Who killed the blogosphere?

Blogging seems to have entered its midlife crisis, with much existential gnashing-of-teeth about the state and fate of a literary form that once seemed new and fresh and now seems familiar and tired. And there’s good reason for the teeth-gnashing. While there continue to be many blogs, including a lot of very good ones, it seems to me that one would be hard pressed to make the case that there’s still a “blogosphere.” That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking. Some are good, some are boring, but to argue that they’re part of a “blogosphere” that is distinguishable from the “mainstream media” seems more and more like an act of nostalgia, if not self-delusion.

And that’s why there’s so much angst today among the blogging set. As The Economist observes in its new issue, “Blogging has entered the mainstream, which – as with every new medium in history – looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death.”

“Blogging” has always had two very different definitions, of course. One is technical: a simple system for managing and publishing content online, as offered through services such as WordPress, Movable Type, and Blogger. The other involves a distinctive style of writing: a personal diary, or “log,” of observations and links, unspooling in a near-real-time chronology. When we used to talk about blogging, the stress was on the style. Today, what blogs have in common is mainly just the underlying technology – the “publishing platform” – and that makes it difficult to talk meaningfully about a “blogosphere.”

Stylewise, little distinguishes today’s popular blogs from ordinary news sites. One good indicator is page bloat. The Register’s John Oates points today to a revealing study of the growing obesity of once slender blog pages. “Blog front pages are now large pages of images and scripts rather than the pared-down text pages of old,” he writes. The study, by Pingdom, is remarkable. Among the top 100 blogs, as listed by the blog search engine Technorati, the average “front page” (note, by the way, how the mainstream-media term is pushing aside the more personal “home page”) is nearly a megabyte, and three-quarters of the blogs have front pages larger than a half megabyte. The main culprits behind the bloat are image files, which have proliferated as blogs have adopted the look of traditional news sites. The top 100 blogs have, on average, a whopping 63 images on their front pages.

As blogs have become mainstream, they’ve lost much of their original personality. “Scroll down Technorati’s list of the top 100 blogs and you’ll find personal sites have been shoved aside by professional ones,” writes one corporate blogger, Valleywag’s Paul Boutin, in the new Wired. “Most are essentially online magazines: The Huffington Post. Engadget. TreeHugger. A stand-alone commentator can’t keep up with a team of pro writers cranking out up to 30 posts a day. When blogging was young, enthusiasts rode high, with posts quickly skyrocketing to the top of Google’s search results for any given topic, fueled by generous links from fellow bloggers … That phenomenon was part of what made blogging so exciting. No more.” The buzz has left blogging, says Boutin, and moved, at least for the time being, to Facebook and Twitter.

I was a latecomer to blogging, launching Rough Type in the spring of 2005. But even then, the feel of blogging was completely different than it is today. The top blogs were still largely written by individuals. They were quirky and informal. Such blogs still exist (and long may they thrive!), but as Boutin suggests, they’ve been pushed to the periphery.

It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of blogs have been abandoned. Technorati has identified 133 million blogs since it started indexing them in 2002. But at least 94 percent of them have gone dormant, the company reports in its most recent “state of the blogosphere” study. Only 7.4 million blogs had any postings in the last 120 days, and only 1.5 million had any postings in the last seven days. Now, as longtime blogger Tim Bray notes, 7.4 million and 1.5 million are still sizable numbers, but they’re a whole lot lower than we’ve been led to believe. “I find those numbers shockingly low,” writes Bray; “clearly, blogging isn’t as widespread as we thought.” Call it the Long Curtail: For the lion’s share of bloggers, the rewards just aren’t worth the effort.

Back in 2005, I argued that the closest historical precedent for blogging was amateur radio. The example has become, if anything, more salient since then. When “the wireless” was introduced to America around 1900, it set off a surge in amateur broadcasting, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the airwaves. “On every night after dinner,” wrote Francis Collins in the 1912 book Wireless Man, “the entire country becomes a vast whispering gallery.” As amateur broadcasting boomed, utopian rhetoric soared. Popular Science wrote, “The nerves of the whole world are, so to speak, being bound together, so that a touch in one country is transmitted instantly to a far-distant one.” The amateur broadcasters, the historian Susan J. Douglas has written, “claimed to be surrogates for ‘the people.'” The democratic “radiosphere,” as we might have called it today, “held a special place in the American imagination precisely because it married idealism and adventure with science.”

