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. Chris_B


    is it just that I read you wrong, or are you somehow speaking for all females? Oh and FWIW, that whole “whiteguy” line is PC to the point of making you look foolish. Just my opinion of course. (weasel weasel)


    I see a similarity in this issue and the Tim O’Reilly thing you linked to recently ( (which I view as utter hogwash) in that certain folks are trying to sell us this new egalitarianism and utopia of tech while in fact it still takes hard work, face time and backing funds to get ones message out to the public.

  2. dahowlett

    Not sure if you’ve thought this one through or not nick but surely it’s not all a numbers game but more one of authority and influence? I’d much rather know that 500 readers who are doing things that matter want to read my stuff rather than millions who don’t. So that’s elitist? Right? Wrong.

    Example – a college professor Skype called me from Indiana last evening. He wanted my take on a topic. We quickly found a lot of common ground. I learned some valuable stuff as a result.

    He’s influencing entire classloads of students. That means a generation of people. That’s fricking awesome in my book. The cost to me? Same as Vinnie. Time and a few $00.

    As to free. Nah – not all. I’m commercial but I have rules. No click through payment systems. No hiding stuff from me or your customers. If you do, I’ll make sure it gets written about. If you do good things, I’ll say that too. more important I’ll say why. If you don’t like those rules, we don’t do business.

  3. The Disembodied Head of Dick Devos


    While I fear that you are probably a communist or at the very least French, I think you might be able to help me understand why this system of a few powerful individuals who aggregate the efforts and attention of the masses below them on the pyramid sounds so naggingly familiar to me.

    I have jotted down some thoughts on this that can be read at my campaign HQ.

  4. Anonymous

    Nick, I neglected to include one more comment.

    Surely you remember from your HBR days what it takes to keep those castles going. Gartner (my alma mater) now spends $ 450 m a year on SG&A and probably another $ 50 m in publishing tech and training. Spread that over what it says are 1,200 analysts and consultants and that is a platform cost of 400K a year for each (we can argue what percent of those 1,200 truly use the platform effectively so the average cost is even higher)

    Now think of the cost of your and my platform.

    My Robin Hoods are Google, Typepad etc for bringing us an unbelievably affordable platform. What you and I do with the platform is up to us.

    Living the simple life outside the castle ain’t too bad. Enjoy – my fellow peasant -)

  5. Nick Carr

    Disembodied Head: So the blogosphere takes the Amway model and applies it to media, huh? You know, you’re giving me an idea for a post. But there’s not really a multi-tier pyramid structure in the blogosphere, is there? Or am I just missing it?

    Dennis and Vinnie: Good points – there’s no doubt that the economics of blogging (and other online media) can be turned to the advantage of the peasant (so to speak). But I don’t think that contradicts my point that, on the “citizen journalism” side, the egalitarian rhetoric is betrayed by the patronage structure.

  6. Anonymous

    Nick, I think you missed that point in both Dennis and my responses. Neither of us cares if we are list A’s – we write for enterprise readers. We fully know if we wrote about wikipedia and podcasting and Google we could also play that game and show up at the top of Techmeme. That’s not what we are after. To us writing about Oracle and HP and other enterprise stuff is far more important and relevant. I get my jollies from a CIO comment more so than if an A-lister links to me. That is my patronage structure…

  7. Tristan Louis

    dahowlett makes a crucial point here: the stories live on and create interesting new opportunities. Look at the people in this discussion. I’ve had some email exchanges with some of the people here, exchanges that could not have happened without a blog.

    Am I an A-lister? No.

    Do I have influence? Arguable. But through my blog, I’ve managed to get some provoking thoughts from smart people.

    In a way, it’s not dissimilar to what Seth is pointing to in terms of his “A-lister wins” except it “everybody wins.” If your post is relevant enough (and, granted, you have to market it if you don’t have an existing audience), the follow-up discussion is enlightening on its own. Look at this discussion thread: I’d venture that the discussion is more interesting than the original post (no offense meant) in that it covers a wide number of disparate views that create a richer picture of the subject.

    Prior to blogging that was not doable: the media spoke but few could respond (the “freedom of the press belongs to those who have one” argument). I believe that arguments about the A-list may, in the end, be moots. The A-list exist, there may or may not be a power structure in place BUT (and this is crucial) the existence of the A-list may not matter that much beyond academia. I know of some A-listers who will not link to me largely because they believe that I’m not deserving and I’m OK with that position. I also know of A-listers who will link to almost every post I do.

