Being Flogged on my Blog

This hasn’t happened to me before, but recently I stumbled across a blog on the secret lives of well known British and Hollywood actors posted on my blog site – except it wasn’t from me! It was an article about the private and somewhat seedy lives of Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and others in their cohort. On closer inspection, the article seemed to be a machine-generated “cut and paste job,” taking strings of data from or about this rather poorly rated (on Goodreads) book titled Damn you, Scarlett O’Hara: The Private Lives of Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier by Darwin Porter and Roy Moseley and creating some sort of a review, replete with pictures, video and sub headings. The sentence structure was noticeably garbled and the only things that stuck out were the juicy references to some of the salacious acts these famous actors had indulged in. The title of the blog was even more ridiculous: How To Begin a Writing Career.

I soon discovered that the imposter had not only snapped this ridiculous article on my property but he (or she) had changed my passwords and shut me out of my own site, a site I had cultivated over many years as a place for well thought out articles and book reviews, with no advertizing to support it; it had been my volunteer contribution to literature, and now it was despoiled.

Several thoughts ran through my head. First, I felt violated. I thought that the authors of this book were taking cheap cracks at promoting their work via sites that featured quality reviews and articles. But then I also wondered: were the perpetrators the authors of this book themselves or was it someone who had decided to play a trick on me? Has anyone taken machine-assembled reviews of my books and plastered on them on other blog sites to my discredit? There were embedded links in the article that suggested some advertising of essay writing services that I dared not click onto lest I be taken to another limbo. I recalled seeing these links on another syndicated news site where these “floggers,” as I have labeled them, had shown up and practically overrun the site with their gobbledygook, rendering that site unworkable and unsuitable for anyone looking for credible editorial. I had protested to that site’s owner, and like Jesus driving the greedy merchants from the temple, he reacted and that site has now been (almost) cleaned up. And now, were the floggers visiting me in revenge? I also looked at the positive side: someone must be reading my articles otherwise I couldn’t have become a target. The only comfort I could take from this episode was to conclude that anyone familiar with my writing would quickly recognize that even though I am a colonial with a different language rhythm, I do not write broken English. I hoped my readers would ignore this crap.

Whatever the motive, a few facts stand out for me. (1) If floggers are able to make a living from this activity, they must indeed be selling to a low level of reading populace (2) If people are actually reading this stuff they must be reading for keywords and not for structure, coherence of thought, and elegance of language (3) If there is no constant vigilance, we will let the internet sink into a Tower of Babel, allowing for the privateers who have being trying to control it for a long time have their proof that gated communities work best.

As for me, my site was cleaned up, passwords restored and tightened into unbreakable combinations. and I will continue to seek quality in my writing and send a message to the floggers in a couple of keywords that they will surely recognize: “Up Yours!”

Who is reading our blog posts?

My work is syndicated on a few blog sites;, and on those that provide statistics of readership, it’s great to see the number of “reads” soar from time to time when an article catches the zeitgeist.

I tried to analyze these numbers and soon discovered that except in a few cases, where a geographic breakdown is provided as to where these reads are coming from, all you get is a flat number of reads per article. Since these sites are also heavily into banner advertizing to earn their income, one never knows whether the reader is reading your article or the banner ad, especially when there is a snazzy car, a scantily dressed woman or a movie trailer on those sidelines.

Then I began to notice another phenomenon (which I have written about in a previous article), and that is the presence of bots that read certain keywords of your article, associate them with an advertisement of one of their clients, and promptly post a comment (bearing very little relation to your topic) on your article with a link to a website promoting their client’s product. In recent times, essay writing services are very popular, services that write your exam essays and help you cheat the academic system of selection. Let’s not get into the morality of this form of advertizing, I covered it already in that previous article. Suffice to say that the next time I see a spike in the number of reads to my article, am I to infer that it is due to a genuine interest by readers, or that an army of bots, selling competing products, are waging a war for prominence over the battlefield of my article?

