Questioning Blog Numbers
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that the People of the ‘Blog — the folks who write and post Weblogs on their Web sites — have been feeling like they’re riding the crest of a media wave. This was capped this last week by two positive media notices: An LA Times opinion piece by Norah Vincent praising the ‘blog nation, and piece on ‘blogging in the May Wired by journalist and ‘blogger Andrew Sullivan. There was also a negative bit by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam, who frankly made an ass of himself by whining about the ‘blogs, his assery additionally compounded because he fell for an April Fool’s ‘blog joke (whoops).
Generally, the feeling in ‘Blogistan is that the ‘blogs are about to break into the big time — and that perhaps a few of the top-tier blogs may even approach a mass media status: In the same Wired that features Sullivan’s ‘blog appreciation is a bet between Dave Winer and New York Times Digital CEO Martin Nisenholtz that by 2007, a ‘blog will outrank the New York Times as a news source three Google searches out of five (Winer is for; Nisenholtz, quite understandably, is against).
There’s just one minor problem with this “‘blog reaching critical mass” story: It’s a lie. Or more accurately, any representation by the ‘blog nation (or its compatriots) as being a threat to the conventional media or even an “irritation,” as Vincent describes them, is wildly overstated. ‘Blogs may be growing in numbers and readership, but that is because they are effectively starting from zero; there’s nowhere else to go but up. How far up, and how much of an impact they will ultimately make, well, that’s the real question — and I suspect the answer will be: Much less than ‘bloggers currently think. I’m not against ‘blogging or writing online on one’s personal Web site — check my archives to see how long I’ve been writing here — but I think before anyone goes trying to claim themselves the next wave of media, a perspective check is probably in order.
The two primary points of the ‘blog ascendancy argument are that ‘blog readership is up — and growing. Vincent notes this in her LA Times piece:
“One of the most popular such sites, andrewsullivan.com, written by the eponymous pundit and former New Republic editor, gets about 35,000 hits, or visits, a day. Another, InstaPundit.com, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, just reported a record 43,000 visits in one day.”
43,000 or 35,000 visitors in one day isn’t a bad number by any standard; during the go-go days of the 90s, that number of daily visitors could probably have gotten you VC funding and a sweet IPO. But there are a few problems with these numbers:
1. ‘Blog numbers are typically self-reported, not audited. So some fibbing may (may) be involved. Yes, it seems a bit of an overkill for a personal site to be audited by a third party, but on the other hand, if you’re going to toss out numbers as facts to prove an assertion, they should probably be verified independently. If nothing else, this would solve the problem of confusion as to what your numbers actually mean. This brings us to point #2:
2. Ms. Vincent may not be aware of this (it is admittedly an obscure, geeky thing to know), but “hits” are not the same thing as “visits.” A Web site “hit” is simply any request for information from a site’s server: Web pages, pictures, scripts and so on. If you have a Web page that has a picture on it and someone pulls it up to read it, that counts as two “hits” even though there’s just one visitor. The main page of andrewsullivan.com has, by my count, 22 graphics on it (I may have missed a few), which means that each page view requires 23 hits. So those 35,000 hits could conceivably boil down to a mere 1,500 visits each day — a nice little number, but not the numbers that herald the birth of a new and influential mass media.
3. But let’s assume that when Vincent was talking about “hits” she really did mean “visits,” which is to say, a single page view. So Sullivan is back up to 35,000 visitors a day, and Glenn Reynolds has his 43,000 visitors daily as well. Or do they? Probably not, due to the nature of the ‘blogs themselves. ‘Blogs tend to be constantly updated, which encourages repeat viewings over a single day. For example, I’m currently enjoying USS Clueless, which updates irregularly during the course of the day. So I check back three or four times a day — a single visitor, but I’m still recorded as three or four visits. I would suspect that most ‘blog readers check in more than once a day. Depending on the avidity of the visitors, those 35K and 43K “visits” trend down in terms of actual individual visitors each day.
I would expect in terms of actual individual visitors daily, both Sullivan and Reynolds are bringing in somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 daily (entire weekly audiences are probably slightly larger, but not by much, since people visit their favorite ‘blog daily) — again, not bad, but a far cry from 35,000 and 43,000, and not large by any definition other than relative to other ‘blogs. Which brings us to a final point:
4. Andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit are being used as examples because they are extraordinarily popular sites, in terms of ‘blogs; nearly every other ‘blog has traffic that is exponentially lower in number than those two. These two are less part of a growing trend than they are exceptions to the generally low traffic these sort of sites generate.
So much for the idea of the ‘blog audience being very large, at least in terms of any one individual ‘blogger. But as I mentioned earlier, the ‘blog audience is starting from zero, so a small audience is to be expected, at least at first. What’s important is that the ‘blog audience is growing — that’s the other side of the “critical mass” argument. Well, I won’t dispute that the ‘blog audience is growing; the question is, does it grow as well as conventional media site audiences grow?
