The Great Unread


Once upon a time there was an island named Blogosphere, and at the very center of that island stood a great castle built of stone, and spreading out from that castle for miles in every direction was a vast settlement of peasants who lived in shacks fashioned of tin and cardboard and straw.

Part one:

On the nature of innocent fraud

I’ve been reading a short book – an essay, really – by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Economics of Innocent Fraud. It’s his last work, written while he was in his nineties, not long before he died. In it, he explains how we, as a society, have come to use the term “market economy” in place of the term “capitalism.” The new term is a kinder and gentler one, with its implication that economic power lies with consumers rather than with the owners of capital or with the managers who have taken over the work of the owners. It’s a fine example, says Galbraith, of innocent fraud.

An innocent fraud is a lie, but it’s a lie that’s more white than black. It’s a lie that makes most everyone happy. It suits the purposes of the powerful because it masks the full extent of their power, and it suits the purposes of the powerless because it masks the full extent of their powerlessness.

What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere – that it’s open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media – is an innocent fraud.

Part two:

The loneliness of the long-tail blogger

The thing about an innocent fraud, though, is that it’s not that hard to see through. Often, in fact, you have to make an effort not to see through it, and at some point, for some people, the effort no longer seems worth it. A few days back, the blogger Kent Newsome asked, “Who are the readers of our blogs?” His answer had a melancholy tone:

The number of bloggers competing for attention makes it seem like the blogosphere is a huge, chaotic place. But it only seems that way because we have all ended up in a small room at the end of the hall. When people refuse to converse with me or go out of their way to link around me, it hurts a little. Until I remember that while they aren’t listening to me, no one in the real world is listening to them either …

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy writing. But sometimes it feels vaguely depressing to write something, put it up and wait anxiously for someone to reply via comment or link.

A handful of people responded to Newsome’s post, among them the long-time blogger Seth Finkelstein. Finkelstein’s tone was much darker. You sensed not only the resignation but also the bitterness that is always left behind when a fraud is revealed:

To be more personal here, I wrote because:

1) I was suckered into the idea that blogs were a way to “route around” media power, and to be HEARD.

2) I had delusions of influence.

3) The random-payoff of attention makes it seem far more effective than it actually is.

4) It’s painful to admit that you’ve wasted so much time and effort and pretty much nobody is listening.

Blog evangelism is very cruel, as it preys on people’s frustrated hopes and dreams.

My blog is read by a few dozen fans … I’ve come close to shutting it down at times, and will finally reach the breaking-point eventually.

The powerful have a greater stake in the perpetuation of an innocent fraud than do the powerless. Long after the powerless have suspended their suspension of disbelief, the powerful will continue to hold tightly to the fraud, repeating it endlessly amongst themselves in an echo chamber that provides a false ring of truth.

Part three:

How to get a link from an A Lister

I met Seth Finkelstein recently. We had both been invited to participate in a day-long conference about “hyperlinking” at the Annenberg School in Philadelphia. The conference’s first panel was moderated by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who also writes the popular blog Pressthink, which has the following tag line: “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.” During a brief Q&A session at the close of the panel, a woman in the audience expressed frustration about getting bloggers like Rosen to link to her site. She asked the professor if he had any suggestions. Rosen said that the best way to get a link from him is to write a post about one of his posts. He carefully monitors mentions of his work in other blogs, he said, and he frequently provides links back to them, at least when they have some substance.

Rosen’s answer could not possibly have been more honest. The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite. A blog-peasant, one of the Great Unread, comes to the wall of the castle to offer a tribute to a lord, and the lord drops a couple of coins of attention into the peasant’s little purse. The peasant is happy, and the lord’s hold over his position in the castle is a little bit stronger.

“Ghost of Democracy” is a wonderful term. It perpetuates the innocent fraud even as it exposes it.


