Blogs Then and Now
Aaron Brazell is doing some research on the evolution of blogging in recent years and has asked for my input. [Update: The result, “Political Blogging 2.0,” is now up.]
I started OTB in January 2003 and have seen a lot of change. I should note at the outset that my experience is almost entirely with the political blogosphere, a tiny fraction of the whole enterprise, and that my observations mostly apply in that realm.
Blogging for Dollars
When I started, even the likes of Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit and the then-independent Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish were hobby blogs. People put up PayPal “tip jars” and, in Sully’s case, held periodic “fund drives” but there was no way to make a living at the enterprise unless you were Mickey Kaus.
Henry Copeland introduced BlogAds in 2002 but it would be some time before it came to fruition. Others would follow. Additionally, dozens of bloggers have “taken the Boeing” and been hired by magazines, think tanks, and other organizations as bloggers or, in some cases, had their blogs absorbed outright.
There’s even a cottage industry, exemplified by Darren Rowse at ProBlogger and Brian Clark’s Copyblogger, of How to Make Money Blogging blogs.
It should be noted that only a relative handful of the millions of blogs out there are making serious income. Then again, those are (mostly) the blogs that have a wide audience. Many have speculated that monetization of blogs would turn us into nothing but small-staff versions of mainstream press, introducing fears about alienating potential advertisers and bringing pressure to write about things that will generate pageviews. Some of that has happened, I think, although indirectly. Certainly, many bloggers (following advice from Rowse, Clark, and others) are altering content to maximize search engine traffic for purposes of driving ad revenue. Then again, people were doing a lot of that even in the hobby blogging days because high SiteMeter numbers were a status symbol and there’s a competitive aspect to the blogging “game.”
Daily Kos was already one of the more popular blogs when I started. Then, though, it was just Markos doing his takes on the issues plus an interwoven group blog called Political State Report. Soon, though, he introduced his Diaries, allowing readers to set up blogs-within-the-blog. His site traffic exploded and others have followed. This was the basis of what would be dubbed “The Netroots.” Diarists that distinguished themselves moved to the front pages and graduated to their own blogs.
In early 2003, most of the top tier blogs were right-of-center opinion and observation blogs. Within a year, that had changed radically. Through a combination of the Left forming communities much earlier and with much more success than the Right and the fact that Republicans controlled the White House and Congress and thus energized an angry opposition, sites supporting Democrats — and, mostly, more staunchly “progressive” candidates — began to dominate the political blogosphere.
Blogs, especially on the Left, started raising money — serious money — for political candidates and seeing themselves as major players in the process. An increasing number of the most popular blogs saw themselves as leaders in a Movement rather than as mere commentators on public affairs.
Polarization of the Blogosphere
While there are more thoughtful, moderate tone blogs now than ever, the trend has been toward harsh polemics. Many of the top political bloggers have come on to the scene since I started and almost all who have risen to the top have been more Ann Coulter or Michael Moore than George Will or David Broder.
Syndication and Aggregation
While Real Simple Syndication (RSS) technology existed when I started OTB, almost no one was actually reading sites that way. Most people were still reading sites via bookmarks or following blogroll links from one site to another. Now, most regular readers are keeping up with blogs through some sort of feed reader and clicking in to the site itself only to participate in the comments section discussion or (in the case of partial feeds) to finish reading entries that interest them.
A related development, which applies mostly to bloggers rather than average readers, is the rise of sites like Memeorandum, which aggregate the stories and blog posts generating the most buzz. This has pushed bloggers away from their old reading lists and into a more homogeneous “Story of the Day” mode. While convenient, it has made the medium more similar than it once was to the mainstream press.
Blogging Goes Mainstream
After several years of being a curiosity, people have finally stopped asking “What is a blog, anyway?” Media stories about blogs and bloggers have finally stopped defining the term (usually badly). Further, aside from a hardcore audience of regular visitors to a site, most people read blogs in the same way they read other Web content, accessing individual pages via search referrals or hyperlinks on other pages, and don’t necessarily even understand that they’re at a blog.
Bloggers, especially those with a relatively high profile, have increasingly become targets for PR firms, political operatives, and even major media outlets eager to cash in on the buzz. Just about every presidential, congressional, or gubernatorial candidate now has an effort to court bloggers for favorable coverage. We’re also the target of lobbying in a way that the mainstream press isn’t, since we’re in the opinion business.
One outgrowth of this is the hiring of established bloggers, especially activist bloggers, as campaign staff and blogger outreach directors for PR firms. While providing another avenue for bloggers to make a living with their writing skills, it’s a development that has some potential ethical complications. Bloggers who work briefly for a campaign, especially for a controversial candidate, tend to be forever tarred with that association and readers naturally wonder whether they’re getting unvarnished views.
Blog Parasites: Spammers and Scrapers
A more insidious way that non-bloggers are trying to cash in on the rise of blogs is using technological means to make money.
