It's been seven years since Dave Winer launched Scripting News, and now we've got millions of blogs on every subject from political commentary to bird watching and even God.
Because you can't define the circulation of a blog in the same way you'd define the circulation of a newspaper, it's impossible to know precisely how many individuals are reading blogs, but the numbers are surely in the millions somewhere. As recently as a year ago, the Pew Internet Project suggested only about 4% of people online were reading blogs. With 75% of American households now online, even if there are only a tiny portion of those people reading blogs, it's still an amazing number. When you consider the projection by the Computer Industry Almanac of 950 million users worldwide in 2004, that's a lot of potential readers, anyway you slice it. As with anything else online, the new and innovative very quickly becomes commonplace, and so I don't think it's too far out of line to expect there to be tens of millions reading blogs by the end of this year.
The facts of the 9/11 disaster, the War in Iraq, and now the presidential election have done a lot to popularize the blogs related to politics and current events. People went looking for something beyond the Big3 media's take on current events, and they found plenty to choose from. Bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. the Instapundit, Dean Esmay and Andrew Sullivan provided, and still provide well-written points of view and links to even more, posting frequently enough to even get ahead of the Big3 in some cases. The new phenomenon of blogs captured the public interest, and went far beyond the small community of bloggers who mostly rambled on about their daily lives and posted pictures of their cats, or babies, or the view from their office window.
While the numbers of personal diarists are likely to still outnumber those using blogs for other reasons, such as business or education, the idea that a blog must be a personal journal is fading away. Those who dismissed blogging as a fad of dubious value to the general public aren't as strident in their assertions. There is no longer the question if blogs have merit; the question has become, “What other uses can we find for this content management system?”
Librarians, Hobbyists and Microbusiness
Take a look at this list of blogs:
What do they have in common? Nothing, subject-wise. Yet they are all blogs. One, Blogs4God, is also a directory. Not one is a personal journal – they are all for informational purposes within their field of interest. There are many thousands more like them right now, and many more to come. While personal journals will probably continue to have a place in the blogosphere, they are no longer all there is.
There was a time when it was important for blogs to have a catchy title, in order to stand out and be noticed in blogrolls and directories that listed blogs alphabetically or by recent postings. That, too, has changed, as purpose-directed blogs are configured to be friendly to search engines, which are organized by subject. They are intended to reach past the limits of the blogging/diarist community and out to the general public. Some business bloggers don’t even refer to their sites as blogs anymore, and simply call them websites, since it’s a term that’s more-widely understood.
Blogs have a special appeal for owners of microbusinesses. If these entrepreneurs have some basic writing skills and the ability to seek out information of value to their customers, which is also related to their products or services, they are an excellent means of promotion at a low cost. Librarians and educators appreciate the capabilities of blogs as a means of sharing information and resources, not to mention the possibilities for distant collaboration among geographically-separated individuals. All these capabilities apply to hobbyists, who welcome the chance to share their interests with others.
Unlike the diarists, who often as not would prefer their readership to be limited to a small group of friends or relatives, business bloggers work hard to promote their sites both on and offline. There is a window of opportunity here that businesses of all kinds can use to their advantage. While the major search engines figure out what to do within their own industry, blogs can still be listed for free at a wide variety of directories, which will ultimately become an important part of search engines’ “new and improved” capacities.
Reaching out to the Community
Because of the fact that a blog can be set up and run by anyone with the basic skills needed to run a word processing program, and surf the Internet, a website is no longer the exclusive territory of those who are knowledgeable in obscure technical languages and properties of site design. Companies, governments, and non-profit orgs can all benefit from the ability to more effectively use their web presence, without adding to the responsibilities of already-overburdened IT managers and tech departments.
Those with the job of communicating with customers and constituents can be easily trained to maintain a blog, eliminating the problem many small, underfunded, understaffed orgs have had in keeping their websites updated and useful for site visitors. Better websites mean better communication. The area of the public served by a non-profit or municipal agency can better understand how an agency works and what it does, resulting in improved relationships in the community.
What's Next for Weblogs?
It’s not all about millions of citizen journalists competing with each other, all clamoring to be heard. My experience in publishing has taught me that only a few of those who try to write for public consumption have the skills and perseverance necessary to generate a quality product on a regular basis. While it’s a lot easier today to come up with material for a blog, as compared to writing a daily column for a newspaper in pre-Internet days, it still takes a serious commitment of time and effort.
Many blogs intended for wide circulation are doomed to fail for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the odd idea that still persists – that somehow any website will be noticed and visited, and the website owner need do nothing to announce or advertise its existence. This is certainly not true today, if in fact, it ever was.
The next wave of well-known citizen journalists who come after today’s “A-list bloggers” will have gained their eminence due to a careful combination of diligent promotion, search engine optimization and solid writing. Trends change, and after the Presidential election, there will be other subjects of wide public interest to draw attention. Maybe it’s not so much a question of “instead of,” but of “in addition to.” After all, people read newspapers, watch and listen to radio and TV for all kinds of reasons, not only for the news or commentary.
There will be plenty of readers to go around for specialized, and/or "hyperlocal" blogs. While small community blogs may only be of interest to those local to their area of coverage, they will have an important place in communications nonetheless. As traditional media sources become more mechanized, with a national or even global focus, there is a need for small publications whose potential audience is limited by geography or subject. These could fill the void in coverage left unnoticed and unreported by the Big3 due to their time and space limitations, on blogs maintained by people who are content to address a narrow readership.
News reporting, even on the local level, has its own set of skills that must be learned, and as in the case of the commentators, not everyone can or will develop the expertise necessary to be effective.
Too Many Facts, Too Little Time
The question of information overload is raised a lot these days, but to me it’s an echo of the early days of cable/satellite TV, when everybody wondered how they were going to handle 200 channels of programming. The answer to that is the same as it is to the proliferation of blogs and RSS feeds. You take what you need and leave the rest behind. Most people have a few programs they regularly watch on TV, and don’t concern themselves too much with what they’re not watching. I think that as more people become more used to having all the variety available to them, we’ll each develop our own ways of using the Internet in the same way people got used to all the channels on TV.
The Monetization of Blogs
Not every use for blogs requires them to be a cash-generating enterprise, any more than the use of static websites do. If the blog provides a service or information not readily available anywhere else, then it’s possible subscription fees could enter in. Some bloggers do relatively well with their tip jars and advertising, but otherwise, right now it’s hard to see a blog by itself as an income. The marketplace is changing; so there may well be a brilliant idea on the horizon that nobody’s thought of yet!