How does one rid oneself of this menace? Some use captchas, but simple captchas can be circumvented pretty easily, and the harder ones are so visually difficult for us humans to read that they defeat the purpose of engaging readers in a debate, for readers quit in frustration and never bother to post a comment because that captcha stopped them dead in their tracks. And even if we find a solution that is somewhere in the middle, what’s to prevent these bots being managed by a smart outsourced company in a low-income country that has a few lowly paid employees circumventing the captchas on posts worth preying on? Give bot management to the article posters themselves? This might work better, for a writer whose article comments are routed to her e-mail address, is alerted every time a comment is posted; she could quickly delete the bot-generated ones that are so blatantly obvious for their poor grammar and nonsensical context. This might be like killing mosquitoes, you never quite get them all, but over time they decline. And you get the satisfaction of having killed some of these pests—but you are still likely to be bitten anyway. Have a moderator filter all comments? An added expense, and who pays for the cost of the moderator?

This is a problem of our times, and the cost of online blog syndication. I noticed that even Flikr now inserts commercials in-between the feed of my photo album pictures. Alas, there is no escape from the almighty advertiser who pays for all our free activity online and extracts our secrets in return! If you want the fame and coverage, then pay for the crap that comes with it, is what I have concluded. I also trust that astute readers can differentiate bot-created comments from real ones and will ignore the former as background noise; and that bot activity will ultimately provoke content site owners to clean up their act or have their sites sink in the ranking of quality places to visit.

That still does not prevent me from dreaming of what I would do if I come face to face to face with a bot in a dark alley one day! Or do bots only lurk on the Internet?

Blog Slump Ahoy!

I’ve started to slack off from blogging. It’s been nearly three weeks and I haven’t posted anything. Three weeks? I, who in the beginning, posted twice a week on average. Have I said everything I’ve had to say in these four years of blogging? Is the average life span of a blogger four years and am I reaching the end of my shelf life? Even presidents and prime ministers call it quits after that length of time unless they want a statue built in their honour. Perhaps I should publish a book titled Shane’s BOB (Best of Blog) and retire.

I need a scapegoat. I can blame my ennui on work and the nice summer (finally here, and will it last?) and family commitments and the new book, yadda, yadda. Oh , and the fact that I am not as opinionated as I used to be (a sign of age) and that I value silence more. “If you have nothing to say, shut up” was what my elders used to say and I am now beginning to appreciate the wisdom of those words. I wonder if my fellow “mature” bloggers feel that way too.

Or is it because I realize that no matter what I say it will not make an iota of difference; the world will go on its merry way to damnation, learning by screwing up, often screwing up and not learning, and screwing up bigger each time. And the blogosphere—where us idealists reside—will heave and rock with dire premonitions of what is going to happen to our tired planet if we keep pummelling it with environmental pollution, economic bailouts, globalization, privatization, wars, marginalization, and greed. And nobody will give a rat’s ass…

Maybe I’m tired of contributing free content which everybody skims and few read, content that I am dumping on an already content•saturated world which has spawned a new industry of content curators on the social media networks, people, who like sorters in a post office, try to help readers pick what’s appropriate from the pile. Maybe it’s because I can’t yet figure out whether the e•book or the tree•book will carry our knowledge into the future, or whether we will outsource it all to the “Cloud.”And while we are on the subject, is this mysterious Cloud the Second Coming as foretold in the Good Book? No one knows where it is but it is out there and IT knows a lot about us! Why contribute more of my thoughts to IT, so that I may land up on some “no fly” list or be reminded off my politically incorrect comments by IT on the Day of Judgment which must surely be at hand now that we have pulverized the planet into near extinction?

I see Big Blog Slump ahoy. I need a vacation. I’m going to go outdoors and enjoy our glorious summer while it lasts and thank God for the day and for being alive to savour it.

But like Arnold said, “I’ll be back!”

New Year Resolutions – short and sweet

On a beach in a Caribbean island, I ran over my usual list of New Year resolutions: manage the weight, exercise regularly, save money, save the trees, go e•books, write more, read more, work less, drink less, shamelessly self promote, keep building my online platform etc., etc., etc.

