TCS Daily

Year of the Blog

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 24, 2002 12:00 AM

2001 was the year that weblogs burst into the national consciousness in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But 2002 was the year in which weblogs became part of the mainstream, even while remaining outside it. And 2003 - well, to find out about that, you'll have to keep reading.

Weblogs didn't first appear in the aftermath of September 11 - they had been around for some time. But the weblog explosion - fueled by lots of news, and dissatisfaction with the coverage offered by mainstream media, was a post-September 11 phenomenon. By the end of 2001, "Fisk" had become a verb, "blogroll" was a new noun, and many of the sharper journalists and political operators were beginning to notice this new medium of communication.

Now, at the end of 2002, it is only the dullest of both categories who have not caught on. There is a Weblog Handbook, there are courses on weblogs at major universities, and there have been major conferences on weblogs and weblogging at places like UCLA, the National Press Club, and Yale Law School, among others. Weblogs are even being given credit for bringing down Trent Lott, here and abroad.

Even more impressively, people are finally starting to make money off of weblogs. Andrew Sullivan conducted a "pledge week" in which he asked his readers for donations so that he could treat his weblog as a real job. He raised nearly $80,000. Not many others will equal that, though one disgruntled blogger noted:
Ever since Andrew Sullivan conducted his "Pledge Week" and made damned near $80,000, bloggers everywhere have become panhandlers and squeegie-guys, telling their heart-rending stories of brokeness while pointing to their Pay Pal buttons and tip jars. When hookers do that on the street, they get arrested for the crime of "solicitation." And the hookers usually offer a more valuable commodity than most blogs do.

Notwithstanding such sentiments, other bloggers are asking for money. Few will make a living from their blogs - but then, few free-lance writers make a living solely from writing anyway. Other, non-beggging, revenue models are also in play. Nick Denton' s gadget-blog, is reportedly already in the black (more than most web media ventures can claim) and Henry Copeland's BlogAds venture seeks to aggregate bloggers to achieve success the old-fashioned way, through advertising. John Hiler's CityBlogs and Nick Denton's look like they might pose threats to the entertainment-oriented alternative-weekly market niche. And, of course, Big Media outfits have joined the blog world either by bringing in bloggers (as Slate has done with Mickey Kaus) or by creating house blogs, as MSNBC has done with Eric Alterman. So it's fair to say that blogging has, to some degree, gone commercial.

Nonetheless, the beauty of weblogs is that they're cheap. This is why "thin media" ventures like Gizmodo can turn a profit: it's not hard to turn a profit when the overhead is minuscule. As Paul Boutin reported, "Media has never before been this lean." That's also why the number of weblogs - even without any revenues - has exploded beyond any counting. A.J. Liebling famously said that freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one. Nowadays, that's anyone who wants to. There's even a blogger from Baghdad, and a homeless guy blogger from Nashville. You can't get any more open than that.

For Big Media, this is going to produce an increasing degree of either conscientiousness or paranoia as it becomes apparent that the megaphone now works both ways and there are many people happy to point out the flaws in Big Media reporting. For everyone else, weblogs offer a more personal face to events, and an opportunity to express thoughts to an audience that is at least potentially large. (And the most striking thing to me about this is that when you have a weblog you realize just how many smart people there are out there, which is very gratifying. My readers are smarter than I am - often individually, and always collectively.)

PR people have already caught on, trying to figure out ways to reach webloggers without becoming a laughingstock in the process. So far, this seems to mean caution and straightforwardness, which seem to me to be the right approach in general.

What's next? I think that falling prices for storage, bandwidth, and digital cameras will result in weblogs going multimedia over the next year. Jeff Jarvis has already experimented with video-blogging on his site: two-minute video clips with professional-looking titles and backgrounds generated by computer. Mobileweblogging, taking advantage of the ability to post pictures and text via cellphones, may offer anyone the opportunity to be a reporter. The next time there's a major disaster or terrorist attack from an area where there are a lot of cellphone-equipped individuals, the first photos to reach the outside world will almost certainly do so via weblogs.

What's clear is that the professionalization of journalism-a trend underway for most of the 20th Century-is now in full reverse gear, and the term "correspondent" may go back to its original meaning of "one who corresponds" rather than "high-paid face with good hair." Democratization instead of professionalization? Sounds good to me.



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