Friday, February 17, 2006
By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn't matter if you're a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you're dedicated enough to post around the clock--well, there's nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.Whiner! Yet the guy (or gal) is quite right about the law of diminishing returns. I hate to say I told you so, but in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post in April 2004--before I climbed aboard the navel-gazing bandwagon myself--I already envisioned a nascent star system. Here's what I wrote:
In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today's bloggers, they'll complain that the game seems fixed. They've targeted one of the more lucrative niches--gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)--yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It's as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs--then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can't figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. "It just seems like it's a big in-party," one blogger complained to me.
No doubt a pecking order will gradually materialize, since even cyberspace operates according to the familiar logic of Animal Farm: All bloggers are created equal, but some are more equal than others. There will be stars, contract players, boffo traffic numbers. There will be a proliferation of advertising on the most visible sites--there is already, in fact--and a defiant tug-of-war between the early bloggers and their entrepreneurial successors.If that's not enough cynical nay-saying for a single morning, you can move right on to Daniel Gross's bummer of a piece in Slate, whose title says it all: "Twilight of the Blogs: Are they over as a business?" For Gross, the New York cover story is itself a dead giveaway that blogging has peaked. "Being plastered on the front of a national magazine is fatal for an investment trend," he writes. "Remember Time's infamous anointing of Amazon.com Jeffrey Bezos as the 'Man of the Year' for 1999?" Oh, I remember it well. (Quick, stop me, before I start humming "It Was A Very Good Year.") Gross makes a good case for his gloom-and-doom scenario. But even he must be aware that it applies only to the entreprenuerial fringe of the blogosphere. The other players, the non-silent majority of 27 million bloggers, were never in it for the money. Indeed, it's the culture of inspired amateurism that makes the whole thing so fun, and enlightening, to begin with.
Breaking news: Yet another death sentence, this one pronounced by Trevor Butterworth in today's Financial Times. He reiterates some the points I've mentioned above--the impossibility of making a thin dime, the yawning gap between the blogerati and the lumpen, low-traffic masses--but he also has his doubts about the sheer abundance of blogs: "Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere--tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium." So that's what it's come down to: the pornography of opinion versus the eroticism of fact. Nobody's put the choice quite so, uh, nakedly before--for a moment I thought I was thumbing through the Victoria's Secret catalogue.