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Friday, May 01, 2015

Will Legal Blogs Survive, or Die Out?

A month and a day into our tenth anniversary, I come finally to address a question that came up in a conversation this winter with the great election law blogger Rick Hasen, one that for me at least motivated this week's concluding subject: Will legal blogs fade away and die? With the usual risks involved in summarizing someone else's views offered in casual conversation, I will say in short that Rick was skeptical about their future, and eloquent on the subject.

Over the course of the past month, some of my posts have supplied some of the reasons underlying this pessimism. Rick offered some of them, and others are simply my own personal perspective. 1) A decade wears out any blogger. 2) If you're not just aggregating, or if your subject matter is not highly constrained to a specific subject, the wear-out factor can be even greater. It helps if you have particular hobby-horses that you don't mind returning to again and again. But that's not true for all of us; some of us like writing, particularly on certain issues, but are not much driven by a cause or mission and thus don't see much virtue in repetition (although that doesn't stop me). 3) Group blogs help spread the burden, but create organizing and administrative costs (borne here almost entirely by Howard, with my gratitude). And not every group- or guest-blogger contributes equally. Certainly I have not, in the past couple of years, whether the reason has been understandable or not. 4) For many, the tone and nature of the comments (and some of the posts!) adds to the sense of exhaustion. And while such a tone evidently draws one set of commenters, it may turn off and turn away other, quieter but larger, segments of the audience. I understand that views vary on this. So be it; this is mine. For what it's worth, while I consider much of the degradation of content and tone to be related to a particular subject-matter, I think it's present on both sides of the debate, as a recent local discussion suggests. 5) The existence of other fora, such as Facebook, where one can satisfy some of one's own desire to write or communicate on current legal issues and other matters, to a large but limited audience. 6) The availability of other social media--Twitter most prominently, but perhaps there are others--that may draw a larger audience, although they have other sorts of limitations or constraints. 7) Perhaps, to some degree, the availability of other sites--HuffPo and so on--that are constantly hungry for material and may draw off some of the writers who would otherwise guest on blogs or create one of their own. 

All of these taken together, but perhaps especially 6, as well as 1-2 and 5, offer some reason for pessimism about the long-term future of legal blogging. At least they suggest that, having first drawn an audience and to some degree outlasted some other media that served some of these purposes (remember the magazine Legal Affairs? Kind of?), blogs and bloggers now must again retrench, reconsider their individual missions and approaches, and either switch to, incorporate, or face competition from alternative social media.

I am in some ways less pessimistic than that. I don't think a lot of blogs are about to disappear. But I do think that it is a possibility. And I very much think that what will tell the difference will be the degree to which blogs and bloggers, or prospective bloggers, adapt their current setup to be more driven by and connected to other social media. And it is quite possible that many existing bloggers, and certainly some of the people who would otherwise have helped staff and rejuvenate the existing blogs, may choose instead to devote themselves to other media, not blogs. It may be that the second possibility is greater, and more perilous to the blog enterprise, than the first.

Although I don't forecast a sudden disappearance of blogs, it does seem likely that some will continue more for the sake of soldiering on than out of a renewed burst of enthusiasm. I could be quite mistaken--it might be just a trick of perspective--but certainly, and notwithstanding the greater impact some of them are having on current legal/political debates, I think the heyday of the legal blogs seems to have passed, or at least that the best of them are more fallow and/or routine (like Raymond Chandler's description of drinking tea) right now. Of course there is a chance that, with a first wave of blogs having popped up and a great number of them having faded long since into oblivion or desuetude, the same thing could happen to another round of blogs, some of them long-lasting ones. Orin (and Rick agrees with him) offered some reasons on this site a while back why this might not happen. There are still gains, often indirect ones, to be had by blogging. We'll see. But, again, it's at least possible that some blogs will simply fade out.  

