|New Establishment Rising? The End Of the Flat Blogopshere
In late 2002, when the progressive, political blogosphere first began to receive attention from established news sources for its role in helping to expose Trent Lott's racist comments at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, it was a very different place than it is today. For one thing, it had far fewer readers, with an audience less than 5% of early 2007 levels (see note one at the end of the piece). Second, even on the most frequently linked and highly trafficked blogs that served as hubs for the wider political blogosphere, far less content was produced. For example, during the final four months of 2002, Dailykos had 425 front-page articles, whereas in the final four months of 2006 it featured 2,327 front-page articles, as well as an exponentially increased amount of user generated content in the form of comments and reader "diaries" (see here for more on diary production statistics). Third, in late 2002, the blogosphere was much smaller. With one blog created every second over the past few years, the total number of blogs of any kind in 2002 was a small fraction of the number that exist in 2007. Specific to progressive politics, more two-thirds of the websites in the Liberal Blog Advertising Network had yet to be founded in late 2002. Further, departing from what was once largely a series of solitary productions, a wide range of progressive blogs now feature co-writers, guest writers, and diarists, adding an entirely new dimension to the amount of content produced in the political blogosphere.
The Way It Was
Connected to this explosive growth in audience, blogs, and content production, a fundamental change has occurred in the structure of many progressive, political blogs. Back in late 2002, there was a nearly universal, structural format for progressive blogging, that centered around the following five, ubiquitous characteristics:
- Individual. A single writer produced virtually all of the front-page content. Group blogs were extremely rare.
- Independent. Five years ago there were virtually no "official" blogs for electoral campaigns, party committees, politically focused news outlets, think tanks or advocacy organizations. Whatever blogs were around were independent of established media and political outlets.
- Hobbies. Five years ago, political blogging as a profession simply did not exist. Advertising was non-existent on progressive, political blogs. Fundraisers for the proprietors of blogs were extraordinarily rare. No one blogged full-time and no one used blogging as a primary source of income. Blogging was a hobby that operated almost entirely outside the market economy.
- Limited Communities. Comment sections were not moderated in any way, shape or form. Registration was never required to post a comment. Opportunities for reader generated content, such as diaries, were limited. Comment threads were sparse by today's standards.
- Less varied and original content. Original reporting and research almost never took place. Multimedia options such as video were equally rare. Guest posts from prominent media and political figures were unheard of. There was comparatively little in the way of direct activism on behalf of candidates and causes. Overall, at the time, content in the political blogosphere could be accurately characterized as micro-punditry on current events that was driven almost entirely by reporting from established news sources.
Now, it should be noted that these five characteristics probably still accurately apply to over 95% of all progressive, political blogs. What Chris Anderson famously termed the "Long Tail" of the blogosphere is still almost entirely populated by independent, hobby blogs with a sole content producer, virtually no internal community to speak of, and content that is almost 100% micro-punditry on current events reporting from established news sources. (Note: for the remainder of this article, the terms "Short Head" and "Long Tail" will refer, respectively, to the roughly 1% of progressive, political blogs that receive over 95% of all progressive blogosphere traffic, and the 99% of progressive political blogs that receive less than 5% of all progressive, political blogosphere traffic. More information on the great traffic imbalance can also be found in the The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere, co-written by Matt Stoller and myself. Also, further information on the "long tail" and "short head" can also be found at wikipedia).
(JONI Discussion Question: Many bloggers do not even wish to gain entry to the "short head" of the blogosphere. What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of operating "short head" and "long tail" blogs?)
The Way It Is Now
Today, the "short head" of the progressive, political blogosphere looks completely different. Since late 2002, a dramatic change has taken place where virtually every blog with a large audience (1,000 or more daily readers) has begun to shed at least one, and sometimes all five, of the original characteristics. In every case, the shift away from these five characteristics has caused a significant increase in the time and resources necessary to keep a so-called "short head" progressive, political blog operational. This increase in maintenance costs has resulted in significantly increased entry costs to the "short head," "A-list," or whatever term best describes the small number of progressive, political blogs that receive both the lion's share of readers and inbound hyperlinks. In other words, it has become far more difficult for a new and relatively unknown blogger to attract a large, national readership on his or her own than it was even in the very recent past.
