February 7, 2011

Blogs are Here To Stay—Are Bloggers an Aberration?

It’s hard to say when the “blogger” phenomenon peaked. In the runup to the 2004 election, the media meta-narrative centered around “the blogger”—a possibly psuedonymous individual whose commentary was upending the traditional news cycle.

In the next few years, something strange happened: blogs became ubiquitous. But “the blogger” lost influence; the personalities that originally defined blogging never became as influential as most people expected.

I suspect that three forces sapped the blogging trend of most of its strength:

•Social media sites replaced low-traffic blogs.

•The right economic unit for high-traffic blogs is the blog network or the content farm, not the blogger.

•The only use for a blog qua blog is as an extended résumé or biz-dev pitch.

Social Media: Is Tumblr Killing Blogs?

The original promise of blogging was something like this: anyone can start a blog, and—based purely on the quality of their writing—they can become famous and respected. And that used to be true. Elizabeth Spiers wrote Capital Influx and got picked to write Gawker; when she struck out on her own a few years later, she tapped the bar blogger Manhattan Transfer as editor in chief of her new finance blog.

That might still happen, but it’s a lot rarer than it used to be. Back in the first half of the oughts, people started blogs for their friends to read, and those blogs eventually caught on, leading to bigger blogging gigs. Now, people who want their friends to read something will choose a more social platform; they’ll write something on Tumblr, or as a Facebook note. That’s a context in which it’s much more likely that ten people will read something, but far less likely that a hundred will.

(That phenomenon predates Facebook and Tumblr. Livejournal.com hasn’t produced as many popular individual bloggers as other platforms, but LJ users do give one another lots of comments.)

Blogging, in the early years, produced at least a few personalities who ended up making a splash in traditional media. (Spiers is the new editor at The Observer; Manhattan Transfer now runs a popular blog on CNBC.com.) Social media sites haven’t fulfilled this promise. Who are the famous new personalities? Everyone in the top 100 Twitter accounts is famous for something other than Twitter—except for the Shit My Dad Says guy, who is famous for being funny enough to get his own TV show (in other words, famous enough on Twitter to become famous in real life. The author of Shit My Dad Says, incidentally, was a screenwriter and web editor for Maxim before his Internet Fame.)

Social media relies on our natural social interactions, most of which have been hard-wired for a couple thousand generations. So any business based on authority or fame will be very hard to revolutionize. Technology might shake things up in the short term, but the long-term outcome is likely to be more of the same.

Blog Networks and Content Farms Beat Bloggers

As it turns out, the blogging industry has some serious economies of scale. Who knew?

The original thesis of blogging economics was that between Adsense and Amazon Affiliates payments, a good blogger could probably build up enough of an audience to be self-supporting. And it’s true that there are people who make a living from blogging—but they almost always work for multi-author blogs or blog networks, not individual sites.

Even iconoclastic bloggers like Choire and Balk do better glopping their content together than writing it on their own. Other successful blogs like Business Insider and the Huffington Post rely on an army of contributors.

In the context of optimistic predictions about blogging, this is a big surprise. What happened to the army of pajamas-clad entrepreneurs earning decent wages doing what they loved?

But in another context, it makes perfect sense: blogging is a mass medium, and the shifts in technology that prompted blogging (ubiquitous Internet access, cheap or free software for posting new content to the web) didn’t alter one of the fundamental constants of the textual content business: it doesn’t make sense to have a periodical written by one person, and it really doesn’t make sense to have a periodical written by one person who also handles the money.

The old assumption was that blogs are a new medium. But whether you’re looking at Gawker’s numbers or their new redesign, it’s clear that as a business, blogs are just magazines that happen to be online.

At least for high-quality content. For lower-quality content, blogs can be a great source of cheap ad clicks. Gawker won’t touch that strategy, but the Huffington Post loves it. And other clever sites like SeekingAlpha have caught on to how profitable this pageview arbitrage can be.

The Last Ditch: Blogs as Résumés

You’re not reading this on a content farm, a blog network, or Facebook. You are reading it on a site directly descended from the site that got me my first full-time job and helped me land my current job.

Sites like mine aren’t directly designed to make money. I’m not expecting ByrneHobart.com to turn into a full-time gig, ever. But I do suspect that a site like this is a great way to improve my career. I’ve met some very smart people through this blog, and done business with a few of them. And I’ve learned a lot in the process of articulating my thoughts on this site.

That’s not the kind of revolution people hoped for in 2003. But it’s something.

You should subscribe to my feed or follow me on Twitter.

I’m currently the Co-Founder and CEO of a startup providing equity research and M&A due diligence to investors analyzing online businesses.