Friday, 1 November 2013

MIX: On Building an Audience

In mathematics, sometimes you can spend hours, days, even years working on a problem - only to realize that you've been going down the wrong path the entire time. This is not bad, in and of itself. Mistakes themselves are often enlightening. But it can be disheartening.

This is how I feel about my mathematical web serial lately.

And this is your soundtrack for this post.  Seriously.

This post blends writing with mathematics


I began "Taylor's Polynomials" on July 3, 2011, over two years ago.

That's before Math Munch (Oct 2011), a weekly roundup of the mathematical internet. Before Ontario Math Links (Dec 2012), a weekly roundup connected to Ontario Curriculum. Before Infinite Tangents (Sep 2012), a podcast for teachers with insightful commentary. Before Daily Desmos (Mar 2013), a daily graphing challenge. Before ALL THAT, there was me. Twice every week.

If you're involved in math education, you've likely heard of them. Before this post, had you heard of my serial?

Who the hell are you and how did
you get into my Twitter feed?!
And I GET IT, I do, those other sites are valuable resources. They give you things you can use right away in the classroom, on a weekly basis. My web serial? Mostly a fun thing. Granted, there are links to useful items, but (a) you have to click on them, and (b) they tend to be connected to the story of the moment, as opposed to the curriculum.

That said, me and all those sites, we have something in common. We're publishing on a schedule. As I said, I publish twice a week, every week, and have not missed an update ALL YEAR.

First Big Question: Does the schedule matter? Do you even care? Outside of my core readership (and here I'm gonna be generous and say of 3 people), DOES IT MATTER that I update like clockwork?


Assuming you know "Taylor's Polynomials", it's a curiosity to you. Something you drop by to have a look at if either:
a) I happen to tweet out an update that looks interesting. Whereby that post is read, you nod, and move on without looking at anything else.
b) You happen to remember I exist, and go back to catch up on the last month or so.

Something about crescent shapes and parabolas, was it?

Neither of these items requires me having a schedule. Seriously, is anyone thinking "It's Sunday! I wonder what personified math is doing?" Because if not, maybe I should shift to a more flexible schedule of two random posts per week. But if my schedule is something you look forward to, please, for the love of God, say something. Which brings me to point two.

Second Big Question: What am I doing wrong?

The feedback I get can also be dropped into two categories:
a) What is this? I don't get it. I don't have time for this.
b) Oh, that's clever. Followed by "I don't have time for this."

Because if you DID have the time, I wouldn't constantly have to call attention to myself! In over TWO YEARS, I can count the number of times I've had an unsolicited comment (ie- where I didn't bring my serial up first) on both hands, and I've had maybe one referral. (Ok, not counting #FFs in that, because my Twitter feed goes beyond my serial.) My family doesn't read. My colleagues don't read. My MTBoS friends don't read?

Look! Math+SciFi! ...where are you going?
Seriously, here's typical conversation from the past week.
Them: "Is your twitter avatar a ten sided Dr Who parody?"
Me: "Yes, here's why."
Them: "Oh, that's clever."

Now, I know this is on me. Like any good teacher, I know it's up to me to make my, well, writing engaging. I also know I'm stuck behind the 8-ball, because:
a) My topic is math. This does not have a wide audience.
b) People in education do not have a lot of free time.
c) I pun a lot.

Up to this point, I thought the trouble was publicity. Except I tweet every update twice. I have a Facebook page (13 likes), and even post to Google+. In September, I took the time to break down exactly what was going on in a series of posts, and I got triple the hits there as compared to any of my regular updates. I toss out my serial characters in conversations about once a week, which already feels like too much.

So the message is getting out there. I'm just not interesting.

But unless you tell me WHY I'm not compelling, and suggest how I can IMPROVE on that, all I can do is GUESS. I've spent over 185 entries guessing. (Yes, I now have an entry for every day of the school year.) I'm getting sick of guessing. Particularly when I see what other serials have going for them.


Sorry, meant to say a tweet
that I can decipher.
I want one message a month that makes me think about my web serial, which makes me consider my plot and my characters. Or maybe a tweet, how about a single tweet? This is a SERIAL, I've only written about five episodes ahead, beyond that it's up for grabs! What do you see happening next? What would you do if you were writing? (With a quick shoutout here to Scott, who last week posted a quick comment of this type on my Facebook wall. That was October's message, can I get one for November?)

