November 8, 2008.
We've hit the most recent low in the blogosphere's manic depression, and people are upset about it. Nicholas Carr throws more wood on the fire with Who killed the blogosphere?, which explores the despair and futility of bloggers and blogging. This is the blogging meme of late, but I think nothing points to its transience more than Carr linking to another article he wrote, The Great Unread, in 2006 which delivers a variant of the same story of woe1. This isn't blogging midlife's crisis, this isn't a new development, this is just the next imagined symptom of an attention-starved hypochondriac.
One of the core complaints is that blogging isn't the straight path to success that it used to be, but let's just go ahead and admit that blogging was never a straight path anywhere, especially if--like the vast majority of bloggers--you refuse to plan the roadtrip. We look at the successful bloggers of yesteryear and notice they tended to follow similar patterns to their present success. Write frequently, write well, tie in their own experiences, specialize in a key niche. Then we think we can apply an identical blueprint to our own blogs and reach the same destination.
But we can't. It's absurd to think we could for the same reason that it's absurd to mimick Microsoft's or Apple's initial business plans from two decades ago and assume that we'd acchieve the same ludicrous success. In the blogosphere where freshness is measured by hours and days, we need to recognize that we must innovate, not just imitate those who have succeeded before us.
There is an unacknowledged irony in bloggers lamenting that their readership is too small or who are dissatisfied with their reach as a public intellectual. The only venue they have to complain is their blogs. To whatever extent that we are the victims of our delusions of blog grandeur, it's still the most accessible forum for sharing and exchanging ideas. There is no financial barrier to entry: you can start blogs for free on half a dozen platforms, you can throw $6 a month into Dreamhost's gaping maw for a hosted Wordpress deployment, or you can write your own blogging software and host it for $20-$40 per month on a VPS. If you have a voice, then your voice will be heard to the exact extent that people are interested in listening to it.
In the end, that's what it comes down to. Many bloggers reach a awkward place where they're unsatisfied with the size of their audience, but aren't interested in changing the style, focus or quality of their writing. You can have guest series, link exchanges, pretend your Twitter followers need triple-redundency for their RSS readers, or religiously submit your content to social news aggregation sites, but people still won't read material they find uninteresting. Whatever the readership market conditions may have been five years ago, today it's a buyers market, and you need to make sure you're selling something people want to buy, rather than focusing exclusively on what you want sell.
The good news--and there is always good news--is that you can still be a successful blogger, you just have to be deliberate about it. A few months before graduating from college I realized that I had no work experience in the field I wanted to work in, and needed to create a paper trail of proficiency. I started writing with that agenda, and despite a very modest readership, my blog has allowed me to break into contract programming starting from a resume without any relevant experience.
Like writing software, being a contractor, being an author or starting a business, you can't always throw spagetti at the wall and just watch what sticks: you have to concentrate your efforts to acchieve your goals. Some will read that and decry "No, blogging is supposed to be fun and spontaneous!" Of course it can be, just like writing a novel can be fun and spontaneous, starting a business can be fun and spontaneous, and programming can be fun and spontaneous. But that's much more about your perspective than it's about blogging.
Since four years ago there are many more blogs, and breaking into the top tier is a daunting. But if you focus on absolute goals instead of relative ones, then you'll find that you can still be just as successful in absolute terms as the bloggers of yore. Why? Because readership has expanded as well, and finding new blogs has never been easier. Yes, it's still hot in the kitchen, and maybe the clientele got pissed that you were serving them grade D ingredients, but if as long as the stew is tasty, sales are as good as they've ever been.
It's painful to see and read bloggers who feel they have been abandoned or deceived by the blogging movement. Not in a judgemental hahh suckers sense, but it's genuinely painful to see people who have devoted time towards blogging and quit in anger.
It's like watching an athlete who spends their first twenty years playing basketball and then quits to get a 9-5 because his couch tells him he'll never make it at the next level. Dreams crumble everyday, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to witness.↩