Blogging Sells Out?

Whiskey Jar proprieter billmon has a controversial piece in yesterday’s LAT entitled, “Blogging Sells, and Sells Out.” He argues that the qualities of blogs currently being extolled in the mainstream media in the wake of RatherGate are largely a thing of the past.

Even as it collectively achieves celebrity status for its anti-establishment views, blogging is already being domesticated by its success. What began as a spontaneous eruption of populist creativity is on the verge of being absorbed by the media-industrial complex it claims to despise. In the process, a charmed circle of bloggers — those glib enough and ideologically safe enough to fit within the conventional media punditocracy — is gaining larger audiences and greater influence. But the passion and energy that made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media are in danger of being lost, or driven back to the outer fringes of the Internet. There’s ample precedent for this. America has always had a knack for absorbing, and taming, its cultural revolutionaries. The rise and long, sad fall of rock ‘n’ roll is probably the most egregious example, while the music industry’s colonization of rap is a more recent one.

When I say blogging is headed for a kind of commercialized senility, I’m talking primarily about political blogs — those that have, or claim to have, something to say about government, economics, foreign policy, etc. Not surprisingly, these are the blogs most likely to show up on the media’s radar screen. Media exposure, in turn, is intensifying an existing trend toward a “winner take all” concentration of audience share. Even before blogs hit the big time, Web stats showed the blogosphere to be a surprisingly unequal place, with a relative handful of blogs — say, the top several hundred — accounting for the lion’s share of all page hits. But as long as blogs remained on the commercial fringes, the playing field at least was relatively level. Audience was largely a function of reputation — for the frequency or quality or ideological appeal of the blogger’s posts. Costs were low, and few bloggers were trying to make a living at it, so money wasn’t an issue. It may not have been egalitarian, but it wasn’t strictly hierarchical, either.

That world of inspired amateurs still exists, but it’s rapidly being overshadowed by the blogosphere’s potential for niche marketing. Ad dollars are flowing into the blogosphere. And naturally, most are going to the A-list blogs. As media steer readers toward the top blogs, the temptation to sell out to the highest bidder could become irresistible, and the possibility of making it in the marketplace as an independent blogger increasingly theoretical.

The causal chain here baffles me. The big blogs–indeed, far fewer than “the top several hundred”–have dominated the scene as far back as I can recall. Power laws, and all that. That blogs that appeal to more people are going to be more influential than those that appeal only to a niche audience is axiomatic. And, absent external revenue streams, the “possibility of making it in the marketplace as an independent blogger” would seem to diminish from “theoretical” to “non-existent.” How exactly were bloggers “making it in the marketplace” before Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and others got hired to apply their blogging skills on a full-time basis?

I’m not sure where the dividing line is for the “A-list” blogs but am pretty sure I don’t qualify. Still, OTB is selling upwards of $1000 worth of advertising each month (although pulling in quite a bit less than that, since BlogAds, PayPal, the IRS, and others get a cut). That is orders of magnitude more than I was making when I relied on my tip jar. Further, if one takes a look at the BlogAds order page, it is apparent that quite a few blogs with relatively modest traffic are able to sell ads for $10 or more a week per ad. That simply wasn’t possible before advertising on blogs got started.

Furthermore, where is the evidence that audience has ceased being “a function of reputation”? As Kevin Drum notes, “Take a look at the top 30 spots in NZ Bear’s blogosphere ecosystem and you don’t really see that much change from two years ago: the blogs that are popular today are the same ones that were popular back in the supposed golden age of amateur punditry.” Indeed, other than sites that are on the list through error (e.g., the BBC) there are precisely four sites in the Top 30 that weren’t major sites two years ago: Power Line, Blogs for Bush, Michelle Malkin, and Crooked Timber. The first was climbing the charts nicely until catapulted to the top echelon because of its role in RatherGate. The second is a function of the election cycle and will go away unless it undergoes major transformation. The third established her reputation as a syndicated columnist and made a near-instant splash upon taking up her blog. The fourth is a collection of several bloggers who had made reputations as niche academic bloggers that have achieved synergy as a collective. All have achieved their status through reputation, although Power Line and Malkin certainly owe part of their rise to Big Media exposure.

