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Monday, April 03, 2006

Numbers and the Future of Blawging

In a post at the Co-Op on February 15, Dave Hoffman expressed concern about the future of blawging.  Hoffman predicted that as the number of blawg readers flattens or declines, blawgs would merge to form a handful of "super blawgs."  Key to his thesis was an empirical observation:

An anecdotal look at the 12-month traffic at established sites like the Conglomerate, Prawfs, Is That Legal, and Prof. Bainbridge suggests that traffic has either leveled off or has declined from highs in the early fall, while the VC and Balkin continue to grow.

However, looking at those numbers now tells a different story.  Comparing the February and March  numbers, traffic for the VC and Balkinization actually declined, while traffic for Conglomerate, Prawfs, Is That Legal, and the good Prof. Bainbridge, as well as the Co-Op, all rose.  In fact, both Prawfs and Ann Althouse hit an all-time high.

Of course, if you're comparing today's numbers with October's traffic, you're likely to be disappointed.  But October brought us Harriet Miers, the blawger's best friend.  With many in the law blogosphere leading the charge against Miers' nomination, blawgs drew in a variety of readers who might not otherwise frequent law-oriented sites.  It probably wasn't realistic to expect those folks to stick around after the Miers' controversy had run its course.

So I suppose I am more sanguine about the future of blawging.  Where it will go, what blawgs will rise and fall, whether new technology will replace the current "blog" -- it's fun and useful to make such predictions.  But I do think it's too early to be worried about the numbers.  After all, look what happened to all those dot-coms who focused on establishing market share as quickly as possible.  Many are still around -- but many more can be found only through a trip back in time.  And new web sites continue to find success despite their late arrival.  So perhaps the future will belong to blawging "supergroups."  But it could also turn out that there are more Stings than Bachman-Turner Overdrives.

Posted by Matt Bodie on April 3, 2006 at 09:13 AM in Blogging | Permalink


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Anon is talking about a Slashdot approach to blogging, with users ranking different posts and posters. That model is stupendously successful, but you need a lot of readers willing to spend the time reading and then ranking lots of comments. It may be that in the smaller world of law blogs, there's not the same pool to do that work effectively.

As to Dave's point, I think there is a difference between blogs and blawgs. The empirical study cited in his Co-Op piece was a Gallup report about overall blog readership. I think the blawg readership is a distinct group with its own patterns. There's lots of room for future growth from law profs, administrators, law students, lawyers, and non-law folks. I suppose at this stage of the game, I have more of a "If you build it (properly), they will come" mindset.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Apr 3, 2006 4:22:24 PM


Interesting thoughts, but I wish you had quoted the next, and crucial, sentence in my post:

"Of course, both growth and decline in absolute traffic numbers doesn't tell us if the universe of blawg readers is growing -- we may be simply slicing the market up differently, or encouraging a fixed set of readers to spend more of their time looking at different blawgs."

I don't disagree that there is bouncing around in the numbers - and maybe even a transient USNews based gain in readership for lots of blogs, including Co-Op - but the underlying traffic patterns are obscure. The empirical observation that generated my post was a study showing overall number of folks reading blogs had leveled off. That fact, if substantiated, suggests consolidation is on the horizon.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Apr 3, 2006 1:46:28 PM

Please re-read my above post to see why your messageboard analogy lacks merit. Messageboards lack any sifting techology, while the above model has a sifting and sorting mechamism---sorting the best content by the number of votes and comments a given entry is given during a given time period.

Second, you overvalue the financial and reputational incentives needed for people to blog. Most bloggers (especially C level bloggers) do not blog to increase reputation or because they have dollar signs in their eyes. They blog because they want to vent an idea, spread a thought, or just write. While some people might blog for financial and reputation incentives, they are not in the majority.

It comes down to this proposition: who is better at sorting, creating, and sifting information, a handful of people who run a blog or thousands of people submiting information, voting on information, and commenting on information? I'll take the people.

The demand to express one's thoughts and ideas is fairly inelatic (look at the popularity of talk radio shows). Given the current blog environment, the question then becomes what mechanism will emerge to counter the network effect problem of current blogs. The solution: the above model.

Posted by: anon | Apr 3, 2006 1:04:48 PM

Anon, they already have the technology you predict will arrive in 1-2 years. It's called a "message board" or a "bulletin board." Anyone can post. And they are virtually useless to the discerning reader, because the fact that anyone _can_ post means that _no one_ has a (financial/reputational) incentive to engage in the kind of careful thinking, selecting, and writing (not demonstrated, perhaps, by the grammar of my earlier comment on this trehat).

While message boards are more democratic than "oligarchic" blogs (like this one?), they simply don't serve the useful sifting and sorting purposes that real blogs do.

Posted by: Geoffrey Rapp | Apr 3, 2006 11:20:56 AM

Hoffman's thesis is right for about 1-2 years, until new sites emerge that allow anyone (practitioners, professors, and students) to make a blog posting. Users on the site will vote for the best blog postings and the best postings will appear on the front page.

Why will this work? Because it eliminates the current power distribution problem that's taking shape. If blogs become tiered into A, B, and C tiers because of network effects and the difficulties in marketing. Combined the difficulties in marketing and network effects will create a disincentive for people to begin blogging. The initial window of opportunity for bloggers will appear to have closed, even though the demand to spread your voice will remain constant. However, the network effect induced super-blogger dominance will erode away as the above system allows C tiered bloggers (many of whom have the same great ideas as professors with less consistency) to band together and compete for the attention that A tiered super-bloggers will enjoy.

A small group of A tiered bloggers will not be able to compete with a massive community of practitioners, professors, and students who all have the opportunity to submit their own blog postings. There are over 1,000,000 lawyers, practitioners, and students in the United States. Who can create better content? 2-3 professors or the 10,000 lawyers and students?

What about credibility you say? These people do not have the polished credentials of the current blog-o-sphere. Well that’s true, but credibility problems are eliminated by the voting. People vote on things they like, and the best content gets filtered to the front page. The collective weight of the community provides the needed credibility.

True, this is majoritarian, but I would take the majority over a monarch or the small group of oligarchs who will inevitably control the legal blog-o-sphere.

Hoffman merely points out a transient problem.

Posted by: anon | Apr 3, 2006 10:59:52 AM

Now that I've finished my first week of (guest blogging) at the Sports Law Blog (http://sports-law.blogspot.com/), I feel like I can finally contribute my opinions about this new media. I think that you and Hoffman are not actually that far off. He's right that there "superblogs" are certainly emerging. But I'm not sure that superblog status is all that desirable. Frankly, Volokh is out of control -- 50+ comments on a single post! The danger for VC is that as readership continues to metastasize and more and more guest bloggers join the fray, the "voice" the blog once had has been lost. Frankly, it's no longer a blog I find very useful.

In contrast, blogs like yours and Conglomerate no doubt have smaller audiences, but they are also more focused and slightly "calmer." But the success of your blog, Ribstein, Bainbridge, Volokh and others (success at building readers, reputation, and attracting attention) has inspired many law professors to start their own blogs (or spin off from more establised blogs) where there probably is both insufficient demand and insufficient supply. There are some "law professor blogs," announced and launched earlier this year, that have not been updated since February 15. Such blogs should be put to pasture and abandoned. My own limited experience has emphasized the unbelievable amount of work it takes to do this and do this well. It's not for everyone!

Posted by: Geoffrey Rapp | Apr 3, 2006 10:33:10 AM

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