I have mixed feelings about this. But I think, on this anniversary occasion, I will say a few words about three or four of the things I have liked most about blogging, and about this particular blog that our friend Dan established, lest they get lost in the mix.

The first has to do with length. Blogs, including legal blogs, have always been good for middle-distance runners. For those of us who generally try to do more than aggregate, the length of a blog post--granted, it can be any length at all, from the dreadful "Heh." to my own customary length, "tl;dr"--is a great midpoint. It offers enough room to develop a thought fairly fully. It needn't and shouldn't be a full-dress article, but there's a lot of room to work through a small issue, or the daily item in an ongoing current issue, or a stray thought or idea that deserves to be shared with one's colleagues but might not merit an article. This is a virtue that--I insist--blogs hold over social media that impose low character limits. I think that point will matter less to those whose goal in blogging or using other social media is to score points or mouth slogans or play at politics or social change; a Twitter post is no shorter than a graffito on a wall in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. For those who want to share ideas and observations at greater length, however, it matters very much. 

The second thing I like is voice. Like all of us in the academy, I read my full fair share of SSRN abstracts every week. And there are countless times that I read an abstract and get the unmistakable sense that someone with a perfectly good idea or piece wrote out a simple, English-language summary of that article, one that would help any reader understand its gist--and then plugged that clean, clear, short explanation into one of those online engines that turns anything into parodically abstruse academic prose. That is a bad, bad thing, to be clear, and no personal ambitions or strategic aims can justify it. The virtue of blogs is that one is generally expected not to do this. The tone might be totally colloquial and non-academic or not. But it is generally meant to be more approachable, not less. On the whole, and despite the many well-aimed arrows that have been sunk into it, I find legal academic writing clearer than the writing in some of the other disciplines that I read. That's good, and we always need more of that, not less. Writing on good legal and other academic blogs has always strived not to impress or intimidate or sucker a submissions editor, but to be read. 

Third, I have liked the capacity for tentativeness that blogs allow or encourage. In truth, there is no reason that longer academic prose can't be tentative in its conclusions, or ambivalent, or simply exploratory. The older and more established one gets, the more confidently one can do this if one thinks it's as much as the subject demands or allows. But the frequent assumption is that a longer law review article will offer an unmixed conclusion, or recommendation, or reform program. Given their length and voice and, if not impermanence, then the knowledge that they may be superseded by another post a day later, blog posts have always been a good place to be frankly and unashamedly tentative in one's views or conclusions--to simply find something interesting and worth thinking about further, period. 

That offers a segue for a fourth point: the value of the blogging community. One reason those kinds of tentative posts were possible was that the blogging community--both its writers and its readers and commenters--accepted such posts, even welcomed them, and understood them to be well within the acceptable norms for the medium. Of course comments on such a post might disagree, push back, or find the post more tentative than it should be, but they generally accepted and respected the enterprise itself and did not find such a post out of bounds. I am not a frequent reader of Twitter, I readily and happily confess. But I do see some evidence when I do read it that the very architecture of that medium ends up encouraging a constant exchange of short salvos between opposing camps (or mutual "you go!" support, overly fulsome praise, and solidarity from within the same camp, which I personally find almost as intolerable). There was no shortage of disagreement during the sweet-spot era of legal blogging, but I do think there was a general sense of shared enthusiasm, tolerance, and community. 

I'll end this last anniversary post (for me) by saying again--of course, and always--that one of the things I liked most about blogging, and miss most about its heyday, is Dan Markel himself. Enthusiastic (way enthusiastic); energetic; social; interesting; uninterested in total war but unafraid to fall flat on his own face; always interested in creating, encouraging, maintaining, and expanding a community and a conversation--Dan was a big part of the blogging experience for me. As I've said before, as much as I have gotten from blogging and sometimes still do, one of the best reasons for me to keep on blogging, despite some of the doubts I've aired this month, is to honor my debt to him. 



Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 1, 2015 at 10:42 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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