I do think the new mix of what is bringing people to the site is intriguing, and worth noting for future reference and planning.

In a more general sense, 2020 has been a pretty decent year for visitorship to Whatever. Indeed, for the first time in several years, the site gained on-site readership, which is an encouraging thing. The site’s high water mark for direct visits was 2012, and since then the on-site readership has declined precipitously, following the general trend for blogs in the social media era, down to about a third of that traffic in 2019. This decline in direct views been compensated for somewhat over the years by readership through RSS, email and WordPress’ own newsfeed feature, and I can drive traffic to the site via Twitter for particular pieces. That said, there’s no arguing that there’s been a downward trend on the site from eight years ago.

2020 saw the first uptick in on-site visits in years, to about 3 million visits; in fact, 2020 posted better on-site viewership than either 2019 or 2018. Which, again: Encouraging! I don’t want to overstate the bump — on-site traffic is only barely above 2018 levels, and well behind 2017. And in terms of real world practicalities it doesn’t change much in how the site works; the site doesn’t take advertising and I’m not dependent on it for income, and I write on the site because I feel like it, not because I get paid (Athena does get paid, mind you, but she generally also picks her topics). It doesn’t matter for the existence of the site whether on-site visits are up or down on a yearly basis. I still like that’s gone up this year, however.

What explains this upward tick? Among several factors I’ll highlight three. One, it’s an election year, and I get a fair amount of traffic writing about political topics. Two, the aforementioned being picked up occasionally by Google News helps. Three, I give a fair amount of credit to Athena’s work here. There was a solid bump in traffic in August, when she came on board — it’s our highest-trafficked month, in fact — and generally speaking the traffic on the site has been significantly higher in the second half of the year than it was in the first. Basically, I look really smart for hiring my kid.

(Also not insignificant: The site had 558 posts this year (not including this one and any additional posts we write in the next week). This is significantly up from 2019 — 374 posts then — and the most for any year since 2015. Some of this is due to me boosting the number of Big Idea pieces I post here, to help out authors in a year where many traditional publicity avenues were shut off for us. But some of it was just writing more here, and bringing Athena on board, which added two to three additional pieces a week. More posts, more traffic — the correlation is there.)

Speaking of Athena, one of the things that bringing on staff has done is make the putting together of Whatever a little less informal. We have staff meetings, for example, where we go over the plans for the week and what pieces are definitively on the schedule. Spontaneity can and does still happen — we’ve both posted pieces because we’ve felt like it, not because they’re on the article budget for the week (you’re reading one right now!) — but I’ve found the schedule to be useful, and it helps to make sure there’s something on the site most days.

It also means we can indulge in a little long-term planning and possibly work toward things we might have otherwise not been prepared to do. We dipped our toe into this a little bit in 2020, although cautiously, since we also had to factor in pandemic issues and the general “figuring out how we work together” thing. 2020 has been the shake-out cruise in terms of our collaboration. I’m hoping 2021 lets us try a couple of new things here. We’ll see!

In the meantime, I think against all odds 2020 was a fine year for Whatever. In a year in which you take your wins when you can, this counts as a big win for me. Thanks for being part of it, folks.

— JS

14 Comments on “Whatever 2020: Top Posts and General Notes”

  1. I suppose I’m one of those people who is responsible for a drop in on-site reading. Normally I read the posts in email, where I receive them; I only visit the site when I want to comment on a post or read the comments that others have made

  2. Sure. And to be clear, that’s perfectly fine — again, there’s not an economic need for people to visit the site directly, so my thought is people should get the writing however they want to get it.

  3. The Schadenfreude pie post was the first time i read your blog. Loved the picture of Athena plotting multiple downfalls while stirring the mix.

  4. Found a couple of good reads on the list. Only stumbled onto this site somewhere halfway through 2020, so in general thank you very much for a lot of interesting and entertaining posts. Btw the random link seems to be broken somehow lately, I only get two tries now and then it is stuck on the second entry…

  5. This was the year I started missing visiting people’s blogs, and began making an effort to stop by several regularly at their URLs. Not that I think I could have caused the uptick all on my own. Just that it would make sense if I weren’t the only one.

  6. I think there may be another reason for the uptick in readership: people returning to (and enjoying) longer form pieces.

    I know that I’ve abandoned the FB & Twitter hell-scapes in favor of reading/commenting on blogs and reading longer form journalism (online and print). My late 20s/early 30s daughters are doing the same (as are others in their cohort). I know three people don’t make a trend (but they do describe a plane), but still.

  7. I’m one of the fossils that always comes to the website. I don’t read it via any app or intermediate link. I just come straight here. Thank you for continuing to write here, and all best wishes to you and Athena! And to the lady of the house! Here’s to better days.

  8. (The other Dana) I agree with Dana Lynne on al points.

    I read this on a laptop, not a phone, so I don’t need any intermediates, just a bookmark. I’m a fossil with a flip phone anyway, so… ;-)

    (4th item on the Firefox ‘bookmarks toolbar’, between Craigslist and E-bay. A position of high honor.)

  9. I discovered you a year or two ago through SF fandom, and come back and forth to read – usually when I see it in the WordPress feed or a note that you’ve posted in my mail. Depends on the topic, although I am fairly wide ranging in my reading.

  10. I’m also new to Whatever this year. I “discovered” your novels when my spouse recommended Redshirts, as I am an avid Star Trek fan. I’ve now read all of them. I have the luxury of being retired and Whatever is now in my morning reading list, all direct to web sites. So thank you to you and Athena for humour and insight. Hope you had a good Christmas. Have a Happy and Healthy New Year.

  11. I don’t drop in here as regularly as I could, so I missed some of these. Very solid writing, with very solid thinking, Scalzi. Many thanks.
    I’ve been sending people links to the “lowest difficulty setting” for a couple of years. It’s the best intro explanation I’ve seen, and the fact that it’s written by a cis white guy helps, too. Keep up the sharp thinking and sharp writing, and best wishes for a healthy and happy 2021 for all the Scalzis.

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