Sunday, October 26, 2003

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The division of labor in the blogosphere

Tyler Cowen comes to the following conclusion after dinner with Glenn Reynolds:

Glenn is so successful because he understands the idea of blogs as portals. (This is my view, not Glenn's own self-description.) Blogs that offer too much of the author, and the author alone, are vulnerable to other blogs that cream-skim them, and other blogs, thereby offering the superior product. The question is not who can write the best stuff, but who can collect the best stuff, and comment on it most effectively. Really smart people are not always used to these terms of competition, I might add. The future of blogging lies in the hands of those who recognize the intellectual and literary division of labor. (emphasis in original)

The greater the number of blogs, the greater the importance of "portal blogs," such as Glenn's.

This has prompted a fair amount of angry reaction in the blogosphere. Will Baude summarizes the objections nicely:

Pardon, but an RSS feed can do that. The reason I don't read Instapundit is that I don't particularly agree with Glenn Reynolds about what's wheat and what's chaff....

Sure, there's a place for aggregator blogs like Instapundit (or more critically How Appealling). But if you're trying to make your way in the blogosphere, it's better to offer an occasional portal to the truly obscure and a lot of original, sound, and hard-hitting analysis.

The problem with this debate is that it's not an "either-or" situation. A while back I wrote that there were two types of blogs:

First, some blogs can act as focal points for information provision. Now, by definition, there can only be one or two focal points. Glenn Reynolds generally acts as one for bloggers. During concentrated crises -- Josh Marshall in the case of Trent Lott's downfall, or Kelley for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- others can spring up. These blogs serve the useful purpose of collecting and distributing already available information to interested readers. In doing so, these individuals help to frame and propel debates of the day. They also reduce search costs for the rest of us....

Second, most bloggers provide value added in the form of criticism and commentary. We don't generate new facts so much as put already existing facts into a larger framework. We then look at other people who do this and comment and critique their efforts. This is my comparative advantage, at least.

A glance at the Blogosphere Ecosystem suggests this division of labor is more stable than Cowen's post suggests. Consider the top ten blogs:

1. Instapundit
2. Eschaton (Atrios)
3. Talking Points Memo
4. Daily Kos / Political State Report
5. The Truth Laid Bear
6. Andrew Sullivan
7. Little Green Footballs
8. CalPundit
9. USS Clueless
10. The Volokh Conspiracy

I'd characterize five of these blogs (Instapundit, Atrios, Daily Kos, N.Z. Bear, and LGF) as primarily portals or focal points. The other five (Marshall, Sullivan, Drum, Den Beste, and Volokh) are more commentary than portal. [C'mon, Atrios and Glenn offer commentary!--ed. Yes, but I'm using a simple dichotomy. Drudge would be an example of the perfect portal, but beyond him most blogs have a mix of links and commentary.] Given that by definition one would predict portal blogs to be clustered among the top ten, it looks like commentary blogs aren't going anywhere.

If you think about, this makes sense, and like most divisions of labor improves the productivity of both sides. Without commentary blogs, there would be less of a demand for the skills required to be a portal blog. Without portals, those specializing in commentary would face higher search costs in developing their topics and arguments.

Baude is also correct that newcomers to the blogosphere will have to go the commentary route. For example, here's a new blog that's worth checking out, especially for Californians. I particularly like this post critiquing Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

posted by Dan on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM


Yeah, I think your criticism is the right one. In any given area (politics in our case) there can't be more than a handful of portal blogs, so by definition the vast majority of blogs aren't portals.

In fact, I'd disagree that Kos and Bear are portals, which cuts that list down to 3 portals and 7 others.

In fact, if you go down to the next 20 in the Ecosystem, I'd say that only TalkLeft is a portal (for criminal justice stuff), and maybe The Corner. So that's about five out of 30, and I doubt there are many below that. Any general purpose portal that's not in the top 30 isn't likely to stay around.

I really think Tyler missed the boat on this.

posted by: Kevin Drum on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I think you will find a few portals down lower, but they are different. There is a whole subsection of the blogosphere where people basically just write about what is happening in their lives. I don't read many of these blogs, but I have stumbled across some of this type that do a lot of linking to what is going on in the lives of their friends.