One day, a blog-peasant boy found buried in the dust beside his shack a sphere of flawless crystal. When he looked into the ball he was astounded to see a moving picture. It was an image of a fleet of merchant ships sailing into the harbor of the island of Blogosphere. The ships bore names that had long been hated throughout the island, names like Time-Warner and News Corp and Pearson and New York Times and Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast and McGraw-Hill. The blog-peasants gathered along the shore, jeering at the ships and telling the invaders that they would soon be vanquished by the brave lords in the great castle. But when the captains of the merchant ships made their way to the gates of the castle, bearing crates of gold, they were not repelled by the lords with cannons but rather welcomed with fanfares. And all through the night the blog-peasants could hear the sounds of a great feast inside the castle walls.

95 thoughts on “The Great Unread

  1. EzraBall

    Perhaps for people who are using blogging as a way to route around old media, sure, your low readership may be disappointing. But I, and most of my friends who blog, are only trying to route around sending mass emails to family and friends. Or sending letters to the editor. Or participating in discussion boards. In that context, 50 people reading my blog seems quite gratifying.

  2. Ethan

    I’ll second Ezra’s comments and note that the desire to be linked to, or to have boosted traffic numbers, is an answer in need of a question. Namely, “and then what?”

    This is not to excuse the nature of the A-List popularity machine. Some of it *is* fairly innocent, I’ll note, as I am unsure that Heather Armstrong strongly encouraged nearly everyone to associate being fired for blogging as being “Dooced” – with a link to her site for context, of course. Not to rip on Dooce; I don’t read it myself, but I don’t advise anyone not to. But I am inclined to say that X number of references to that site are essentially “unearned”, if you follow me.

    Having said that, what will happen if [blogger] gets more inbound links or higher inbound traffic? Fame? Fortune? Concubines? And as Ezra said, is that everyone’s mutual goal?

    WRT Seth Finkelstein’s quoted comments, I am a subscriber to Infothought (along with 239 of my closest friends, per Bloglines), but the material is er, “niche” content. It’s OK to say the same about my work at, I can take it.

    But like Kent Newsome said, sometimes it’s deflating to cast out one’s pearls and come up empty in the traffic/comments department. I come back to Earth when I remind myself that it’s my personal space to explore the things that *I* want to explore, audience be damned.

    Thus to Kent and Seth, is your primary intent to be viewed as “thought leaders”? I am genuinely curious.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Ethan: In a word, “Yes”. The usual phrase is “public intellectual”.

    I have done much original civil-liberties research, particularly regarding censorware, which I’ve wanted to disseminate.

    I don’t mean the following in a rude way, but as a direct answer to your question: There’s a few common blog-evangelism arguments that come up. One I term “You can’t be read by everyone, so you might as well be happy being read by no-one” (more accurately – a very tiny fan audience). This sets up a straw-man for the evangelist to knock down. All activist, literary, professional, intellectual pursuits are in some sense niche interests, compared to the overall population. But even so, the exponential distribution problem applies within a niche, of a few people getting heard, and everyone else having to beg them to get meaningful distribution.

    Another straw-man is to view a shorthand (“links”) out of context, away from what it’s used to signify, and then ridicule that isolated context. Obviously, pure infamy, or a jillion links from spam-blogs, is not what I’m after. But intellectual influence, including professional recognition, and bluntly, some the monetary opportunities which can flow from that, are very reasonable desires (you don’t think people attend conferences for the wild drunken parties, do you?).

    By the way, that “239 readers” number is misleading. It’s just the number of people who at least have the headlines scroll by. My tracking indicates that far fewer actually *read* the post. This isn’t surprising, but it’s important to keep in mind how inflated those statistics can be (a minor aspect of the blog hype).

  4. Morgan Goeller


    Loved the post.

    Your argument seems to be that the old gatekeepers were bad so therfore all gatekeepers are bad. Although I am no fan of hierarchy, I think that this assumption just ignores how human beings work and think. Our brains naturally classify and connect ideas, and attempt to enjoy the wheat and ignore the chaff. These classifications lead to value judgements, which lead to hierarchy.

    The blogosphere isn’t so much a bastion of democracy as it is a new frontier, where adventures can be had and legends can be made. This means there is great opportunity, but their isn’t infinite opportunity. The laws of physics, humanity, and cognition still apply.

