Blogonomics, ten years on
Ten years ago today, I posted an essay titled “Blogonomics: making a living from blogging.” Peering into the future of media, I argued that traditional publishers would soon be defeated by hordes of ad-supported bloggers.
At the time, both claims — that a) traditional publishing was doomed by people-published content and b) that blogging would be lucrative — seemed ludicrous. Shares in The New York Times were just a couple of months shy of their all-time high, $52. Martin Nisenholtz, then managing NYTimes.com, spoke for most media insiders when he dismissed the “weblog phenomenon” as nothing “fundamentally new in the news media.” Though blogs like PoliticalWire, GigOM, Dooce, Instapundit, Largehearted Boy, Kottke, MyDD, BuzzMachine, ObscureStore, Michelle Malkin and TalkingPointsMemo were already posting when I wrote in May of ’02, they were adless. Advertisers trusted only editor-vetted, publisher-backed articles appearing on sites run by august institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most of the blogosphere did not yet exist. Launch dates stretched into the future for DailyKos (6/02), Gawker (10/02), Towleroad (12/02), Gothamist (1/03), Power Line (1/03), RedState (11/03), Stereogum (11/03), Go Fug Yourself (7/04), ThinkProgress (12/04), Perez Hilton (2/05), SB Nation (03/05), Neatorama (04/05), TechCrunch (6/05), The Pioneer Woman (8/05), Concrete Loop (11/05), Media Takeout (1/06), Jack and Jill Politics (8/06), Flavorwire (11/06), The Blogess (6/07) and millions of smaller blogs.
I’m happy to say that many of those May, 2002 forecasts turned out to be correct. Unfortunately, the blog utopia I dreamed about is today polluted with bad writing, spam, barely disguised flogging and naked opportunism. My old predictions are bolded below, each followed by a current post-mortem.
#1 The networks of bloggers, the blogosphere, powers knowledge-sharing far more profound than anything offered by current media.
TRUE. Clearly the volume of self-published information erupting daily from millions of blogs is several orders of magnitude greater than traditional media can produce. And the intensity with which bloggers can go after a topic exceeds the persistence and massed institutional will of publications like the New York Times or the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. Bloggers have worked well together to untangle and crowdsource complex topics and news stories, each post linking to the previous blogger’s contribution and adding a tiny amount of new information, whether in unseating Dan Rather from his newsdesk at CBS or in defending Valerie Plame or in figuring out the twists of Johnny Depp’s latest movie or in deconstructing Greece’s bogus budgeteering.
My forecast fell far short of today’s reality, though, by not imagining that even bigger and faster networks for sharing and sorting information would soon emerge around the blogs — YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Digg and Reddit and Pinterest and Stackoverflow and Instagram, to name just a few.
#2 The blogosphere will enable hundreds of thousands of new idea entrepreneurs to carve out local, ideological or conceptual niches and make a living.
TRUE. Blogs have spawned vigorous self-publishing enterprises, many of which — GigaOM, PerezHilton, Gawker, DailyKos, TalkingPointsmemo, SportsblogsNation — have grown to be mini-empires of their own. By lowering the cost of publishing and tapping into individuals’ raw talents and passions, publishing niches and niches within publishing niches have proliferated. We’ve drilled steadily downward: from mommy blogs to mommy cooking blogs to vegan mommy cooking blogs… dozens of them. Still, sadly, I doubt that we’ve got millions of self-supporting bloggers.
#3 Bloggers are the ultimate speculators! At least 80% of any media organization’s revenues are spent on “overhead” — the executive parking garages, broadcast towers, helpful distribution unions, wood pulpers and stolid German makers of printing presses as big as the Super Dome. Take these costs out of media and you slash the tax on writing — the number of writing jobs and the amount of quality content will rocket.
TRUE. Content volume and categories have grown exponentially, with whole a new industry emerging to keep track of what all these individuals are creating. But if the amount of quality content has rocketed, the quantity of nonquality content has grown even faster. I did not come close to anticipating that the new metastatic branches the PR industry would sprout to give free products to bloggers — from diapers to junkets to electronics to tickets — to try to influence blogger opinions, essentially wiping away a century-old firewall between editorial and advertising.
#4 If the soloists outnumber the orchestra, who conducts? [Economist] James D. Miller argues that a blogging boom will self-destruct. “The proliferation of blogging sites makes it especially difficult for consumers to know which bloggers they would find interesting,” he writes. But Miller’s Malthusian view of blogging focuses exclusively on the blogger’s role in producing words, which is obviously only part of the equation. First, each blogger reads five to 25 other blogs, more than offsetting any word-supply she generates. Second, she evaluates the blogs, recommending a few, ignoring most. So a new blogger is a net contributor of order rather than noise to the blogosphere.
