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October 16, 2006

Why blogging as we know it is over

As someone who has written this blog for several years now, and read blogs for longer, I've been pondering the shape and changing nature of blogging for a while. Mostly based on how I read blogs, and how this has changed over the time I've been doing so.

Not for a moment do I think that in the future there will be no blogs. But one aspect of traditional and contemporary blogging which I am going to predict will not be so nearly strong a pattern in "the blogosphere" in coming years is people reading blog posts based on the poster. In effect, people will be much less likely to subscribe to and read particular blogs.

Just a couple of years ago the number of blogs was substantially fewer than today. So it made sense that, like in the early days of the web, we could rely on people (just like Yahoo! when it started) to filter out good blogs, interesting blogs, and we'd read and subscribe to blogs recommended and read by the bloggers we already read. Harshly, though not entirely inaccurately termed a "circle jerk" by some, this created a power law distribution in terms of readership, where a few sites had a huge audience (the A List) and a great many sites had very few readers. This pattern, once established, tends to be stable. Which is in the long term fatal to the pattern, and so to the health of blogging generally.

This distribution of readership is largely a function of the blogging distribution mechanism - RSS feeds. When people first start using RSS and reading blogs, they tend to subscribe rapidly to many feeds, but subscribe to fewer and fewer new feeds over time. And where do people find new blogs to read ands subscribe to? The other blogs they read.

Think about your own blog reading patterns. How often do you add new blogs to your feeds? Pretty infrequently I'd guess. Certainly, that's my experience, and anecdotally the experience of people I know.
How often do you unsubscribe a feed? Probably even more infrequently than you subscribe to new ones.

So, once a blog gets in someone's list of feeds, it tends to stay there.

Which would explain why the A Listers don't tend to change over time too much. Over time, most popular bloggers tend to blog less, so as a consequence link to other blogs less. Mostly unconsciously, the A-list has kicked the ladder out from behind them. The mechanisms that made popular bloggers popular no longer work for newer blogs. In essence, as we've learned before on the web, people don't scale.

So this is one sense in which "blogging as we know it is over". The whirlwind of overnight sensations in the blogosphere, which let's face it was part of the excitement, both as a reader, and a blogger - "hey, maybe I'll be the next Kottke" - really can't happen anymore. And as established bloggers blog less, the dynamism of the blogosphere ironically diminishes, despite its massive growth in pure numbers of blogs and blog posts.

Sure, this is all handwaving, but I can imagine some simple research which might confirm my anecdotal theories - for example, asking a service like Feedburner what the churn rate of feeds is, what the take up rate of new feeds is, how frequently new users of their system add new feeds, as opposed to established users.

But does that mean the blogosphere will suffer a long slow heat death, as fewer and fewer new blogs create buzz, and established bloggers post less frequently?

I actually think a different use pattern will emerge, one less focussed vertically on blogs and bloggers, but more horizontally on individual posts. The question is, how will people find these posts, if it isn't via other bloggers recommendations?

Just as the massive growth in the number of sites back in the middle 1990s meant that humanly created directories like Yahoo! and LookSmart, and even the distributed Open Directory project didn't scale, and software took over finding and recommending sites to read, I think software intermediation will become the key distribution mechanism for blog content.

People will subscribe to automatic RSS feeds, which return results of searches or other processing, for example popular posts at services like Digg. Already at Technorati, you can subscribe to an RSS feed of posts with particular tags. It doesn't seem that you can subscribe to the results of a search, but I guess either I can't find how to do it, or it's in the pipeline.

Now, the rumours that Blog searching has been retired at Yahoo are interesting. What Technorati do better than anyone is real time search (particularly of the blogosphere), which I suspect will become an increasing competitive advantage (because I suspect it's hard). Google's searches are anywhere from hours to days or weeks after content is posted, from what I can tell, depending on the popularity of the pages, except for specialist aggregators like Google News, but currency is all in blog searching, because this morning's posts are old old news for most blog readers by afternoon.

So as the prediction season commences, here's my first prediction for 2007 and beyond. People will subscribe to and read fewer blogs by specific bloggers, and more individual posts on subject areas of interest, fond using tag and keyword based searching of latest blog posts, or of popular stories, as determined by Digg, delicious, magnolia and so on.

