The New York Times: We May Slide Into Irrelevancy But At Least We Update Daily

The New York Times is engaging in another one of its those delightfully passive aggressive stories it does about blogs, this time focusing — about a decade too late — on the bloggers who quit blogging when they realize that just because they write something online doesn’t mean anyone is going to know it is there. I say this is a decade too late because I certainly remember the grousing in 1999 or thenabouts by folks discouraged that no one was beating a path to their virtual doors, and I remember the newspaper stories about just that fact. What’s old becomes new again, apparently.

The Times also notes that of the millions of blogs that exist, only a tiny margin get a readership beyond the bloggger and the blogger’s mom (“OMG I can’t believe my mom read what I wrote about her on my blog”), and thus as a consequence most are eventually abandoned. But again, this is no real surprise; the numbers are larger now but the percentages of abandoned blogs has been fairly consistent for years. The vast majority of blogs, in fact, have nothing but the following three posts:

Post One: “Here’s my blog! This is where I’m going to share all my thoughts about life, the universe and everything! It’s going to be great and I can’t wait to tell you all what I’m thinking about everything!”

Post Two: “Hey, sorry I haven’t updated in a while — life’s been crazy. But I’ll be back soon.”

Post Three: “Here’s a picture of my cat.”

And then it’s done.

Nothing wrong with this — writing on a regular basis is work, even when you’re ostensibly doing it for fun, and it shouldn’t be a surprise not a lot of people really want to work that hard. Also and perhaps more to the point, I suspect many people who start blogging realize fairly quickly that they either don’t like sharing all their thoughts to the world, or that their thoughts, while interesting to them, appear fairly banal once they’re typed out, and it’s better just not to post them for the sake of posting them. And there’s nothing wrong with this either, and indeed the blogger is to be congratulated of the bit of personal insight. Most blogs are abandoned because they should be.

The thing about this Times piece is that it feels almost endearing anachronistic; not to run down blogs, but they’re not exactly the hot new kid on the block these days, are they. These days it seems like the only people starting new blogs are laid-off journalists, which says something both about blogs and these journalists. Everyone else has moved on to Facebook and Twitter. Which is something I personally applaud; I like my blog, but I’m a wordy bastard, by profession and by inclination, and online social networks actually do a far better job of what people wanted blogs to do, which is be a way to act and feel connected online with friends and family. No one gives a crap if your tweet or status update is short and utterly inconsequential (“Hey! I just ate a hot dog!”) — indeed, that’s kind of the point.

So it’s worth noting that even on Twitter, with its absolute ease of connecting with people and its inherent design promoting short, deep-thought-free posting, the vast majority of Twitter accounts rarely update, and have fewer than 10 followers. Which is to say the same communication dynamic applies everywhere online, regardless of whether it’s a blog, or Facebook page or Twitter account or whatever. It’s hard to make interesting content, whether it’s a 670 word blog post or a 140 character tweet. People might initially think they’re up to it, but they find out quickly enough that they’re not. Which, again, is perfectly fine. There’s no inherent virtue in being a wordy bastard. Some people are; most people aren’t.

I expect the Times will catch up on this news about Twitter in another eight years or so, assuming (he said, snarkily) it’s still around then. Set your timers now.

68 Comments on “The New York Times: We May Slide Into Irrelevancy But At Least We Update Daily”

  1. That reminds me… I haven’t updated my blog in over a month. :P

    I’ll just blame BEDA.

  2. O Forgetful Scalzi, how soon we forget. None of your so-called success with this blog has anything to do with you or your excessive wordiness.

    It has everything to do with Her Most Perfect Glorious Shimmering Radiance, the Beauteous Ghlaghghee.

    And of course in your supreme arrogance you have conveniently forgotten this truth. The Executive Committee of The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club demands you acknowledge the only reasons you have any readership at all, which are the all too rare glimpses provided of Magnificent She.

    In fact it has been an unforgivably long time since The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club and the uncultured and insensitive low-brows of the Whatever have seen Her.

    So hop to it and rectify your heinous error.

    Won’t you please think of the low-brows?

    The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club

  3. I started a blog a year ago this month and I post nearly every day. I rarely get a hundred hits on a post(my high water mark one glorious day was 234,LOL). It doesn’t really bother me that I get so few/ Hey, I’ve just been here a year and started it on a whim.

  4. Too bad the NYT doesn’t have a comics page, or we’d also see in it the kind of “waaah, we can’t make money syndicating cartoons to newspapers” crap that’s in almost every other paper (and paper-printed cartoon website) these days.

    Do something that doesn’t suck, and you have a chance of making a living on the Web. That’s all.

  5. I don’t get why supposedly intelligent people don’t get the basic fact that not everyone can be famous at the same time.

    Of *course* only a vast minority of blogs are remotely popular…that is an entirely mathematical result of the fact that reader’s time is limited. It’s like saying that newspapers are pointless because the Shelbyville Times Courier wasn’t able to manage the readership of the New York Times.

    It also misses that not everyone is blogging to be famous. I suspect most bloggers are perfectly happy if their readership never exceeds a hundred or so friends and relations. I know that when I had time to actually do it, I was perfectly happy getting 100 hits or so per post.

  6. Ah, but does the third and final post, the cat picture, include bacon taped to the cat.

    I could tape home cured bacon to my cat, that is different than what Scalzi did.

    Blogo, ergo sum!

  7. Hi John,

    Your sample of typical life-cycle-of-blog contents is also where most “I’m gonna write a book” plans wind up. Quite a few people get very excited, talk about the book they’re going to write (and corner their professional-writer acquaintances at parties to ask for advice and help), start the book, write 800 words or so… and that’s that. Because 800 words or so is roughly the point at which it starts to become apparent how hard it is to write something that’s going to be much longer than a longish email, or the much-complimented 400-word opinion piece that one wrote for the community newspaper 4 years ago, or one’s clever blog entries on a blog read by one’s mom. Anyone who actually sits down and starts writing a book (as opposed to the many who never get past just talking about it) soon discovers that putting your ideas on paper is indeed a lot like WORK–and, for most people, not nearly as fun as it anticipated. As you note, not everyone is suited to writing. (It’s just that many, many people THINK they’re suited to it, never having tried it.)

