I’ve had several recent discussions with colleagues about whether one’s blogging actually influences others in meaningful ways. And we’re not just talking about page views, comments, and pingbacks. Over the last several years of blogging, I’ve searched for articles or studies that examine blogging from a more rigorous social science perspective and have found very little. A group of us presented on the topic a year ago at a conference and shared some lessons learned.
There is of course a sizable amount of advice, like the Slideshare presentation referenced above, that covers blogging guidelines, how to convert readers into customers (marketing), understanding analytics (number of visitors, length of visit, etc.); but in terms of a more traditional longitudinal study that captures a group’s changed behavior over time, very little. I’ve been asking myself why this is the case while sporadically scanning the web for something new on the topic. My primary goal for this post is to generate some discussion. I don’t pretend to have the answers yet, just informed questions.
(1) Should blogging be viewed as a discrete activity with predictable input and output?
The most obvious challenge presents itself when simply trying to define blogging. For example, does micro-blogging justify inclusion (Twitter, etc.)? What is the difference between a webpage and a blog? How often does a blog require update for it to be a blog and do academic requirements apply if the hoped for output is scholarship? Even if we agree on a definition today, technology advances will quickly unravel our current conventions and approach.
There are some other challenges related to definition. While a sizable scholarship discusses the physiological and cognitive processes underlying the act of reading and writing, blogging is a different animal. Blogging is physiological and cognitive, but occurs within a more complex cultural web of competing influences. In many ways, blogging demonstrates some of the original objectives of the printing press in exaggerated fashion: mass distribution and democratization of knowledge creation. Consequently, some of the more interesting discussions about blogging situate blogging against the larger and interconnected world of social media and personal knowledge creation and management (see Harold Jarche’s blog). While there are some interesting domain-specific discussions on how blogging impacts a discipline or industry (or more recently a country’s form of government), the social dimension of blogging must also explain how blogging contributes to the individual’s connection to the online community network that is the Internet. And that’s just for starters.
So, even the most informed current descriptive framework is at best a crude working model when applied to tomorrow’s usage. As mentioned, blogging in its current form happens across a spectrum of cognitive processes (reading, writing, scanning, categorizing), media, cultures, and conventions. Studying something this broad in scope is an obvious challenge.
(2) Is blogging really “epiphenomenal”?
Lawrence Solum wrote an interesting article entitled “Blogging and the Transformation of Legal Scholarship” (2006). It’s dense and the conclusions reached are based on anecdote and personal impression. However, Solum makes some important points. First, he suggests that blogging is “epiphenomenal,” or basically several layers removed from the more important underlying influences. He also suggests that the value of blogging can be reduced to three main transitions or paradigm shifts: the long form to short form, exclusive rights to open access, and mediation to disintermediation. Some of his rationale is specific to legal scholarship, but I find much of his reasoning applies to all forms of blogging, especially academic blogging.
He has much more to say, but he summarizes his paper with the following thoughts:
I have argued for the proposition that blogs are symptoms of the larger forces at work in the world of legal scholarship. The importance of blogs, if any, is as the medium (or technology) through which the incentives and institutional forces that are pushing legal scholarship toward the short form, open access, and disintermediation are doing their work. If it had not been blogs, it would have been something else. If someone invents a medium that provides a more effective or less costly mechanism through which the forces can operate, then blogs will recede and that medium will take their place. It’s not about the blogging…. But I do have an opinion: blogs will play only a modest supporting role in the future of legal scholarship. Scholarship is about ‘papers,’ not ‘posts.’
Imagine the early beneficiaries of the printing press holding their Gutenberg Bible in one hand and a list of printing press 2.0 features in the other. Our culture today participates in defining new technologies in ways that are unimaginable several hundred years ago but the inclusion of rapidly changing technologies make these waters both deep and opaque, especially if we are looking for predictive models that cut across industries, blog objectives, and fluctuating cultural influences.
(3) Is the “Long Tail” better than no tail?
The concept of the long tail is an important concept in understanding how blog impact can be measured relative to other communication approaches. Truth be told, I only find a tiny fraction of existing blogs worth following—perhaps 5-10 total. Sure, I peruse a longer list sporadically, but time is precious and I’m very picky about my syndicated reading activities. Thankfully, many online micro-communities are much larger than the local “macro” communities I rub shoulders with in my locale. So, even though my online audience may seem small compared to the total online community, I’m usually reaching a much larger audience (albeit more superficially) using blogging technology than I could ever reach using most other communication technologies—and, with a minimal ongoing effort. The “ROI” equation generally comes down favorably from this perspective and as mentioned, the Internet is filled with these types of testimonials.
(4) Is blogging truly equitable? Blogging nobility and the techno-peasants
While blogging is often described as a “leveling” communication technology, I’m convinced that there are clearly the “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of audience size. So, is it fair to say that the blogging nobility generally attract tremendous traffic and the rest of us find our place on the long tail? If so, how does one push through the strata and become blogging nobility? More importantly, is this even advisable? I’ve read books like “Crush It” by Gary Vaynerchuk, but they often strike me as 8 parts reality TV and 2 parts substance. No disrespect to Gary as his efforts are laudable, but I struggle with leaning on examples that sell the process along with the product and rely primarily on personal branding. This approach excludes a vast number of bloggers in various institutional contexts who must be very careful about pushing their own personal brand alongside their university, company, or organizational branding.
While there are indeed some helpful tips in books like “Crush It,” I’ve found that common to all of these stories is that blogging superstars spend a tremendous amount of time “feeding the machine.” At some point, they have become “full-time” bloggers who build personal brand through a practiced Zen-like coordination of relationship building activity (much of which has nothing to do with a blog per se): conferences, guest writing, coalition building, workshop hosting, etc. There also seems to be a certain quelque chose that is often captured in their online persona and commitment to, or knowledge of a topic that attracts others. Blogging simply makes their voice more accessible to an already interested population. Nevertheless, how do they keep an audience’s interest over time and grow that audience?
In the same way that an alumni office or insurance company depends on the health of their personal network, blogging heavyweights who outlast a single post of viral interest seem to have found the balance between the high time commitment their social media channels demand and their business or financial requirements. In short, they figure out how to make the commitment work for them. For the already famous, blogging is an extension of already established reputation (think of following Bill Gates via Twitter), but for the handful of bloggers who have made blogging their living or have entered the rarified air of the blogging elite, it would be fascinating to know whether any common principles can be derived between different domains, i.e. academic, business, political.
So, in the spirit of a level playing field that pulls in diverse viewpoints, I would like to hear your thoughts on these topics. I will also welcome some guest writers to the blog over the next month and ask for their opinions, especially around the questions asked in my post.
What would the ideal study or article examine if it were to adequately define this question of “do blogs change lives” and how can we measure our impact beyond statistics and comments?
How often and by how much does the “long tail” exceed the reach of our local audience? Is this justification enough for our blogging effort?
What principles or common approaches jettison some into the blogging nobility? Like Jim Collin’s profile study of successful CEOs, “Good to Great,” or the recent case study of the New York Times Interactive News Technology department, what do blogging superstars have in common and how do we measure our ROI relative to our career objectives?
I would particularly welcome a guest post from someone outside of academia. Please let me know if you’re interested.