I want someone to see themselves in my serial, and tell me so, without prompting. Be it the link to their website (I've pointed at blogs, and sites like Estimation180) or a plot point they suggested or saw coming (I had some colleagues give me ideas in Series 4, which I included) or in something a character does (I've got two female characters sleeping together now, and I don't know if they're acting realistically). I say "without prompting" because otherwise I'm just going to get more of "Oh, that's clever. I don't have time for this."

I want people to say "wow, didn't see that coming", implying some previous interest. I follow other writers, and I always find myself sighing when they say something like 'Didn't expect that reaction to my post!'. Because the reaction I get is... no reaction. Note I'm not asking for a ReTweet here, or a recommendation, all I want is a response that signifies interest beyond a single post. Because again, serial.

Now, we don't always get what we want. In fact, I'm certain that someone out there reading this is saying 'You got a comment on your facebook wall? You're already ahead of me!' Again, I get it. There's a guy out there who had to publish every day for several years before he garnered any attention. In a lot of senses, I'm still young at this.

But the fact of the matter is, I AM older than a LOT of other initiatives. My content, it trends to humour and relaxation, more than pedagogy and curriculum. Is that wrong? Is FUN not a thing we want in math? Because I'm feeling invisible. Should I include blog search terms? Of what type? More special episodes? On what topics? Should I throw an entire Series into a single post for reading, rather than use the index page? Update the character page? Spin three times in a circle chanting the Tau of Pi before every update??

I grant that perhaps you'll tell me, "this is what you need to do", and I'll realize I cannot do that. I also know I have no chance of being everything to everyone. But at least I'll know. Or I'll know more than I do now. Because what is a writer without an audience?

I am nothing without you. Just a shadow passing through.


  1. What is a writer without an audience? A writer.

    1. Fine. Albeit a depressed writer who is apparently inarticulate this evening.

    2. It's kind of like saying I'm still a teacher even if I have absolutely no students. I grant the point, but it gives me no job satisfaction.

    3. No it isn't. Not unless you are teaching yourself... teaching requires a student. The creative act of writing does not require a reader. It only requires a writer.

      If you wrote poetry every day into a book that no one else read, you would still be a writer. If you paint the name of a company on a billboard that thousands of people read daily, that does not make you a writer. It's not about the readers... it's about writing something you love.

      The more I study craft and process and the business, the more it gets drilled into my head that you write, you have to love what you write, and love writing. And the more and more I produce work and work on it and send it out in the world to be rejected by impersonal form letter while others around me are publishing left, right and centre, the more I realize how true that is. There's no other way to get through it. You have to figure out how to get your job satisfaction out of the act writing itself.

      It's an difficult craft because it requires you to spend a lot of in your head, and in your head is where all the fear and self-doubt lies. That kind of fear and doubt sets off your inner critic into telling you that you aren't doing things right unless you have some kind of validation through readership. You do not. It can be great when people read your work and love your work, but this is a bonus, not the goal.

      I totally get what you are feeling, but it's a common trap that writers get into, and at its core, it's self-doubt and the horrible I-am-not-good-enough feeling. It's hard to get past (particularly since it generally recurs) but it's not an indication that you are writing the wrong thing, it's an indication that you are focused on the doubt and that the doubt is killing the joy.

    4. I seem to recall you making a similar argument on your blog, now that I see it written here. Completely valid points. And I'm mostly convinced, but I think part of the trouble comes from me being inarticulate. Let me take another stab.

      Publishing is not (currently) my goal. I have a number of other stories that I never have time to get back to, ones that might actually be of good enough quality to garner rejection letters. Hell, most people don't have time to read stuff I send them, and I accept that.

      But I've sacrificed my work on those projects to work on my web serial INSTEAD. Because I've thought that the serial, while not something that could ever be published, would be something more beneficial in terms of getting mathematics out there. It's short bursts. Possibly inspiring, offering glimpses into things outside the standard curriculum, possibly simply a diversion. Certainly something that would make ME think about mathematics more, but I'd hoped to bring other people along for the ride.

      That's not happening. People interested in math are going to other sites. I talked about Versine a year before the Onion and other people were bringing it up - absolutely no recognition. For whatever reason, I'm NOT ENGAGING, and if I'm sacrificing ALL of my other writing efforts for this beast, I WANT it to be engaging. I may not be writing the wrong thing, but as of earlier this week, I DO feel like I'm writing it wrong!

      More to the point, if I can't do it right, then perhaps it's time to scale back, and shift my writing focus back to other projects, which I also love. Because this one, this web serial, was meant to be for readers.