As far as major news goes, I would agree with you.

I didn't really mean to come across as angry. I just get emails sometimes wondering why I didn't link to this or that business story, and I wanted to clarify that I don't consider myself a portal in the Instapundit sense, but maybe in some sense I do qualify. People looking for general business news shouldn't come to BusinessPundit. People who like business commentary, but don't want to read through 20 business periodicals each week, should stop by.

I think Tyler uses "successful" to describe blogs that get lots of links and hits, but I think there are other measures, such as time spent on the blog or comments left or something else maybe. I don't want to slight Glenn, because he is extremely bright, articulate, and a very nice guy (look at how he tries to promote other blogs people should read), but I think his success has been part skill, part timing, part hard work, and part luck. The book "Linked: The New Science of Networks" predicts that in any system with rules like the blogosphere, a few large hubs will emerge. Some of the successful portals were doing the right things at the right time.

posted by: Rob on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Has anyone considered inertia as a reason for Instapundit's continued prominence?

Glenn isn't the only "portal blogger" but he was pretty much the first. Early on he set up his page to display a lengthy list of other blogs, in alphbetical order, and has kept this list updated. I only read what Glenn writes occasionally now -- depending on the issue I already know more or less what his take will be -- but I bookmarked his one site rather than all the other blog sites I do read, for convenience. I don't think I'm the only one who does this.

I'm not crticizing any of Glenn's content, only pointing out that being first and being well formatted have long made the Instapundit site a natural first stop for those exploring the blogosphere.

posted by: Zathras on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

These comments are valid as long as your objective is to have a blog. Even here, Dan is suggesting that the field has become crowded enough that new bloggers shouldn't try to emulate a certain type of "portal" blog. This says to me that by Tuesday morning, the rest of the field might be taken up as well. A defect of the blog genre has always been its tendency toward self-reference and self-congratulation.

The lesson of blogging is not that you need to have commentary or links in reverse-chronological order. The lesson of blogging is that any type of self-publication that can take advantage of the web's efficiency AND provides a reason for visitors to return frequently may enhance the author-publisher's career in other areas, in part, or especially, by bypassing the conventional wisdom that may restrict entry to publication in more conventional ways. A blog isn't necessarily the only way to do this. An interesting personal web site that is frequently updated but not, strictly speaking, a blog, may work just as well -- and in fact, with the conventions of blogging more and more established, at this point I would be skeptical that a blog per se is a way to showcase originality or creativity.

posted by: John Bruce on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I didn't think my response to Tyler's post was angry. It was just a conclusion based on his premise. I do want traffic, but if to get more I should run a portal weblog, then I'll have to sacrifice traffic for writing space.

posted by: Sean Hackbarth on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I think "Reader's Digest" is the operative concept that we're looking at here.

In It's heyday, RD was a clearing house of abstract's of a like nature. "It was portal, when portal wasn't cool" - err, invented.

Seems to be the same concept - and a valid one at that.

posted by: Art Wellesley on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Dan, you are very late to this discussion, and I guess that means so is Cowen.

The terms you are looking for are "linkers" and "thinkers", at least I saw them called that at least a year ago over at Den Beste's site. (link) Linkers would be your portals that link to interesting or discussion-engendering posts, and thinkers would be the people who write those posts. Now, this is not an either/or proposition. I think most of you seem to think a blog has to be one or the other, but that is simply not the case. I tend to prefer the thinkers because I have an RSS reader, already know what blogs I want to read and so don't need a linker, but all of those blogs have short description-link-comment posts on a fairly regular basis.

posted by: Mitch Schindler on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

May I suggest use of the terms "linky" and "thinky" to describe the two types of blog?