The most longstanding is spamming of comment sections and trackback links to game the search engines, getting unearned links to their sites and thus increasing their rankings. This has gotten more sophisticated over time and created a spy-vs-spy game in which the spammers invent new technologies to counter ever-better spam filters. OTB gets thousands a day, almost all of which are caught by our filters. The price we pay, though, is wasted time policing these activities and ever-more-cumbersome measures that make commenting more difficult for site readers.
A more recent phenomenon is the rise of “splogs,” auto-generated blogs that are created by stealing material off of RSS feeds for popular blogs. The splogs make money from unearned page impressions generated by search engines, drawing traffic and money away from sites that actually created the content. Even worse, the splogs often wind up ranked higher in the search engines than the original sites, since the splogs tend to micro-focus on a handful of keywords, and the original sites actually get penalized in the rankings because of “duplicate content.”
UPDATE: Bill Quick, who coined the term “blogosphere,” alludes to another big change in the comments below:
The Rise of the Group Blog
In early 2003, the number of multi-author blogs was tiny. Winds of Change was perhaps the only one wide a wide audience at the time. Now, a large percentage of the top blogs have multiple posters even if, like Daily Pundit and OTB, the blog founder still does most of the posting. Not done well, this can dilute the quality of the blog, especially if the other members are not good writers or there’s no coherent voice. Done well, though, it can provide synergy, bringing together many talented writers who might otherwise not produce enough content to keep a blog viable. Crooked Timber is perhaps the best example.
Interesting post James. While I agree that the political blogosphere is itsy-bitsy compared to others, I think it’s seen the most evolution. Looking solely at the political blogosphere gives a good timeline for the rise of blogging in general.
I’m interested to see what will happen to the political blogosphere after November, especially the “progressive” blogosphere. If Obama wins, what will they have to bitch about? If Obama looses, that would constitute the ultimate failure on their part to shape politics in their image. Either way, there will be quite a bit of soul-searching and “where do we go from here?”
I think you’ve identified many of the most significant developments. I’d add a few:
1. Durable aggregators
There were some early attempts at automated or semi-automated aggregators. They typically lasted a a few months and collapsed. Now there are good ones that look like they’ll last. Memeorandum is the one I use most but there are several others.
2. The collapse of ranking systems
The rise of RSS, splogs, and communities in particular has caused the ranking systems that were actually fairly good for three or four years to collapse into irrelevance.
Wow, that was… thorough. 🙂
For the record, I was only asking for a sentence or two quote for my post, but thanks! Great piece. :-p
I’m not convinced much of anything will happen, save for a slight shift in tone. Limbaugh used to get asked questions about the future of his show, given the same electoral conditions..(going in the opposite way, of course) and his audience has held rather steady through the years. I don’t see the ‘sphere changing all that much thereby.
No particular quibble, here, just using this as the springboard. I’ve been at it for somewhat longer than you, and personally, I’m not making piles of cash, though I am making more than enough to keep my ISP and my webserver hosts’ bills covered with perhaps enough left over to buy myself lunch, so I’m content. As a result of that modest income, it’s a hobby that doesn’t cost me all that much, that I’d not be spending anyway.
I wonder, though about the point of optimizing content for added dollars. Personally, I’ve been working on that from the standpoint of bringing in additional people. Everyone, even if they’re not about making money, tries to make their site the biggest success if can be. The dollars are a secondary concern, if that. They do go hand in hand, though, so again, I have no major quibble with your point.
I find about 25% of my traffic coming in for single hits from such sources.
A real problem, this. I recently, as you, added a copyright notice to my RSS feeds to clamp down on that kind of nonsense. Trouble was, that feeds I’d signed on for…(Blogburst, for example) had some problems running those feeds with the copyrights in them, and that was costing me serious traffic. (One blogburst in the Chicago Sun-Times… a place I appear with some regularity… generated several thousand hits for me a few weeks ago)
I ended up removing the copyright notice. I don’t really know what can be done, with this problem.
I do get a lot of that kind of thing in my feedback bin. So far, I’ve been mostly ignoring it. You state yourself, my exact reason for ignoring most of them:
I’ve seen it happen with Henke, for example. He’s still catching hell for work he did years ago. It comes, at the end, down to long term credibility.
This is reflective, not a driver, of what’s already out there, James. People are beginning to understand, possibly for the first time in decades, that, as a friend says, ideas have real consequences in real lives, particularly when set out as policy. This is not a matter of intellectual gamesmanship, this is not the Harvard debate society… These things affect real people. This increase in anger is a reflection of the anger already out there, and is why often the ones who shout louder get more traffic.
Solid roundup, James. I’ve been around even longer than you have, and have seen even larger changes. When I started, you could barely fill a small room with the political blogosphere of note. Daily Pundit was, in fact, for a while ranked in the top ten of NZ Bear’s ecology.
