Features

net.wars: I blog, therefore I am

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 21 July 2006


According to a new report (PDF) from Pew Internet, the US is home to 12 million bloggers. It only seems like more. About 57 million Americans read them. And guess what? Bloggers are just like us.

Wendy M Grossman

Pew came up with some interesting numbers. More than half of bloggers (54 percent) are under 30. Gender is balanced. Race is not: 74 percent of American Internet users are white, but only 60 percent of bloggers. Most view it as a personal pursuit, and the biggest share – 37 percent – say that the topic of their blog is "my life and experience". Only 11 percent name politics as their chief topic. A tenth spend ten or more hours a week on their blog.

A third see blogging as a form of journalism. This bit led CBS news to crow, "Blogs not replacing journalism just yet". Foolish. About half, the report also notes (further down, past the executive summary that's all a deadlined journalist may have time to read), spend time trying to verify facts and include links to original source material, more commonly among those over 30 or with college degree.)

Somewhat fewer – 40 percent – quote other people and/or media directly; understandable, since if you don't have the imprimatur of a major media outlet you are likely to think you can't get access, and sources may indeed not be willing to give their time. Fewer – 38 percent – post corrections; fewest of all – 30 percent – get permission to post copyrighted material sometimes or often. It's not clear from the report how often those correction-posters make mistakes (perhaps a better key to whether it's journalism). I think the copyright question is irrelevant; you do that if you have a lot of readers, influence, or money. You're unlikely to think it matters otherwise.

But more importantly, who cares?

Certainly, some of the best blogs are written by journalists or professional writers. But not all: they're written by scientists, lawyers, and technologists. But it's sophistry to worry about whether the results are journalism. It's one of those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin questions: what's the difference between a newspaper, a news site, a community blog, and a different community blog?

In fact, although journalists seem to be obsessed with subsuming blogging into journalism, it's arguable that eventually all media will be a subset of blogging.

What's really frustrating is the stuff they didn't ask.

Only 15 percent (mostly people over 50 years old) say making money is a major or minor reason for blogging. Only 8 percent say they make any. Those who do make money do so from tip jars, selling stuff, Amazon Associates, Google Adsense, and, for one in five, premium content.

Well? How much money do they make? Which of those income-producing options do they find is most successful? Have they changed how they blog to try to increase revenues? Are we including the people who are paid to write blogs for Gawker or one of the other Blog Empires? Many blogs – for example, Lawrence Lessig's – seem to me to fall under the category of "professional development" - their blogs are a way of thinking through ideas that will eventually wind up in books or lectures, a process helped by the feedback they get from commenters. That's not directly making money, but it's not a hobby either.

On this point, Pew demonstrated a problem I categorize as "PWJs": People With Jobs have trouble understanding the seamless lives some of us have, where there is no clear division between "work" and "recreation", and where anything that might be a "hobby" for a PWJ is subsumed, as much as possible, into what a PWJ might call "work".

Which leads to the other mainstream media complaint. More than half of bloggers blog "for themselves", which Information Week boiled down to "All About Me". Again: how silly. You can blog for yourself, while simultaneously keeping notes on things you're afraid you'll forget, documenting the weird things that happen around you, keeping your friends up-to-date, and even campaigning for political change. Do journalists criticise filmmakers for making movies to express themselves? Do journalists point the finger at themselves for writing as a way of showing off in public? Are they seriously saying that it's somehow less noble to write about things you care about than things you are required to care about if you want to keep your job (the reality for many, if not most, working journalists)? Do I sense a little envy here?

In fact, frustration – not mentioned by Pew – is, in my experience, a key driver of why a lot of people blog. I'd bet that the racial disproportion Pew notes is due to non-whites' frustration with traditional media, which is disproportionately white. Journalists blog so they can write about the stories they can't get into their own papers. Some people blog because they are so frustrated with the state of the nation.

 If Alf Garnett, recreated in the US as Archie Bunker, were alive now, he'd be blogging those pub rants.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).