Perhaps most importantly, since at least November of 2005, the entry costs to the "short head" of the national, progressive, political blogosphere have become so extreme that a new "establishment" within the progressive, political blogosphere has begun to crystallize. Less than a decade into its existence, the rise of the progressive, political blogosphere establishment represents a dramatic, and potentially dangerous, shift for an important branch of supposed "flat" and "open" new media (in other words, media where the barriers to participation in the production and distribution of new content are minimal for the majority of American citizens). This is the flip-side, the photo negative, of the sustainable funding dilemma for the progressive blogosphere. Its rapid increase in size and political effectiveness has made it a tremendously positive, indispensable part of the progressive, political ecosystem in general. However, becoming an indispensable part of the progressive, political ecosystem required the creation of significant structural overhead. Now, even as this new establishment still struggles to find the sustainable funding required to its maintain this overhead, and thus its operational capacity over the long-term, this same overhead has now set the barrier to joining the "short head" so high that has become a near impossibility for a new independent, individual actor to join the elite ranks of the national, progressive political blogosphere.
(JONI Discussion Question: What are some successful-and unsuccessful-strategies for drawing more attention and traffic to "long tail" blogs?)
Transformation At The Top
In order to better understand the degree to which progressive, political blogs in the "short head" have moved away from the original format of a single, independent writer producing mirco-punditry as a hobby, it is useful to once again look at the five characteristics described above as they apply to the "short head" in mid-2007. The following is an incomplete list of which blogs have departed from, or even developed entirely separately of, each of those five characteristics:
- Group blogging is now the norm. Huffington Post, Dailykos, Crooks and Liars, TPM Café, Think Progress, Firedoglake, Americablog, Newshounds, The Agonist, MyDD, Pandagon, Talk Left, Feministing, Sadly No, My Left Wing, BooMan Tribune, The Group News Blog, The Left Coaster and many more now feature multiple, regular, front-page writers. By featuring multiple writers, all of these blogs are able to produce more new content on a more regular basis than sole proprietor blogs. Even many highly trafficked blogs not listed here, such as Hullabalo, Eschaton, and Political Animal, sometimes rely on occasional or weekend posters to keep the content flowing. Nowadays, the contemporary "short head" blog never shuts down for vacation, weekends, holidays, work, illness, or personal reasons. Ever. An individual content producer simply cannot match that over an extended period of time, even though certain extremely rare and verbose individuals, such as Digby, Josh Marshall, Atrios and Juan Cole, are able to come close.
- Institutional blogs on the rise. According to Technorati, as of July 6, 2007, Think Progress, a blog produced by the Center for American Progress, is now the fifteenth most linked political blog in the entire world, and fourth among all political blogs. While it is the best example of a successful, institutionally-based progressive blog, it is hardly the only example. Now, the Democratic National Committee (Kicking Ass), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (From the Roots), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (The Stakeholder), every major Democratic presidential candidate, most statewide candidates, and many congressional candidates also have blogs. Many advocacy organizations, from The American Constitution Society to Wal-Mart Watch, now have official blogs. Many other progressive bloggers, such as Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly, and Ezra Klein at the American Prospect, have signed on with established news organizations. With institutional backing, these "official" blogs and bloggers have advantages, including regular salaries and research capability, which independent blogs lack.
- Professional bloggers emerge. Even aside from the new corps of progressive bloggers working for electoral campaigns, party committees, advocacy organizations or established news outlets, a new group of progressives have been able to make independent political blogging their primary source of income. Several independent blogs now feature full-time bloggers. These blogs include, but are not limited to, Dailykos, Talking Points Memo, Crooks and Liars, Eschaton, MyDD, My Left Wing, and BooMan Tribune. When one considers the combined total of independent and institutionally based blogging professionals, there are now at least three-dozen progressives for whom political blogging is their primary income and primary work-related activity. That total does not even include the many consultants who came from the blogosphere and who have used that experience to help make a living as political professionals in other ways. While political bloggers, netroots coordinators, and Internet consultants are currently in high demand, back in 2002, none of these jobs existed. Needless to say, when it comes to generating new content, traffic, and inbound links, being able to blog full-time is a decisive advantage over the hobbyist model.
- Self-Reinforcing communities. Starting in 2003 with the introduction of a Scoop platform on Dailykos, many well-established, highly trafficked progressive blogs began to implement more interactive, community facilitating website designs. Specifically, through software platforms such as Scoop and Soapblox, several highly trafficked websites now give registered users the ability to produce their own self-directed content in the form of user diaries. This has not only increased the amount of content produced on many blogs, thus further enhancing their competitive advantage in content production, but in many cases it has actually deterred people from starting their own blogs. After all, why bother creating a new progressive blog near the end of the Long Tail when Dailykos offers new writers a substantial, ready-made audience? Since October of 2003, several dozen new bloggers, including the author of this article, first rose to prominence in the progressive, political blogosphere not by founding and maintaining a blog of their own, but rather by keeping a fairly regular diary on Dailykos. The comments section at Firedoglake has also served as a training ground for new progressive bloggers, and there are other examples as well. The path to blogosphere new prominence now travels almost exclusively through established community blogs rather than through the creation of new blogs.
