The Slow Goodbye
October marked this blog’s nineteenth anniversary. It’s time to plan for big changes.
After nearly three days of travel across the Pacific, via Melbourne, Tokyo, and Seattle, I arrived in Washington DC on a cold and icy December night. It was a few days before Christmas, and for the first time my daughter was going to host the family Christmas dinner. I only ever hosted Christmas dinner for my parents twice. I remember how special an honour it was the first time. I was full of hope this experience would be a great one for my daughter and wanted to be fully present for her.
After checking in to the hotel and dropping off my bags, I made my way to her apartment through the wintry winds that were wrapping themselves around the city. Once there, after all the hugs and greetings, I sat down on the sofa and did a customary check of my email and social media accounts.
Something was wrong. I had hundreds of emails from my website store. I also had some social media messages from people asking for refunds on things they hadn’t bought.
Turns out my site had been hacked because of an outdated plug-in. Thousands of fake orders had been placed using stolen credit card numbers. I frantically emailed my contact from the agency that developed the site, catching her just before she started her own holidays, and we did everything we could to shut down the store, update the plug-ins, limit the problems, and issue refunds.
It took most of the next day, and several hours on the following days, to remedy the problem. Everyone got refunded. I lost a little money. But far more importantly, I lost the first three days of my family holiday.
Nineteen years ago, in the sparse studio of my Delhi home, I created this site. WordPress had barely any instructions back then. You had to build everything yourself, and it took me a couple of weeks to get the site working.
But, and this is important, you could build it yourself. For years, I tweaked and designed the site’s various layouts. It was time consuming, but I loved the experience. Nothing was out of my control.
Then, in 2012, I decided to hire someone to build a custom design. They came up with the logo I still use today, and the site looked better. But it was very slow, and they also messed up a lot of things, from SEO to featured images on old pages. I still find myself cleaning up problematic pages.
In 2014, I had this current site built. In many ways, I love it. But I can’t maintain it myself. Plug-in updates sometimes break parts of the site. It’s hard to update and full of out-of-date things, like the giant smash ads for the book I self-published back in 2015.
The Christmas crisis just highlighted the problem.
I’d love to update the site again. Change the store to something more secure. But building a new site would cost thousands of dollars that I can’t hope to make back at the moment. And even if I wanted to spend the money, finding someone interested in taking on a tiny project is frustratingly hard.
There was a time when the writing I shared on this site (and on social media) brought in paid work. That’s part of why I never booked ads or endorsements, or took any guest posts. I didn’t need to. Other kinds of opportunities would come in and I’d get paid for them, leaving the blog as a gift to the creative community.
But that hasn’t been true for a long time. I pay for good-quality hosting. I pay to maintain the mailing list for subscribers. And I pay to have every article professionally edited.
But I don’t get any business in return anymore. Okay, I haven’t added any new products in a while, and I could make some money there. But I haven’t garnered many new readers either.
Mostly, I just keep going.
And increasingly, I’m not content with that.
There’s a game we creatives are meant to play where we say that the size of our audience doesn’t matter, as if we should be grateful for any attention. I don’t subscribe to that idea. I discourage other creatives from doing so.
Toiling away in obscurity is vastly over-rated. It’s bad for your well-being.
I made peace a long time ago with this blog existing somewhere in the middle. It never managed to become the kind of blog that people tell people about. I was invited on a couple of podcasts and had a few articles written about the blog, but mostly I wrote for a relatively small and wonderfully loyal band of readers.
But something that doesn’t grow eventually becomes hard to maintain.
For a few years, I posted around once a week. During the worst months of the pandemic, it felt important to keep that up. To stay connected with the world. To hold space for some kind of hope. I’d prop my iPad up on the dining table and use words to burrow a portal into the wider world.
During that time, I also invested in improving my own craft as a writer. I attended a lot of writing workshops. I wrote thousands of words of memoir, fiction, even a proposal for another book.
These words are different to the words I’ve written for the web over the years. They don’t conform to the rules of what performs well on blogs and social media.
And really, this is the crux of the matter. I feel tired of writing for the web.