    A comparison might be made with MMORPG’s. The reason why there are very few fully functioning societies in online games is that no one wants to be the peasant. No one really wants to be the person who grinds corn 16 hours a day and goes to bed hungry. Everyone wants to be the hero. And, when you are paying someone else to do the work you certainly can do that. However, when you are going up against a horde of people (especially those pesky well-funded established professionals) then things aren’t so easy.

    As bloggers, we shouldn’t complain when people don’t read our stuff. It is just an indication that something is amiss, either in how we market ourselves or the quality or of our work. Like it or not, a blogger is an information entrepeneur, and the only measures of success are personal satisfaction and delivering consistent results. No one is entitled to an audience, just the opportunity to create one.

    BTW, here is my own plucky little blog on an obscure subject that is just desperately looking for a link from an A-Lister. Oh, woe is me ;-)


  5. Ethan

    Seth, no offense taken (or meant).

    But intellectual influence, including professional recognition, and bluntly, some the monetary opportunities which can flow from that, are very reasonable desires (you don’t think people attend conferences for the wild drunken parties, do you?).

    OK, my follow-up question is, does blogging indeed raise the likelihood of this happening, specifically related to your aspirations? I won’t get into all of the ins and outs of “fame” as applied to “A-List” bloggers, but the matchbook cover version is that many A-Listers thrive on “that which is valued”. I don’t mean this as a put-down. More to the point, this comes down to “tell me how you’re measuring me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.”

    I’ll be honest and note that I’m really not that familiar with the scope and breadth of your interests. If pressed, I’d boil it down to “censorware research” but I don’t know that this does any justice. But I think it is fair to inquire as to whether blogging does in fact further those aims (and by extension, your notoriety).

    Hopefully I left all of the straw in the barn this time.

  6. cmb

    I don’t quite know how you went fron a (great) little book to this sucky rant that has almost nothing to do with that book.

    For the record – I’m just writing this to let you know that random people read your stuff, and they dig it. I’m drifting towards more of an interest in say, solar energy – but your insights into what has been the most important technological field of our times is invaluable.

  7. Seth Finkelstein

    Ethan, that’s example the point of my comment above, and the bitterness. To some extent, I think I was “taken” by hucksters who prey on people’s frustrated hopes and dreams. I got the impression “that blogging indeed raise[s] the likelihood of this happening”. All the slogans about “route around” the media, “formerly known as the audience”, “now everyone has a printing press”, etc. But as far as I could determine when measured objectively, the effect is extremely marginal if present, and arguably negative for a lot of reasons. And when I said things like that, I’d be told it was all my fault for not believing hard enough, that’s whining, and nobody likes a whiner (i.e., saying “it doesn’t work” shows I have a bad attitude so of course it doesn’t work, just like being skeptical of fairies causes them to disappear, you gotta believe, clap your hands, pay no attention to the venture capital funds behind the curtain …).

    And to pre-emptively answer “Why continue?”, again, the idea is that there’s maybe a lot of psychological reasons in play which are bad, similar to those which drive compulsive gambling or a destructive romantic relationship. That the question “If it’s not good for you, then why do you do it?” often has a complex answer having to do with continued temptation, or the emotional pain of admitting having made a mistake.

    There maybe some truth in the saying that you can’t cheat an honest man, but human frailty shouldn’t excuse the hustlers who exploit it.

  8. Sid Steward

    In the domain of software I have found it’s very hard to get and hold people’s attention. Free stuff isn’t enough, even if it’s good. Look at Firefox or OpenOffice.

    I believe marketing is the key — damn the product (well, almost). I suspect that blogs are the same way.

    To help folks with no ad budget promote their blogs, I created a service where you can trade eyeballs with opt-in partners: LinkLike.

    Ideas for keeping myths at bay: write a business plan, set measurable goals and measure your success. Rechart your course to suit. This is really just a page from Nick’s book, er, blog.

  9. Kent Newsome


    I’m not sure that I know what “thought leader” means, or that everyone would share the same definition. So let me answer you this way.

    What I really want is for my writing and analysis to stand or fall on its own merits- and not due to my relationship (or lack thereof) with the so-called blogging elite. If I am proven an idiot, that’s OK. I’d have no one to blame but myself. But the people who control the small room I wrote about in the text Nick quoted aren’t always willing to engage people who don’t drink from the same kool-aid as they do. It is, I think, a form of position censorship- which is part of why I enjoy Seth’s writing so much.