As blogs commercialize, they are tied ever closer to the mainstream media and its increasingly frivolous news agenda. The political blogosphere already has a bad habit of chasing the scandal du jour. This election season, that’s meant a laser-like focus on such profound matters as the mysteries of Bush’s National Guard service or whether John Kerry deserved his Vietnam War medals. Meanwhile, more unsettling (and important) stories — like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or the great Iraq weapons-of-mass-destruction snipe hunt — quietly disappear down the media memory hole. And bloggers either can’t, or won’t, dig them back out again. As the convergence with big media continues, I suspect there will be progressively less interest in trying.

So, people stop writing about stories when they get bored with them? Shocking. I confess that I largely quit writing about Abu Ghraib after a few weeks, at which point the basic story had emerged. I never much cared about whether Kerry deserved his medals. I mention WMD in Iraq if there is a major development but there seldom is. It’s unclear, though, why I would have behaved differently in the Good Old Days of mid-2003.

To be sure, there are still plenty of bloggers out there putting the 1st Amendment through its paces, their only compensation the satisfaction of speaking the truth to power. But it’s going to become more difficult for those voices to reach a broad audience. If the mainstream media are true to past form, they will treat the A-list blogs — commercialized, domesticated — as if they are the entire blogosphere, while studiously ignoring the more eccentric, subversive currents swirling deeper down.Not the most glorious ending for a would-be revolution, but also not a surprising one. Bloggers aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, rebellious critics to try to storm the castle, only to be invited to come inside and make themselves at home.

Again, this is a rather bizarre analysis. Blogs that aren’t on the A-list–by definition–don’t reach a broad audience. The fact that the big blogs might get even bigger as they get noticed by the mainstream media might conceivably affect the big blogs, but how is it that it would effect the small ones?

Kos hits the nail on the head, too, noting that a rising tide lifts all blogs:

I think bloggers with 100 daily visitors are the essence of the blogosphere — and those guys, collectively, reach a lot more than Daily Kos does. While 100 daily visitors may seem shrimpy, it’s pretty darn impressive to build an audience that size. When I hit that milestone, I remember thinking, “Damn, I couldn’t even fit that many people in my house!” Now it’s seen as a sign of failure, and that’s just bullshit.

I’m willing to bet that there are far more blogs getting 100 visitors a day today than there were 2 years ago when I hit that milestone. To me, that’s what’s important, not that some people have commercialized their blogs.

Quite right. Further, aside from the fact that a growing number of us have cluttered our sites with advertising in order to make money, it’s still not clear how that has changed the content of our sites. I haven’t noticed any significant shifts in the writing of Yglesias or Drum, other than that the latter has ceased cat blogging. Drum himself is more existential:

All of this affects you whether you want it to or not. The Washington Monthly editors, for example, don’t influence my writing at all, either directly or indirectly, and yet — somehow — they still do. My audience affects me, my commenters affect me, all the press releases and phone calls affect me, the ads affect me — everything affects me, even if I don’t quite know how. That’s just the way life is, and there’s no reason to think the blogosphere should be immune from the ordinary pressures of human existence.

That’s probably true. The only effect on my blogging that I’ve noticed from generating significant ad revenue is that I’ve become slightly more concerned with my site traffic and slightly less concerned with “linkage,” since the former is more important to potential advertisers. But I checked my traffic figures several times a day before I had ever heard of BlogAds, so it’s pretty subtle.

While Steve Bainbridge takes ads, he has resisted offers to get absorbed into legal media sites, preferring to keep it a hobby. But he doesn’t worry much about the blogosphere as a whole:

For every Kevin Drum or Mickey Kaus who goes in house, there are a host of people like Larry Ribstein or Gordon Smith who are doing interesting things with their blogs even though their audience is a fraction of the big guys. As long as blogging is cheap and smart people derive utility from having their own little space on the web, blogging will remain a big tent phenomenon with room for both commercial types and a vibrant grassroots.