    Laura Resnick

  8. “I expect the Times will catch up on this news about Twitteer in another eight years or so, assuming (he said, snarkily) it’s still around then. Set your timers now.”

    Nicely ambiguous.

  9. Here’s a picture of my cat

    No shit, I mean I thought that was the whole point of the Internet. If Al Gore was a dog person, we’d probably still be using floppy disks and post cards.

    And the NYTs is completely wrong about Twitter. Twitter is a place to be gang raped by zombie spam bots. I had to blast three of them off the hull with a fire hose this morning – that Brittney Gives Blowjob one is particularly persistent. Personally I think there’s actually about twenty, maybe twenty five, total humans on Twitter, the rest are bots on one kind or another, I mean, seriously here, nobody could tweet as much as @wilw, the guy is inhuman.

  10. I will have you know that my blog is frequented by my mom and all my siblings. Some weeks, my page hits climb into double-digit levels.

    I expect multinational corporations to approach me with six-figure offers for banner ad placement very soon. We’ll see who’s irrelevant when I do donuts in your driveway with my sweet new Mustang GT.

  11. I wonder how many entries I’ve written since I started my journal in 1997? Probably less than 1 per 2 days, but more than 1 per week.

    I should really import my old entries to my current site. And update the look of the site, too. But I keep writing content instead. That damn content! It’s so demanding!

    I think I’ve made a couple hundred bucks off my journal in 12 years, all of it in referrals. Which is probably more than most bloggers make. So I can’t complain. (Actually, I could, but I try not to. :-)

  12. I get the giggles whenever the NYT publishes an article online about the web and doesn’t actually link to any websites they mention. They’re stubborn over there!

  13. This pattern also holds true for webcomics, most of which never get beyond the first or first three, depending on format.

    @8 Laura Resnick. I long ago figured out that the vast majority of people who say they want to write don’t really. They want to have written. It’s subtle, but very important.

  14. Considering how close the Times came to pulling the plug on the Boston Globe earlier this year, I don’t really see that they’re in much of a position to criticize anybody for a lack of stick-to-it-tiveness.

  15. I’m mostly focused on foodblogs, which seem to continue to increase in number. I think it’s probably easier to keep up a blog with a singular focus, and there are enough linked networks that if your work is at all interesting, there’s probably a few hundred people who’ll read it.

    In my case, it’s lead to some professional gigs too. Which is part of the reason I started doing it in the first place. Then too, I’m also a wordy bastard.

  16. Interestingly, The Times decided a few months ago to dive in and try blogging themselves. There are two local blogs they’re running as experiments…one for Montclair, NJ and one for my neighborhood in Brooklyn.

    I’m actually following the one for my nabe and I’ve met the guy who runs it while he was making his rounds (I was in my local coffee shop to interview the owner for my blog — d’oh!).

    And I won’t be at all surprised if he has his highest number of hits to date from getting linked on your site.

  17. When I started my blog this last year it was really just a way to get myself writing everyday. I didn’t care if anyone read it (which is a good thing because almost no one did).

    It was an exercise and nothing more. Over the last few months I have actually picked up a few readers (about how many people read a Scalzi blog in an hour, I get in a month).

    Now I have decided to make it a stamina exercise. I don’t want to abandon it I want to publish something everyday. I just went over 100 days without missing, I am hoping the quality is there but I am not stressing about it.

    Don’t get me started on Twitter I update way to often.

    I think that the New York Times writing about something that most people know is just there way of showing that they have their finger on the pulse of what’s hot — eight years ago.

  18. You know, some of us don’t blog for fame or fortune. I’ve blogged since 2001, I post less than every day but more than once a week, I get my 200-300 viewers and its even led to a bit of published work.

    Its not my main gig in life, but it has been a very interesting way to meet people, you get your little niche, and make some good connections. But yet, I’m a wordy SOB, too.

    I get sick of this whole notion that everyone who blogs wants to be Kottke or Dooce. I don’t want to deal with the scrutiny Heather Armstrong deals with, no thank you.

    Its like when I used to figure skate competitively at just local and regional competitions and people would actually say to me, “Well, you can’t do a triple, you’ll never make it to the Olympics!” Um, no shit. But hey, I am doing something I enjoy and it is more than you are doing so nyah.

  19. Demetrios, -I- only want to HAVE written.

    But, alas, I’ve yet to find any way to achieve that state without actually, oh… WRITING.

    Laura Resnick

  20. lol, welcome to the 21st century NYT.

    Having NYT run a story like that makes me wonder if they’re running out of ideas for living in the past, trying to justify their stubbornness for not embracing the several new methods of content delivery developed over the last decade. And so they resort to lashing-out like a small child; one who doesn’t understand what is going-on around them and so responds in the only way they know: usually with anger.

    Yes, maintaining a web presence outside of sites like Facebook is hard. I’ve had several friends try their hand at the website/blogging thing throughout the years (starting at places like Geocities… remember them?) and all but myself have seemed to survive.

    I’d definitely fall into the less-than-100-readers category, and of that number, it’s mostly friends and family. I’m not aiming for internet stardom, I just have a lot of time on my hands, a penchant for complaining, and not too many outlets for said time.

    So stop hating on the little guy NYT. Last I checked, our ecological niches didn’t overlap.

  21. I subscribe and read many different blogs. I read more well known blogs such as whatever and boing boing. I read lesser known blogs such as Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station. I read the blogs of different friends. If I like a blog I put it on my google reader and read it daily. For me, I like reading different people’s thoughts and I believe that blogging is a very democratic form of self expression that allows anyone the opportunity to enter their observations into the grand societal dialogue. Blogging gives the “everyman” the opportunity to have a voice. It is another weapon in the arsenal to defend freedom of speech and encourage the free flow of information in an era when large newspapers are either being bought by monolithic corporations or going under and when news could potentially suffer from an editorial sanitization by a limited number of editorial overseers.

    Having said all this. That doesn’t mean that all content is equal nor everyone’s writing abilities are equally as compelling. Writing is work. But if someone wants to blog, even if it is only mom reading it, they should without having the NYT dismissing the effort before it has even begun and putting out the idea that blogging is a futile endeavor because there will be no readership. One would almost think that “The Gray Lady” might be feeling her age in comparison to all these baby blogs available to potential readers. While the NYT has won 101 Pulitzer Prizes and has millions of visitors to its website and hence might know a thing or two about “All the News that’s Fit to Print”, they only get that say in regards to their publication.

