Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Blog Identity - Citizen Bloggers

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Blogs would be worthless without the writers, the readers (and their comments), and the interaction between them all. As the blogosphere develops, some truly great personalities are about to emerge. This happened in books after Gutenberg got his press working. This happened in radio, after Marconi started working the wires. This happened in television, and it will happen in Blogging. And some of the people who think they have it all wrapped now, will find themselves second-class in very short order, as well.

The first blogs were simple text journals, maybe a place to put up a .pdf file or the family photos for distant relatives. Those are still around, and there's not a thing wrong with that. The next development, however, was an interesting jump, as professionals found blogs an interesting way to exchange ideas and develop work; blogs are virtually limitless in their size and scope, and so serve as a natural forum for anyone with the IP address and the interest to pull up the site. Some were set up on college or company sites, some needed password protection and other types of security to protect sensitive work, but some were set up on home computers and allowed public access. Next were the tech-savvy businesses, who understood that easy access to information and answers would give them an advantage in attracting customers and clients. The official history of blog networks and expansion prior to 2004 is sketchy, but the foundation was obviously set well, and by the time most of the new bloggers like myself arrived in 2004, the prospects were already bright and the building easy.

So, what next? Bloggers are a lot like movies and books, with something for everyone. A quick peek at the Truth Laid Bear, shows a wide variety of interests and methods to bring in readers. And since blogs can bring in money through blog-ads, there are a lot of blogs whose main interest is getting the meter rolling. Of course, once you find a blog or two that you like, you'll usually choose to visit new blogs when a blog you like links to them or recommends them. The netiquette on linking is informal, but very real: Respect is earned, and if you want to have anybody read your stuff, you'll work hard for it.

In this article, I want to briefly consider the four parties to every blog: the writer, the readers, the service provider, and the sponsors. While the balance between these parties will shift from blog to blog, all four will be present in each blog.

One significant point in the balance of power in the New Media, is that bloggers are both writers and editors. While that means that a sloppy blogger will put out a lot of low-quality stuff, it also means that each blogger enjoys complete control over his/her product, which is providing us with a lot of really great work. The readers are often overlooked in any review of blogs, but they are the network which spreads a blog's reputation; readers will mention blogs they like in other places, especially in other blogs which allow comments and links, and of course bloggers are themselves readers, and will link to and recommend blogs that impress them. The service provider is another important element; the availability of free services is a spur to get many bloggers started, and there are dozens of high-quality service providers for every type of blog. Sometimes, necessity creates the growth, as happened in late September to Polipundit. Polipundit was a major site for election watchers, and featured several instances of 'live-blogging' during the campaign. During the first Presidential Debate, the servers then used by Polipundit's provider crashed and could not be brought back up, so Polipundit moved to a new provider, Redwire Broadband. The site has hummed along brilliantly ever since, but the upgrade was absolutely necessary. Security, capacity, back-up data, and terminal convenience are all reasons to carefully consider your service provider. Your site may never pull a hundred thousand people a day, but then, it just might.

The last item of the four, is sponsors. Given the way that Old Media has prostituted itself to its commercial sponsors (in the case of the 'Reagan' movie in 2004, for example, CBS did not pull the false and insulting show when hundreds of thousands of calls came in to protest, but did so immediately after its two largest sponsors pulled their contracts in protest) over the years, it's not surprising that bloggers don't like to be thought of as mercenary, and they aren't - almost all bloggers work without salaries, and only a minority receive any sort of money from advertising. But as a blog develops, the need to pay the costs of operation increase. Tip jars and blog ads are enough for most blogs, but after a certain point of success is reached, growth is requisite upon regular payment for the heavy cost. Also, some of the major names in radio and the Old Media have tried their hand at blogging, like the 40-year-old who thinks he's as good on a skateboard as Tony Hawk. Not to pick on the self-praised celebrities, but in the New Media, sponsorship will be a continuing balancing act, with the need for funds matched by a fierce determination to avoid the appearance of purchase by a commercial entity. More on that when I talk about Blogs and Business tomorrow. For now, it's important to note that the best bloggers by reputation initially were connected to their available resources, but little by little the new guys from grassroots beginnings are getting their due.

Part of this is due to the truly egalitarian nature of blogging - an idea and article is weighed on the basis of its own quality, dependent on no other element so far as the audience is concerned. But the blogs themselves are also evolving to allow for creative growth. Again, I turn to Polipundit. The creator and chief writer for Polipundit wanted to take some time off in early 2004, but without sacrificing the pace and quality of his site. So, a selected number of readers whose comments Poli liked, were invited to write as guest hosts for a week. The results were very satisfying for all parties; Poli got some time off without losing speed and readers, the readers liked the quality of the new talent [in the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I was one of those new writers brought on board, but the concept remains valid, as evidenced by the success since the staff increased], and the new writers were able to reach a broad and active audience. A true win-win-win. The use of team writers is one development I expect to see happen in many major blogs. As a caveat, the team concept must be based on free access and true partnership between the writers, however. When a Houston radio station started a blog, they invited a number of bloggers to participate as writers, but instead of running the site as a true blog, instead a few select editors ran the site in the same tired old way that they ran their website; with no imagination, putting their own work at the top and relegating everything else to the back page, not allowing comments or any interaction with readers, and spending a ridiculous amount of time on their station boasting about themselves, ignoring errors and unbalanced formatting on their 'blog'. Many Old Media types will enter blogging with the same heavy-handed and myopic style they have used for years; it's far better to run your own blog and put out quality work you control, even if only a few dozen people see it at first, than to allow yourself to be controlled or manipulated by a poser who thinks they can be a player in blogging by putting up Old Media material under a website logo. If you are offered a partnership, don't forget it has to work both ways, in both responsibility and privilege terms.

So in addition to bloggers, team bloggers, and of course, networks of bloggers who cross-link and direct traffic to their colleagues, what else can we expect? I turn back to the readers, who are the life-blood of any blog. Reader traffic determines the amount the blog can claim for an advertisement, the attention that older blogs are likely to pay to the new sites, and the buzz of attention that can inspire a blogger to become a true professional. For myself, the day I received an e-mail about one of my articles from an active-duty Marine Major in Iraq, not only made me feel very rewarded for my work, but reminded me to take my claims and statements very seriously. The day I was linked to NRO made me realize that my audience was not dependent solely on the average from my Site Meter. The same things apply to any blogger.

If you are just starting out, or are still considering starting a blog, I'd recommend go with what you know. Even if there are other blogs writing what you like, your contributions can still be unique and significant. Also, when you visit a site you like, be sure to note the links. There are political blogs, religious blogs, photo blogs, humor blogs, essay blogs, conversational blogs, news blogs, media-related blogs, you name it. And if you don't see a blog that covers what you are interested in, so much the better! You can be the first in that field, and enjoy an early lead.

Of all the articles in this week's series, this one is the toughest for me, because as bloggers yourselves, you already know the basic, and I really wanted to avoid stating the obvious (in case this one missed the mark, be happy you didn't see my first draft for this article!) or losing the focus. The simple fact is, that with the Web being virtually limitless, and each individual capable of unique insights and style, there is no way I can express the infinite possibilities for bloggers. It's like you're Michaelangelo, working with information instead of marble, although in your case, the editing will be a lot easier.

Every blogger a citizen, and every citizen equal in rights, to be judged by the quality of our imagination, work, and ideals.

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