    Did I crash the club? No, not really. I may pick up a couple of extra readers in the process but, unless I get a response (and not the “that’s interesting” but a fuller entry), I don’t feel that a link is all that powerful.

    To attempt to treat the blogosphere as a whole is the wrong approach and so, the royalties are only royalties within small subsets of a community (more like the bourgeousie than royalties, to take the model further): does Kos have much influence among the TechCrunch crowd? Probably not. Does TechCrunch have much influence in the political sphere? Doubtful. When you start parsing things in a more detailed fashion, the concept of royalties is stripped as bar as the emperor in his shiny new clothes.

    Is there an egalitarian blogosphere? Probably not but the base question is “does it matter?” (and that’s it in lower case :) )

  8. Neil

    You always have something that an A-lister doesn’t have: your own set of dedicated readers. Do you really want all the attention that an A-lister gets? — because then blogging turns into something akin to writing a newspaper column every day. There is no way a blogger who is that popular can develop the relationships with others that makes blogging so special.

    But it is a little sad that blogging has become so corporate and full of cliques. I used to think of blogging as an escape form the office politics of the real world, but it is clearly now the same game.

  9. Hazel Motes


    Thank you for the link to the Shirky piece, which is depressing. It seems to overlook that the range of writing that people can do in their spare time and for the love of it is pretty narrow — short op-ed pieces, maybe short essays, certainly not novels or longer works. It also says blogs will become like the telephone — a means of keeping in touch with intimates and acquaintences, and not a means of producing works of broader appeal and importance. That will be left for print and the existing distributors, as you explain.

  10. Bryan Covington

    The situation is only depressing if you want to be the King. If you’re happy farming, then things are not nearly so bad.

    This is similar to an story I wrote in December predicting the eminent collapse of the blogosphere called “Who Will Survive the Blogpocolypse?“. It’s remained one of my top ten posts for months now.

    I compared things to a black hole, but your comparison is probably more apt.

  11. The Disembodied Head of Dick Devos

    Amway Mr. Carr? Multi-tier pyramid structure? Hmm. Could be what I was thinking of. Not sure – limited supply of blood to the brain on account of being a Disembodied Head and all.

    Rather than being classically hierarchical, the blogosphere is segmented by area of interest. In each of these areas of interest, there are big sites that aggregate the attention and audience of a host of smaller sites in their “downline”.

    Oh my God, I think I am having an “episode”. Sorry for using all the big words. Don’t worry folks, I’m still the same old average-Joe billionaire you’ve come to think you know and trust.

    Love me, Fear Me, Friend me!

  12. John Paul

    The truth is painful Nick, but it’s still the truth.

    It’s about time that bogging purists understand the harsh reality facing them, and unfortunately it will take many more respected authorities like yourself saying the same thing before peasants accept the facts. They will be left outside the castle gates if they ignore capitalist principles and suppress that drive.

    Maybe it’s because my partner and I are business owners, or because we exclusively work with business owners every day, and have the focus of bogging for business (not for readers) — but these points seem obvious.

    Yet it’s the obvious that can often be the most dangerous. Lies can be lived for a long time before a person comes to the realization that they’ve bought into a lie.

    From my vantage point, this is the problem with the blogoshere — bogging evangelists have bought into their own lies. And their still trying to pull others down into their time-sapping pit of lack and unfulfilled desires by laying out a host of unrealistic rules.

    The business owners on our subscriber list and even many of our clients are incredibly confused with what advice they read from pro-bloggers and other bogging evangelists. That fact is what has made us decide to take the gloves off and reveal the lies being told in a new multi-part article series Bogging For Business: Dispelling Myths and Clearing The Muddy Waters.

    Would love to hear your comments on the thoughts put forth.


  13. coders4hire

    While I appreciate your opinion on this matter, your theory goes by the ‘old school’ rules of advertising. The rule goes like this… the more eyeballs, the better.

    I would counter that a lower number of readers who build a relationship with a blogger could result in a higher ROE… Return On Eyeballs. I am not looking to make a living off of my blog and do not want a million readers. However, I want to have an impact with the readers I have. This will lead to better relationships with them and their companies in the long run.

