April 18, 2006
Bloggers as news-fixated mavens
Some time ago, I ran across what might be called an obituary for bloggers in the Financial Times. Here are some of the takeaway lines:
. . . but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism . . .Well that was quite a buzzkill. But it seems to make a number of assumptions about blogging that perhaps aren't quite true: that bloggers are seeking careers as bloggers, and aren't just enjoying themselves; that the infinitessimally short half-life of a blog post renders it meaningless in the grand scheme of things (even more so than journalism); that if blogs don't replace traditional journalism, they have failed, and so forth . . .
. . . Blogging will no doubt always have a place as an underground medium in closed societies; but for those in the west trying to blog their way into viable businesses, the economics are daunting . . .
. . . The dismal traffic numbers also point to another little trade secret of the blogosphere, and one missed by Judge Posner and all the other blog-evangelists when they extol the idea that blogging allows thousands of Tom Paines to bloom. As Ana Marie Cox says: “When people talk about the liberation of the armchair pajamas media, they tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that the voices with the loudest volume in the blogosphere definitely belong to people who have experience writing. They don’t have to be experienced journalists necessarily, but they write - part of their professional life is to communicate clearly in written words.”
. . . Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium . . .
. . . And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts - a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news.
To the economic criticism, I'd say this: thus far, in most, if not all cases, I think bloggers have made money almost tangentially to the actual work of blogging. Making money is in other words, not the raison d^etre of most blogs, but make a little of it many do, often without trying too much, or at all. There aren't many other human activities where financial rewards (however modest) can be gained from decidedly unfinancial pursuits (readers are welcome to submit counterexamples). When I was on a panel about blogging in New York last fall, I knew what all the journos wanted to know: were any of us making any dough or not? Although it's a faux pas to discuss such things, I told them that with little effort whatsoever I'd made around $2000 in a year from all sources (Amazon links, Google Ads, BlogAds, and donations), which I considered to be not so bad for a hobby. Compare it to baseball card collecting, or hot air ballooning, or bowling if you like. Mrs. Chester is a soon-to-be MD and devours her US Weekly every week. Celebrity trivia is her escape. Mine is thinking about the big stuff. I've never taken out a single ad, and as far as I know, few bloggers have. If Pajamas Media is doing financially well, then that speaks very highly of the medium: have they even placed a single ad on, say, AOL?
But beyond all those petty economic considerations, I think the idea that bloggers will fail unless they replace newspapers is ill-conceived. Those searching for signs of that outcome will certainly be disappointed. No, something else is happening . . . but what?
Glenn Reynolds points to a Guardian article which notes something curious, since as we've read above, blogs have already peaked:
Bloggers and internet pundits are exerting a "disproportionately large influence" on society, according to a report by a technology research company. Its study suggests that although "active" web users make up only a small proportion of Europe's online population, they are increasingly dominating public conversations and creating business trends . . .How to square this with the Financial Times piece above?
Although unprompted contributors are generally younger and more vocal than the wider online population, they are increasingly important as opinion formers and trend-setters. Mr Smith says businesses, media organisations and advertisers reading blogs should be wary of making assumptions about their wider significance, but that their muscle cannot be ignored.
The immensely popular book The Tipping Point identifies three types of people who are necessary for ideas to spread: salesmen, connectors, and mavens. Salesmen are, well, good at selling a given idea. Connectors are people who know a variety of other people, disproportionate to the rest of the population. Think of that one person in your workplace who knows everyone, or the friend you have who has always been good at networking and is never shy to meet new people and make the most tenuous of encounters last -- these are connectors. According to Malcolm Gladwell, the author, mavens are those who by nature are very opinionated about everything. They hold strong opinions about the big, the small, the great events of the day, and even the trivial. According to Gladwell, ideas begin to spread when mavens recommend them because regular folk know that a maven has special knowledge of his topic(s). (Ideas also spread when salesmen sell them or when connectors spread them.)
A maven may be opinionated and knowledgable about many things or only a few things. He might be a crank or a busybody, or a pleasant fellow who just loves to talk about one certain thing. Those around him know him as a maven. Gladwell's example is of the day he spends with a certain professor at the Univ. of Texas business school, who has recommendations on what restaurant they should visit, asks the waiter to move them to a better table, and if memory serves, gives recommendations on automobiles to Gladwell during their lunch.
A long time ago, I read an inflight magazine article about the Weather Channel. The network had done detailed marketing research into its audience. It found that a large number of viewers just wanted to know about the weather in their area -- while they got ready for work or school, for example. Another very large number were
curious to know what the weather was like in areas where they had family or close friends. But the largest group by far fell into a category that they called "weather-fixated." They just loved watching the weather channel and learning about weather in all its forms. They were weather fixated.
Bloggers are news-fixated mavens. This explains our outsized influence on the rest of the world. The vast majority of people don't visit RealClearPolitics or Instapundit 20 times a day, or keep track of the intricacies of whatever it is that we keep track of. Mrs. Chester and I have this conversation a lot: most people just don't care that much about all this stuff. They just live their lives -- quite happily -- and only delve into current events occasionally, or with the shallowest sustained involvement. There's nothing wrong with this. They aren't mavens.
