Monday, January 03, 2011

Role and survival of the independent blogger

Looking at Neil's Google Reader, I see that many of my fellow bloggers have been caught by the need to reflect on the past year. I am no different. I hope that you will pardon this meanderStats Dec 10.

Looking at the blog stats, I found that one past post, New Year's Wishes, had suddenly appeared in the top post list. Posted on 31 December 2006, the post reflected on my initial experience as a blogger. Even then after only 64 posts, I found the conversations and links that accrued through blogging valuable.

Four years and sixteen hundred posts later, the links and conversations remain valuable. More on that later.

The first graph shows visits (yellow) and page views (yellow plus red) over the last twelve months. You can see a slow if variable upward trend over the year.

There were 365 posts here in 2010, an increase over the previous year, but less than the number in either 2007 or 2008. 

To provide a further perspective on 2010 performance, the second graph shows visits and page views for the period from June 2009 to May 2010, the earliest chart I have. Here you can see the acceleration that took place in the first half of 2010 as compared to the previous year.

I have no idea why the numbers should have increased. Nearly all the extra trafftraffic May10 2ic has come from search engines, with Google dominant. Links from fellow bloggers also helped, although the traffic proportion was quite small.

I began blogging at a time of explosive growth in the blogosphere. This was the period when Technorati still attempted to provide aggregate data on blog numbers, with increases measured in the million. There was an excitement about blogging, a feel that this was the wave of the future.

The blogosphere today is very different. Here I want to pick up a few key trends.

The first is the rise of the mainstream media blog, along with the inclusion of comments sections at the end of on-line stories. This has attracted a considerable audience aligned to the particular stance of the media outlet. The ABC's The Drum is a quite sophisticated example.

The second is the continuing rise of both syndicated and group blogs.

Syndicated blogs take a number of forms. In some cases, Crikey is an example, blogs retain their individual identity. In others, bloggers really become free-lance writers for what is effectively an on-line magazine or even e-newspaper.

Group blogs have been around for a while, but have become more prominent. Skepticslawyers is a case in point. Group blogs offer two advantages. The writing load becomes easier, while they also tend to attract more comments from people aligned with the blog's focus. Comments are longer and, despite some flame wars, have a more conversational and community feel.

We normally speak of convergence in the sense of the coming together of different types of media. However, there has also been convergence in content creation, the writers.

The number of regular bloggers that also write or appear on the mainstream media is quite high. At a very local level, Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) writes for the South Sydney Herald, while I write (here and here) for the Armidale Express. However, it's far broader than this. Nearly every regular prominent Australian blogger I know had some connection with the mainstream media over 2010.  

We often talk about the threat the internet poses to the mainstream media. There is much less discussion of the reverse threat.

The blogosphere has become a major source not just of story ideas, but also of raw grunt. This saves money, much writing or appearance is unpaid, but is damaging the market for free-lance writing. It also diverts time. Here I need to add in Facebook and Twitter.

The two are quite different.

Facebook has removed from the blogosphere those, and especially the young, who used blogs as a diary or social networking tool. While Facebook is used by the main stream media as a source, by those with political or campaign objectives as a tool, it remains personally controlled and limited. Facebook is for chat, not writing.

Twitter is more complicated.

Because time is limited, both Facebook and Twitter reduce the time available for writing for and reading blogs. Some people use Twitter as they do Facebook to chatter, creating something of a double whammy effect in that the time spent leaves little time for blogging. However, Twitter is generally public in a way that Facebook is not, so many use Twitter to provide running updates on issues.

This makes Twitter influential in a way that Facebook cannot be because bloggers and especially the mainstream media use Twitter as a main story source. It has become indispensable.

These collective changes pose a fundamental challenge to bloggers and especially to independents like me.

Relevance is one challenge. With exceptions, the blogosphere is getting older as younger audiences move to other forms of social media.

I follow a lot of blogs. Nearly all the bloggers I know are over forty, a goodly proportion over fifty or even sixty. This not just a representation of my own age. When I began blogging, there were quite a few younger bloggers. Attrition, always an issue with bloggers, has been strongest among younger bloggers.

