Earlier this year, the New York Times announced (once again) the death of blogging. Immediately, signs of blogging's demise appeared all around me. The Palgrave Econolog, which ranks blogs, went off-line (it's now back). Posts on Worthwhile Canadian Initiative have become less frequent. The latest confirming instance: Scott Sumner is taking a break from blogging.
Some bloggers have stopped writing altogether. For example, one unheralded economics blogger's penultimate entry on June 30th, 2010 reads:
For anyone checking in here: I got out of the habit of posting on my blog around June 1 and haven’t managed to get back to it. I might resume, but I might not.
This post elicited seven comments, all of which are along the lines of "World Best Porn Websites Free 2010."
Blogging is the punk rock of academic discourse. Anybody can do it. But nobody has to listen. This is the first source of blogosphere contraction: the withdrawal of bloggers who learned that they couldn't get an audience. (Some have also withdrawn upon discovering that they could get a bigger audience on facebook or twitter).
But what about widely read bloggers, like Scott Sumner?
One reason Sumner gives for his withdrawal is other opportunities:
The blog has spun off a lot of activities that you don’t see. I read lots of papers that people send me, do more speaking than before, conferences, etc. I hope to get my book out this year.
Why would Sumner stop blogging to write a book?
A blogger has property rights to his or her work, but these are costly to enforce. Worthwhile Canadian Initiative posts get borrowed, reframed, reworked, republished (for example here or here ). This means more people learn about the blog and read our ideas, which is great. But it does not generate financial rewards for us.
Once a blogger is well known, a larger organization can profitably make the the blogger the following offer: give some of your property rights to us. We will enforce them, and give you a share of the revenue your work generates. That larger organization might be a venerable institution like the Globe and Mail newspaper, a start-up like the Big Think blog or, as in Sumner's case, a mainstream publishing house. The net impact is the same: an increasingly concentrated blogosphere, dominated by a smaller number of blogger barons.
Recognized organizations have something else to offer the solitary blogger: a certification of quality. Because anybody can blog, some blogs are good and some blogs are bad. Reputation, readership and so on can be used to measure quality. But it's easier to signal quality by, for example, publishing a book with a university press.
Is the (alleged) growing concentration of the blogosphere just about economics and property rights? Exactly 100 years ago, Robert Michels proposed the iron law of oligarchy: all forms of organization eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies.
The causal mechanism he proposed is human nature. People like having leaders, because it saves them the trouble of doing things for themselves. Applying Michels' theory to Internet 2.0, a leader might be the editor of an on-line newspaper, who finds provocative writers, or a prolific twitterer, who searches the web for good reads.
But what happens when Michels' 20th century theory meets 21st century technology? Distance no longer matters, so a person can choose a leader anywhere in the world. The best leaders will attract vast numbers of followers, and internet oligarchies will start to emerge.
If you're reading this blog, you probably knew this already. But have you thought about how it looks to someone on the supply side of the blogosphere?
Being part of a larger organization makes life easier. Someone delivers eyeballs to your postings, proof-reads your material, and takes care of that technical stuff. If you want to take a break for a couple of weeks, that's no problem.
But a conventional news organization places restrictions on what an author can write, and the comments pages are almost uniformly uninteresting. A blog read by 100 influential people might have more impact on people's thinking than a blog briefly glanced at by 100,000 people - and then forgotten. Twitter makes anyone a potential leader, facebook sharing transmits blog posts around the world...
So I go back and forth between optimism and pessimism. What do you think?