    5. Publishing or seeking out readership is the same issue.

      If you are sacrificing other things that you love writing for this, stop. Don't do that.

      You can always revive it it later, but funnelling creative energy into something that feels like a sacrifice is a surefire way to burn out creatively. And when the creator gets tired or frustrated, the creation loses something.

      There is a writing saying--no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. There is a lot of truth in this. If you are not happy or laughing out loud or so genuinely engaged in writing of this that you cannot wait to get back to it, readers will feel the same way. If how you feel about this project is dependent on how many people read it or engage with it, the energy you put into this is very much going to be like that person who runs around wondering if anyone likes them and finding that nobody does. It's the writing equivalent of Be Happy with Yourself, and the friends you make will be genuine friends.

      If you are looking for craft tips, that usually comes down to character and structure. Dickens wrote in serial form. Television works in serial. Novels get put down and people walk out of movies and stage plays if they don't engage. The form doesn't change the question of engagement due to character and structure... if you are reading something you can't put down, or watching something you look forward to every week, ask yourself why. None of that is a guarantee of readership or engagement, however.

      It still comes back to the issue of process. If you don't find writing this a sacrifice, if you don't want to come back to this project over the other things you are doing, if you are not really excited about what happens next when you create this... no one else will be. Usually, no one can ever love the writing more than the writer. (NB: there are probably exceptions in fandom.) But if you are getting frustrated with this, if you are feeling like it's taking time away from other things you'd rather be doing... stop. Take a break. Go on hiatus. Do other things. Come back to this only when you feel like this is the thing you'd rather do over other things.

  2. I read them, don't understand them, but only give feedback if I think I can be helpful.

    But I don't really look for feedback on my posts. I just blast them out there. They find an audience or they don't. For all you know, people read them, go "cute" and move on. I don't think most people want that much work.

    I am thrilled that people read my stuff. Traffic, not comments, make me happy. I like comments fine, but I don't want to burden my readers with expectations.

    1. The horrible irony is, I don't really care about feedback on this blog. I'm totally in agreement about just throwing things out there. It's the other blog I care about. It's the other one I make conscious efforts to improve. And while I don't NEED comments to write my serial, it's the following implication that's been dawning on me this week.

      I want a comment every month or so. (After two years, I'm looking at an average of one every three months, I think.) I'm not getting those comments, or really ANYTHING coming out of people whose opinions I VALUE. Therefore, I am doing something wrong. I want to fix that. I don't know how.

      I need help. Possibly in my writing, possibly psychologically, I guess we'll see.

  3. I honestly have no idea what to say beyond this:

    I blog for me. I love having an audience and comments, but ultimately, I do it because I have to have a way to clear my head and organize my thoughts. I publish daily not because people expect me to, but because I know myself. I know that if I miss a day, I will miss two, then three, then I'll be done.

    I don't have any idea how to increase readership except that you have to be true to yourself. Write what you love and what makes you happy. People will come, or they won't, but you have to do what you have to do.

    If you are looking for feedback in terms of how to make it better, then perhaps asking for it like you did here might be a way to go.

    On top of that, serials are odd ducks. If people don't get in on the ground floor, it can seem intimidating to go back and read everything, even if you do summaries.

    I don't have an answer. Only empathy. And sympathy.

    1. I think I'm not even looking for answers. Just ideas and thoughts. So I appreciate it. In fact, I'm now realizing that part of the trouble is:
      a) My most promising audience doesn't know what a serial is. They see me as keeping a blog. I have to somehow shatter that preconception.
      b) Those who DO know what a serial is feel like they have to read from Day 1. I have to somehow make people realize that they CAN wander into a session by Dan Meyer halfway through, and STILL get something out of it. They didn't HAVE to be there at the beginning.

      I'm done with "people will come, or they won't". It's been over two years. The answer is, they won't, unless I do something. There's at least two other projects I could be working on if all I wanted to do was to be happy writing. I focus my efforts here because I want others to be happy reading.

      By the way, it's awesome that you not only publish daily, but do it in paragraphs. Thanks again for taking the time out to comment.

  4. I know your frustration and I understand it. I haven't helped it any in that I don't think I've commented before now.

    I can say this: you have created something new here. This is beyond the usual webcomic to tell a complex story, which is refreshing, but it sometimes goes beyond me. I have to admit, I don't keep up with serials online -- I always fall behind. I can't even keep up with a website that posts a daily rerun of its completed series despite the fact that every episode is already online and just needs me to click it.