I’ve seen a lot of things come, go, and change. Daily Pundit displayed the first BlogAd, for instance. And a bit of late-night musing on New Year’s Eve at DP in 2001 resulted in the popularization of the term “blogosphere” itself.
The (some might call it) savagery of my analytical approach – and the rhetoric with which I deploy it – has precluded any sane politicos or journalism venues from paying for my services – which has been okay with me. I don’t think I am particularly “pure,” in either a political or an ideological, sense, and I doubt my eclectic approach would suit well to a homogeneous message, or even a particular tone.
I have added a few fellow bloggers to DP over the past couple of years, but I don’t really feel that the workload has thereby become any smaller. I still put up 90% of all posts, and contribute most of the comments from the editors.
I do agree that a much greater portion of my readership accesses Daily Pundit content via feeds. It’s difficult for me to actually quantify that, even with Feedburner, and so I no longer have any real idea how much readership the blog actually has. More than at the beginning – considerably so – is about as close as I can get it.
As for the future, my biggest worry today is the imposition of some sort of speech or campaign controls on the blogosphere. Neither Obama nor McCain has any reason to like (different) parts of the blogosphere, and particularly on the left, the game has always been to encourage liberal expression, and proscribe conservative expression. As for McCain, we already know what he thinks of the First Amendment, and I wouldn’t trust him any further than I can spit on the issue of freedom of speech for blogs.
You can put ads on your website to generate money?! WHY WAS I NOT INFORMED OF THIS!
Spittle sells. Our own center-right group blog has had steady readership and we’re constantly told how much people appreciate thoughtful quality posts and serious informed analysis and the consistently civil tone, but the stats tell the tale–ranting pulls more traffic than reason, and internally in the blog partisan-slanted posts garner more views than any in-depth reportage of issues and facts.
I’ve been (seriously) blogging for about a year now, although I have not yet made any sort of attempt to monetize my blog, and still consider it to be a hobby for the time being. I’ve been operating my current Blog for about a year now, and it’s still fairly small (a bit less than 21,000 hits in the first year) it does have at least a few regular readers, and a few posts that rank highly on searches. This is actually my third attempt at putting together a site like this, so I’ve been able to get a pretty good idea of how these things have evolved:
-My first website (1996-1998): At the time I was writing a weekly “column” on the Internet that consisted largely of technology and computer stuff. All of the pages were created manually in Notepad, but in many ways this site was a proto-Blog. The site actually got plugged briefly a couple of times in print magazines, but Eventually it just got to be too much of a pain to maintain and fell by the wayside. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine preserved the whole thing though, egregious typos and all. In the time that I actively maintained the site, I don’t think it got much past 10,000 hits total in two years.
-Second attempt: A blog on Blogspot, started shortly before Google bought them. This one lasted for about a year of infrequent posting before I lost interest. The tools were definitely an improvement but a lack of subjects to write about and the difficulty of dealing with Blogger at the time led to that one being abandoned as well.
-Current Blog: Started about a year ago on wordpress.com, and has already exceeded both of the other site’s total hit counts by a significant margin. Even though WordPress still has its warts and its limitations (which I could probably work around if I decided to self-host my Blog,) it is so much easier to deal with, provides useful stat tracking, and just makes things a lot easier to deal with.
My site consists mostly of me commenting on random things I come across in my day-to-day wanderings, but I have also been working on a number of research projects on local history (particularly in retail and commerce) as well, which is a subject that seems to have a lot more interest to people than I expected it to. To some extent, I have patterned my site’s content a bit after James Lileks’ buzz.mn site (where I am a regular reader and commenter) but on a much smaller scale. The one decision that I’ve made is to try to avoid politics on my Blog, because even though it would probably result in more traffic overall, it just seems to be more trouble than it’s worth overall.
For the time being, I’ve enjoyed working on this one, but there are times when the pesky need to hold down a day job have made it difficult to Blog as much as I’d like to.
I’ve got some more thoughts on the subject, which I might post later, but I need to be somewhere.
(continuing the thoughts I started above)
I have also noticed that blogging is definitely becoming more mainstream. Over the course of the last few months, quite a few members of my immediate and extended family have started their own blogs, and quite a few of them continue to update their blogs on a regular basis. With an RSS reader to watch for new posts, this provides a good way to keep up with people and find out what they have going on. Even my Mom has begun blogging now, and if she’s doing it, I’d say it’s gone pretty mainstream.
A function, I think, of the sheer volume/momentum of the thing.
One to consider is slashdot. while it may not be a purely political blog, it has a political subsection that relates to laws and ways technology relates to the politics.
IIRC it’s been around since 97.
The oldest continuous 1-person blog I know of is “My Face For The World To See“, which started in February of 1999. (Although it’s author will strongly object to it being called a blog… it’s a diary, according to her.)
It is truly hard to believe that I’ve been doing this since August 2002. It’s been an amazing ride to say the least.