I’m not tired of you, dear reader. I’m tired of the game of trying to lure more readers to like, to play the search engine game, to write thrilling short paragraphs in SEO-approved 300-word blocks with a clear pay-off, life lesson, or simple idea you can put into practice.
Next October will be the twentieth anniversary of this blog. For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to celebrate that. Not a lot of blogs have been running for 20 years.
Okay. There aren’t a lot of blogs left at all.
There certainly aren’t a lot of blogs left operating the way this one does, free of ads, written from one person’s perspective, speaking to a broad range of topics, charting the shape of a life engaging with the world in specific ways.
Sometimes I wonder if the best way I can honour that anniversary is by drawing the whole project to a close.
Should the twentieth anniversary post be the last?
At the current tempo, that would mean writing maybe 25 more posts. Perhaps a few more. But it’s a limited number.
That settles my mind. Even when I wrote 50 posts a year, I still always had more than that number sitting in drafts. Every year I could write more. But I don’t know what to focus on. Which makes me anxious about the whole thing.
Sometimes, I look at the successful newsletters that attract thousands of readers. Newsletters are simply the new blogs by a different name. (Many would disagree with me about that.)
Anyway, I sometimes envy those successful newsletter writers. Not because large numbers of readers are a prize. But because there’s a clarity that comes with having a bigger audience. A sharper sense of where to focus your attention and energy.
Back when I worked on the Society For Film’s podcast, it was fascinating to observe audience behaviour. Whenever we reviewed a blockbuster like whatever the latest Marvel film was, we’d get a huge spike in numbers. But that would drop off quickly. However, some films – European arthouse films, Asian films, the kind of things you only see at film festivals and that don’t get reviewed on a lot of bigger review sites – would keep drawing in small but steady numbers for years and years.
Audiences can misguide you and pull your attention towards fads. But they can also clarify your thinking and remind you of what you do well.
Thinking of a list of final posts would force me to really think about what matters.
If we only had a few more chances to share this online space together, then what should we think about and feel in those remaining moments?
When Twitter got rid of its validation system, it was fashionable to pretend it was no big deal. Some high-profile users said things like “I’m glad it’s gone” and “It was more trouble than it was worth.”
But others, closer to my station in things, were more apprehensive. Being verified was never as powerful as some imagined it to be. It didn’t make you more popular or grow your audience. But it did help you get noticed by people who used Twitter seriously. In as far as Twitter was a tool for professional networking in the arts and media, it was helpful.
Most of us who do creative work survive because we live in an ecosystem.
When that ecosystem gets threatened or destroyed, the strongest survive. The tallest trees with the deepest roots do better in a bushfire than the saplings and smaller plants.
This blog predates the emergence of social media by several years. But for a long time, its fate was intertwined with the way social media evolved.
Now that social media is broken and fragmented, there is a whole new set of issues to consider.
I was in my mid-twenties the last time I walked off a football pitch. I remember looking down at the muddy ground, feeling my boot studs sink into the earth. Brushing the sweat off my brow with my forearm.
It’s not that I hated the game. But it was time to quit. I’d been kind of good in my teens, but never good enough to make the best youth teams. I had a hard few years with injuries and illness. Much of the years between 18 and 21 were wasted for me.
Then I worked hard, lost some weight and got fit again. But I was playing in a team I didn’t like and a kind of football I wasn’t suited for.
The thing is, I don’t miss it. Never have. Some guys pine for their youth. Never give up thinking of themselves as “athletes”. But that never appealed.
I was a footballer. Then I wasn’t.
In a way, all of this is about much more than the blog. Back in that Delhi studio, I made a major change of direction in my life. I quit a PhD and started a journey as something of a social creative.
It was a life built on the promise of being online. I dreamt of a studio where I could collaborate with people anywhere in the world. I doubled down on every opportunity that allowed me to connect with people through the internet. Blogging was one part of that. Social media, another.
I had great experiences and made many friends.
Now it feels like something is ending. Maybe this blog only lives until its twentieth anniversary. Maybe it goes on. Okay, probably it goes on. But something needs to change.
I don’t have an answer yet. Like this essay, I only have braids that seem to intertwine, pieces that want to fit together somehow.
What I know is that it’s time to look to the future again. To be brave. And creative.