Thursday, July 20, 2006

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Why oh why is the press so thick-headed about blogs?

I don't normally like to rant against the mainstream media, but their coverage of this Pew survey of bloggers borders on the bizarre.

The survey found that the overwhelming majority of people who blog do so for non-political reasons -- they function primarily as online personal diaries.

This would certainly be earth-shattering news -- if it was four years ago. Consider this Perseus report from the Paleolithic era of blogging -- October 2003:

When you say "blog" most people think of the most popular weblogs, which are often updated multiple times a day and which by definition have tens of thousands of daily readers. These make up the tip of a very deep iceberg: prominently visible, but not characteristic of the iceberg as a whole.

What is below the water line are the literally millions of blogs that are rarely pointed to by others, since they are only of interest to the family, friends, fellow students and co-workers of their teenage and 20-something bloggers. Think of them as blogs for nanoaudiences....

Blogging is many things, yet the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life. It will be written very informally (often in "unicase": long stretches of lowercase with ALL CAPS used for emphasis) with slang spellings, yet will not be as informal as instant messaging conversations (which are riddled with typos and abbreviations). Underneath the iceberg, blogging is a social phenomenon: persistent messaging for young adults.

While Pew might reached the conclusion that most bloggers are not political after using sophisticated polling techniques, this is not a new finding (see Mystery Pollster on the methodology). It's merely a confirmation of what prior, less well-funded studies have found.

Nevertheless, media outlets have framed the story in interesting ways. Consider the BBC:

Bloggers who say their writings are a form of journalism are in the minority, despite the hype, two surveys reveal.

A study by social networking site MSN Spaces found that nearly 60% of people in the UK use blogs as an online diary.

"Citizen journalists" are increasingly dominating the headlines for reporting events using online tools like blogs.

A second survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 65% of people in the US who write a blog also do not consider their work journalism.

Or Information Week:
The majority of bloggers prefer to write about themselves and share their digital creations than to discuss politics or technology, a survey released Wednesday showed.

While high-traffic "A-list" bloggers who discuss topics covered by traditional media get most of the publicity, the fact is blogging in general is more of a personal experience, the Pew Internet & American Life Project said. More than three fourths of bloggers surveyed said they blog to document their own experiences and share them with others. More than six in 10 said they blog to share practical knowledge or skills with others.

"Blogs are as individual as the people who keep them, but this survey shows that most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression," Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew, said in a statement.

Or Sci-Tech Today:
The media tends to focus on a small subset of well-known "A-list" sites that receive a high volume of visitors. These blogs tend to focus on politics or other hot button topics such as technology. For these bloggers, a blog is more than just a hobby, it is a job.

However, according to the survey, the majority of bloggers, 76 percent, said the reason they have a blog is to record their personal experiences and share them with others, and 64 percent reported that they wanted to share their knowledge and skills with others.

Most bloggers said the write about a myriad of different topics, but about 37 percent focus on "my life and experiences", with only 11 percent of bloggers said they concentrate on politics and the government, and 4 percent blog about technology. A scant 7 percent of respondents focus on entertainment and 6 percent use their blog to discuss sports. And, just 34 percent of bloggers look at blogging as a form of journalism.

Finally, there's Slate's Jack Shafer:
Pew's blogging masses couldn't be more different than the American A-listers. Most A-listers are men over 30; have published before; are in it primarily to change public opinions and not to share their experiences; know only a fraction of their readers; and don't conceal their identities....

I'm not disparaging bloggers, so please don't treat me to a high-tech lynching. But this study shows that at this early point in the blog era, the great mass of bloggers aren't set on replacing reporters. The top 100 or top 1,000 may consider themselves "citizen journalists" of one sort or another, but the survey finds that 65 percent of bloggers don't consider their output journalism at all. They're just expressing themselves in a leisurely fashion, inspired by a personal experience (78 percent, says the survey), and their blogs are a "hobby" or "something I do, but not something I spend a lot of time on" (84 percent).

Again, I'm not disparaging hobbies or navel-gazing: I have hobbies I can bore you with, and I navel-gaze. But the Pew report indicates that only a tiny fraction of current bloggers have any ambition to fulfill the blogs über alles designs some media theorists plotted for them.