But it didn’t last. Radio soon came to be dominated by a relatively small number of media companies, with the most popular amateur operators being hired on as radio personalities. Social production was absorbed into corporate production. By the 1920s, radio had become “firmly embedded in a corporate grid,” writes Douglas. A lot of amateurs continued to pursue their hobby, quite happily, but they found themselves pushed to the periphery. “In the 1920s there was little mention of world peace or of anyone’s ability to track down a long-lost friend or relative halfway around the world. In fact, there were not many thousands of message senders, only a few … Thus, through radio, Americans would not transcend the present or circumvent corporate networks. In fact they would be more closely tied to both.”

That’s not to say that the amateur radio operators didn’t change the mainstream media. They did. And so, too, have bloggers. Allowing readers to post comments on stories has now, thanks to blogging, become commonplace throughout online publishing. But the once popular idea that blogs would prove to be an alternative to, or even a devastating attack on, corporate media has proven naive.

Who killed the blogosphere? No one did. Its death was natural, and foretold.

UPDATE: Justin Flood points to a difference between amateur radio and blogging: “It’s a fairly good statement to say that blogging in general will likely be more and more absorbed into the mainstream media, leaving independant bloggers a bit fewer and farther between. But unlike amateur radio, which has all but died today due to licensing and equipment costs, independant blogging will always be around. All one needs is a modicum of technical and writing knowledge and a website like Blogger or WordPress.com to host a blog for free.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that – it’s considerably easier, assuming you have a computer and net connection, to become a blogger than to become a ham radio operator, and that should, in theory, mean that a fairly steady stream of new bloggers should continue to enter the field (even if they don’t stay in it very long). Still, though, Flood exaggerates the death of amateur radio. There are about 3 million amateur ham radio operators worldwide. That doesn’t seem to be radically different from the number of active bloggers, despite the fact that blogging is new and sexy while hamming is, well, old and dusty.

UPDATE: A postscript.

50 thoughts on “Who killed the blogosphere?

  1. Telstar Logistics

    Interesting! And yes, there are a lot if interesting parallels between Internet history and early radio history. And yes, while bandwidth scarcity did much to shape the evolution of radio, there were lots of cultural and commercial factors that played major roles as well. I wrote a feature article for Wired Magazine waaaaaaaaay back in 1994 that examines the early history of radio through the prism of the Internet. Fast-forwarding almost 15 years, the comparison to blogs is also apt in many ways.

  2. Stephen Bullington

    I think comparing blogs to news outlets misses the point. Sure a lot of individual blogs have turned by degrees into mini-magazines and some of those will eventually get bigger as well. But the whole point of a real blog — or at least what everyone considers to be a “real” blog, as opposed to a magazine — is to have an individual voice. In the past, people who wanted to say something individual have done it through the medium of essays or through autobiography, not in mass-market magazines. In either case I doubt if they were particularly interested in money; quite the contrary. If you have something to say you couldn’t care less about making a buck: the payoff is getting your message out. The people who have something real to say will say it to a few people, for nothing. If it is something that has wider applicability it will eventually find its way into the mainstream. It’s always been that way. Why should we expect the blogosphere to be any different?

    “No one writes anything that is worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject” — Schopenhauer, On Authorship.

    Just my $5 worth (inflation affects the web, too, you know).

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding: “If it is something that has wider applicability it will eventually find its way into the mainstream. ”

    Sheer utter raving barking nonsense. And cruel to boot (because the implication is that if it doesn’t find its way, it wasn’t worthy in the first place).

    Disclaimer: personal interest

  4. Jesse Walker

    The only way you can pronounce the amateur blogosphere dead is by (a) looking at a very narrow slice of the blogosphere and (b) radically redefining “dead.” And even then it’s a stretch.