- Moving beyond blogging. Various combinations of the four above factors have allowed many blogs to evolve into fully-fledged boutique media and activist outlets. Over the past four years, all of the "short head" blogs listed here have begun to branch out beyond punditry and engaged in at least two, and often more, of the following: investigative journalism, live reports from major political events, on the ground reports from campaigns in all fifty states, professional-grade election analysis, heavy-duty fundraising, whip counts on major legislative campaigns, the commissioning of independent polls, interviews of prominent political figures, the lobbying of elected officials, comprehensive analysis of government documents, dishing out inside gossip, running for public and party office, writing books, recruiting candidates, and many forms of non-financial direct activism. Furthermore, while micro-punditry on current events still accounts for the majority of content even on the most highly trafficked blogs, that micro-punditry now plays a major role in driving the direction of American political discourse. Simply put, when bloggers write about current events, their work often becomes news, as perhaps best demonstrated by National Journal's Blogometer and CNN's "Inside the Blogs" segment. In short, there is no longer any media or campaign related political activity in which, collectively speaking, the "short head" of the progressive, political blogosphere does not engage on a regular basis. The progressive, political blogosphere is no longer just talking about politics-it is making politics happens.
(JONI Discussion Question: Given their changing nature, is the term "blog" still a useful way to describe many of these "short head" websites?)
The Demand for High Quality Content
Contrary to a certain popularly held belief, the creation of a progressive blogosphere establishment was not primarily the result of blogosphere collusion on hyperlink patterns, search engines and blogrolls. Instead, the solidification of a new elite was primarily the result of the development of group blogging, full-time writers, institutional support, self-perpetuating communities, and the expansion of political blogging into other activities besides punditry and opinion journalism. Over 80% of blog readers connect with any given blog through the "front door," aka, the main blog URL, without any assistance from various connective tissues such as hyperlinks in front-page articles, search engine optimization strategies, and permanent blogrolls. What keeps people coming back through the front door of any given blog is a virtually non-stop stream of original, high quality content. Due to the massive resource discrepancies outlined above, a small number of blogs now have decisive advantages when it comes to producing large amounts of new, original, quality content. Above all else, that is why the "short head" has begun to solidify.
There was nothing nefarious or pre-determined about this transformation. On the independent side of the blogosphere, most of these changes happened organically in an ad hoc, spur of the moment fashion. On the institutional side, many establishment forces in the progressive, political ecosystem understandably wanted to spend resources to connect with a new, massive, popular phenomenon. Also, many people with experience in the blogosphere justifiably took advantage of the professional opportunities these new outlays of establishment resources provided.
However, no matter the motivations involved, by late 2005, the end result of this transformation was a collection of four or five dozen well-established national websites that no new progressive blog following the old, independent, single content producer could ever hope to either equal or surpass. In fact, as of July 6, 2007, of the 50 progressive, political blogs with the most traffic, every single one of them was founded before November 2005, and over 90% were founded in 2004 or earlier (see note two at the end of this piece for more on this). It has been over one and a half years since a new blog has broken into the "short head" of the national progressive blogosphere, whereas not long ago new members of the "short head" used to be fairly common. Over time, their appearances slowed to a trickle, and now seem to have stopped entirely. Back in October of 2005, Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory might have been the last great individual breakthrough. Now, even Glenn Greenwald has gone institutional and blogs for Salon.com. The entry costs to the "A-list," the "top tier," and the "short head" have simply become too high for individuals to sustainably break through on their own. A caste system is solidifying and a new establishment is crystallizing.
(JONI Discussion Question: Are there other possible causes for the solidification of the "short head?" Also, what effect does the pressure on bloggers to keep producing new content in order to stay competitive have on the nature of that content?)