Quite right. Most of the sites on my blogroll are relatively low profile but they write things that interest me. Just as there are a handful of people who make money off of other recreational activities (everything from professional sports to poker to dog shows), blogging will remain primarily an amateur affair. Most people who play golf manage to enjoy the game despite their realization that they’ll never be Tiger Woods. Not too many bloggers are going to be Glenn Reynolds, either. But that was true two years ago.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Every action has a reaction. This mumbling about blogs in the MSM is reaction, pure and simple, and needs to be regarded as such.

    The clear implication of your first quote is that blogs because they’re being ‘domesticated’… we bloggers no longer to be taken seriously. Sounds rather suspiciously like a last gasp defense against an attacker they clearly don’t understand.

    (Aside; I find the choice of the word ‘domesticated’ interesting…given the historically testy relationship between the bloggers and the MSM. This description was perhaps more apt than the writer knew… as such a procces generally involves the subject peeing only on the newspaper… .)

    As for where the A-list is, I suppose a reasonable palce to start would be the TTLB list, at the first two or three levels of being. Which, I note with some irony ties rather neatly into Kevin Drum’s comments about not noting much change in the a-listers and their output.

    I must admit being a bit torn on your comments re: Power line and their popularity. while it’s true, the press coverage resulting from Rathergate took Powerline’s hitcounters to the next level (along with CQ, BFB, and so on) I submit that Powerline was positioned to BE noticed…. being already on or near the A-list, if you will.

    There seems a similarly between this and other ‘sell-out’ complaints in the past. The over-riding theme in the objections seems to be an anger surrounding the commercial success of blogdom, at least insofar as there HAS been success. (As you point out, most aren’t in it for the money…) An underlying anger with monetary success, and the claim that such succes makes one’s efforts less valid has long been a staple complaint in the arsenal of the left. (What happened to 60’s and 70’s rock bands that became popular? Genesis, as an example) They suppsoedly ‘sold out’ as a pre-req to their success. Sorry, I don’t buy that, even when the music was demonstrably changing over the time period under discussion.

    I find it hard to take such complaints about bloggers seriously… particulalry when I’m not seeing even the degree of change music critics were complaining of just a short while ago…

    More particularly yet, do I find it hard to swallow when the MSM has so much to lose if the meme of ‘success spoiling the blogger’ wasn’t so critiical to the success of the MSM maintaining their power.

    Finally, I note with some amusement Kos’ comments about bloggers with ~100 HPD being….the essence of the blogosphere — and those guys, collectively, reach a lot more than Daily Kos does. While 100 daily visitors may seem shrimpy, it’s pretty darn impressive to build an audience that size. When I hit that milestone, I remember thinking, “Damn, I couldn’t even fit that many people in my house!” Now it’s seen as a sign of failure, and that’s just bullshit.

    As someone whose blog has been at a level slightly above that for nearly a year, now, I find that to be strangely reassuring…. particularly given the numbers of things Kos and I rather stoutly disagree on. He’s given so much bad advice on his blog, I can’t help but wonder if I’m not off base on my perception of this being a GOOD comment.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True ’nuff on PowerLine. But the blog is now at #7; it had been in the 65-80 range before the RatherGate explosion.

    Overall blog traffic has exploded since I started doing this in February 2003. Still, the number of sites that are going to get huge readership is simply limited. If nothing else, because most people just don’t have the time to create enough content on their own to get a huge daily readership.

  3. Bithead says:

    Re: Power line: true.
    I gess my perspective should be taken into account; BitsBlog is listed at ttlbas being around 1900 or so down… it’s been bounding as high as 1390 or so, and then back down for some weeks.

    As such anyone in the ‘hot 100’ would seem to MY eye to qualify as an ‘A-lister’…

    And your comments about the amount of time it takes to set up any kind of posting vlume is certainly true– I often find it a stuggle. And I’ve come to wonder about the quality vs quantity issue, insofar as capturing readers, and keeping them coming back.

