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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hoffman's "Stagnation" and the Future of Legal Blogging

David Hoffman continues his work on the blawging beat by raising concerns about stagnation in the legal blogosphere.  He argues: "With minor exceptions, the legal blogosphere exists in a communal space that dates back to 2002."  Hoffman notes that legal bloggers are stuck in the same rut that political bloggers had been stuck in until recent changes created stronger communities and more real-world impact.  He believes that we blawgers need to develop something new to move up to a higher plane of being.

I found much to agree with in Dave's post, but I also think he radically undersells the present.  So what follows is a brief discussion of the strengths and weaknesses, as I see them, of the current blawgosphere.

STRENGTHS

Blogs provide unique context and analysis .  Hoffman claims that blogs have been stagnant in form since 2001 or 2002.  Perhaps you could make this argument starting at 2005 -- law blogs reached their peak of traffic with the Miers nomination, and readership has never quite reached that level since.  Even so, I agree that the "form" has been stagnant but not the content.  And blogs have developed a unique form of content: short, timely posts that provide stripped down but specific analysis. This content just developed at the turn of the new century and now has established itself as integral part of the media conversation. Take a look, for example, at the Balkinization posts on torture, interrogation, detention, war powers, executive authority, DOJ and OLC.  These roughly 600 posts, most since 2004, are not indications of a stagnant medium.

Bloggers have become experts.  To be truly comprehensive would take an extremely lengthy post.  But one recent example: read Bush Rationale on Libby Stirs Legal Debate.  Who are the first two law prof experts quoted in the article?  Doug Berman, who is identified as "a law professor at Ohio State University who writes the blog Sentencing Law and Policy," and Ellen Podgor, who blogs at White Collar Crime Prof Blog.  As Larry Ribstein has discussed, blogs have given legal experts both direct access to the public as well as easier access to the media.  This is a huge change since 2001, and the change is ongoing. 

Blogs have created communities.  I agree with Dave that blogs could do a better job of creating communities.  But let's not forget the extent to which blogs have done this already.  Again, I won't try to be exhaustive here.  As Dave notes, there is the Conglomerate Junior Scholar Workshop Series, now in its third year.  Specialty blogs like TaxProf Blog and Opinio Juris are must-reads for their scholarly communities, and Brian Leiter provides the news of record for the legal academy generally.  I'd like to think that we at Prawfs have also fostered a community, through Dan's terrific roster of guest engagements and our ongoing efforts to reach out to new and aspiring profs.  The fact that Dave's post has and will generate a series of responses demonstrates the liveliness of the blogging communities.  True, we don't have the 800-comment threads that Daily Kos might get, but those threads create problems of their own.  I believe that blogging communities will continue to thrive.  However, I do agree with Dave that law blogs could do a better job of fostering communities.  This and other weaknesses are discussed below.

WEAKNESSES

Blogging is limited by chronology. One of blogging’s strengths is its timeliness: one can post online almost as soon as one is finished typing.  At the same time, however, this immediacy means that a blog post has a much more limited shelf life. Because other, more immediate posts will push the post down the page (or down the RSS feed), it will soon be passed over by the never-ending parade of new content. At best, a link from another blog post might draw new attention to it. But soon enough, that post too will be buried in the annals of time.

Blogging is limited in its format. The blog can only really be one thing: a web log. It has to be a chronological series of largely undifferentiated posts. For example, there are blog posts that link to the issue of the day and do nothing more. And then there are blog posts that take time and research and are meant to be more like a quasi-law magazine or even nascent laws review article. But the blog does not differentiate between these things. Other media, however, can differentiate to a much larger extent. They have front-page stories, a variety of web sites, and different fonts and typefaces. They provide more pointers toward relevant content. These more complicated web presences do a better job of keeping more important posts on the front burner for continuing debate and discussion.

Blogs are too limited in their communities. For me, the Platonic ideal of the  web log is an individual online diary providing thoughts on a variety of topics of interest to that person. (I.e., Althouse.) I think the group blog has been a hugely successful addition to the blog world, as it allows folks to blog who wouldn’t otherwise have the time or initiative to write manifold posts every day. Even so, the group blog isn’t a truly equal community, in that readers can only post in response to a post written by one of the bloggers. Of course, the growing number of blogs means that more and more folks are able to participate in the online community. But there are already too many blogs for me to read regularly.

What's the answer?  I'd love your thoughts, and I'll also post some follow-up thoughts soon.

Posted by Matt Bodie on July 11, 2007 at 09:38 AM in Blogging | Permalink

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