    When you first came by my blog, I checked out your site. I knew you had something there, something different. I just wasnt sure what it was, and wasn't sure if I was getting it. But I didn't think the fault for that lied with you, but rather with me. I figured I'd get into it over time. (Much the way that I could never figure out any Marvel comic within, say, the first year.) But I hardly get around to reading things, not even my bookmarked pages. I mostly click on your pages from the twitter links I spot.

    I'm guessing that your core audience is generally very busy. They get to it when they can, and, hopefully, their lack of response is because they want to be thoughtful in what they write and not just dash off a quick "Ha ha! Good one!" -- but then it slips off the radar.

    It probably would with me if I didn't just hazard this quick response in one sitting.

    I wish I got more feedback as well. Most of mine is anonymous, and those are generally corrections or complaints, devoid of humorous intent. Some even start with, "You want feedback? Well how about this!"

    Not a perfect world. I keep telling myself that I do it for myself first, and others second. I started mine as a class blog, and it just didn't get used. No matter how much I pushed it in class and rewarded those you used it (I couldnt require it), it didn't get used. So I transformed it into something else. Others have come along after me and have been more successful, and I'm fine with that. Mostly. I think.

    I'm rambling now, so I'll end with this: keep doing what you're doing as long as you feel like doing it. I wish could answer the readership and respondership questions.

    1. You haven't commented directly, but indirectly I've appreciated some of your response. I might have flagged you with this post, except I see you as kind of a "rock star" in my genre, so was unsure. Thus I'm even more pleased that you decided to comment.

      Perhaps ironically, I've also wanted to go back and read your site from the beginning, and I haven't yet (summer project fail), but I've kept up with it. The fact that you sometimes link current gags to previous ones is helpful. I also wasn't sure what I had when I started out... for over a year I called it my "sorta-webcomic math writing thing" before discovering it was a serial. It's evolving. And maybe it's evolved to the point where it needs more engagement.

      I probably shouldn't have focussed on feedback. My first step needs to be that ENGAGEMENT. Your Halloween comics got a reference on another website. Even if no one commented, people read, and remembered. I also remember reading about your thoughts on your wiki, even if I never got back to it. So I'm not letting myself off the hook here - my job is to make people want to, if not comment to me, at least comment to SOMEONE ELSE.

      I know I'm not of the same calibre as the other more successful sites I mentioned. And I'm never going to be an xkcd. But right now, I'm not even a footnote. Thanks for the ramble - it's helping me pull things into focus. I appreciate it perhaps more than you realize.

  5. It has taken me a while to process my thoughts. You've created something unique on the web, an illustrated serial. One of the things I'm wondering about is your audience. I'm beginning to think that you're reaching your peers, fellow math teachers, and that one of the reasons that they don't have time to read is because of work. I think I'm the outlier in your audience, the non-teacher, the person with time to follow along, even if I don't always comment.

    On the plus side, you don't really have continuity lock out, and adding the summaries this arc really does help new readers. The idea that the Mathtans are a blog might come from using blogging software, but changing to something new now is just going to cause frustrations for you for what could be little gain.

    Feedback... feedback is odd. Sometimes, a lack of feedback is feedback of its own, but open to interpretation. For some, it means, "This sucks and isn't worth the effort to say so." For others, it means, "I like this, but I can't think of anything meaningful to say." I tend to go with the latter; few people online can resist the urge to say, "You suck!" when given the chance.

    Besides, you don't suck. You're weaving several tales at once in a format not seen since the pulp magazines. You're outside most expectations. :)

    1. Thanks for the thoughts - just figured you were busy with Nanowrimo as opposed to processing my rambling! Audience, yes, I've been wrestling with that since I first started. I suppose I now think it's teachers, but maybe it's more that I see them as finding my audience? I won't lie, in retrospect the fact that October featured a LOT of talk about (younger) math initiatives online contributed to my depression.

      I'm glad you think the summaries are of help. Justin's since suggested to me about bundling everything up into a book. Entries could spark writing prompts. I'm still hesitant. Though I don't really have the time to consider changes during the school year anyway.

      I've also decided I was mistaking a need for feedback with a need for engagement, or maybe recognition. Which I've been seeing more of this month, which is nice - no idea if it's the actual content causing it, naturally! So I'm STILL not letting myself off the hook, but there is something to be said for your closing couple paragraphs.

      What I can't figure out is when I became such a "trail blazing non-conformist". It's so unlike me.