I'd say bloggers represent the 2% of the population who are news-fixated mavens. Blog readers who don't write themselves are perhaps another 10-20%. They are much better informed than the rest of the public and pride themselves on it. And when the rest of the uninterested public needs an opinion, they turn to those who pride themselves on their opinions.
It's no wonder then that blogs are having an unusual impact upon opinions and opinion-making. If you know of this crazy guy who always thinks and reads and writes about cauliflower, 99% of the time you are going to ignore him. But if there ever comes a time when you desperately, urgently need detailed information about cauliflower, then you certainly know where to find him.
My hypothesis is that a similar dynamic is at work with the blogosphere.
I once had a boss at work -- you know, the kind of guy who skims USA Today every morning for five minutes -- come up to my cube and ask me what I thought about Iraq. As I explained it to Bill Roggio in an email later, I gave my boss the "10-minute Western Anbar treatment." Not sure if he walked away informed, confused, or just thinking, "wow, I won't make that mistake again." But if he ever needs to know more, he knows where to find me.
Posted by Chester at April 18, 2006 7:38 PM
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I think the Financial Times is chewing on a mouthful of Sour Grapes. There are just so many eyeballs to read the news and so many hours in a day to digest it. The MSM is declining in both areas and bloggers are advancing.
As for bloggers depending on the MSM to supply the "news" such statements are deceptive.
Most MSM outfits depend upon foreign "stringers" to brings in the bloody pictures of the day. These "professional journalists" are very reluctant to set foot in a war zone themselves. In essence "professional journalists" are hiring "blogger like people" who may be of less than honest character to bring in the goods. The "fleas sucking upon other fleas" seems to fit the MSM well.
Posted by: Ledger at April 18, 2006 11:48 PM
A friend of mine who's a pollster routinely included the following question his polls' demographic panel: "Do you follow politics 1) All of the time, 2) Most of the time, 3) Just some of the time, and 4) Hardly ever?"
He once told me that this is a bit of a trick question, because there are really only two meaningful answers -- all of the time, and all of the others. The people who answer all of the time -- typically about 25 percent of those asked -- are the opinion leaders or mavens.
The implication is that while most bloggers are mavens, there are a lot more mavens than there are bloggers.
The thing that makes a maven a maven is that he or she is better informed than the non-mavens. The real issue here is where do the non-blogging mavens get their information.
Until now a lot of it came from newspapers and other print media. Now, increasingly, it comes from blogs.
The mainstream print media is afraid of blogs, and with good reason. The heart and soul of a newspaper's reader base is people who read it to become informed -- politically informed. That 25 percent that follows politics all of the time will account for a lot more than 25 percent of all newspaper readers.
The internet has badly wounded the mainstream newspapers already. Their classified ad business -- the most profitable form of newspaper advertising -- is migrating to the web. So are informational services such as weather information and events notices. In other words, all the peripheral readers are falling away. If they lose their core readership -- reader mavens, people who follow politics and public affairs all the time -- they really are toast.
And it is precisely this component that is increasingly turning to blogs.
Sure there's a lot more sources asking for a piece of your limited time, but now some of those sources -- blogs -- are also providing more and better information, particularly in the areas of analyis and information compilation, than newspapers do. No wonder papers are losing circulation.
The concept of the blogger as maven is a good insight, but from the newspaper business's point of view, it's the loss of the reader maven to the blogs that poses the existential threat. The fact is blogs really are eating their lunch. Too bad they can't extract more nourishment (revenue) from it.
Posted by: pauldanish at April 19, 2006 1:54 AM
Paul, I think that is a very valuable insight.
Posted by: Chester at April 19, 2006 6:59 AM
Nice analysis, Chester. I've never quite understood why bloggers vs. journos had to be conceived of as a bloody fight to the death over a fixed pie. I see it rather as a natural separation of roles - a specialization and disaggregation of the value chain, if you will. What's threatened by the blogosphere are not primarily the news gatherers but the editorialists (the sucky ones anyway). Flash ahead ten years and it's not hard to envision the wire services and other field reporting organizations remaining quite robust, the blogosphere remaining quite robust and the folks in the middle (call them the aggregators) being merely a thin slice of the value chain, pulling the two together in one convenient 'place' under a recognized brand name.
Posted by: Kobayashi Maru at April 19, 2006 7:34 AM
Thanks for the great post on Iran and all the different ideas on how to deal with this problem. This is what makes the blogs so strong. All of the follow up comments that you do not have in a MSM news report. These comments give true analytical analysis to a story. Oh yeah, that is why the author of the Financial Times article wants blogs to wither on the vine and die. He does not want review of his work by the masses. Just ask Dan Rather what he thinks about the “little” people reviewing his Bush National Guard story.
When I read a story in MSM I see huge gaps in information and the long shadow of are they telling me everything that they know about a story? The blogs are here to stay and get even stronger. Chester, keep up the good work.
Posted by: Bill at April 19, 2006 8:13 AM
Would a loyal blog reader be a "maven-maven"? One who MUST have posts to read on a daily basis from his/her "maven of choice(s). Just wondering if the FT will use florid but not quite vapid prose to explain the fallacy of my opinion...
Posted by: Jaimo at April 20, 2006 10:56 PM