I also reckon this will raise the quality of blogging, as competition or readers attention will shift from blog v blog, to post v post.

And another thing...

My fervent hope? Comment whoring dies a death. Note in particular to the mainstream media as you adopt "blogging" in a pathetic effort to remain 'relevant' - A blog is not a mechanism for generating flame wars, and the number of comments on a blog post is as likely to be a measure of how bad the post is (deliberately polemical, or deliberately written to maximize the number of comments) as how interesting it is. Let's leave that nonsense to talkback radio where it belongs, eh?

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Comments

I'd certainly be more interested in subscribing to category feeds from global aggregators such as Technorati than subscribing to individual blogs - except for the occasion blog where I do for whatever reason have a particular interest in what a particular person has to say about anything ... but generally I want information or ideas about a topic, so it'd make sense to subscribe to the topic, abstract from the authorship.

Once aggregation filtering technology gets better, then I'll be the first one there (tagging 2.0?)! It'll save me the work of trolling the Net nightly surfing through links between blogs, expose relevant content more readily and remove the chance of subjective assessments of sites based on their design rather than the important stuff ... the content :-)

Posted by: Nat | Oct 16, 2006 7:18:35 PM

Great post, John. I definitely find myself turning increasingly to Technorati, Digg, and trusted linkblogs for my content.

One minor point: you can indeed subscribe to the results of a search on Technorati. There's a subscribe link in the upper-right of the results page; your browser should auto-detect the RSS feed as well.

See, for instance, http://technorati.com/search/%22web%20directions%22?language=en

Posted by: Matthew Levine | Oct 16, 2006 7:44:01 PM

That's an interesting theory, which is certainly well supported by my own personal experience.

After I first started using feeds a few years back, naturally I added many feeds in the first couple of months, but the rate of increase has gradually declined since then. These days, I probably only add a new feed about once a month (or less) and it ususally only happens after I've stumbled across the same blogger several times and like what I read.

There are several reasons I see for this, based on my own experience. Subscribing to too many feeds is difficult to keep track of and I havn't got time to read everything. I've got around 60 feeds at the moment and I don't read all of those. Aside from the few I read all the time, I generally only skim the titles of the rest and pick the most interesting.

Subscribing to feeds also takes too much effort with my current set up. I know it has a lot to do with the awful feed reader I use, but I'm yet to find one that is comfortable and easy to use.

As for unsubscribing, I tend to unsubscribe from the high volume ones that I rarely read. In fact, I've still got a few that I hardly ever read (and when I do, I usually only skim the article anyway), so I should seriously consider unsubscribing from them. This is somewhat related to the first reason as well. If someone posts too frequently, I'm less likely to have the time and motivation to keep track of everything and end up reading less and less, compared with someone that posts a little less frequently.

Posted by: Lachlan Hunt | Oct 16, 2006 9:15:01 PM

I can't agree totally with your post.

I do agree that topic-focused category feeds will become more popular as tagging gets more widespread, but I don't think this means people will stop following individual bloggers.

When I read a newspaper (print or online), I browse the general articles and actually read those that reach out to me for some reason - usually because it deals with a topic either familiar to me or just as often because it's unfamiliar to me. And I'll follow that story in the next edition, if it's there.

But there are also the columnists that I read because I know I'll be interested in what they have to say regardless of the topic - they often bring me a fresh insight wrapped in a familiar delivery style. And there are columnists that I don't bother to read because the times I've started to I've either been bored or disgusted.

When I go to flickr, I use basically the same technique. I'll browse, then find myself following a tag or a group because it's grabbed me in some way. But I'll also check in with the photographers I like to see what they've posted lately. Often, the two methods feed each other: following a tag leads me to a new photographer, and following a photographer leads me to a new tag or group.

At this stage, it's the same for with blogging. There's a bunch of topics I follow via tags, and there's a bunch of people I follow becuase I like to read them. I read Eric Meyer's posts about his daughter with as much interest as his posts about standards. I like how he writes. If he gets boring though (whatever his subject), I'll stop reading him.

I agree there's plenty of potential for blogging to enter the realm of talkback radio, but I don't really care. I ignore talkback radio.