  4. Bithead–it certainly is all perspective. I spend most of time in the Playful Primate category, having surged, briefly, into the low 60s, but often range back into the Large Mammal category. However, I still feel like I haven’t quite “got there” yet.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Perhaps there are differences between newspapers, TV, and radio on the one hand and the Internet in general and blogs in particular that billmon and Big Media don’t get. For one thing in the old media above advertising crowds out news. You can’t fill all of Page One with both. It’s either one or the other. The same is true of TV and radio. Advertising or programming. If you’ve got one, there’s no space for the other.

    Blogs just aren’t like that.

    Big Media also has the problem of corporatization to contend with. Pitch Parent’s products. Mustn’t have anything too controversial, must we? Might reflect badly on Parent. Parent’s management is worried about the bottom line—time to wring out some more of the news staff. Guess that means we won’t have the resources to fact-check that story now, doesn’t it?

    Blogs are a long way from that point.

  6. Bithead says:

    Dave;
    I wonder how your comments mesh with Bloggers who don’t really have a whole mess of control over the ads they run.

    My own situation, as an fair example; I’m tied to AdSense.. I’ve even seen SUPPORT JOHN KERRY ads on my own site.

    If there’s a conflict, there, it’s that the ads are conflicting with MY message… rather than the reverse.

    And it’s not like I’m making piles of money… the clickthrough rate ends up making me about $0.25/month, at the moment. I’m just thinking that situation will shift after the election.

  7. fiat lux says:

    My blog gets about 50-70 visitors a day, usually. If I take the time to post comments at other sites and do some link whoring via trackbacks, I can get 100 visitors a day, but it’s work and I’m not always willing or able to spend a couple of hours a day link flogging.

    Then one day Kevin Drum linked to a post on my site and I got 650 visitors in 18 hours.

    I had thought I was doing pretty well, traffic wise, until then. Now I know how pathetic my traffic is and I have to say, it makes me wonder why I bother trying to have a blog that does more than help my sister in Italy keep up with my personal news. I know I’m not the most insightful or the snarkiest. I don’t have the specialized POV of an Orcinus or a Juan Cole. I suppose I should be grateful that I have an audience at all, and not get hung up on wanting more traffic.

    But yeah, it does bug me a bit that my traffic is so pathetic.

  8. Bithead says:

    Trust me; it takes a while, Fiat

  9. While I’m nowhere near the level of popularity of some folks (sitting near 800 on TTLB, and roughly 100K monthly visitors), the reminder is fantastic: I too remember when I broke 100, then 500, then 1000 daily visitors.

    Each was huge for me. I must have strutted around for ages.

    It’s easy to forget. It’s also easy to forget what the motivation is, amongst my “growing up” as a blogger. I worry more about traffic. Influence. Cash than I ever have before. I’m not sure it affects what I post, how often I post or the quality of my posts but it’s definitely a change.

    But yeah, the half million blogs getting 100 visitors a day are definitely more important than the top 1000 getting 1-100K visitors/day. Because that’s where the ideas start. With the masses.

  10. Tim Worstall says:

    I’ve been going 6 months and am pottering around the 1400 level at TTLB and 300-500 visits a day. Sure, I’d love to be taking in money other than that same 25 cents a day via Adsense. Then I think about what I’m actualy doing. I’m getting to vent my frustrations with the world, to snarl at the various indignties that “the system” imposes upon us, draw attention to good writing elsewhere, mention the odd joke, in general, pontificate from the bar-stool in the corner of the saloon. And rather than clearing the place which is what happens when I do it in real life, I seem to have some few hundred slightly odd souls out there who think it worthwile to drop by and read what the old git is frothing about today.
    I’m not sure whether that restores my faith in human nature or destroys what was left of it.
    I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to find that via blogging I’ve been offered sufficient freelance work (I’m not a media maven by trade, rather a metal trader) to equal the sort of $ numbers that JJ says he is getting here from advertising.