    If I want to write about my cats, that is my choice. If I want to write about my view of the recession that despite what the news keeps reporting does not seem to be abating, that is my choice as well. The NYT reporting that many blogs start and end with no readership seems to me as though they were looking for material to fill their pages.

  22. I started my blog because I felt it’d be fun to try and write something everyday. I haven’t quite managed to make that, but I do post something most days. I don’t get all that many views (My average is about 81 per day), but people do seem to enjoy it. In fact, I tend to update my blog more than my Twitter.

  23. Lexie @20: go lexie! It is the doing (taking part), not the winning. Good on you.

    If I want to blog once a month and my audience is 4 people, honestly, who cares? Steve @ 5 is right. only a minority will ever have a large readership. I write for who I write for, if others fi nd it interesting well, whatever . . .

    But, Robert @ 5, personally I read a variety of blogs. Music, police, government,whatever I choose or takes my fancy. Isn’t that the beauty of the internet? Often, one will stop updating. Other times I may not return for months. That is my choice.

    And Annette @23. Try reading (I dont work for them). They are not owned by anyone, in fact their ownership structure precludes ownership by any particular interest. Prepare for your preconceptions to be challenged.

  24. I don’t WANT lots of followers on Twitter. I just want to hang with my buds over there.

    My blog, alas, is sadly neglected. I think I’ve run out of things to say there.

  25. Kevin@26 I am curious what you believe my preconceptions are.

    I find it odd that a high quality and well respected newspaper such as the New York Times which has a history of excellence under the ownership of chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.’s family since 1896 and that owns 18 other newspapers would find it pressing enough news to report in a Sunday edition that many people who start blogging quit after a short period of time due to low readership. Because we all know that a newspaper printed in the United States with as stolid a reputation as the New York Times couldn’t possibly have an editorial bias. Further, we all know that print newspapers are simply experiencing an absolute renaissance and reinvigoration at this time in history.

    Also, blogging? Well, you know. It can’t be taken seriously. We should just leave the news and reporting to those who we can trust.

  26. I file the whole “everyone blogs” thing under the same mental file as “everybody writes.” In that they’re both things people say to try to terrify you out of your chosen career path, because well… I guess people are just assholes.

    Yes, I suppose on a philosophical level every human being has the potential to be a writer or to blog well. Just like every human being has the potential to become a surgeon or a cage fighter. The bottom line is that almost no one is going to put the work in.

    I don’t know why people think that anyone in the world can just sit down and write or blog something interesting. No one expects to just be able to walk into a car shop and just fix a car. It just doesn’t work that way no matter what people try to snidely insinuate.

    So yeah, I agree with the people above. There are a lot of people who want to “have written” but there are relatively few people who can stare at the white space and actually put something down, and fewer still who can put something there convincingly enough that a total stranger doesn’t read it and want to use it as toilet paper.

    The proper response to “everyone blogs” is “yes, but I’m actually good at it.”

  27. Annette@23, thanks!

    I started Stonekettle Station the day I retired from the military and it’s grown steadily in the two years since. Daily I’m pushing over a thousand readers, which makes me happy with a truly great group of core commenters (death threats excepted, man some conservatives blew a gasket on the liberalism post last week. Woohoo)

    However since I manged to maim myself today, posting this week is going to be nonexistent.

    The thing, I think, when it comes to blogging, is to enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy what you write. Write for yourself, not for stats. Be patient, it takes time, the world is a big place, somebody will find you interesting – unless you’re writing simply to get attention, then nobody will find you interesting. If you comment on other blogs only to draw commenters to you site, you’ll fail. If you stumble, reddit, or digg your own posts regularly, you’ll fail (you’ll also go blind, just sayin’) If you sock puppet your comments, you’ll fail. Instead, write what you know, write with passion. And above have a sense humor and don’t take yourself seriously.

  28. Chalk up another one who suddenly posted to her blog on reading this.

    I thought the odd thing about that article, when I read it, was that there seemed to only be ONE reason to blog in the NYT’s mind—to have lots of readers and make lots of money. Well, yeah, of course those people dropped out.

    Like Mrs. Nichols, many people start blogs with lofty aspirations — to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world.

    Really? Who? Me, I’m blogging because it turns out I actually keep a sort-of-diary this way (must figure out how to export the blog), but mostly because I wanted a personality to stand behind my comments on other blogs.

  29. Is it just me or is Chang becoming irritating in a vaguely Will Ferrell-y sort of way?

  30. I starting blogging a year ago and goddess willing will still be blogging in ten years.

    I keep my exceptions low. I write once a week and average six or so readers most weeks.

    Curiously, the more I write the more I want to write. Hopefully, someone will keep reading.

  31. I blog in fits and starts, largely depending on how the rest of my life is going. On my personal blog my readership runs in the low-mid three-digit range. I wouldn’t mind a little more readership, but I don’t mind it where it is, nor do I want a massive community like Whatever has.

    That might sound like sour grapes, but I actually wrote for a multi-writer blog for about 18 months. During that time their readership exploded, from about 10,000 unique hits a day when I joined, to a high of over 2 million. A piece of mine was on the front the day we hit that high, and I was quite startled to find out that exposing my opinions to that many people scared the bejeesus out of me. It really made me rethink my ambition to become a professional writer. It didn’t end up scaring me away altogether (I have two articles in a dead-tree book coming out sometime this year), but it was a sobering moment.

    I like my little blog little, thank you.

  32. Actually, John, I think you’ve got this somewhat backwards. The reason that the majority of bloggers give up is that the cost of experimenting with a blog is zero. This is remarkable and fucking awesome.

    It used to be that you could experiment with *consuming* content for zero (change the channel, watch a few seconds, change again), but *publishing* content was incredibly expensive and hard.

    That meant that an abandoned publishing venture was a good proxy for “I had an idea, I put hundreds of hours and my soul into it, it failed, I failed.”