As nudists on the adjacent beach strutted their stuff, ate and drank copiously, and engaged in a relentless flesh•hunt, I was seeking the austere life. I did not stop with my usual list of resolutions this time either. I went deeper: talk•less, desire less, listen more, dream more, blog only about things that matter, take more risks, make more mistakes (i.e. learn more lessons). I was really getting going here. And there was more to come: open the heart, give until it hurts, burn the writing that does not help humanity, endure more dark nights of the soul – oh boy, and I hadn’t even had a margarita yet. By this time, the sun was high, the nudists roasted and soused, and there was I, a noble idiot, digging myself into the largest hole of self denial, when all about me others were just “havin’ a good tyme, man!”

The solitary nature of my occupation came home to me, especially amidst this sea of humanity that had come to the Caribbean to chill out and be brainless for a short time. As I walked the beach, I scanned for what people were reading. There was one e•reader amidst the variety of paperback genre novels (Dan Brown was still going strong), spread out on deck chairs; their owners were either lapping up the sun with their eyes shut and their reading material abandoned, or dousing themselves in the ocean, or helping themselves to their umpteenth dirty banana (a cocktail) for the day. There was no evidence of literary fiction on this beach.

“Want ganja, man?” the local beachcomber asked me. “No,” I replied. “How about a girl?” “No!” I said. “Want a ride in my canoe?” He kept pace with me, like a barnacle on a boat. “No, I can’t swim.” “How about some fun?” “What’s that?” I asked. “Ganja, girl and canoe – with a life vest,” he replied, looking concerned, “you looking too serious, man.” “I write books,” I clarified. A wide grin broke on his face, “Ah that explains it, man – you loco, right?” “Right,” I said, and left him to find a more interested customer.

The solitary resolution that I am sticking to since returning from this beach holiday does not resemble any of my perennials. I don’t have to worry about those mainstays—they will get done—they are second nature to me now. And those newer, harder items, like spending more dark night with my soul etc., have been scrapped as well. My only resolution since returning from Jamaica is “Get a life, man!”

My Lessons from Blogging

I have been at this gig now well into my third year and I need to pause and take stock of what I have learned from blogging. There are a lot of pros to this endeavour, I have discovered, as much as there are pitfalls. Here is a list of both for those of you out there considering taking this leap, or for those veterans of the blog post who will either agree or disagree with me:

Pros
1) There is no publishing hierarchy to navigate. You simply think, write, then you publish, and the world reads you (or not)
2) This is an outlet to communicate the authentic YOU, warts and all. I have had the opportunity to not only communicate my observations on life, but also my political, religious and social views from time to time. And I have taken the liberty to reflect upon my pet world through my blog– the world of the writer – again, with warts and all
3) It is a way to gather a following (and to lose one, if the message is unpalatable) of readers around issues that are important to you, to elicit feedback, and to learn from them
4) It conditions you to synthesize your ideas into a few lines (I try to stick to no more than a page per post) and yet follow the arc of a story, with opening and closing punch lines
5) It forces you to think. A blog needs content, intelligent content, not always popular, but always thought provoking

Cons
a) The recommendation to constantly refresh content –post at least once a week – can lead to occasional crap filtering in
b) Your content defines you, and is your voice – guard it. Do not compromise quality for quantity. There are days when I think of posting a “Gone Fishing” notice on my blog and taking time off to reflect on the next level of content, however long that may take
c) Not everything is publishable. There are a lot of blogs I have written and later shelved because they don’t make the world a better place but only portray my neuroses. Why add to the insanity out in the world already?
d) You will lose fans occasionally when you write about the issues closest to you, which others may not share in. You may even make enemies
e) You will never be paid money for this endeavour, unless you open up to advertizing. And then you have to figure out if you want your site to be controlled by third parties or by yourself.

These have been my experiences to date. Will I continue to blog? Yes. Will it be as frenetic as before, with artificial deadlines of one post per week? That will depend on my muse; if she takes a vacation, my blog will take a vacation too. Will my blogging be on deeper issues that might even make me unpopular? Yes, there is only so much chatter and saccharine•coating one can engage in, and a writer’s obligation is to tackle the tough issues, for isn’t the pen (or now, the keyboard) mightier than the sword?