Far be it for me to be ageist, but we do need younger bloggers if blogging is to remain broadly relevant.

Retention is a second challenge. Here another factor comes into play, the role of feeds. Feeds are useful because they provide an easy way to keep in touch with multiple blogs. The difficulty is that it turns people from readers to browsers.

Instead of people coming to your blog because they are interested in your writing in a general sense, they come when a particular story attracts their interest. Further, in many cases they just read the feed; the feed becomes a substitute for a visit. Again, there is nothing wrong with this in a time poor world. Yet it affects one's thinking and writing.

Let me illustrate with a very simple example. Do you write your post headline to attract the feed reader or to gain search engine recognition? The two are quite different. 

The problem is compounded by increased competition between media forms. The competition I face as an independent blogger has become so much more intense. One measure of this is provided by links.

Excluding my own cross-links, in December there were seven blog links to this blog, six in November, two in October. Looking at the detail, the majority of these links came from just three sources. The real number of new links I get is actually lower than it was three years ago despite the significant increase in the number of visitors. 

No doubt, part of this is due to the relevance of my own writing. However, part at least is simply a measure of competition.

Integration is the third challenge. I write a lot, some would say too much. I blog across several blogs, I have the newspaper column, I tweet and I have a Facebook page.  How do I balance all this?

When I look at the blog stats, I find that the column itself has very little impact even though the blog URLs appear at the end. While the column appears to be quite popular, it appeals to an older demographic and especially that group with longer term local links. This is generally not a blog reading group.

However, unlike the blogs, I know that the column does get picked up by the media monitoring services. A week or so back, for example, a friend in the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet emailed me to say that a column I wrote on, of all things, classical Greek in Armidale was included in the daily media report because I happened to mention Billy Wentworth as the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

This affects my writing. I am a little less open in the column on public policy issues because some of the work I do may be affected by public comments on particular policy issues. On the other hand, if I do want to increase my impact, I also know that I can use the column to target particular agencies or policy areas.

So far as the blogs themselves are concerned, increased readership across blogs with somewhat different audiences means that the blogs themselves have become audience feeds. This is actually reasonably new. It means that cross-posting has become quite important.

By contrast, Facebook is of minor importance in terms of feeds. I haven't tried to expand the number of Facebook friends, nor have I established any public pages beyond a New England New State Movement page.

Twitter is different. I started Twitter as an experiment and have only put up the blog posts. This means that my total number of followers is small -  just 56. By contrast, Paul Barratt who joined Twitter after me and who has followed a different approach now has 630 followers. Yet even at my low level, Twitter is quite a significant feed. It has also led to one radio interview.

In addition to this, and with the main stream media, Twitter has become a useful source of stories.

I now face a choice. Do I expand my Twitter presence? It's clearly useful, but I am already time poor.

I want to finish this now long post with a two final comments.

I haven't recounted all my posts across blogs, but they run into many thousands. Through the miracles of Google in particular, my older posts still attract comments and emails. Not only have I met again people from my own past, but I constantly strike people for whom something I have written strikes a personal chord.

This is called the long tail in web 2.0 terms. It is, I think, one of the most valuable aspects of blogging that cannot be matched by any other form of social media.

I struggle to keep up. I know that I disappoint people because of my slowness in responding, yet I so value this aspect of blogging,

Finally, a gripe.

I have now written more than two million words in posts. To a degree, I think that the blogs provide a  picture of Australian life in particular. Yet none of the blogs have been classified as worth of permanent preservation by Pandora, Australia's national electronic archive.

I am not alone here, of course. I recognise the problems that Pandora faces. Yet it has become a personal worry because the survival of the things that I have written is largely dependant on the survival of Google. Beyond questions of ego, I think that that's a problem.       


Brigid said...

Well thought out critique of the situation with which I concur.

