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Why I decided not to become a grasshopper expert, or, Not deciding your focus based on where readers are clicking

by Tom Johnson on Apr 9, 2019
categories: academics-and-practitioners writing

Although site analytics can be insightful in identifying popular topics, sometimes your most visited content isn't your most beloved content. It doesn't mean you have to switch your interests to align with your visitors' interests over your own.

I was browsing my site metrics last night (see screencast here), adjusting the date range from the beginning of the year to the present date, and I realized that the most visited posts consist almost entirely of API doc pages or other technical how-to. I wrote about this trend earlier this year when I suddenly noticed that 59% of my overall site traffic was going to my API doc site. As I was browsing the analytics last night, I felt a sense of confusion because my most visited content isn’t necessarily my most beloved content.

Although I like API documentation topics, I don’t want to devote my entire blog to this focus. And yet, it seems logical that I should turn my energy towards topics that are hot, that are driving traffic, and that are branding me in marketable ways.

My current situation reminds me of an earlier time. Back in 2007, I wrote a trivial post about a grasshopper, and I had a detailed picture of said grasshopper that I photoshopped on my kid’s head. (That kid, by the way, is now on her way to college in the fall.)

My famous grasshoppers post
My famous grasshopper post

At one point, most of the traffic on my site was going to this grasshopper post. If you did an image search for grasshopper, my post appeared in the top few results. By all accounts, a savvy web entrepreneur would have looked to market the opportunity. What could I sell? Grasshopper pesticides? Grasshopper posters? I could have added more posts about grasshoppers and linked them to each other, driving up my SEO. Maybe I could have made a killing in web searches for all species of grasshoppers. And if successful, I could have opened up an online store selling grasshoppers, or started collecting grasshoppers into the world’s most impressive collection. Do universities offer PhDs in grasshopperology? Sign me up!

It seems a bit foolish to tailor your interests and passions around web traffic. So what if my Swagger tutorial is driving thousands of visits to my site. I’m not going to pivot my entire career and all my free energy around specializing in Swagger tutorials and going around the country giving workshops on Swagger, focusing exclusively on marketing opportunities based on Swagger.

Why not? I was reading a David Brooks’ column on The Moral Peril of Meritocracy that provides the perspective I needed to bring more balance to my scenario. In this column, Brooks writes about a two-sided mountain that people climb. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb — I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness.

People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys. … But in the lives of the people I’m talking about — the ones I really admire — something happened that interrupted the linear existence they had imagined for themselves. Something happened that exposed the problem with living according to individualistic, meritocratic values.

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril. Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn’t part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important. (The Moral Peril of Meritocracy)

And after this turning point, where they found themselves again at the bottom of a mountain, they started climbing up the other side (hence, the “two-sided mountain”). For some, their lives refocused in more authentic ways, and for others, they transformed for the worse. Brooks goes a bit deeper and in other directions than I intend here, focusing on how people change when they’re “broken open.” I’m certainly not broken open, but before I start scrambling up the first side of that mountain to become the grasshopper expert or the Swagger expert, it would be good to pause and consider whether it’s a mountainside I personally want to climb.

Admittedly, I have written a lot about Swagger already. See all the topics in the OpenAPI specification and Swagger section. It also occupies a large chunk of my API workshops. But any more focus than this, I think, is lopsided. Very easily, I grow tired of writing about Swagger. Just as I grow tired of writing about grasshoppers. Because this isn’t a topic that drives me from the inside.

What, then, actually drives me from the inside? I like the personal essay format — the conversational, authentic, analytical, and insightful mind at play across a wide interest of topics. It just so happens that this personal essay format is perfectly suited to blogging. Sometimes the topic can be grasshoppers or Swagger — but not always.

Any singular focus that doesn’t connect with my authentic passions eventually fizzles out. I can only sustain writing about API documentation so long before I become bored and switch back to my more creative gears. So even though right now there are probably 15 active users reading about Swagger and API documentation on my site, I’m not pivoting my whole focus around these topics. I’m going to write about what engages me, and if there are just two readers out there who share the same interest, or even none, that is perfectly fine. I am only interested in climbing mountains that drive me from the inside to climb them.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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