    Warmest Regards,


  14. Tom Coates

    The first thing I’d say is that you’re being extremely unfair to Seth. The point is not that if you want an A-list weblogger to link to you that you should link to them, it’s that if you want any weblogger to link to you then you should write about something they’ve talked about. It’s impossible for people to read everything on the internet, but people follow conversations around the things that they’ve written and track them. This is totally predictable behaviour and the same at the top of the pile as it is at the bottom. The way to get who are already in the ecosystem reading your stuff is to get involved in the conversations that they’re having, not sit on the edge and wait for them to find you. That’s just not going to work. There’s nothing cynical about this state of affairs, nothing evil or whatever. It may be frustrating for you, but that’s another point. It may also be that we’re living in a rich get richer environment, but again – that’s completely distinct from whether this is an act of control from the top of the pile or a simple fact of networked life.

    The other thing I’d say is that you seem to have it in your head that weblogs are about being famous and well-read. In fact, for most people they’re about engaging in a conversation with a few friends or showing their grandmothers pictures of their kids. It’s always been like that and so it should be. It’s a communicative medium – and the pundits and publishers at the top end are as representative of the rest of us as Tom Cruise is. Surprise! There’s a celebrity culture going on. This is totally predictable. On the other hand, there are dozens, hundreds of microcommunities of webloggers talking between each other about every given subject you can imagine. That’s where the personal value is – engaging with people who you can have a debate with around things that are important. I can tell you this much – when I started getting a few thousand people reading my site every day it made it much harder to write and be personal, much harder to deliver.

    The final thing I think you’re missing is that it isn’t the ten or twenty people at the top that have an impact on the media, it’s the collective power of the entire ecosystem. Individually, none of us with the exception of the Boingers can really hope to have an impact in the world greater than that of a national newspaper. But collectively, through aggregate action, by each of us doing something spectacularly good or well written every so often and that being picked up and taken further by someone else and publicised by other people, we have a genuine empowered citizenry able to sanity and fact-check the media.

    Do we all become stars out of the thing? No. That wasn’t the point. There’s six billion people in the world one way or another. We’re not all going to be The Pope. The point is to express yourself, engage with your communties and be an active and engaged citizen in whatever way you find valuable and interesting. If you crave power and fame more than anything else, then you can get it, but don’t be surprised if you have to resort to tactics you might not like to get it. The rest of us are happy with respect.

  15. enigma_foundry

    Sometimes the best place to put your ideas is as comments, or even a stand-alone article on someone else’s blog.

    I don’t have time to create my own blog and create the content to get the one billion hits that popular blogs do. So what I had done was submit an article to a blogger that I respected very much, and who I thought would see a tie-in to his blog’s theme. Ed Felten, quite generously, agreed to post my article on his blog, Freedom-to-Tinker.

  16. Tish Grier

    Chris B:

    why is it when an argument is 95% male-dominanted, and a woman shows up, there’s always one jack-ass(and I use the term affectionately) who assumes she’s speaking for all women? If you are referring to my longish post, most of what I said clearly indicates my own perspective. When I talk about women bloggers being more relational–well, if you knew as many as I do (yes, I’m horribly well-connected to the female blogosphere if I do say so myself) and had the linking experience I have, and had to bulid a second newsy blog in order to get men to link. and knew anything about communication patterns among men and women, you’d know from whence I am talking…

    Upon reflection, it IS rather interesting that I had to build a second, topic-oriented blog to not only get links from men, but to also get A-lister males to link to me. How curious…

    Yet if you’re referring to my liking to watch boys fight…no, I’ll claim that as my own. other women will have to speak for themselves on that one.

    as for my comments being P.C? I think the unfolding dialogue in the comments proves my point….which, then makes it not p.c. at all but quite true in this particular test case…

    and, yes, I will agree with you that you’re a major weasel. if other women think you’re a weasel, they’ll have to admit that themselves.

  17. Oliver Widder

    You’re right.

    I think the whole 2.0 is boiling in its own gravy.

    But nevertheless writing is better than not writing.

    As often, I made a small cartoon.



  18. zapgerms

    Great comments, Nick. I tried hard for a number of months to climb the pop-blog ladder, including linking to A-list blogs and adding links to those kind A/B-list bloggers who regularly invite others to list a post title and links with trackbacks. I also asked A-listers to link to me.

    For a while I climbed up the Truth Laid Bear evolutionary chain, which attracted some more visitors and links. Then I realized that TLB was regularly subtracting old links, and I went back down the chain.

    I also discovered that nearly all my visitors were arriving by search engine, rather than by return visits. It was nice that my frequent posts were getting my blog spidered more frequently by Google, and I did some keyword research to figure out what phrases to add to my blog-post titles in order to boost my rankings further for those phrases. But the fact that most people were arriving by search engines — and then not returning — meant they had a one-time need for the info I was writing about (bacterial and viral infections and related matters), and really didn’t care to read about that topic regularly. And since I’m not a doctor/nurse, the medblogging community didn’t link to me (even though for a long time I linked to , and commented upon, a number of their blogs), I suppose because I wasn’t a member of their profession and providing “actionable intelligence” for their daily experiences.