A number of conventional media reported numbers on their online adjuncts last week, and the numbers are impressive (as is to be expected, since people are on the hunt for news about the Middle East): The Chicago Tribune reported a readership of 479,000 unique visitors last week (unique visitors, as opposed to “visits” or “hits” — although bear in mind that even the “unique visitors” stat is not going to be entirely accurate), an increase of 65% over their readership the week before. New York Post: 817,000 unique weekly visitors, up 59%. New York Times: 2.2 million, up 24%. LA Times: 618,000, up 21% (Norah Vincent was smart to declare the arrival of the ‘blog in the LA Times, since it’s entirely likely that more people read her article on the LA Times Web site than actually read either Sullivan or Reynolds’ site that day — not to mention in the actual paper itself).
Since the raw numbers regarding ‘blog visits are somewhat shaky, the numbers regarding their percentage growth are likely to be equally so, but I’d be interested to see if the top 10 ‘blogs, whatever they may be, averaged the same sort of percentage growth last week as the top 10 conventional media sites. If they didn’t, then the odds of Nisenholtz winning his Wired bet just got better. Not only that, but Vincent’s argument of ‘blogging being an alternative to a liberal media (many ‘bloggers are conservative) is shown to be somewhat specious, since it shows that when people want news online, what they do is go to the usual suspects first.
Given the small number of visitors to ‘blogs, this following point will come as no surprise: Most professional journalists who write ‘blogs write them for the smallest audiences they reach. I don’t have to pick on Sullivan for this one, since I can use my own site as an example. Over the last four weeks, I’ve averaged 1,400 visits daily (a number probably closer to the actual number of daily visitors than either Sullivan or Reynolds, since I typically only update once a day, if that). Over the course of a month, I’d estimate that works out to between 2,000 or 3,000 regular readers, which means that this site is comfortably midlist; I’m not Sullivan or Reynolds, but I’m not some schmuck with a spanky new Blogger account, either. So, anyway: 2,000 to 3,000 regular readers for the site. Let’s contrast this with my other regular audiences:
* CD/DVD reviews for Official US Playstation Magazine: 360,000 monthly
* Weekly DVD column for Dayton Daily News: 140,000 weekly
* 4 Online Newsletters (2 personal finance, 1 food, 1 photography): 500,000 weekly (aggregate)
So: My personal site: 3,000 readers at best. My other work: 1,000,000 readers, for a ratio of 1 to 333 (I don’t include my corporate work in this, since I have no way of tracking how many people see that). My site is going to have become a lot more popular before it even begins to rival my reach in conventional online and offline media. Or, to present another perspective on the matter: My recent “I Hate Your Politics” column was avidly linked to on blogs and other sites, even “charting” on MIT’s Blogdex for a few days. Total visits over two weeks: 10,000 or so. One of the people who read it was the editor of the Willamette Week alt-newsweekly, who bought it to reprint in his paper. Total readership: 85,000. Eight times as many people will be exposed to it in print than saw it on the Web in two weeks.
And so it goes with others. Sullivan crows about the potential of ‘blogs, but does so in Wired (circ: 500,000). His presence on the Web is dwarfed by his reach in the New York Times and the other places he writes to make scratch. Joshua Micha Marshall, one of the few liberal ‘bloggers with any popularity, gets vastly more readers every time he’s published in Salon or the New York Post. James Lileks’ immensely popular site’s readership is dwarfed by the public for his “Backfence” column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Their reasons for writing on the Web are their own — but it’s not because they were looking for a larger audience than what they already had.
(Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that many of the most popular ‘blogs are written by established journalists and writers — i.e., people who have made their writing bones before coming to the ‘blog lifestyle. I don’t think it’s a reach to say one of the major reasons that Andrew Sullivan’s site is popular is because he was already a controversial and polarizing figure; if he was just another guy spouting off on the Web instead of a former editor of the New Republic, substantially fewer people would care what he had to say (this is also one of the reasons why Sullivan is revered among the ‘bloglitariat — he’s a big-shot writer who descended from on high to bless the ‘blogs). Whether the ‘bloggers choose to recognize it or not, they still look to and crave recognition from the very media they profess to irritate or, with more hubris, plan to usurp.)
Those who have any sense of ‘Net history will note that the “Rise of the ‘Blogs” closely resembles the putative rise of an earlier generation of personal Web sites known as the online journal, in which the writers, like ‘bloggers, wrote about current events and linked to friends and strangers who had similar views and opinions. Many of these online journals were as popular in their day as the top-tier ‘blogs are today: the late, lamented “Squishy” (written by the gifted Pamela Ribon) was so popular that her fans actually held a “Pamie-con” in Pamie’s honor. The movement was written up in national media, and some predicted that they represented the next mass media.
What happened to them? Well, nothing happened to them. Some of them went away because the writers got bored or decided to try to make money from writing instead of writing for free on the Web; some of them are still out there, writing away (and producing some very good writing doing it). It’s just that the cultural moment for the online journal passed, or, at the very least, mutated into the cultural moment for the ‘blog. The same fate does not necessarily await the ‘blog, but as elsewhere, history on the ‘Net seems to show a tendency to repeat itself.
Let’s posit that it won’t be a bad thing if all the ‘blogs ever become is what they already are. James Lileks, in his refutation of Alex Beam’s mostly brain-dead ‘blog lashing, noted that “The newspaper is a lecture. The Web is a conversation.” Lileks is absolutely correct in this assessment, and bloggers everywhere took it in as a maxim. Many ‘bloggers seem to be skimming over that fact that conversation, whatever other wonderful qualities it may have, is not a mass medium.