I Am Joe’s Blog:

April 4, 2007 • 12:10 AM

Further Thoughts on ITotD’s 4th Anniversary

As I discussed in The Fourth Anniversary of ITotD, Interesting Thing of the Day turned 4 on Sunday. That must be 28 in blog years, but then, when I started the site I had no idea I was becoming a blogger. (I still sort of don’t believe that, but the fact that I’m making that claim here, on yet another blog, suggests that I’m just in denial.)

I know of professional bloggers who do nothing but crank out posts all day long, sometimes by the dozens, on several different blogs. Some of them even make a handsome living doing so. For me, though, quality has always been much more important than quantity. I can type as many words per day as they next guy, but the actual writing isn’t where I spend the bulk of my time. Regardless of the subject matter I’m dealing with, I typically spend about half my time doing research, a quarter of my time writing, and another quarter editing and rewriting. The majority of what I read on the Web was written with very little research and even less editing. And I understand that this approach works well for a lot of people—writers and readers alike. It’s just not my thing. Maybe I’m too old-school, and maybe it’s not the path to rapid riches, but I prefer to take my time.

Because of these predilections, and because Interesting Thing of the Day has steadfastly resisted categorization, it didn’t go quite according to my initial plan. But four years later, it’s starting to get there.

A (Not-So-) Brief History of Interesting Thing of the Day My very first article for Interesting Thing of the Day1 was full of optimism about how I’d found my true calling as a Curator of Interesting Things, how I intended to make a full-time job out of writing these articles, and how I wasn’t particularly concerned about the site’s ability to make money. Looking back now, I don’t know how I thought I could produce a new article of up to 1,500 words every single day (weekends and holidays included), or how I imagined that without any ads or overt selling, the site could make enough money for me to live on. For more than seven solid months I did pull off the article-every-day feat (with the help of a few articles from guest authors). The site had attracted a small but loyal group of regular readers, but it also made barely any money—and after all that work with so little reward, I was completely burned out. I decided to go on a hiatus, during which time I focused on my technical writing, which at least paid the bills reliably.

Version 2.0: A couple of months into my recuperation, I heard about this groovy new thing called Google AdSense. I figured I had nothing to lose by putting the code on the site to display contextual ads, so I did. Much to my amazement, all those articles that had just been sitting there on the site for months suddenly started making money. Not a lot, at first, but enough to make me think there might be something to this whole enterprise after all. So I retooled the site, committing myself to another year of daily articles—some of which were recycled and updated versions of those from the first run, and the rest of which were new. I also jumped on the podcast bandwagon, producing audio recordings of every article, and began offering paid subscriptions that entitled readers to get, among other things, the full text of each daily article by email.

That year, from June 2004 to May 2005, was more difficult than I’d expected. Readership increased, and a nontrivial number of people purchased subscriptions. Since I was writing fewer new articles than I had during that first stretch, the work was a bit less grueling. But by the end of that year, I realized I couldn’t afford to be spending so much of my time—often 30–40 hours per week—doing something that wasn’t contributing meaningfully to paying the rent. I decided to take more time off, with the intention of giving the site a complete makeover and coming up with ways to make it less labor-intensive. In the meantime, I again ran articles from the archives, but in a change from my previous schedule, skipped weekends and holidays. I thought that break might last a few months, but it stretched to an entire year.

Version 3.0: In May 2006, Interesting Thing of the Day had its second grand re-opening. We had a new logo and a completely redesigned site. I changed lots of features in an attempt to make the site more modern, efficient, and user-friendly. And I announced that I was adopting a burnout-resistant schedule: new articles would appear, on average, about twice a week, but with no particular guarantees; recycled articles would fill in some of the off days to keep the content reasonably dynamic. I can’t tell you how much I struggled with that decision, because it meant that Interesting Thing of the Day was no longer literally of-the-day, something I’d considered of central importance from the beginning. But I felt it was the only way I could potentially keep the site going indefinitely.

And now, even the site’s income is finally beginning to think about edging into a somewhat interesting region. By “interesting,” I mean that I can now conceive of the possibility that, if current trends continue, I might actually be able to make Interesting Thing of the Day my full-time job after all in a year or two. Working on nothing but ITotD was what I envisioned when we started on April 1, 2003, and at the time, I thought it might take about six months. So maybe it takes six years instead. But I can just start to see the faint suggestion of a dim light at the distant end of a long tunnel. (I hope that’s enough qualifiers!) To help the process along, I’m officially asking for donations. Perhaps I’ll even turn it into an annual membership drive, à  la PBS or Daring Fireball. But we’ll see what happens.

Famous for Being Famous If I’ve learned one lesson from Interesting Thing of the Day in the last year, it’s that popularity is self-reinforcing. That should have been obvious, but it seems that the site had to very slowly work its way up to a certain threshold, a certain reasonably high number of readers, before the rate of popularity began to increase significantly. Today, in addition to all those FeedBurner readers, the site is getting vastly more “ordinary” visitors than it did a year ago, and the number is trending ever more sharply upward. The site is essentially the same as it always was, but more people knowing about it led to more people knowing about it, and all of a sudden lots and lots of people know about it.

I started out thinking, naively, that all I had to do was to build a quality site and the word would spread like wildfire. What I really had to do was build a quality site, wait for several years, redesign it a few times, and experience a bit of luck. But sure enough, it’s finally getting getting close to what I envisioned all those years ago.

1That article is no longer online, I’m afraid; it got recycled during one of the site’s overhauls. Just as well: it’s a bit embarrassing to read nowadays.