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. Nick Holmes

    Nick – To extend your own analogy, blogs have become a utility. “Blogging” used to mean doing something different, but now that all sorts of people have found all sorts of uses for blogs and blog-like apps, some early adopters are aggrieved. But so too were the early adopters of the web. That’s progress.

  2. gianni

    Essentially true, and predictable; at the end of the day, “people” are the kilelr application of the Internet and the relationship between blogging and a discussion is akin to that of masturbation to intercourse.

    True, as Woody Allen said, masturbation is sex with someone I love, but intercourse always wins in the long run.

  3. Tim Bray

    So, we now have a couple of million voices, with mid-level individual presences such as my own having a few tens of thousands of readers, and with regular outbursts of blog-to-blog conversation. I’m not sure what the right word for this landscape is, but I’m pretty sure that “dead” isn’t it.

  4. alan

    “Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea. No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into the madhouse.”



  5. Nick Carr

    There are blogs, Tim, and long may they live (yours very much included); it’s the idea of the blogosphere that’s pushing up the daisies. If you come up with a new word for what remains, do let us know. Blogipelago, perhaps?

  6. Joe Duck

    Nope. The rumors of the death of the blogosphere are … greatly exaggerated. Ironically the medium is still improving, but not in the structured way articulate folks often prefer. Rather we see regular folks sharing their observations, sometimes in inspired ways but often just as part of a growing amateur and untuned symphony of insights. The good stuff is now distributed across such a large space and within massive comment streams that we need to build better blog search rather than a big blog mortuary.

  7. Barry Kelly

    Blogging is two things: a push-model for publishing (but with explicit user consent and control), and a platform that makes self-publishing much easier (user-modifiable websites with an ultra-simple content-management system – reverse-chronological-order posts with optional comments).

    To the extent that operations that publish RSS/Atom feeds are blogs, yes, blogging is being diluted. But this is less a matter of blogging than it is a matter of existing and new online media adopting the push-model of distribution.

    For that reason, to think that you’re looking at the blogosphere today by looking at sites like Technorati would be to be deeply deluded. I don’t think many people outside of so-called A-list and various other attention-seekers (and possibly advertisers) pay any attention to Technorati. I certainly never visit the site, and I’m a heavy subscriber of many feeds.

    Blogging is most valuable to me for niches, not mass-media popular publishing sites. Specifically: software development, finance, eclectic insider monologues, these are the things I subscribe to.

    If you stand so far back that all you see are the biggest things in the Technorati-defined blogosphere, of course all you’ll see are the least-common-denominator publishing operations that have opted to use RSS/Atom. But you’ll be missing the substance and utility of the long tail of attention by focusing on such a crass head.

  8. Jason@tinyComb.com

    As with anything popular, some parts will enter the mainstream, especially if it involves original news. One could make the distinction that once a blog enters the mainstream, that it takes on the definition of just an online newspaper with a distributed staff. Let’s take Silicon Allley Insider for example. They are now an online newspaper and the only thing that they hold true to the blogosphere is that they post in ‘reverse chronological order’ (the definition of a blog). But, what is the answer to this so-called death? If you think that it’s micro-blogging, you’re wrong. As we are seeing with the growing popularity of Twitter, even micro-blogging has entered the mainstream. If you ask me, Twitter is often times far less personal than a blog. I have to limit my characters and many times the people i follow are just syndicating an update from somewhere else (like a blog headline). Sorry Nicholas, as I have said before, it’s hard to call something dead that really has no definition and spans so many personalities, genres, formats, groups, etc. Maybe it’s mainstream, but what are you reccomending we do? Podcast? hah, right.


  9. Kevin Kelly

    I don’t think we’ll get (or need) a new name for the blogosphere. That hasn’t changed, only grown, as you admit. Instead we’ll get (and need) a new name for online bloggish magazines and news/opinion/group-reported newsletters and forums. None of the folks producing these mega sites are happy with the term blog anyway, so it is easy to see a new name coming. Once we remove the newly-named we’ll see that the blogosphere is still expanding – and as Tim says — no where near dead.

  10. pitsch

    it is strange that this critique appears after the election, which was probably the biggest success of online grassroots activism in history, including the means of blogs, small and mainstream, gaining unmeasured world wide attention.

    this is not the first hype curve to follow from abroad and in many countries in Europe the blogosphere never really took off.

    the technical analogy with radio sounded already wrong when Dave Winer used it as a metaphor for an early blog engine. it would apply though to podcasting, which uses voice and sound, more like the ugly child of the blogs.

    for many Europeans, blogging was a step back from the dialog oriented culture of usenet, mailinglists and online communities which later became social networks. maybe it is time to overcome the individualism of selfpromotional oriented blog culture, which only fits a few talented and hard working writers. as a form of American intellecualism, in the tradition of Mark Twain, blogs are there to stay.

  11. Nick Carr

    as a form of American intellecualism, in the tradition of Mark Twain, blogs are there to stay.