    I guess to paraphrase an old theory of mine- I just want to participate in the conversation. Whether I become a thought leader or the dunce in the corner is not so much the issue.

  10. Sid Steward

    Maybe blog disillusionment is so bitter because it tugs on the day-to-day illusions we wrap ourselves in. The world is a big, cold place that doesn’t care what I think — regardless of whether I blog or not. Better to not blog so I don’t learn just how small I am. Spend that time with people who I know and love instead. … dang, what am I doing, wasting my time commenting on a blog? I’m outta here. ;-)

  11. Philip Nelson

    Have you ever noticed how many people you read today you hadn’t heard of five years ago? Take you for example. To be sure, link love today is better than a hundred diggs, but over time, will the A listers command the same persistent media power of the big corporations? I don’t think so. New voices will continue to rise to the top and old voices will fade and I think this will happen faster than in times past.

    A hundred and more years ago, people wrote a lot more and it’s how we know them somewhat today. Writing to your community, however small, is just fine with lots of people and has that in common with the massive letter writing style of yesterday.

  12. Seth Finkelstein

    Philip: That’s what I call the “Fame Is Fickle” argument. Sure, some stars fade, other rise – but who cares if YOU remain in obscurity. You then make something I call the “One Reader Argument”. It’s when somebody says “I’m happy to spend hours and hours writing away if I have just one reader in the whole world, one other soul in the entire universe who finds my expressions have meaning for them. That makes it all worthwhile”. Great! I’m not – I wouldn’t be happy to have just a single reader. I won’t tell you that you’re wrong in your feelings. But don’t tell me I’m wrong in mine.

    Maybe I should write up a blog post about all of these :-(

  13. Kent Newsome

    Once again, I’ll make an analogy to songwriting- something I’ve done a lot longer than blogging.

    When you start writing songs, you’re happy as a clam just to have some words and music you wrote to listen to- maybe play for your family. After a while, though, what was once the joy of creation becomes a longing for the recognition of that creation.

    All the while you see people you knew back when you were starving musicians together begin to get some regional and national cuts- sometimes because they write great songs, but sometimes it’s just because they were in the right place at the right time or became friends with a producer.

    You figure your time will come and so you keep writing. But over time it seems that everyone has had their turn on the merry-go-round but you. Sure, you still love the music, but the failure to translate that love into an audience or some semblance of a living becomes highly frustrating.

    I know guys who are great writers and unbelievable performers- and who used to have record deals and decent press, who can barely feed their families now. Meanwhile some pretty face who can’t play an instument or cobble two chords together is becoming a star because the industry insiders are promoting him.

    At that point it becomes hard to get excited about writing a song that few beyond your immediate family will ever hear.

  14. Chris_B


    Thanks for expressing this so well.

    Its kind of easy to see why so many people were taken in by “blogs” especially the netheads who typically are known as “A List Bloggers”. My bet is that were one to profile them and the smart people who end up in cults, the stats might not be so different.

    Not that smart folks are automatically suckers, but when high ideals are waved in front of them, most of em will indeed roll over like a puppy.

    Its easy to forget that writing is work and doing it regularly and well is alot of work. When some form of compensation is not forthcoming, all but the most fanatical may become disenheartened.

    Lets hope that Jimmy Wales is never thought of as a latter day James Jones, or Dave Sifry as a David Koresh…

  15. Phil


    “you see people you knew back when you were starving musicians together begin to get some regional and national cuts- sometimes because they write great songs, but sometimes it’s just because they were in the right place at the right time or became friends with a producer.”

    I used to be a freelance journalist; I’ve written for something like a dozen different papers, magazines and Web sites. So that’s a lot of doors I managed to get open. I can think of two occasions when something I wrote was accepted on the basis of its quality alone. All the other times, I was taken on because I’d demonstrated that I could deliver something usable consistently and on time (which isn’t the same thing as quality!); or because I knew someone; or because I knew someone who knew someone.