I would add, though, a couple of other tools which are not grouped under "social media" but nevertheless are used as social tools. One is the use of groups such as those found on Google and Yahoo. These are generally used by special interest groups or campaigns. They are valuable to many who have not stuck their toes into a Web 0.2 environment and are only comfortable with email. The Groups extend email skills to the collective while adding additional services which mean that, if fully utilised, a groups site can be a de facto web site.

Email has always had a social component to it and the ability to post to multiple addresses is evidence of this. Further evidence - but of dubious success - is Google's incorporation of Buzz into Gmail as a sort of response to Facebook and a myriad of other tools.

I have been conscious of the survival of information for many years now, alerted by the considerations of The Long Now Foundation ( relating to the presentation of material in a manner that can be read across long periods of time in spite of changes in technology still undreamt.

I think it comes down to In Google We Trust. Perhaps the preservation of our writing needs a broader and longer and deeper interpretation than can be provided by even a national library. And, of course, it would cost so that we might see a cost to would be preservers.

Perhaps, we have to leave all this to destiny. How much has been lost to the human race heretofore? And who are we in the scheme of things...perhaps not as immortal as we might hope.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a remarkably interesting comment Miss E. I had never heard of the Long Now Foundation.

It seems to me that what we can think of as the cultural or information cycle is speeding up, but the real world around it is not, creating a growing gap.

At any point we now have more information, but the survivabilty and accesibility of information over time is declining.

The problem first emerged with microfilm. Millions of records were put on film to save space. Then, suddenly, records managers found that the life of the film was less than expected, that the costs of replicating the records were higher than expected.

In my own working life, there used to be paper files. Then we had computers. In the fifteen year period after 1987 there were multiple hardware and software changes. I now have boxes and boxes of disks that can no longer be read except by a computer specialist at great expense.

Records survival has always been a chancy business. Today, or so it seems to me, it is far worse because our entire information structures are dependent on ephemera.

Maybe another post picking up your points.

Brigid said...

I look forward to the next post on plethora of information; retention of works; technology and change; and the future. More inspiration than perspiration to you as you write.

Legal Eagle said...

I'm afraid there's no artistry whatsoever in my post headings other than an occasional bad pun. I don't write for feed readers or search engines, which is possibly foolish of me.

I have to say juggling blogging with going back to work and having small kids has been very difficult. I don't think I'll be posting as often as I used to now I'm back lecturing full time. I know a lot of people of my age or a little younger who started blogs, did about 10 - 20 posts, then got bored of them, or were put off by weird commenters, or they simply didn't have time any more. To be honest, I'm amazed I'm still doing it - it's almost 5 years now - I never intended it to be a long term commitment of this type.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE. There - I never intended it to be a long term commitment of this type - you capture an issue. Remember Blonde Canadian? I do wish that she had kept on writing.

Long term blogging is like any other form of writing. It has to provide some form of reward to continue. I am glad that you have continued, that some reward is still there!

Legal Eagle said...

I must confess that I considered giving it up at the end of this year, after the response to a few posts got me down.

Then I saw something that I simply *had* to write about... :)

Legal Eagle said...

Doh! That should say *last year*. I can't get used to 2011 yet.

Jim Belshaw said...

I did wonder about that, LE, the possibility that you might be thinking of giving up. Glad that you are continuing!

Legal Eagle said...

:-) I'm glad that you're glad. It's people like you and Neil that keep me in there.

Last year was a bit of a bruising year for me blogging-wise. I put more of myself out there than I should have, and opened myself up for personal attack with a number of posts. That's fine if you can deal with it, but I do tend to get upset by such times.

I'm going to stick more carefully to legal topics, and blog less frequently, particularly as I've got a punishing teaching load this year.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, LE. Its interaction with the people I like who I have met through blogging that keeps me going to.

I know how you feel on responses. I also can get upset. I don't get upset with even strong disagreement, just when the responses are personally targeted and sometimes crazy. I get most upset if I upset someone at a personal level through inattention.

All this may sound a bit touchy, feely. I don't mean to be. When we blog we are on the public record. Just that I don't like, as some of our colleagues do, deliberately inserting a large stick in an ant hill to see how many bites you can get!