    More importantly, your summary of Douglas’ book misses a key component of the shift in radio history. Amateur and commercial radio were segregated via *deliberate regulatory action*, something that has no parallel among the blogs.

  5. Nick Carr


    re: “the amateur blogosphere.” One of my points is that “the amateur blogosphere” has lost much of its amateurishness as (1) many bloggers (once amateurs) have become commercial operators and (2) mainstream media companies have embraced blogging. I would like to hear your definition of “amateur blogosphere.” How exactly would you draw the boundaries, and whom would you exclude?

    Amateur and commercial radio were segregated via *deliberate regulatory action*, something that has no parallel among the blogs.

    A fair and important point. As Telstar Logistics noted above, bandwidth scarcity shaped radio (but hasn’t been a factor in blogging). Nevertheless, as you know, after amateurs were pushed into the short-wave band in 1912, they nevertheless (and to their credit) pioneered the modern model of radio broadcasting by, as Douglas explains, incorporating “music, speech, and even advertising” into their programs. But that model was, quite naturally, subsumed into commercial broadcasting in the 1920s, and top amateur operators, like Frank Conrad in Pittsburgh, joined commercial stations. Ultimately, the transformation was less about regulation and more about the profit motive. What the history of media tells us is that once amateurs become popular, they become, with rare exception, professionals and, in turn, members of large organizations.

  6. guiambros

    “But the once popular idea that blogs would prove to be an alternative to, or even a devastating attack on, corporate media has proven naive.”

    not so much, Nick. The so-called traditional corporate media players – NYT, USA Today, WPost – are indeed struggling to keep in the business. They’ve been losing audience and seeing revenues falling for years, as users find new ways to consume information and advertisers shift more of their budgets to new media.

    You argument that former blogs are now the de facto corporate media is perfectly valid. Still, it doesn’t dismiss the original idea that the traditional players ARE endangered species and will need need to seriously reinvent itself in order to continue in the game.

    Not much different than studios & record labels, btw.

    Anyway, great article.

  7. Jesse Walker

    One of my points is that “the amateur blogosphere” has lost much of its amateurishness as (1) many bloggers (once amateurs) have become commercial operators and (2) mainstream media companies have embraced blogging. I would like to hear your definition of “amateur blogosphere.” How exactly would you draw the boundaries, and whom would you exclude?

    That convergence has been happening for a long time now. Before, amateur bloggers linked to other bloggers, to major media like the New York Times, and to webzines like Salon and Slate. Now they still link to all those sorts of places — it’s just that venues like the Times include blogs of their own now, and webzines like The Huffington Post sometimes call themselves blogs. The amateur blogosphere (i.e., places whose writers aren’t paid to blog, except perhaps via tip jars and Google ads) isn’t any smaller — it’s much larger, actually. It’s the mainstream media that’s being radically transformed.

    Nevertheless, as you know, after amateurs were pushed into the short-wave band in 1912, they nevertheless (and to their credit) pioneered the modern model of radio broadcasting by, as Douglas explains, incorporating “music, speech, and even advertising” into their programs. But that model was, quite naturally, subsumed into commercial broadcasting in the 1920s, and top amateur operators, like Frank Conrad in Pittsburgh, joined commercial stations.

    Sure. And some previously amateur stations, such as WWJ, became commercial stations.

    But there was also a Commerce Department regulation in 1921 that forced the issue, telling amateurs that they would either have to apply for broadcasting licenses or, if they maintained their status as amateurs, accept this limitation: “This station is not licensed to broadcast weather reports, market reports, music, concerts, speeches, news, or similar information or entertainments.” It’s worth noting that even after this rule went into effect, many non-amateur stations were noncommercial and, in the best sense of the term, amateurish; it took the Radio Act in 1927 and General Order 40 in 1928 to clear most of them out of the way and to make the commercial networks firmly dominant in the ether.

  8. Bart Preecs

    I’d like to echo Jessie’s comment above and point to the clear parallel today.

    It’s a gross over-simplification to say, as Nick Carr does, that commercial radio ‘just happened’ to supersede its non-commercial predecessors.