    Now it means, “I had an idea, I tried it for a few seconds, changed my mind.” This is a net benefit for society and for our lives and for expression generally.

    The reason that the majority of blogs have almost no readers isn’t because it’s incredibly hard to make entertaining content — it’s because the majority of that material is intended for a small group of people. It’s not “content.” It’s “conversation.” It’s pitched in what Danny O’Brien calls “the private register” — it’s a person who wants to reach five people, and (here’s the good part), *reaches them*.

    Again, they do this for free (not just free of hosting charges but virtually free of coordination costs, the costs that Nobel economist Ronald Coase identified as the largest barrier to any kind of collective action). This is ALSO good news.

    The NYT has a hammer, so it treats everything as a nail. If the NYT did a venture, it wouldn’t be in the private register, it would be pitched for the hearing of millions. If the NYT did a venture, it wouldn’t be a quickie experiment that might be abandoned seconds later — the NYT’s coordination costs are so high that just floating the idea of whether they SHOULD do a blog costs more than setting up the blog itself.

    You’re also a mass communicator, albeit one with vastly lower coordination costs than the NYT. So you’ve fallen into the same trap of thought — assuming that other blogs and Twitter feeds have the same purpose as your blog and Twitter feed. It’s natural enough, since we’re more aware of those feeds that have huge audiences (partly because duh, they’re famous, and partly because they’re the focus of press attention).

    But you wouldn’t declare that the reason that most family Christmas newsletters or email CC lists have so few readers is that compelling content is hard to make.

  33. When I started to blog, it was to quiet my mind and it was a private blog. Then I started a job where I was thrust into the “public” eye for lack of a better term and decided maybe some people would be interested in knowing my thoughts outside of this public thing.

    My first intention was to blog at least 4 out of 7 days and then some huge life things got in the way and I had to literally unplug from the webs.

    I think my problem as of this moment with the whole blogging thing (cause I am just doing it to get out extra thoughts) is to pin down exactly what thoughts I want to write about during the few moments of the day when I can focus on my writing. My problem is the number of things that catch my attention during the day for whatever reason is huge and I don’t want to overload my readers. My blog posts as a general rule are not short. And now I am feeling pressure to start posting more things because unintentionally my blog kinda exploded overnight.

    Everybody blogs for different reasons. I do it to quiet my mind and get out extraneous thoughts that cloud my ability to work since I do not get to vocalize them during the day. Personally I think this article is a little myopic.

  34. ‘The reason that the majority of blogs have almost no readers isn’t because it’s incredibly hard to make entertaining content — it’s because the majority of that material is intended for a small group of people. It’s not “content.” It’s “conversation.” It’s pitched in what Danny O’Brien calls “the private register” — it’s a person who wants to reach five people, and (here’s the good part), *reaches them*.’

    I don’t know – I prefer my people real, as compared to the illusion that sitting in front of a computer is actually ‘reaching’ someone. Much the same way that people taking pictures of events seem to believe they are actually participating in them, with the further assumption that anyone later viewing the pictures is not merely a spectator, but also a participant. And yes, I have worked professionally behind a TV camera – ask anyone who has done that work if they recall how the game or stage performance or concert they were covering was, or what occurred – the answer isn’t surprising when you think about the demands of doing such work well – and we all know the results of doing it poorly.

    Call it a philosophical difference – assuming that is jake with you, of course, since it is not the only philosophical difference involving blogs for ostensibly personal purposes and their often carefully obscured connections to commerce.

    Or has anyone actually wondered why google bought a major provider of blog infrastructure? Or why that the majority of that material is not only read by 5, but collected, collated, and resold in aggregate by those that the original creator may have never considered being fundamentally interested in what has become a no longer private register?

    It is an illusory framework to believe that blogging is for private purposes, with an attendant ‘net benefit for society and for our lives and for expression generally,’ when one considers why ‘the cost of experimenting with a blog is zero’ – because the benefit for the provider is most assuredly quantifiable in terms where cost and profit are carefully considered in justifying the provided ‘free’ service. Just think about the long tail benefits – I’m sure that any number of other people have. All for our collective benefit, of course.

  35. I think that Cory hit the nail on the head: I have had a blog for almost two years now. I don’t get many hits, I have no desire to monetize it, and I am extremely happy with my “product”. I could make it private, but the reality is that it has created for me a circle of friends (yes, virtual, but also real). as an expatriate, I garnered a lot of useful info from other expat blogs before I left the country, I still gain a lot of info, but more, I have the ability to communicate instantaneously.
    As an “old” fan, I have actually been a member of an apa for more than 28 years (Ghu!), but a blog gives me abilities an apa never did: costless transmission, instantaneous distribution, color pictures! I don’t desire a wider readership out side my narrow parental, fannish, expat, political and cooking interests and I don’t expect one. But I made one of my dearest (we have visited multiple times this year) friends through my blog and that is enough to keep myself (and others) blogging as we wish, not in an effort to earn money or reach uninterested strangers.
    (And I read the Guardian, Spiegel, theLocal, NYTimes and Wash Post every day, amongst others: that’s their role, not mine.)

  36. It’s hard to imagine a more condescending attitude than to denigrate the personal connections other people have made via the Internet as “illusory” while valorizing your own friendships as “real.”

    I hear this all the time. Here’s my response: if the friendships you’ve made over the internet aren’t real, *you’re doing it wrong.*

  37. Cory- were you implying/inferring that I had denigrated other people’s internet relationships? I hope I didn’t imply that at all. Or just making an additional comment?
    Sorry if I have “snark” issues online- sometimes I miss visual cues:).I try to be mean, not condescending (I don’t feel superior, generally), when I am not being nice.
    Btw, since you are here, loved “Little Brother”:).

  38. Sorry, G, not your comment, the one above it (and I’m glad you enjoyed it!).

    Further to that comment: the conceit that all those audience-of-three blogs are worth money to Google and we can tell this because Google bought Blogger.

    It’s not true.

    Google bought blogger at a time in its corporate history when acquisitions could be justified by saying, “It increases the amount of indexable material online; therefore, it increases the reasons to search; therefore it is a benefit to Google.” The deal was stock only, pre-IPO, and represented a dirt cheap way to acquire some great entrepreneurial engineers for a lot less than they’d have to pay a recruiter (at the time, the supply-demand situation for top engineers had swung to the supply-side’s advantage).