    It’s basic social network behaviour. If you’re an editor (and I’ve sat on that side of the desk too), you rapidly put together a list of people you can rely on. There are times when you need to extend your network, or mend a hole in it (I got one of my writing gigs courtesy of somebody’s maternity leave), but mostly it’s easier to leave it as it is. Unless it’s really outstanding, one good piece of writing isn’t going to cut it – you could have been working on that one piece for six months, after all, or even got someone else to write it for you. A personal recommendation is actually more valuable.

    My point here is that the world already runs, to a significant extent, on backscratches and whuffies: the currency of bloggie patronage. And yet we persist in thinking of blogland as a place apart – and I include myself. I’m not currently looking for any writing work, but if I were I wouldn’t dream of trying to trade on my contacts with Nick, or with any of the other Real Journalists who I’ve encountered on blogs. It would just feel *wrong* – as wrong as BzzAgent or the wine-promotion deal one British blogger set up.

    I think there’s a temptation – encouraged by the ‘innocent fraud’ Nick describes – to treat blogging as a kind of vast RPG, a haven from real life rather than an element of it (World of Blogcraft?). You can do that on a Usenet newsgroup: everybody gets the same audience, most readers are there to write, and the elders of the group discourage me-too posts and advertising. The trouble with taking the conversation onto the Web is that most readers are only readers: as a result, there’s no discouragement of passive adulation or advertising, and no guarantee that most people will get any audience at all. In short, all the real-world mechanisms of hierarchy and exclusion kick in – and beyond a certain point there’s no way to ‘route around’ them.

  16. kmartino

    People blog for different reasons, not only to be influential. Lets set this down as a rule of fact okay? Without acknowledging it, those on both sides of this debate are raising up straw men to knock down.

    Most people I know who blog don’t care about being influential, they just want a way to be heard by the friends, family, co-workers – their own social community. They want a chance to define who and what they are.

    I’ve heard countless times, from folks, who I’ve tried to convince to start a blog, “I have nothing to say to the world.”

    Fact is, no one knows that, but at least you have an additional way of communicating that acts as a journal, as a memory extension, as a piece of identity.

    Nick, this is a well written piece, poetic even, but I don’t know so much if people fall for the story line of “have a blog, reach millions” anymore.

    I’ve had pretty intense discussions with folks like Jeff Jarvis over the existence of the A-List, usually well supported by Clay Shirky’s piece “Power Laws. Weblogs, and Inequality”.

    Where I’ve distinguished myself is with a nuanced view that people, like you, like Seth, like the great writers he mentions who I read everyday, who I consider friends, don’t want to agree with (understandable since they have purer hearts then mine…)

    Sure the A-list exists. It’s human nature. Within any social system such influence scales emerge. Not only is there an A-List – there are multiple A-Lists within topic spaces.

    And there is nothing you can do about it. Nothing.

    Kent’s piece about equating blogging to songwriting (I play guitar) is apt for a great many people that have some internal drives towards becoming famous or influential (like Seth and like me, but less so). And like any musician, if you have a goal to be influential, you need to do more then practice your art, you need to make a spectacle of it, spread word of it, find people to spread word of it, market the shit out of it. The web changes nothing on that score. It’s hurts the heart a bit if you are an idealist that believes that valuable hard work alone should earn you the influence you desire. But it’s part of our existence. Online and off.

    Those who deny it have something their selling. On both sides of the fence.

    For most people, the vast majority of folks, the A-List issue, it doesn’t matter – it’s about friends, family, co-workers – their own social community. And no A-Lister is keeping me from reaching them. From being heard by them.

    The magic of blogging, and the danger, that is rarely discussed, is that this sharing is done in what danah boyd calls the “super public”. By sharing our passions, concerns, our lives in a public space, the opportunity presents itself that we may be heard outside of our sphere of life. When that happens, sometimes it’s magic. Influence, sometimes follows. But more exciting is that sometimes, even new friendships are made.

    Nuance sucks don’t it? And if your goal is to be influential – it gets you nowhere fast.

  17. Nick Carr

    People blog for different reasons, not only to be influential. Lets set this down as a rule of fact okay? Without acknowledging it, those on both sides of this debate are raising up straw men to knock down.

