Those Busted Blogs

Blogs find themselves in the same place as newspapers: not half as popular as they'd like to be.

Have you heard about the tragedy of the blogs? It's very sad. Just a year ago, bloggers were the talk of the planet—or at least the planet where journalists live.

You couldn't open a newspaper or surf the tube without running into a trend story about this new breed of online writer.

Bloggers had taken down Trent Lott and Dan Rather. Merriam-Webster named "blog" the "No. 1 word of the year" for 2004, while ABC News crowned bloggers the "people of the year." In the media's telling, bloggers were the Gutenbergs of our time, and the Beatles.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when they started looking more like Bode Miller—overhyped and underperforming. In a new Gallup Poll, only 9 percent of U.S. Internet users said they frequently read blogs. Worse, blogs are flatlining. "It seems the growth in the number of U.S. blog readers was somewhere between nil and negative last year," Gallup said.

Meanwhile, New York magazine reports that blogging is no longer an everyman's paradise. The suits—corporate and PR types—are muscling into the blogosphere, and there are now A-list bloggers, envious B-listers, and countless unread C-listers. In a piece called "Twilight of the Blogs," Slate's Daniel Gross suggested that, even as a business, blogging may be in a kind of bubble.

The Chicago Tribune pounced on the blog bust in an editorial dripping with old-media schadenfreude: "You're forgiven if you cling to the conventional wisdom that blogging, like half-pipe snowboarding, enjoys an unrelievedly rich future. Forgiven, but maybe behind the curve."

The Tribune was giddy because blogs find themselves in the place where newspapers have been for some time: not half as popular as they'd like to be. Unfortunately for both papers and blogs, this was inevitable. In a world of way-too-much media, no one medium or outlet is ever going to get a firm grip on our attention, no matter how much mindless buzz is lavished on it.

Just as it makes perfect sense that people are fleeing newspapers—there so many other options—it also makes sense that they aren't exactly flocking to blogs. There are millions of blogs now. Who has time for that? The blog explosion of the last few years has made it much harder for any new blog to draw an audience and succeed. It's just math.

In my browser's Favorites list, I have a folder called "Good Blogs." It has fewer than two dozen links, to blogs I truly enjoy and visit often. I keep the list short on purpose. I meet new blogs all the time, through word of mouth and serendipity, and we have some nice moments together. But I don't usually crave a second date. Life is too short.

Evidently, others feel the same way. So blogs are not about to conquer the world. But does that mean they have failed, as the new headlines suggest? Hardly. In fact, I think the end of hype-fueled blog mania might be the best thing that could happen to blogs, because it had created such absurd expectations.

Media serve three major functions: 1) convenience (organization of news and information in user-friendly formats); 2) truth-telling (digging up important stories and holding powerful people accountable); and 3) pleasure (the sheer fun of reading, listening, or watching). Newspapers thrived for as long as they did because they were good at all three. And they've declined as they've lost their competitive edge in these same areas, especially convenience and pleasure.

Though blogs are young, they've already proven adept at all three functions. Many are convenient harvesters and organizers. Some are fearless truth-tellers. And the best are a total pleasure to follow. If they're doing all this now, imagine what they'll be like in 10 years.

The other thing blogs have going for them is that most bloggers are not in it for money—they do it for love. The mainstream outlets would now have us believe that this is a bit pathetic. Just look at those dreadful audience numbers, the scanty profits. I say 20 million or so bloggers know otherwise. Once they were up, and now they're down. It's the classic arc of an establishment-media fad. It's weird that so many bloggers bought into it, given their feelings about the establishment. Never mind: They'll be back.