    Google keeps all those millions of audience-of-three blogs around because:

    * It costs virtually nothing to keep them

    * It would cost *something* to weed them out

    * It is difficult (maybe impossible) to know, a priori, whether a blog with three readers is a three reader blog that will persist, one that will vanish, or one that will grow into something large enough to generate a lot of pageviews.

  39. Cory Doctorow:

    “The reason that the majority of blogs have almost no readers isn’t because it’s incredibly hard to make entertaining content — it’s because the majority of that material is intended for a small group of people. It’s not ‘content.’ It’s ‘conversation.’ It’s pitched in what Danny O’Brien calls ‘the private register’ — it’s a person who wants to reach five people, and (here’s the good part), *reaches them*.”

    Eh. Conversation has content, as does all communication. “Content” is a perfectly good word abused by corporate-speak; I debated using it here because I was concerned it would be misinterpreted as meaning “ad-worth text,” but there wasn’t a better word for the overall concept.

    Re: small intended audiences: as noted in the entry, this is why so much “conversation” has migrated over to Facebook/Twitter/other social networks, which are designed to facilitate just that — and I suspect anecdotally that social networks have caused the abandonment of a number of blogs, for the simple purpose that they are more efficient at performing the task of just keeping up with friends/family.

    But I think you’re eliding over the fact that even on these networks, a large chunk don’t update, which is to say, they’re not even having conversation. They’re either read-only accounts, or abandoned.

    I also think you’re rather discounting the number of people who start blogs with the intent or at least hope of reaching a larger audience than friends and family, however — i.e., people who intend toward “content” rather than “conversation” in the formulation you mention. For those folks, the difficulty of finding an audience is going to be something they consider when looking at the cost of blogging — the cost in this case being their time, rather than the cost of the printer.

    “The reason that the majority of bloggers give up is that the cost of experimenting with a blog is zero.”

    Heh. You’re the one who has this backwards, I’m afraid. The one of the reasons they start is because they believe the cost is zero. They reasons the stop are myriad: lack of time, lack of interest, disillusionment with the form, etc. The fact there’s no financial investment makes it easier to stop sooner, to be sure, but it’s a supporting rationale for quitting, not the primary one.

  40. I write in a blog to capture and synthesize stuff, whether that be my thoughts on a topic or disparate bits about it. I don’t get bunches of visitors, but at the same time I’m lazy about doing the things that drive traffic to the blog. However, I’ve have corresponded with very interesting folks who have discovered me through the blog. Some of them think enough of the content to blogroll me.

    I don’t post as frequently as I’d like. I’m also a wordy bugger, and many of the posts involve reading, research and rewriting, before they are satisfactory. Often, I’m learning something new through the exercise of writing a post. I struggle to express things clearly and present facts carefully. Sometimes I let the day job sap the energy and time needed for writing. At times, the blog has gone fallow for months on end, but I’ve always picked it up again.

    The impulse to write in a blog isn’t fully logical or objective, especially if you have few or no readers, and it’s not helping generate torrents of revenue or woo for you. Then again, neither is the impulse to raise children, and I’m doing that too.

  41. @42: I think you’re wrong on the “cost of experimenting = 0, thus most bloggers give up” thing, and Cory is right, although he didn’t explain why very well.

    The fact is that BECAUSE the cost of experimenting with blogs is nothing more than minimal personal time, a bunch of people start blogs without first thinking about follow-through, and a lot of those people, of course, don’t – and if they’d had to think for five minutes or spend even a dollar, before signing up for a blog, they wouldn’t’ve bothered, because they would have KNOWN they wouldn’t’ve followed through with it.

    But if someone gets the idea “Hey, I should start a blog!” and happens to be at their computer, they can have a blog started in a minute, and a first post in another two. That’s not enough time to realize “Well, there’s no way I’ll keep up with it and nobody’s gonna care anyway”!

    With high barriers to entry (mass media, say), people don’t start things without making DAMN SURE they’re going to finish them. With no barriers to entry, people try stuff in an atypical half-hour, and never come back to it.

    And in the case of blogging, well, who cares? The dinky little three-post blogs (two of which are only even there because the person feels guilty about starting something and never following up) don’t cost the internet anything, and the occasional spur-of-the-moment blog becomes wildly popular and maybe even has actual objective good, so we all come out ahead.

    But most of those people who wind up quitting without even really trying only got involved at all because they had nothing to lose in so doing.

  42. John, I still don’t believe that the majority of material communicated between friends is “content” — it’s more like “grooming.” Whether it’s the Japanese kids’ use of empty SMSes to say, “I’m thinking of you,” or MySpace comments from friends with just a smiley face, these “messages” aren’t textual, they’re contextual. They’re performance, and their substance isn’t what’s said, it’s who said it, and to whom.

    And while lots of people may start a blog with the hope of acquiring an “audience” — danah boyd’s work on kids and networked audiences is really good here — that, too, is a cheap experiment that is as apt to be abandoned because it was a passing fancy as it was because it was a “failure.” For example: I start a Blogspot blog to put up some of my poems, which I only started writing this week, having for the first time felt moved to write poetry. It’s all very exciting. My poems are great! Others will like them too! I might be a famous poet!

    Then a few people visit. They’re indifferent, encouraging or hostile. Poetry stops being as exciting as it was last week, in the first blush of love. I move on.

    The cost of the experiment: pretty much zero. The intended audience? Practically speaking, it was only 5 or 6 people who I told about the poetry site, though I harbored a brief and unrealistic fantasy about being a famous poet (the fact that I can’t name any famous poets should have been a tip off that this wasn’t realistic, but there you have it). Is this a failure? Nope — it’s an experiment in seeing whether poetry and publication were fun enough to continue doing, and the experiment returned a satisfactory result: not really. Go do something else now.

    Characterizing this as disillusionment is prejudicial. I’ve started a couple hundred stories I never finished (started meaning, “Wrote at least a title or a sentence”) in my life. I didn’t give up on those stories because I was “disillusioned” with them. I started them because it costs nothing to jot a note to myself. I didn’t continue with them because the normal idea:story ratio is hundreds:one. They aren’t failed stories. They were assays into creative territory that returned a negative result.