    Very true.

    You might draw a rough distinction between private blogging and public blogging. Most bloggers appear to be private bloggers, who don’t seek influence or (more likely) seek it only for a very small audience of friends and family. That’s great. But there are also a large number of public bloggers who do seek influence or (at least) a voice in the public square.

    The question that led to this post (inspired originally by Kent’s question and Seth’s answer) is: Is the blogosphere really a more egalitarian medium than mainstream, traditional media? Needless to say, I have my doubts. In fact, it may well be less egalitarian. I think the underlying technological structure of the blogosphere is a patronage system, and that has also become its default social structure. Also, and this is something I didn’t touch on much, the hierarchy of the public blogosphere is in many ways built on the cult of personality, which is the opposite of egalitarianism (so far as I can see).

  18. Rob Hyndman

    I agree. I don’t see why blogging should be any different in this regard than any other creative activity. The egalitarian ethos is a fiction. Sure blogging is democratizing. But having a voice is not the same as being heard. Quality matters. Thank god.

  19. dmr

    I didn’t have much to disagree with in this discussion until the previous comment from Rob Hyndman that “quality matters.”

    The implication seems to be that the inegalitarian nature of the hierarchy is the product of some distinction on the basis of “quality,” and I don’t think that is the case at all.

    Unless one necessarily equates “popularity” with “quality.” Clearly, things that are popular exhibit some characteristic that makes them so, which might be considered as quality of some kind.

    But I think the inegalitarian nature of the hierarchy, whether due to patronage or power laws, actually works _against_ quality, in favor of the merely popular.

    The result is the creation of a mythos, of which the egalitarian blogosphere is but a small part, which is attractive, perhaps idealistic, and unquestionably popular, but demonstrably false and which serves as a barrier to critical thinking or productive discourse.

    Knocking down these fictions, often promoted by nice people who are warmly regarded by large audiences, is nearly impossible. It also, attracts a great deal of negative attention from those who embrace the mythos and the mythologizers; who then proceed to psychoanalyze the critics and dismiss their criticism and arguments on the basis of some mental or emotional deficiency. We are, by turns, bullies, pessimists, angry people, or simply envious of the success of others.

    But don’t try to sell me on the idea that “quality” is the basis for the rank in this hierarchy. That’s simply not true.

  20. Jerry Pounds

    I think everything worth saying has been said, but you’ll notice that does not deter me from commenting as well—and therein lies the essence of blogging for me. I want to learn something about myself through the real-time emergence of cognitive processing variations; self-exploration.

    The longer I stay in my head and the more I examine what I am attempting to communicate, the clearer my understanding of what I am about. It’s an exploratory, defining, clarifying and developmental experience.

    Therapeutic? Epiphanal? Cathartic? Your purpose evolves or devolves in relation to its fulfillment as you experience the effects of the act of blogging.

    If your not blogging for yourself, then you have an agenda; now you have become political. You want to influence someone to see you in a particular way. Aren’t I smart, creative, prescient, sensitive, and wise? Want your ideas to command attention?

    Sometimes we just want to connect—to hear someone say, I agree—I believe that also or I feel the same way. For a moment, we may cast off the yoke of alienation, the reality of our insularity in this life.

    There is always somebody behind the scenes applying influence to our perceptions, information and choices. It’s usually power and money that try to slant things to their advantage. It’s a fact of life that can be viewed as a conspiracy if one is predisposed to extremes of suspicion. The “good old boy network” is the way the world works.

    I don’t see a fraud—a sinister betrayal of those with innocent intent; if you want to be famous, then you have thrown yourself into a pretty competitive situation. So don’t be upset if somebody else has found a way to do that. You may just have to resort to Heather Armstrong’s tactics—use foul language interspersed with witty comments about life and a nauseating preoccupation with your 2 year old.

    People probably follow Heather’s life because they have found the intellectual joisting in the political blogs boring and futile. Smart people trying to outthink smart people who are all being manipulated by pandering politicians and greedy businessmen.

    No, I am not cynical. I am resigned.

Comments are closed.