Shafer's story illustrates what has changed in the past three years, and it's not the blogosphere -- it's the mainstream media's fear of the blogosphere (which is one reason why blogs have been declared to be passé so many times this past year). If the Pew survey suggests that not all bloggers are Army-of-David wannabe journalists, then that's the angle that should be reported.

Now, I am resolutely not a blog triumphalist, and do not think that blogs will supplant mainstream media outlets. However, in the spirit of contrarianism, let me offer two cautionary warnings to the journalists out there who might be reassured by these numbers.

First, it doesn't matter if an overwhelming majority of blogs do not focus on politics and government -- what matters is that there are a huge number of blogs out there and a fraction of them do focus on matters of interest to political journalists. If the Pew survey is accurate, then eleven percent of twelve million bloggers -- more than 1.3 million Americans -- have blogs that focus on the politics. Most of them probably aren't that good -- but I could say the same of many newspapers as well. The point is, 1.3 million is still a pretty large number.

Second, as an A-list [No--ed.] B-list [No-ed.] C-list [In the interest of not embarrassing you further, I'l let it pass--ed.], it's worth remembering that what motivates bloggers changes over time. Most A-list bloggers, when they started their blogs, were also "primarily interested in creative, personal expression." The motivations can change once an audience starts to grow, however.

I eagerly await the Pew survey on commenters.

posted by Dan on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM


Note, too, this op-ed column in the WaPo, where an old reporter recounts how the press in 1979 kept the secret of certain fugitive diplomats escaping from the takover of the US embassy in Iran. He worries that today, "some blogger" would break the story.

posted by: Tom T. on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]


You're too hard on yourself. In my book, you're already an A-lister (and we were all here for the early days).


posted by: Rofe on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

Pew really is missing the point.

If we took a similarly broad of view printed media-- newspapers, magazines (the majority of magazines being about fashion, entertainment, sports and clothed/unclothed women), and books-- I think we'd see a similar trend.

Most of printed media is similarly not about being a "journalist"- but a form of self expression, hobby/interest/entertainment.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

I eagerly await the Pew survey on commenters.

I'm not sure I want to know. And how will answer under their real names/identities or insist on providing spoof responses.

posted by: VAMark on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

Trying to categorize blogs ( A-list, B-list etc) is dfficult and frankly a waste of time. The good Doctor's blog is excellent and I check in several times weekly but for different reasons than those for which I would compliment in the same way....Reynolds, Sullivan, Belgravia etc.

posted by: Pete on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

Why are they so thick headed about blogs? You need only visit a journalism school to answer that question.

American journalists really believe that the Constitution provides special protections to publish freely that are not extended to the ordinary citizen. Print journalists want shield laws and other special treatment for the “professionals.” Therefore, they must distinguish themselves from the unprofessional, citizen journalist.

Like most efforts to “professionalize” and license and restrict, the print journalist’s claim to special status is pure hokum.

Blogging is nothing more or less than the extension of the American pamphleteer tradition into a new communication medium. Some blogs choose to tackle big subjects, as did Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense”, and others choose to tackle the mundane, as did the “Farmer’s Almanac” and the many letter societies in the early United States.

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

Long time lurker here. You are definitely A-List. Wish you would do something about those funky lines thru the comment text when viewing via permalink, though. You have a good commenter community and its an eyestrain to read them.

posted by: jdwill on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

I noticed that as well, dating from when I guest-hosted (guest-blogged? blog-sat?) for Dan last year. I couldn't even find anything in Movable Type that looked as if it might change those lines, and I have no idea why they appear as they do. I agree it's a problem.

posted by: Zathras on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

I'll bet that when the invention of the printing press started getting used by all sorts of nobodies, the elites of that day were saying a lot of stuff about them that mirrors the MSM take on blogs.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

It's all about competition. It always is.

posted by: aco on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

I am puzzled. Did Pew think that 45,000,000 bloggers were all serious and newsworthy? Gee, I write an outstanding blog, but it is a diary I keep on the internet. But even I have to read 3 papers to have anything to say. It's about me and my thoughts. (Actually, I have 8.) Even so it was humbling to be out of the country for 2 weeks unable to blog and see my stats remained the same--in fact, may have been an uptick.

posted by: Norma on 07.20.06 at 05:57 PM [permalink]

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