Stats, stats and more stats: The Half Life of Fame

My WordPress stats for May 4th, 2012.

So, here are the stats for my blog, at time of writing. You can see a steady increase in hits over the last few weeks. What does this mean? Have I somehow hit a sweet spot in my L&T discussions? Has my secret advertising campaign paid off (no, not seriously). Well, there are a couple of things in there that are both informative… and humbling.

Firstly, two of the most popular searches that find my blog are “London 2012 tube” and “alone in a crowd”. These hits have probably accounted for about 16% of my traffic for the past three weeks. What does that tell me? Well, firstly, the Olympics aren’t too far away and people are looking for how convenient their hotels are. The second is a bit sadder.

The second search “alone in a crowd” is coming in across two languages – English and Russian. I have picked up a reasonable presence in Russia and Ukraine, mostly from that search term. It seems to contribute a lot to my (Australian) Monday morning feed, which means that a lot of people seem to search for this on Sundays.

But let me show you another graph, and talk about the half life of fame:

My WordPress stats, by week, on 4th of May, 2012.

That’s since the beginning my blogging activities. That spike at Week 9? That’s when I started blogging SIGCSE and also includes the day when over 100 people jumped on my blog because of a referral from Mark Guzdial. That was also the conference at which Hal Abelson referred to a concept of the Half Life of fame – the inevitable drop away after succeeding at something, if you don’t contribute more. And you can see that pretty clearly in the data. After SIGCSE, I was happily on my way back to being read by about 20-30 people a day, tops, most of whom I knew, because I wasn’t providing much more information to the people who scanned me at SIGCSE.

Without consciously doing it, I’ve managed to put out some articles that appear to have wider appeal and that are now showing up elsewhere. But these stats, showing improvement, are meaningless unless I really know what people are looking at. So, right now I’m pulling apart all of my log data to see what people are actually reading – whether I have an increasing L&T presence and readership, or a lot of sad Russian speakers or lost people on the London Underground system. I’m expecting to see another fall-away very soon now and drop down to the comfortable zone of my little corner of the Internet. I’m not interested in widespread distribution – I’m interesting in getting an inspiring or helpful message to the people who need it. Only one person needs to read this blog for it to be useful. It just has to the right one person. 🙂

One of the most interesting things about doing this, every day, is that you start wondering about whether your effort is worth it. Are people seeking it out? Are people taking the time to read it or just clicking through? Are there a growing number of frustrated Tube travellers thinking “To heck with Korzybski!” Time to go into the data and look. I’m going to keep writing regardless but I’d like to get an idea of where all of this is going.

The Map is not the Territory.

I’m writing a paper on visualising Internet network topologies with my PhD student and some colleagues at the moment and an old friend, who is one of the student’s other supervisors, looked at some of the work we’d been doing and mentioned a great quote from Alfred Korzybski in 1931:

“The map is not the territory.”

Korzybski was a philosopher and scientist who developed the theory of general semantics, which I’m not going to talk more about here, but a lot of his work revolved around the idea that all we have access to is perceptions and beliefs, which we confuse with a knowledge of actual reality. This is a simple quote and a powerful concept: one of my favourite combinations.

What brought me to this was that, as part of our paper, we were looking at the London Underground map – the famous Tube Map.

A picture of the map of the London Underground

The focus of the Tube map is getting around London by Tube. Designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, a draughtsman with experience in laying out electrical circuits, it replaced a large number of incomplete and more geographically focused maps. What is most interesting about this map is that some licence is taken with the geography in order to make this the simplest map to use for Tube travel. Above ground, this map is not only not as useful, in some areas it’s completely wrong. (Suburbs on the opposite side shown, distances completely inaccurately represented for ease of reading.)

This has had an effect on the way that people travel around London – making decisions above ground that make sense on the Tube map but are downright silly when on foot on the streets. To combat this, Transport for London have developed the Legible London project with above-ground signage to assist the navigation of London Above, with signs and images showing you directions and landmarks.

Whether it’s maps of networks, maps of London or course pre-requisite diagrams, maps are only useful if you design them correctly for their primary use. Looking at the work on prerequisites that I’ve been talking about recently, it’s becoming more apparent that my desire for a good visualisation of pathways stems from my desire for a map that correctly reflects what we want students to do, reinforces the correct behaviour and is also going to be fit for purpose. Rather than using one diagram for many things, I need to check to make sure if I have the best diagram for a given situation.

Sometimes I need to release my grip on the accuracy of geography (precise location) to focus on the detail of topology (arrangement and connectivity). Sometimes it’s the other way around. Particularly when I insert a temporal aspect, I need to make sure that this “fourth dimension” doesn’t make my maps so complex that they’re useless. However, I always need a reason to relax a requirement: I’m certainly not saying that you can scribble randomly on a piece of paper and call it the NYC Subway map!

But, taking this concept further, how many pieces of work are out there that confuse a good diagram or a flowchart with the real thing? Is this just our confirmation of our perceptions and, as as result, it’s strongly sensible only when viewed from within our context? Or are we producing transferrable and shareable maps, focused on the right detail, showing the correct view of the terrain for the purpose, and accepting that there are an almost infinite set of views of the true territory?

A good map helps us to navigate territory but it can never replace it. What I always need to remember is that if I produce a map from a map, I can add no more detail than was in the original and I cannot correct mistakes in the original, without reference to the territory itself. And that’s something I think that is always worth remembering.