TRUE. The world has not yet drowned in bloggers’ output. If anything, it’s easier to find information today than it was ten years ago. Part of this order results from technology — we’ve got lots of new tools for filtering. But we’re also benefiting from the fact that almost everyone online is doing some amount of curating, masticating giant mounds of information into snackable nutritious infonuggets.
#5 What happens when we have 73 blogs about Wooster, red blogs, prose blogs, gun blogs, ska blogs, braless blogs, blog blogs, bong blogs, 29,471 Boston blogs, when we have three blogs for anyone who thinks for a living or lives for thinking: a blog for work, a blog for play and blog for family?
UNTRUE. Blogs are not ubiquitous, and very few people have three blogs. But the blogging spirit is bigger than ever. Most of us have happily settled for microblogging small imperfect fragments of life, documenting with a button push rather than an entire polished essay: a misspelled one-liner to Twitter, a grainy photo to Instagram, a quick upvote to someone else’s headline posted to Reddit.
#6 What is new is the blogosphere, the endless and (physically) effortless networking of conversations. … As an information processor, the blogosphere superfluizes old media’s expensive and carefully constructed infrastructures and franchises. Suddenly, Vivendi, AOL-Time Warner, EMAP and Newscorp are factories whose economies of scale are swamped by infinity, networks that have come unplugged, refrigerator salesmen trudging into the next ice age.
TRUE. TRUE. TRUE. While some traditional publishers are still going strong — Newscorp shares traded at $15 then and $20 today — many are dead or on life-support or seeking to reinvent themselves as curates of blogs and other micro-content. NYTCO shares have fallen from $50 in May of 2002 to $6.50 today. McClatchy shares, trading at $60 in 2002, are now at $2.20. The Sun Times media group is bankrupt. These graphs say it all. And even giant ad agencies are being disrupted as traditional publishers are replaced by a more efficient social media ecosystem.
#7 The old economics of media – he who controls distribution wins the most readers and serves advertisers best – will be plowed under by a new economics – she who relates best attracts the most valuable audience. (Since relate means connect and tell.)
OFTEN UNTRUE: While we’ve seen that great writing can thrive online, the unrelenting output of the likes of HuffingtonPost proves daily that mass-produced, SEO-optimized crud too often overwhelms the thoughtful work of bloggers with passionate audiences.
#8 The metrics do not yet exist to describe the blogosphere’s commercial potential.
STILL TRUE, SADLY. I’m surprised to say that, ten years on, its still difficult to convince most advertisers that blogs are uniquely valuable. Ad buyers are more focused than ever on simple metrics like cost-per-click and cost-per-acquisition. Ad buyers are too easily swayed by a publisher’s gift of Yankees tickets or Fry boots. Most advertisers do not yet value a blogger’s intimate connection to her/his readers and the overarching value of a blog community’s awareness of a new idea or brand.
#9 The blogosphere’s self-organized networks offer adventurous advertisers the opportunity to target unique and previously unarticulated demographics. Advertising in a blog or blogset will enable an advertiser quickly to communicate with a critical mass of thinkers. … In the beginning, blog advertising will likely be P2P. Ken Layne could sell Dot.con. Glenn Reynolds could sell baseball hats. Tony Pierce could point to his E-Bayed molars, or whatever other teeth he loses. Amy Langfield may promote the 9/11 book. Matt Drudge could sell autographed photos or Tshirts. Many Blogads may be traded gratis among friends. It will be a long haul. Slowly, critical mass will build. New ad classifications will emerge. New demographics will cohere. Companies will be invented to fill new niches.
UNTRUE. Most big blogs today thrive on advertising bought by mass market companies — movies, autos, technology, softdrinks. Niche advertisers — whether local candidates or teeshirt vendors or gardening tool craftspeople — focus on buying highly targeted CPC ads on Google or Facebook.
#10 There are, beyond money, other benefits to creating a blog advertising idiom. Establishing a clear space and format for advertising will clarify what is flogging and what is blogging.
TRUE. But true not enough. Too often, particularly on small blogs, advertising is indistinguishable from editorial.
#11 Eventually, a sufficient density of local blogs could make Blogads an effective tool for selling local goods and services.
UNTRUE, so far. Local blogging has not yet reached sufficient mass to become economically viable or useful to advertisers. And advertisers’ ability to use other ad mechanisms to target niche audiences in tightly defined geographic areas — for example, using CPC Facebook ads to only target women in their twenties in the Cincinatti area — makes ads on local blogs uncompetitive in most instances. Some ad networks now exist that can target specific voters.
#12 To close, I will wager $1000 that on May 25, 2007 there will be more Blogads than NYTimes.com classified ads or that NYTimes.com will be using Blogads. Ready to bet, Martin? (Yes, the winnings will go to the Blog Foundation.)
UNTRUE: Good thing Nisenholtz didn’t take me up that bet. NYT’s classified business was still going strong… in 2007.