    I realized in the end that not many people are interested in the topic I was writing about, unless they or someone they know gets sick. Once it’s no longer a mystery or an issue, they get back to their normal lives — which for 99% of humans, means not thinking about being sick.

    So, in the end there were a number of reasons why I found my audience limited to about 30-50 visitors per day, with only about 1-2 returnees per day.

    I still don’t understand one thing, though. I posted often and tried to write intelligent comments that would provide useful info, some food for thought, and some of my own thoughts. But Glenn Reynolds (do I need to mention he’s Instapundit?) often links to something with “heh”, and no other commentary whatsoever. Do people really find that interesting — not irritating, as I do?

  19. Dave Lucas

    Hits. Traffic. Links. It’s nice to know people are reading your blog, whether it’s 30 or 300 or 3000. But unless your main concern is cashing in on those adverts, what’s the point? And how many people actually click thru any of those ads anyway? I created a new blog (which I hope to build into a discussion board via comments). I have no plans for any ads (unless Google makes it mandatory), and no plans for any “tip jars.”

  20. Netpo


    Loved your post and added you to my aggregator. I have so many feeds about how blogs are changing the world, tearing down the wall, upending business as we know it, that once in a while, it’s good to see someone swim against the “irrational blogguberance” current.

    I see that other commenters have already pointed out Shirky’s piece, who remains the definitive authority on this.

    Another piece I religiously keep in my portofolio is this little read article from NY magazine aptly entitled “the haves and the haves nots of the blogging boom”. Do make sure to take a look at the accompanying “Linkology” diagram as well, which describes the natural endogamy and nepotism of the blogosphere. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s human nature, and human nature -in an unregulated encvironement- has never ever produced a level, egalitarian, playing field.

  21. Siona van Dijk

    First off, thanks for hosting an excellent exchange.

    I’m going to chime in along with those others who don’t necessarily share this serf/kingdom intepretation. It’s in part because I was drawn to the blogosphere for different reasons than Seth. I started because I’d enjoyed the relationships I’d started to grow with other bloggers, and I wanted a place to grow these further. I like the World Cafe angle. I like the notion of blog as global conversation.

    I get a tremendous degree of fulfillment and satisfaction with really CONNECTING with people, and I could care less whether that person is linked to by one person or by millions. In any case, I think sometimes the so-called blog-peasants, we of the “great unread,” are much happier and more satisfied with their interactions; it’s we who are better able to nurture a real and sustained community, whearas those with myriad readers struggle with a deluge of comments and email. (This is a fine example.)

    Anyway, what good is fame, unless it’s FOR something, unless it’s about making a difference in the world and affecting matters you think are important? If you take that approach, than a guerilla angle makes more sense anyway; I know, that by leaving personalized, thoughtful comments on the blogs of other “peons” I’ll have really touched their lives. Having a blog that’s read by thousands in no way ensures the message will be taken to heart. I’d much rather engage in a dialogue than preach. I don’t want fans; I want to grow ideas and to be challenged and to explore. I want feedback and interaction, not admiration and impersonal influence. I like the sense of community that’s available online. While having a newspaper that only reaches fifty people is a little disappointing, having a conversation that includes that many is phenomenal. It’s a matter, as always, of perspective.

  22. Badger Hemulen

    I agree with Tish – and am happy rolling around in the magic middle. The bourgeoisie of blogging barely even knows that A-listers exist. Wh

    From my point of view the feminist blogosphere has been a great thing – a revolutionary thing which has allowed connections that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

    What about building up that middle so that there isn’t one A-list… I still believe that we are decentralizing information and power and that there’s More Room.

    – Liz

  23. Jenn aka Je Sais

    To paraphrase my writing coach, a blogger is someone who blogs. Its as simple as that. If you are attempting to blog your way into fame in fortune, you have to be just as diligent in promoting your blog as you would, say a manuscript. It seems so simple to build a blog, and publish your work, but if you expect fame and fortune to come your way you better treat it like a business. You need to network online the same way you would network face to face. Posting, commenting, trackback-ing, linking, there’s a boomerang effect. And you better be good at what you’re doing, else no one will return to see what you have to say.

    BTW I blog for myself. I blog for fun. It’s part of my creative process and exactly three people read it. I’m fine with that.

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