    Assuming there’s a there there.

  12. Seth Finkelstein

    The point is it’s not a “sphere”. It’s a very oligarchical, elitist, restrictive, “power-law” system. I think there’s a pretty good argument it’s worse overall than “mainstream media”.

    Can we just count off, in quasi-FAQ, the inevitable:

    Q: When I say “blog”, I mean it in sense “X” (e.g. personal diary)

    A: OK, but THIS post is about “blog” in sense “Y” (e.g. individual voice with significant media impact)

    Q; But many people are still writing diaries!

    A: See answer to last question.

    Q: There’s value in people’s efforts even if they aren’t A-listers.

    A: But there’s no significant audience for those Z-listers.

    Q: Well, I’m happy toiling away even for Just One Reader

    A: How nice for you. Others aren’t. And they aren’t wrong to be unhappy.

    [etc. – do I have to go on? does it do any good? :-( ]

  13. CS Clark

    I’m not sure, but rather than see this as blogs as a distinct new media disappearing, I would rather see it in the context of the individual web page disappearing – either falling to the for-proft corporate page or wikipedia – and blogs just being one of the phenomena of that age. I’ve been annoyed by this trend before blogs became big news, so I’m convinced that the blog was just a temporary hiatus in the period of people just getting elbowed out of the way.

  14. clairegiordano

    So much makes sense in your post, Nick, but not the conclusion. The blogosphere is certainly not dead. Is it different? Yes. Has the mainstream media joined the blogosphere? Yes. Have some writers morphed their blogs into full-blown media sites, by virtue of their first mover advantage and unique voice and talent? Yes.But the blogosphere isn’t dead: it’s just growing up.

    Individual voices continue to thrive, some with audiences in the tens of thousands, like Tim Bray, and some more modest in readership, like me. The blogosphere is no longer the exclusive domain of the early adopters, but that doesn’t mean the value has gone away. It means you have to look beyond the popular blogs, beyond the Technorati 100, to find the individual voices, and to see the value the individual bloggers are adding to the conversation.

  15. Seth Finkelstein

    Ah, knew I’d missed one.

    Q: Aren’t specialists with specialized audiences a unique and different development?

    A: No, there’s already been little newsletters, those are just moving online too.

    Q: But you can’t deny there’s more of them, so isn’t this utterly revolutionary?

    A: I can indeed deny a few more professional newsletters is utterly revolutionary.

    Q: If I say a few more == revolutionary, isn’t the burden on you to disprove it?

    A: No. That’s nearly proving a negative. The burden on you is to do more than handwave.

  16. Chris Duckworth

    Looking at the top 100 blogs on technorati? Yawn.

    While there is surely a place for blogging as a competitor to the major news and opinion outlets, for me the promise of blogging lies in its ability to connect small numbers of people who share rather narrow, nitch interests. The mainstream blogs covering major issues of national interest will catch lots of hits and turn up lots of results on Technorati or Google, but for folks who blog about suffering with a rare disease, or about issues facing the Lutheran church, or any other limited-appeal topic . . . that’s where the promise of the blogosphere is needed and thriving.

  17. Seth Finkelstein

    @Chris Duckworth – slight modification:

    Q: When I say “blog”, I mean it in sense “X” (e.g. diaries, chatting)

    A: OK, but THIS post is about “blog” in sense “Y” (e.g. individual voice with significant media impact)

  18. Studs McGonagle

    What did the term “blogosphere” ever really mean? If it was “we have 2kewl publishing toyz now” it still exists. If it was a social group consisting of writers and wannabe writers, with a bunch of un-written rules, then it never existed as anything more than a shared hallucination. People have always written. These days it’s a lot easier to share what you write, and that hasn’t changed much at all in the past five years.

  19. timtimes

    I have a quote and a link back to your site. Does that make me an aggressive crosslinker? I can see it now….”Folks, this guy over at The Tim Channel is not to be trusted….he was recently seen out in public unabashedly crosslinking. This is what happens when you take Jesus out of politics…”


    Why did God abandon Palin and the Republicans in 2008?



  20. Jonathan Trenn

    I don’t quite think the situation is as dire as you think Nick.

    No offense – and this is not a criticism – but I look up at the top of your blog and see a “greatest hits” category. I have absolutely no problem with that. But I also see as that being a bit in line with what we have now – the overall promotional aspect of the online magazines as blogs. It is a natural evolution.

    Again, that’s not meant as a criticism of your greatest hits section.

  21. Dean Whitbread

    “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.” – that’s (to use a word which a High Court judge once deemed not to be obscene) bollocks.

    Comparing “pro” blogs with very well written “non-pro” blogs is like comparing MacDonald’s Filet o’ Fish with sushi.

    Under a pseudonym, I wrote Blog of Funk 4.5m + hits, 250,000 regular repeat visitors in 2007. Just a normal, unpaid blog, writing it as as I felt it – and plenty popular enough for me.

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