Academia and branding

Deeply controversial content ahead…

So I updated my website to WordPress with a personal domain. My old homepage (which I had for around 4 and a half years) was written in plain HTML and uploaded to the department fileserver by ssh/scp. That is to say, it was a proper academic site.

That kind of page is by far the most common (at least in theoretical cs and related corners of pure maths; I can’t speak about other areas): clean and minimalist. There are definitely good reasons for doing this:

  • It looks professional and doesn’t contain distractions. (Although I’ve seen some academic pages written in plain HTML that are very noisy.)
  • It loads quickly and portably. (I suspect most people would claim this if they were asked. And it is important – knowledge should be accessible without risk of bitrot, and in areas where infrastructure is patchy.)
  • Everybody does it.

And I suspect in reality the third reason is the most important. The design of academic websites is a meme in the correct sense of the word. This began when academics (and computer scientists especially) were the first users of the www, but now it is self sustaining. It won’t be long until there are starting PhD students who can’t even remember a time before the internet.

So why the change? My new website still satisfies point 1. Point 3 is never a justification for anything (unless you’re in an evolutionarily stable Nash equilibrium). Point 2 is a bit more dubious but I suspect most people overthink it.

WordPress makes editing a lot less painless (although it’s still not perfect). I can integrate a blog. The most interesting reason, though, is the statistics. This wasn’t something I planned, but something I found by accident. WordPress.com (not to be confused with WordPress.org) keeps very good statistics that update instantly. I can see how many visitors came from which countries (modulo VPN etc.), and how many visited each page and clicked on which links. I can also see who arrived from which inbound link, when those sites provide metadata.

Maybe creepy, but definitely very useful. I can see that today (day 2 of the site being live) 12 visitors came from the USA, and only 7 from the UK. Of these, 6 viewed my publications (which is the most important page on the site). 2 people came from my profile on the department website. None came from Google search results. (Which I would expect, because Google hasn’t indexed the new site yet.) I would guess the rest, which aren’t recorded, came from my old page, which is still the top Google result for my name (and which doesn’t provide metadata to WordPress).

And this is genuinely useful. In fact, I had no idea that my page got this many daily visitors. (Maybe it’s a statistical outlier, time will tell.) I will be able to judge how many people read my blog, and therefore how much time I should waste writing it. This is significantly finer-grained information than citation count, which is the next best thing.

Underlying all this is the fact that an academic is a brand. Most probably wouldn’t like to admit it (or would deny it) – after all, branding is a dirty word, branding is what you resort to if your product is so bad it can’t even sell on its own merits. But anybody that cares about their research wants other people to know about it. (This is fundamentally true, and not specific to the current hyper-competitive situation of research funding.) By definition this puts us in the realm of branding and marketing, and WordPress.com’s statistics is exactly the sort of tool that would be useful to branding and marketing folks.

(Incidentally, the personal domain is totally unnecessary. I just couldn’t resist when I saw that julesh.com was available.)

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