    Nor it is accurate to point to today’s ham radio world as any indicator of what ‘amateur radio’ was like in the years between 1900 and 1927.

    There were plenty of Individual operators, but there were also countless stations run by educational institutions, farm bureaus, churches, labor unions, and community and ethnic groups of all kinds.

    These stations just didn’t die off because commercial radio had a business model that made its pioneers wealthy . . . commercial radio became a gold mine only after commercial broadcasters and the earliest radio regulators relentless swept non-commercial broadcasters off the airwaves, with restrictions on their operating hours, power limits, and frequent changes to their frequency assignments.

    Blogging and the Internet have a strikingly different technology model from early radio, and it will be much more difficult for mainstream corporate media to use the same tactics to wipe out non-commercial competition on the Internet . . . but that hasn’t stopped Comcast, AT&T, Hollywood, and the music industry from trying to shape the Internet and related regulatory issues (copyright, peer-to-peer, bandwidth caps etc) in their favor.

    We need to be vigilant and we need to lobby hard for the widest possible broadband deployment and the widest possible use of unlicensed spectrum to keep the communication revolution moving forward in a distributed, democratic direction.

  9. Nick Carr

    Thanks, Bart. But, honestly, I think you’re being a bit naive here. The public gets what the public wants, as Paul Weller said, and money talks, even to amateurs. I would like to think that noncommercial media would triumph in an open market, but, um, the evidence says otherwise. (Not that that justifies governmental or corporate strong-arming, of course.) I assume you’re not blind to the commercialization of blogging over the last five years. Are you seriously going to argue that that trend isn’t a consequence of consumer demand and the desire of bloggers to be popular and make a buck? (And, I stress, that doesn’t take anything away from the amateur bloggers, like me, who continue to publish and be read, to one degree or another.)

  10. Markus Breuer

    The stratification of the Blogosphere seems to be a fairly normal process and more a transformation than a death. In the pioneer days the little enthusiasts were recognized as “The Blogosphere”. Now, the professional and semiprofessional “blogs” get the most visibility.

    As you have said it yourself, Nick, there are still many, many more small, single bloggers and their numbers are not dwindling (but growing more slowly, obviously). They still form a community (or: many communities) but they do not constitute what is seen as “The Blogosphere” anymore – and some lament that, of course.

    When one compares this transformation process to the early radio operators and what is Radio (Big Capital) today … I would still argue, that the barriers to move from hobby to semi-professional is a lot lower with blogging. I am not sure if this is really important, though, as not every blogger WANTS to become a national (or worldwide) celebrity.

    Another factor, which is diluting that visibility of grass roots blogging these days is microblogging (Twitter et all and the status maessages in the social networks). I am not sure, but I guess the number of Tweets and Facebook status updates is much larger than that of blog posts these days – and even less visible. Many active bloggers of the past are twittering more and more these days and their blog posts get more rare – as one of the purposes of blogging – connecting to others – seems to be more easily achieved with Tweets.

    Is there a Tweeterosphere killing the Blogosphere? Probably not. There are millions of small Tweeterospheres, overlapping and interconnecting – and we already have celebrities here too. Let’s see what happens.

    Panta Rhei.

  11. Linus T.

    What I find interesting is how the “top 100 blogs” are taken as gospel. Those blogs appeal to the masses because of design and the marketing buzz that they create. They are not necessarily reflective of the other blogs that are out there.

    Of course they are taking longer to load and have more bells and whistles. That is because they are “marketing” themselves and are, IMO, no long blogs in the traditional sense. A blog or weblog was primarily a place for someone to muse about life. Today, blogs come in a variety of formats but the original one still is out there. Just because it doesn’t market as widely as others doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    And yanno, I rather enjoy those simplier blogs better. So if the world chooses not to see them, all the more for me to enjoy.

  12. Seth Finkelstein

    The above comments tell what I call the “Demon Government” myth. To put it hyperbolically, the advocates of this sort of theory blame everything bad on the Demon Government and give all credit for good to the market. Since history is complex, they can always find some aspect of government action to blame. To be fair, blaming the market entirely often oversimplifies history too. Though government is not an entirely separate entity from commercial interests.