For those considering this endeavour, I hope you find these points useful. For the blog veterans, I look forward to your views and counterviews, for isn’t this what blogging is all about – a community of minds agreeing to disagree while respectfully sharing our thoughts?

Winding down the year

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” The refrain hangs heavy on my mind. Like a stock•taking superimposed by some divine deity who is counting down the hours in my life left on this earth.

I learned a few home truths this year. I learned that I could write books and stories in my sleep, but without a strong sponsor or benefactor, they were going nowhere, unless I gave them away for free on the Internet (still an option that I am actively considering). I learned that the commercial world had burrowed deep into its foxhole in 2009 and wasn’t taking any chances on “new and enhanced” but sticking merely to “tried and true.” I learned that Social Networking is great to become famous (sure, Google me and see the number of places you can find Shane Joseph, Writer) but not necessarily rich. It takes more than blog articles, tweets, and online postings before customers will buy into your brand. I learned that the tried and true media outlets are still the most influential.

I learned that people, even those closest to me, were fallible, just as I am, and that I cannot always hold them to the high standard I hold for myself. I learned to pursue dreams and accept when they came up short in reality. I have learned that money is only given to us for safekeeping and for deploying wisely; if we fail in that task, it will be taken away. I learned about the circular nature of time – events will take place only when they are meant to; all we can do is prepare for their occurrence. And so, even though I continue to record appointments in my calendar and plan for achieving defined goals within certain time frames, I am fatalistic about their actual outcomes. I have learned that the expression “Shit happens,” really happens!

Therefore I would respond to that old John Lennon song and say that I grew wise, marginally. I grew patient. I became poorer in the pocketbook but richer in my soul. I grew older by a year. I planted a lot of seedlings in this rather fallow year, which I am hoping will bud in 2010. And I have bided my time, waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

To all of you who have been reading my blog posts, I wish you Season’s Greetings and all the very best in 2010!

A Year of Blogging Dangerously

I began this blog last June and at the time had wondered what the heck I was going to write in it. Why was I aiming to pollute the world with more prose than publishers could already find outlets for? And who the heck would care if I wrote, played golf or just shut up?

However, during this past year, I managed to write an average of one article per week on topics that ranged from writing to politics to life to exercise to economics to publishing to civil wars, pandemics, and global financial meltdowns. I wrote to express myself and did not care a hoot if anyone read it or not. And yet, several of my blogograms were picked up in print magazines and e•zines. I never made any money but they further extended my reach among readers. I started syndicating my blog and got networked into the global blogoshere and even Google now picks up my blog before it picks up me, on occasion. I actually had responses from readers and a few have linked my blog as a permanent RSS feed because they wish to hear “the Word of Shane” on a regular basis.

Did I sell more books as a result? This was the reason I was asked to blog in the first place. I am not sure. And I don’t think so. How can you ever be sure unless you autograph your book, dedicate it by writing the purchaser’s name on it, place it squarely in his hand, thank him and walk him the checkout, or relieve him of his money and shove it in your pocket (just so that he does not re•shelve the book in the store, or abandon his shopping cart while browsing online)? And even then, there is no guarantee that he will read it when he takes it home!

This was the year that I became opinionated—as me, and not through my fictional characters. This was the year I got to ponder about affairs of the world and think before I spoke (or wrote), because once written, the online printed word sentences you to instant recognition or infamy.

If I never write another book—and I don’t have to for awhile, as I have a new novel coming out later this year and four others already baked and waiting for the publisher—I think I will continue to write up this blog. In fact, I would urge those folks who think that they all have a novel in them, to try the blog first. And after a year at it, if they still think that that novel hasn’t come out in some shape or form through the blog, then they should go right ahead and write the novel and not merely think about writing it.

So, will I blog on for another year? Sure. As long as the world and the events in it are important to me, I will continue to observe, opine, expound and excoriate. And if some reader gets it, nods her head in agreement, internalizes and acts upon it—that would be my reward. And I don’t have to worry about publishers, editors, publicists, book stores and the huge publishing infrastructure to connect me with readers. My readers know where to find me – right here at http://shanejoseph.com/blog