  43. Michael Ralston:

    “I think you’re wrong on the ‘cost of experimenting = 0, thus most bloggers give up’ thing, and Cory is right, although he didn’t explain why very well.”

    Heh. Then you’re not explaining it very well either, since what you wrote conforms more to what I wrote then what Cory did.

    I do think we all agree that the low financial cost of participation in blogging (and in social networking) makes it an “easy in, easy out” proposition.

    Cory Doctorow:

    John, I still don’t believe that the majority of material communicated between friends is “content” — it’s more like “grooming.”

    a) No argument there; b) I think we’re getting a bit hung up on what “content” means in this case; I think you’re using the word in a narrow sense, and I’m using it in a more small-c catholic sense (which would include “grooming” stuff).

  44. I just read through the stream of comments and what occurs to me is that it is not so much the specific content and the function of that content that is important, but rather that blogs present a free form platform for thought and creative expression.

    The content of the blog could be anything. It could be an assay into poetic expression with the only cost being personal time/effort/and possible disappointment. It could be journalistic reporting on the front lines of a war. It could be a public diary to touch base with friends and family. Any of these are possible and the uses of a blog are as many as the uses of a blank page with the potential for a public platform.

    I don’t think the specific instance of an individual choosing to start a blog and blogging three times and being done matters. However, having an atmosphere where this is acceptable is important. Dismissing this activity in the forum of public opinion as not worth bothering with I find troubling. Perhaps there ends up being a swirling mass of abandoned attempts at expression on the internet, but isn’t the alternative worse?

  45. The problem with the use of the word “content” as equivalent to “communication” is like the problem of using “brand” as a synonym for “fame” (Abraham Lincoln was famous, he wasn’t a brand) or “intellectual property” for “copyright” (if ideas are “property,” then you’re stuck with the problem of devising a means of excluding people from the ethereal) — they constrain discussion to their own internal logic.

    Hence all the discussion, for example, about whether tweets are copyrightable or need Creative Commons licenses — this only makes sense to the extent that the performative, contextual blips that constitute the majority of tweets are “content” instead of “conversation.” Nevermind that retweeting becomes infringement in that world, and that 140 characters is shorter than the preamble to most licenses, once content and conversation are conflated, you start down a road that puts a 900lb ball-and-chain of license terms on each featherweight tweet.

    If, on the other hand, content and conversation aren’t the same thing, then someone’s “failed blog” is a failure only inasmuch as two friends might start talking about a subject, quickly exhaust the topic, and move on to another.

    The press has an institutional need to paint new media and communications tools as either revolutionary or ridiculous fads, so they oscillate between celebrating the gigantic number of new blogs being created every second and mocking the number of twitterers who left the service after two weeks.

    Partly that’s just because ridiculous fads and revolutions make good copy, but mostly, I think, it’s because if you work for a giant institution that needs 15 people to devote 2h each to a plan for a new blog (earning an average of $20/h each), then you treat every Twitter account and new Blogspot blog as having a sunk cost of $500-$1000 for the originator and conclude that people must be incredibly excited at signup time, and bitterly disappointed when they left. This is undoubtedly true of some users, but it doesn’t jibe with the literature or my experience of users.

    A variation on this theme is for people to try to construct ratios of “copies of ebooks shared” to “copies of printed books sold” (G van G once wrote about this, IIRC). The straw-man goes like this: “Doctorow’s first novel was downloaded half a million times in six months, but only sold 9,000 hardcovers in that time — less than *one percent* of the freebies leads to a sale.” The mental image is of a publisher giving away box after box of books, only to see a few lonely copies being taken up to the till.

    But a “downloading copy of an ebook” is the same thing as “following a link to the html version of the ebook.” That is, *looking at a webpage.* If you inhabit a world in which a “copy” is something you count, pay for, and enumerate on twice-annual royalty statements, it’s easy to think of 1% as a terrible conversion rate. But once you start thinking of “making a copy” as “following a link” and not “spending an hour at the xerox machine,” the stat acquires a very different emotional weight.

    Phone calls aren’t content (mostly). IM sessions aren’t content (mostly). And blog-posts aren’t content (mostly). They have a different emotional weight, a different motivation and a different character than the thing we mean when we say “content.”

  46. I don’t know, Cory, until recently the difference between content and communication was that content had a permanent record. Now most conversations do as a matter of course, it’s not surprising that people aren’t sure which ones are content now. Especially with people like Kaja Foglio taking something like Twitter and deliberately turning it into content with Othar’s Twitter (Other being a character from the webcomic Girl Genius), which plays out like a monologue from his adventures.

    I kind of suspect that the mainstream press are also taking into account the effort of writing the ebook or the blog or whatever, which is also kind of fair except that what the printed copy is selling is not the same thing as the ebook – I think it initially surprised people that customers are willing to pay for a known quantity in a convenient format, which now I type it out makes it sound like people were morons because otherwise they wouldn’t plaster John Grisham’s name on the cover of all his books because he’s a known quantity.

    But then, I guess you’re Cory Doctorow. You’ve heard all this stuff before.

  47. ‘It’s hard to imagine a more condescending attitude than to denigrate the personal connections other people have made via the Internet as “illusory” while valorizing your own friendships as “real.”

    I hear this all the time. Here’s my response: if the friendships you’ve made over the internet aren’t real, *you’re doing it wrong.*’

    Well, I wasn’t actually denigrating – I was just pointing out the difference between sitting alone typing at a screen, and actually being with people. I’m old fashioned that way it seems, insisting on my ability to tell the difference between a real person I’m sharing a meal with, and pictures of someone else’s meal being available for others to share, in an abstract sense. The actual steak still appeals more than the sizzle coming out of a speaker, in other words. And because this is an immensely complicated subject, I decided to completely leave out any discussion of letter writing and its importance in friendships – but then, letters have their own reality, and have always had a cost greater than 0.