Look at it this way - following a blogging topic is more likely to expose me to online idiocy than following a specific blogger.

Posted by: Ricky | Oct 16, 2006 9:46:58 PM

That's an interesting theory, which is certainly well supported by my own personal experience.

After I first started using feeds a few years back, naturally I added many feeds in the first couple of months, but the rate of increase has gradually declined since then. These days, I probably only add a new feed about once a month (or less) and it ususally only happens after I've stumbled across the same blogger several times and like what I read.

There are several reasons I see for this, based on my own experience. Subscribing to too many feeds is difficult to keep track of and I havn't got time to read everything. I've got around 60 feeds at the moment and I don't read all of those. Aside from the few I read all the time, I generally only skim the titles of the rest and pick the most interesting.

Subscribing to feeds also takes too much effort with my current set up. I know it has a lot to do with the awful feed reader I use, but I'm yet to find one that is comfortable and easy to use.

As for unsubscribing, I tend to unsubscribe from the high volume ones that I rarely read. In fact, I've still got a few that I hardly ever read (and when I do, I usually only skim the article anyway), so I should seriously consider unsubscribing from them. This is somewhat related to the first reason as well. If someone posts too frequently, I'm less likely to have the time and motivation to keep track of everything and end up reading less and less, compared with someone that posts a little less frequently.

Posted by: Lachlan Hunt | Oct 16, 2006 10:03:06 PM

My experience provides anecdotal data to support your idea. My blog is on no A lists, but I have noticed that when I take the time to write a tutorial or explanation of some topic (I call them Tips) on a useful topic, my numbers take a big spike for that one article. It doesn't seem to build subscribers, it is more as you described: readers interested in the specific article. I've been writing a book lately and haven't had much time to write new tips for the blog. I have noticed a definite effect on the blog readership when no new Tips appear occasionally.

Posted by: Virginia DeBolt | Oct 16, 2006 11:40:45 PM

Hmmmm ... I'm still a bit dubious. Sure, in the tech world, specifically the Web Design world, you have the A-list hierarchy, but I can't say whether that actually exists in the general blogosphere, because I don't interact with even 1% of it.

And what's the reach of Technorati outside of the tech community?

How do places like Myspace and Live Journal work? Do they have A-listers? Do people who read friends' blogs (really diaries) behave the same as us, who read mostly industry blogs?

I just don't know, because I'm not in there. It scares me -- Myspace is the first sign of me getting old and uncool, 'cos I just don't know anything about it.

In a total side note, why don't any of the tags on my blog turn up in Technorati? I can't get in there!

Posted by: Cameron Adams | Oct 17, 2006 12:59:42 AM

I agree the established circles are hard to break when people limit themselves to only consuming feeds from those sets, but as more people take advantage of aggregate feeds based on search results and categories, the A-list will erode. As already mentioned, technorati (among others) allow results as feeds, and Steve Rubel recently touched on creating a blog-feeder, using RSS from various sources to identify topic-specific posts which don't have to limit results to small circles of prominent bloggers.

http://www.micropersuasion.com/2006/09/how_to_create_a.html

I similarly consume a variety of topics and often subscribe to new feeds from sites that appear to get very little traffic, despite the gems they share. I do retain a number of A-listers, but they represent only about 5 percent of my subscriptions. If someone from one of the established circles isn't in my reader but posts something that makes waves, the ripples travel the web around and it's rarely missed.

Posted by: Ryan Stephenson | Oct 17, 2006 1:54:13 AM

I think you're right, John. The phenomenon has worked its lifecycle to near completion. Out of it will come something new, as you predict. Your thoughts on the individual post model certainly fits in with the growing microcontent idea and the talk of popular searches and subscriptions fits with what James Surowieki writes about in the Wisdom of Crowds.

Anyone remember Pointcast? ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointcast ) It's interesting to see how that top-down push of microcontent failed but today's distributed model of RSS-driven microcontent is working.

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 17, 2006 2:54:21 AM

If you add a Technorati search to your watchlist, an RSS feed is created.

Posted by: Joe Clark | Oct 23, 2006 12:23:33 AM

Thanks Joe,

dunno why it took me so long to figure that out!

j

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