Daniel W. Drezner

The blogosphere, R.I.P. (2002-2006)

The blogosphere, R.I.P. (2002-2006)

Well, it’s time for me to pack it in — blogs are finished, kaput, history. How do I know this? Why, I’ve been reading what the media has said about it this month. They’re doomed economically — Slate’s Daniel Gross says, “as businesses, blogs may have peaked. There are troubling signs?akin to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble?that suggest blogs have just hit their top.” Gross is just following up on a New York cover story by Clive Thompson, in which it turns out that it’s difficult to eke out a living from blogging:

By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn?t matter if you?re a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you?re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you?re dedicated enough to post around the clock?well, there?s nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that. In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today?s bloggers, they?ll complain that the game seems fixed. They?ve targeted one of the more lucrative niches?gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)?yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It?s as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs?then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can?t figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. ?It just seems like it?s a big in-party,? one blogger complained to me.

Read the whole thing — there’s some interesting confusion by either Thompson or Clay Shirky between power law distributions and cascade effects. [OK, so maybe blogs can’t rake in the big bucks — they’re still fun, right? They’re a political force, right?–ed.] No, I’m afraid that the media has determined that neither assertion is true. The Financial Times‘ Trevor Butterworth says that blogs are culturally pass?:

[A]s with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold – a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave ?new economy? a few years ago? Shouldn?t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one – especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn?t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?…. Blogging – if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising – brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet. The historical lesson here is one of cyclical rebellion at the US media for being staid, dull and closed off to change. Indeed, the underground press of the 1960s was described in almost identical terms as blogging is today. ?The loudest voice heard in America these days,? said the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in 1967, is the sound of insurgents chiselling away at establishments.? The present round of chiselling may feel exciting and radically new – but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift?s fleas sucking upon other fleas ?ad infinitum?: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism…. Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere – tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn?t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium.

Butterworth is so convinced the blogosphere is pass?, he’s… er… set up a blog to handle the feedback. Similarly, over at AlterNet, Lackshmi Cahudhry despairs about the inequality, corporatization, and general whiteness of the blogosphere:

As blogs have grown in popularity — at the rate of more than one new blog per second — they’ve begun to lose their vanguard edge. The very institutions that political bloggers often criticize have begun to adopt the platform, with corporate executives, media personalities, porn stars, lawyers and PR strategists all jumping into the fray. That may be why Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and primary voice of Daily Kos, thinks the word “blog” is beginning to outlive its usefulness. “A blog is merely a publishing tool, and like a tool, it can be used in any number of ways,” he says…. The past two years have also marked the emergence of a close relationship between top bloggers and politicians in Washington. A number of them — for example, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Tim Tagaris of SwingStateProject, Stoller and Armstrong — have been hired as campaign consultants. Others act as unofficial advisers to top politicos like Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), who holds conference calls with preeminent bloggers to talk strategy. When the Senate Democrats invite Moulitsas to offer his personal views on netroots strategy — treating him, as a Washington Monthly profile describes, “a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member” — the perks of success become difficult to deny. Armstrong sees the rise of the blogger-guru — or “strategic adviser,” as he puts it — as a positive development. Better to hire a blogger who is personally committed to the Democratic cause than a D.C.-based mercenary who makes money irrespective of who wins. But the fact that nearly all these “advisers” are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys’ club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white…. The Washington Monthly profile of Moulitsas included a revealing quote, in which he expressed disappointment at not being able to fulfill his dream of making it big in the tech industry back in 1998: “Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else — a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew.” The danger is that many may come to feel the same way about the blogosphere in the coming years.

So everyone go home — blog are economically unviable, culturally spent, politically unequal, and in the end amount to nothing more than the lame afterbirth of the dot-com boom and bust…. Hey, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go home. Ah, maybe you clicked through to see if, perchance, I was being sarcastic. Well, yes and no. You can condense all the linked stories into a few central themes:

1) Not a lot of people will make a living off of blogging; 2) Power laws create an unequal structure in the blogosphere that gives power to those at the top of the pyramid — the linkers rather than the thinkers, as it were; 3) Blogs will become co-opted by the mainstream media. 4) There are inherent constraints on the influence of blogs.

Well, all of this is very original. Oh, wait…. All of these articles do a decent job of puncturing the “blog triumphalist balloon” — it’s just that a lot of bloggers have been stomping on that balloon for years now. The key question to ask about blogs is the counterfactual — do any of these writers truly believe that the information ecosystem would be more democratic, more entrepreneurial, or more culturally interesting if blogs did not exist? In this way, these stories are correct in asserting that blogs are a synecdoche for the Internet as a whole — they don’t quite live up to the hype, but then again, the hype is so damn impressive that even if they live up to some of it, we should be impressed. Hey, mainstream media types, I’ll cut you a deal — I will never say that the blogosphere is a harbinger of egalitarian democracy if you acknowledge that blogs, flawed though they may be, nudge the information ecosystem in many constructive ways. Now, seriously, go home. UPDATE: Further evidence that the blogosphere has died — William Safire has a column on its jargon in the New York Times Magazine.