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

John Bruce is absolutely right about the blogosphere's tendency toward self-congratulation. No praise is too high for posters in comment sections like this one who are courageous enough to point this out. In fact, if it were not for comment section posters the self-esteem of bloggers would get completely out of control, causing not only the implosion of the genre but very possibly the end of American democracy as we know it. I am very glad to be able to take my humble place in the never ending struggle to uphold the American way.

posted by: Zathras on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Now, by definition, there can only be one or two focal points

Specifically, by definition, there can only be one focal point for a mirror and two for a lens ...?

posted by: dsquared on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I forget who coined it (I'm too lazy to do a google search), but there was a piece on the distinction between "linkers" (e.g. Reynolds) and "thinkers" (e.g. Denbeste) about a year or two ago. If you google "Linkers and Thinkers" you should find it.

posted by: J_Mann on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Awww, nuts. I was hoping I could dine out for years on my little coinage, like that guy who came up with "blogosphere".

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I believe "linkers v. thinkers" was John Hawkins' (Right Wing News)coinage.

posted by: James Joyner on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Also, in response to Kevin's point above, while Bear's blog is primarily new content rather than aggregation, the main reason it's so high in the Ecosystem is, well, the Ecosystem. I enjoy Bear's posts but, frankly, there ain't that many of them. But the service he provides aggregating and maintaining the Ecosystem is what's getting all those links.

posted by: James Joyner on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I once characterized those two roles as "editors" and "writers", and my readers almost immediately suggested "linkers" and "thinkers".

Contrary to what Zathras says, almost all the original blogs in the first wave, by people like Kottke and Blood and Haughey, emphasized linking. It was a natural evolution of the home page "Here's a list of interesting places I've found" list which was so common before that point.

I see editors and writers complementing each other nicely. As a writer, I do need linkers but not to help me do research. I need linkers to help readers find me. No one will find my site unless they follow a link to it.

But that's symbiotic. Linkers need people who produce material, so that they have something to link to. And in turn, readers need linkers to help them find good stuff amidsts the huge jungle of the web. So everyone wins.

On the other hand, there's probably less room now for new people to break in as linkers, unless they try to specialize and hunt for info about some single subject. Once there's a certain number of high-profile linkers in a given realm, anyone else trying to do the same is pretty redundant.

Writing is, or can be, more challenging. You actually have to have something to say that others are interested in hearing. But if you have a unique voice, then you aren't redundant. People read my site because they can only find the things I write on my site, and because no one else really writes the kind of things I do. It's not for everyone, but some people do seem to value it, which is why I've built up a regular readership and landed in that top-ten list.

On the other hand, Baude and Drezner are both taking far too narrow a view of blogging when they say that newcomers will have to become writers. For one thing, they're focusing far too narrowly on political blogs. What a blogger does depends enormously on what he's trying to accomplish, and what he's interested in. Why shouldn't there be Reynolds-style blogs which concentrate on weaving and quilting, or the problems of growing orchids, or fly fishing, or child-rearing? Why can't a blog be like Lileks minus the politics, tales of a parent's beloved child?

There was one of those I used to read which is gone now; it was by a man whose daughter had a congenital heart defect, and it combined discussions of the kinds of heart operations they'd performed on her with his day-to-day experiences raising her and loving her and being amazed and grateful that she had even survived.

This is a very plastic medium. It is a means of delivering information, but there's no reason why blogging has to have any more restrictions on the material it delivers than book publishing. Indeed, it probably has fewer restrictions than any previous media. I myself think of my site as high-tech vanity publishing.

posted by: Steven Den Beste on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

Of the ten blogs in the list, of the ones I am familar with, Little Green Footballs is unusual in that it is pretty focused in terms of content.

posted by: PALESTINE IS FRANKENSTEIN on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

I am referring to the original Blog, which mentoned something about, "an imp inside me".
Reason that interested me is that, long ago, somewhere I had read a piece about, "The Imp of the Perverse".
Ever since then, and because I am a successful painter, I have felt that I, as well, have such an "imp" inside me.
Now, this little thing, is responsible for my brilliant colors, textures, draughtsmanship and other compositional elements.
Trouble is, that the "Imp", like all other kids, (such as Peter Pan), often have tantrums.
So the "Imp"is both a blessing and a curse.
What do all of your other Bloggers think?

posted by: Mr. M. Dunsky on 10.26.03 at 02:29 PM [permalink]

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