Positive and Negative Effects
As unpalatable as terms like "establishment" are to a movement that prides itself on grassroots action, people-power, and "crashing the gates," it needs to be remembered that this development is not entirely negative. The only reason a blogosphere elite has come into existence is because the progressive, political blogosphere now effectively engages in a far more expansive range of political and media activities than it did just three or four years ago. The progressive blogosphere has done all of the following: played a key exposed a number of Republican scandals; kept the activist base engaged and informed on a daily basis; expanded progressive political activism over the past five years; reinvigorated moribund Democratic campaigns and local parties; made the fifty state strategy both a reality and a success; challenged a lapdog, corporatist press on a daily basis; and catalyzed every single progressive improvement in the American political scene over the last four years. We have come a long way from exposing Trent Lott. In order for this to be possible, a broader structural framework was necessary. Also, the achievement of broad, progressive political goals was always the main impetus behind the creation of every aspect of the new infrastructure. Ultimately, the increased entry cost to the "short head," and the resulting creation of a new blogosphere establishment, has been an unforeseen, and unfortunate, side effect of the progressive blogosphere's many successful efforts to change American politics as a whole.
Still, no matter the causes, no matter the intentions, and no matter the positive impacts, the challenge of breaking into the "short head" of the progressive, political blogosphere is a problem that must not only be addressed, but also be alleviated. Simply put, the progressive blogosphere thrives on mass participation, innovative ideas, and vibrant discussion. If the barriers to entry stay too high for too long and if the people directing discussion and action remain the same for an extended period of time, then there will be a corresponding drop-off in the political effectiveness of the progressive blogosphere. Some warning signs have already appeared. For example, it can hardly be a coincidence that the growth of the audience for the political blogosphere began to stagnate at almost precisely the same moment, late 2005, when the composition of the "short head" ossified (For more information on stagnant blogosphere traffic, click here). Further, another, more long-standing problem of the progressive blogosphere, its lack of diversity, will never improve if the people who make up the "short head" never change (click here for more information on the demographic make-up of the netroots).
While it would be presumptuous to claim to have all of the solutions to this complex problem in an article of this length, I would like to point to three areas that show promise. First, on the institutional front, the Center for Independent Media has begun to offer significant resources, media training and exposure to small, independent, individual bloggers in a number of states. Second, when it comes to hyperlinks and other forms of connective tissue, more bloggers, both large and small, are engaging in wide-ranging "blog roundups" that give exposure to a wide variety of progressive blogs. Third, local blogging, which in most regions, states and cities does not suffer from nearly the same level of "short head" solidification as the national scene, has seen the emergence of a number of prominent, influential blogs in the past two years. These are all efforts that need continuing support. Beyond that, hopefully recognition of the problem, and the conversations that develop from that recognition, will result in even more potential remedies in the near future.
(JONI Discussion Question: apart from those already mentioned, are there other negative side-effects of the solidification of the "short head?" Also, what other potential solutions are there to this problem?)
One: See The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere. The traffic reports cited in that study only go back to July of 2003, when the progressive political blogosphere had an estimated daily audience of about 200,000 people. Given that current estimates for progressive blogosphere readership range as high as four million people a day, and that progressive blogosphere traffic undoubtedly saw a substantial increase during the first seven months of 2003 due to events such as the start of the Iraq war and the rise of Howard Dean's presidential campaign, it is entirely possible that the daily audience of progressive blogosphere in late 2002 was significantly less than 5% of its current size. Also, the current high-end estimate of four million has been suggested both by the traffic estimates of the Liberal Blog Advertising Network (keep in mind that the LBAN does not include some large blogs like Think Progress and the Huffington Post, the latter of which typically has an audience slightly larger than that of Dailykos), and by a January 2007 study conducted by Joseph Graf for George Washington University, The Audience for Political Blogs.
Two: This claim is derived from my personal work in building the Liberal Blog Advertising Network, which ranks blogs according to traffic and where a blog age of six months is a requirement for membership. For national blogs not in the network, I am aware of none that have an average traffic in excess of 30,000 page views a week. It should be noted that some locally focused progressive blogs have appeared since November 2005.
JONI Discussion Questions
- Part One, The Way It Was: Many bloggers do not even wish to gain entry to the "short head" of the blogosphere. What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of operating "short head" and "long tail" blogs?
- Part Two, The Way It Is Now: What are some successful-and unsuccessful-strategies for drawing more attention and traffic to "long tail" blogs?
- Part Three, Transformation At The Top: Given their changing nature, is the term "blog" still a useful way to describe many "short head" progressive websites?
- Part Four: The Demand for High Quality Content: Are there other possible causes for the solidification of the "short head?" Also, what effect does the pressure on bloggers to keep producing new content in order to stay competitive have on the nature of that content?
- Part Five: Positive And Negative Effects: Apart from those mentioned in the article, are there other negative side-effects of the solidification of the "short head?" Also, what other potential solutions are there to this problem?
And, of course, anything else you might want to discuss.