    This remains interesting to explore – do readers become ‘friends’ with authors if the only interactions are words which are read? How about if it is only the reader that decides an author is a friend (Scalzi recently had a somewhat related post on this subject in terms of connections, and people making vast leaps from what would seem to be silly assumptions)? At what point do we assume friendship exists, even if it isn’t recognizable by previous standards – a point you cleverly glide around by writing ‘personal connections,’ and then pointing out friendships made over the Internet, without making the idea of exclusively Internet only friendship explicit. Certainly friendships are made using any number of technologies – but friendship with nothing but a person’s words on a screen? That seems to denigrate the idea of friendship into terms that a marketer would use, though as noted above about letter writing, the subject most certainly is not starkly black and white.

    But the more interesting point, and the one completely ignored, is how this information flow is being facilitated and used. When I talk to people in person, that conversation is unlikely to ever be recorded (though a clever SF author might want to explore the presence of ubiquitous networked linked devices which provide the ability to record multiple levels of human interaction – or maybe it is too boringly mundane, as this has already happened), and will not provide any useful data representing social network topologies, nor the ability to provide ever greater social benefit by, well, profiting from the collected information, preferably without any awareness on the part of the ‘content’ providers.

    ‘I still don’t believe that the majority of material communicated between friends is “content”’ – somehow, I doubt that you honestly believe that, at least in terms of useful data which can be collected, collated, and sold for various purposes generally falling under the heading of marketing. After all, we aren’t living in 1997, where such ideas seemed almost impossible to imagine except for a few visionaries (or villains – I guess it depends on who is signing the checks and who is cashing them), considering the amount of data storage, processing power, and network speeds which would be required.

    Maybe I could put it this way, as a parent – how many 3 year olds have Internet only friends? And how many parents can even imagine a child having a friend that only exists as images/sounds on a screen? And note I said parents – marketers can easily encompass the idea, but then, marketers aren’t in the business of selling reality.

  48. Cory:

    Indeed, this is why I hesitated to use the word in the entry; it’s got multiple meanings, and which one is being used is not always clear.

  49. ‘They have a different emotional weight, a different motivation and a different character than the thing we mean when we say “content.”’

    But it all comes out being data, and thus grist for someone’s mill – the private register, part of your original post, is simply open to being mined, where previously, among friends, it is was almost beyond reach, give or take a Stasi’s devotion to keeping tabs on everyone.

    Your argument would have much more weight if the zero cost wasn’t actually being borne by those who hope to profit from all the conversation/data/information which is passing through a company’s servers.

  50. While I can understand that personal communication between people could be considered to not be content, isn’t that the reason for writing? Merus@49 wrote in on the discussion that content used to mean anything that there was a permanent record of and that conversations were not considered content because there was no record of the conversations. But now there is potentially a written record. I would also argue that what might not be news to some, and therefore not “content”, may indeed be substantiative information to others. I have read the newspapers of small towns, newspapers that were healthier than some of the big city papers, that read as a daily listing of almost gossipy happenings. I would say that this is “content”.

    I have read books that were a collection of anonymous postcards or found lists. Are these very personal communications “content”? Not “content”?

    Are brief twitter tweets “content”? I would argue yes, depending on intent and interpretation.

    I am going to propose a definition of content. This is my definition of content. Content is some communication that relays information of value to a reader. Only the reader of the communication gets to decide if it is actually content and this is based on their subjective experience and evaluation.

    To my mind, anything else potentially creates restrictive categories that limit freedom of expression. And who gets to decide the categories?

  51. I saw this article yesterday and then felt slightly guilty (and slightly amused, because anachronistic is really the word, isn’t it?) because I failed to update my personal blog since the November election. I failed so hard, in fact, that spammers from Sweden managed to kill my site simply because I wasn’t doing maintenance on the comments, and I had to take the whole thing down. However…

    Since January 2008 I’ve been running a fairly successful NBA blog, and as a result, I let the personal blog go by the wayside. There’s no way I’m not going to update, or get bored, or whatever, on my sports blog because there’s always some bit of news. So what I’m saying is maybe people are realizing personal thoughts are best confined to something such as Twitter (I twitpic my cat, yep), whereas blogs are MUCH easier both to run and to get “out there” to readers when they’re about an actual topic.

  52. Hey, the article was no “Man Date,” but it tried!

    The biggest sin of the article was the failure to quote from this song:

    “I started a blog that nobody read” – The Sprites

    .. I started a blog which nobody viewed
    It might be in cache
    The topics include:

    “George Bush is an evil moron”
    “What’s the story with revolving doors?”
    “I’m in love with a girl who doesn’t notice me”
    “Nobody hates preppies anymore”

    As well as “Update Your Blog” by Alex Arrowsmith

  53. How many new local daily newspapers are starting up and thriving these days? Probably fewer than there are new blogs.

    How many people try to become journalists for big media papers and get hired? Probably fewer than the number of consistent, successful bloggers.

    How many people write letters to the editor in reply to the dead trees media, and get printed? Probably fewer than the number of comments posted on blogs.

    Does the dead-trees media meaningfully inform and entertain its readers AT ALL any more? Now that bare facts of current events and other data is pretty much available by search engine, the function is to show those facts and, more importantly, to interpret them. Most blogs I read (Kos, 538, and yes, Whatever, among others) are much better at that than any big newspaper. Most big paper reporters ar mind-bogglingly out of touch. They write as if everybody in the world has a lifestyle somewhere between SoHo and the Upper east side. And if a blog entry delights or offends you, or leaves something out, you can usually talk back to it right away.

  54. I have long felt that the average blog-post in the 21st century answer to the historical practice of letters, and not necessarily open ones (though this is more appropriate). MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was obviously meant to be read by a wider audience, but even cases where private material was collected later, like much of Voltaire’s volumes, would apply.

    The slide moves from blog post to Myspace and Livejournal into Facebook and twitter. We go from rumination to community. Cory’s use of ‘conversation’ seems most appropriate. The context of the content has radically changed. I DON’T care if more than 10 people see my posts…it is those 10 people who I’m trying to reach. Those 10 people represent my greater social framework…in fact, a re-establishment of a larger social net that our mobile society has fragmented.

    There is a place for both the thoughtful blog post and the ‘what are you doing?’ update in the world. Their intents are different, their contexts can be diverse. If anything, the online social networks of which I partake are a like a greater reflection of the ones I have offline, but with ripples and extensions. I friend a person I know in real life and meet his friend who lives in another state…we become friends online and then meet in real life.