    The fingernails-on-chalkboard noise from all this is the idea that if only Demon Government can be kept away – or even better, made to give subsidies to the businesses in this area – then democratic utopia will ensue.

  13. FAA356

    Why? Do you feel the need to try and kill what you, and others have worked on for endsless hours just because YOU. One little individual out of BILLONS on this PLANET.(only counting the humans)

    What about all the other beings who have no interest in the internet! Are you so ignorent to the fact that EVERY LIVING CREATURE HAS SOMETHING TO SHARE WITH THE WORLD!!!! So IF YOUR NOT SMART ENOUGHT TO REALIZE THAT. THEN YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SHARE OR NOTHING TO LEARN FOR ANYONE OR ANYTHING. It has been said many times. he who calls eveyone else a fool, Is the biggest fool of them all(meaning: a closed mind never grows. A closed mind is never willing to change and learn how to move along with the flow of life.) You should be inbracing,such a freedom.As blogging, And inviting ever tom,dick,and harry,and even, jane,Sara,Mary. To get in on blogging. Have you really nothing more to learn? The world was made to change!!!!!!!!!!!! the last thing I’ll say. Why? would you want to limit yourself. And your Ideals to only a few sources of information that dulls out only what it wants to give you. I thought that is why bloggs were statred in the first place, to get another point of view. Hell to look around the world and see everyones,point of view, so you can get a clearer view, of the picture of life. STOP trying LIMIT or DISMISS other beings POINTS OF VIEW, As not meeting up to your standards of what a blog should be. Remember for ever 100 people who dont like something, there is another 100 people who enjoy that samething. PLEASE!!!!!!! STOP TRYING TO LIMLT THE WORLD TO YOUR POINT OF VIEW. AND TAKE A LOOK AROUND FOR YOURSELF. WE CAN NO LONGER,AFFORD TO LET OTHER PEOPLE TELL US, WHAT IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR FACES, AND LET THEM LIE ABOUT IT… YOUR FALSE LEADING INFROMATION IS A DISAPEARING THING IN THE DIGITAL AGE. YOU CANT STOP THE TIDE OF TRUTHS THAT IS COMING… GO HIDE FROM IT IF YOU CAN.

  14. Private Joker

    FAA356: Are you an AI? Nick

    Posted by: Nick Car

    Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.

  15. Nick Carr

    rather than sharecrop my comments here

    Kevin, Of course you’re not going to sharecrop. You’re one of the plantation’s salarymen. Nick

  16. stereoroid

    I started blogging back in early 2002, long before any “blogging system” or CMS was around. I gave up regular blogging in 2007, though I still keep the site up and post “annual reports”. I basically ran out of things to say, or the willingness to spend a lot of time on a post for near-zero response.

    I suppose that if if it was my job to keep up-to-date on a topic (i.e. paid for my time) I could find things to say about it – but I’m no longer prepared to write reams unless it’s a topic I’m qualified to talk about, and can do so professionally.

    As for podcasts: don’t write them off yet. I find they’re a great way to catch up on news & culture while I’m on the move. As with blogging, the good ones have gone more professional and topical, and (besides) I never liked the ones that consist of one or two people sitting in a room, talking about themselves. (No, they’re not all like that, thankfully – see e.g. the NPR program podcasts at npr.org – I can highly recommend Planet Money.)

  17. Van der Leun

    Well, there is the plantation blogosphere and then there is THE ALL CAPSLOCK BLOGOSPHERE RUN BY ANDROID POSTING ROBOTS LIKE FAA356.

    Fertilize the former. NUKE THE LATTER.

  18. Diccon Spain

    Blogging has evolved but it still feels like it’s been ghettoised by many businesses. What we have attempted with the SpainWilliams website (which has been around a few years) is to modify our thinking about structure and base the whole thing around blogging technology, making the most of the power and flexibility this provides. Looking around I think this total integration of blogging technology and approach, which I really expected to see everywhere, just hasn’t happened outside of big online news organisations. I suppose I shouldn’t complain as it has been incredibly effective and has stayed under the radar. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be pointing this out!

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