Personal website of Martin Tournoij (“arp242”); writing about programming (CV) and various other things.

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Sometimes I see people dismiss any analytics on personal websites as “vanity statistics”, or even outright dismiss it as “spyware”. I don’t think that’s the case, but then again since I’m working on an analytics app so of course I would say that 🙃 I did write GoatCounter specifically for my personal use on this website long before I had any plans with it (first pageview: May 21st 2019).

It’s sometimes useful to have an indication what people are reading, or if anyone is reading something at all. For a while I maintained a Vim ChangeLog as I felt it would be useful to have such a thing.[1] Maintaining that is quite labour-intensive and boring, and it turned out no one was actually reading it; so I stopped maintaining it. Without some form of analytics, I would have no way of knowing this.

There are some other projects as well where this is useful; e.g. The Art of Unix Programming, or It’s just useful to know how popular such projects are before I choose to spend more time on them.

I considered ‘archiving’ How to detect automatically generated emails as I thought it wasn’t all that interesting after all; I just wrote that after writing an email system years ago.[2] Turns out quite a few people end up there from Google and bug-trackers and such, so guess it’s more useful than I thought! Instead of archiving it, I spent some time copy-editing and polishing it.

I’d also like to have some insight when people link things on Hacker News or whatnot. I’m hardly obsessed with what people say about my writings (I intentionally ignore most of Reddit) but lot of what I’ve written has been nuanced, corrected, clarified, or otherwise improved after reading insightful and constructive criticism in comment threads. There’s quite some value in it.

As for “vanity stats” or “stats to stroke your ego”: I think that’s actually a valid use case as well. After you spent quite a bit of your spare time writing an article it’s just nice to know people are actually reading it. There’s nothing wrong with being validated – it’s a basic psychological need and I’m not a fan of casually dismissing it.

I have similar feelings about “fake internet points” on Stack Overflow and the like by the way; if I spend some time writing an in-depth answer then it’s just nice to get some feedback that it’s useful for people. I especially get a lot of satisfaction out of answers that keep getting upvotes for years.

Stack Overflow also keeps some “analytics” and shows you how many people have viewed your answers: “Estimated number of times people viewed your helpful posts (based on page views of your questions and questions where you wrote highly-ranked answers)”. Right now it shows ~1.7m people reached for Stack Overflow, and ~1.9m people reached for Vi & Vim Stack Exchange. 3.6 million in total.

This is a very imperfect and crude number for all sorts of reasons, but even when drastically slashed it still means my answers have been helpful to at least hundreds of thousands of people. I think that’s pretty neat, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “stroking my ego” with this.

You can make similar arguments about upvotes on Hacker News or Reddit, or even “likes” on Instagram. That’s not to say that there aren’t all sorts of real negative effects to all of this either – some people get fixated on the points and will game the hell out of the system to get more of them, among other more subtle effects – but let’s not be so quick to dismiss it all either.

As a little postscript, I’m having a hard time writing about this sort of stuff as I really don’t want this site to turn in to an advertisement channel for GoatCounter, or give the impression that it is. On the other hand it’s what I spend most of my time doing and thinking about at the moment. I considered starting a GoatCounter-specific blog but 1) effort, and 2) I’d rather not incentivise myself to actually start writing blogspam. For what it’s worth, this is not a new opinion and I wrote about some of this stuff years ago already. I’ve got a few more that I’d like to write as I think I’ve got something interesting to say, but I’ll try to mix it up with some other things 😅

Elsewhere on the interwebs
  1. Vim’s development model is a bit quirky: every commit is a new “version” or “patchlevel”, and actual versions (8.2, 8.3, etc.) are released sporadicly, and the tagging of such versions is kind of arbitrary. Most distros ship with Vim 8.2.<some-patch-level>, and figuring out what supports which features is not an easy task as a plugin author. Also, people are missing out on new features simply because they don’t know they exists. 

  2. I think I wrote it around 2015 or so, I don’t know why I didn’t publish it until years later. I get distracted 😅