    This is one of the greatest benefits of the online community…it allows marginalized individuals to connect and feel less alone. A blog about ‘hot chicks with stormtroopers’ seems ridiculous to someone who isn’t interested in that sort of thing….but might be a revelation to the few who do, who now can form a community where one could never exist before.

    The NYT, the WSJ and others face a problem in that their model for pay content has been undermined and they have no way to compensate, yet. They see compelling social networks and think that somehow they’re losing to amateurs, to content thieves and to the vapid. They see that because they don’t know what to do if that’s NOT what’s happening. Denigrating the competition for their audience’s attention doesn’t help them here, though…because that audience IS ALSO THEIR COMPETITION. And therein lies their problem.

  55. notscot_bot@50: I’m not sure what the point of your end example is. Most three year olds are friends with the kids their parents tell them they are friends with. In my experience, kids don’t form true friendships until they get older.

    Whether you like it or not, people make real friendships on the Internet. Hell, I know people who have fallen in love with just “words on the screen” and who are now happily married.

    Forming a friendship through “words on the screen” is no different from maintaining a friendship with just “words on the screen”, something that, in this widespread culture, many of us do.

  56. Like Christopher @ 19, I started blogging mainly as a writing exercise. I wouldn’t end it even if my Mom and Dad stopped reading.

    I think “passive-aggressive” really does sum up the NYT’s attitude. “Blogs aren’t making newspapers irrelevant because because because… nobody blogs any more! Now come back and love us again!”

  57. Even Sergey Brin’s blog has only three posts in it: a “hi, I’m here,” an obituary, and one about his mother.

    While I’m here, John … I thought of you when I saw a link on the New Republic’s home page to a slide show titled “100 Years of Bacon” … only it turned out to be Francis Bacon, the painter. Pfui. To me “Francis Bacon” will always mean the Renaissance philosopher and statesman, and “Bacon” without a first name will always mean the stuff you tape to cats.

  58. Nice of the NYT to assume that it knows why I started a blog, and why I don’t post as often as I should or would like. Of course, they’re the NYT, and they know everything.

    Or not. I started my blog because I write compulsively. I don’t post as often as I would like because after I started my blog I got a paid writing gig, and after I meet my quota and deadline every day, my need to write for the day is often sated. Even if it isn’t, I have a life. I work on other writing projects that are more important than my blog; I knit; I spend time with friends; I have to clean the house occasionally.

    Even though I’m a writer, my blog is a hobby. If people read it, great. They’re quite welcome, and if they drop a comment I’ll generally respond to it. But if they don’t want to read it, that’s fine as well. And if they don’t like that sometimes a month goes by between posts, oh well. I never expected that the blog would make me rich or famous. Although, I have to note, it was posts I wrote on a science fiction/fantasy fourm that got me invited into my current paid writing gig.

    Which I have to get back to now.

  59. ‘Whether you like it or not, people make real friendships on the Internet.’

    So? People have also made real friendships by writing letters. But those letter writers have generally not been part of a larger infrastructure which is hungrily devouring as much information about the participants as possible, for the overriding pursuit of profit. Or darker goals, but let’s leave them aside for now – one Stasi reference per poster per thread is probably enough.

    Again – friends may be made through the Internet, but I stand by my old fashioned belief that a real friend is a real person, with a real presence in one’s real life – which pretty much precludes the idea of an Internet only friendship, while allowing for the fact that ‘friendship’ is not exactly a rigorously defined term. (Unlike other terms involving intimacy, but this is best left unexplored here.)

    Obviously, maintaining an already existing friendship is eminently practical using the Internet. And finding friends through the Internet is equally practical. But believing that the words on a screen (or sound/images) one experiences sitting alone in front of that screen are your friend, without ever having actually been in that person’s presence, seems hard for me to imagine as meaning friend in any meaningful sense.

    As for 3 year olds and friends – well, if your children and their friends live in the same place for much of their life, you just might find that 3 year olds are quite capable of developing friendships that last at least over a decade. Maybe I’ll write a blog about it – all my Internet friends will be heartily welcome to experience words on the screen, along with images and sounds, and they can all imagine they are actually participating in someone’s life, instead of merely sitting alone in front of a screen.

    Which is fine, by the way – sitting alone reading is the same, regardless of whether it is a book or a display. (My children spend much more time reading books than they do in front of their completely unfiltered Internet connection – and we don’t have a TV.) Calling books friends is understandable – but they aren’t people either, and thus fail the real test of friendship. This is neither denigrating books, nor those who read them.

  60. Note to self: when I get around to starting my Amazingly Brilliant Blog, I shall outwit everyone and immediately post a picture of my cat! That’ll show them! I’ll only have to make a single post to achieve what takes everyone else 300% more effort!

    I suppose I’d better get a cat first.

  61. “But those letter writers have generally not been part of a larger infrastructure which is hungrily devouring as much information about the participants as possible, for the overriding pursuit of profit.”

    Um. Yeah. Don’t trust anyone on the internet, because we’re all pedophile sharks out to steal your money and leave LOLcat graffiti across your bank accounts as we steal your identity while trafficking Ecstasy to Honolulu, just before we take over the banking infrastructure via botnets wired back to your IP address.

    All of us. Yes.

  62. Dear New York Times, you don’t understand diddley-squat about why I blog. Actually, I’ve been doing it since 1996 and I still prefer to call it my online journal, not my blog, but I don’t mind it being called a blog. It’s a hobby and it amuses me and it allows me to share stuff with friends and family scattered about the world — which includes friends that I met via the Internet (some of whom I have since met in person as business or personal travel have taken me hither and yon). I do it for my own amusement, as a hobby, not as a business. I’m not famous. I average about a thousand unique visitors per month. Given current trends, pretty soon your circulation may be close to mine.

  63. Laura @ 21: Demetrios, -I- only want to HAVE written.

    But, alas, I’ve yet to find any way to achieve that state without actually, oh… WRITING.

    Hire a ghost writer.

    Everybody wins! You’re friends and family are impressed with the book you “wrote”, you get to “have written” a book, and the writer gets to “eat”.

    My rates for ghost work are very reasonable, BTW.

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