TCS Daily


Building a Better Blogtrap

By Stephen Bainbridge - December 20, 2006 12:00 AM

After a hiatus that lasted much longer than I expected, I recently returned to blogging with a new website design and, more importantly, a new philosophy about blogging.A


My old blog, ProfessorBainbridge.com, has been transformed into a landing page that serves as a planet (a.k.a. hub) site for three content blogs:

    -- StephenBainbridge.com: my journal, focusing on politics and culture

   -- BusinessAssociationsBlog.com: my professional blog, focused on law                    and economics

   -- ProfessorBainbridgeOnWine.com: my wine and food blog

Using Feedburner's BlogBurst function, I created feeds on ProfessorBainbridge.com of headlines and excerpts from the most recent posts for each of the three content blogs. As a result, ProfessorBainbridge.com serves as a detailed table of contents for a web magazine in three sections. (Unfortunately, this transition means there will be broken links all over the blogosphere, but you can't make an omelet without ....)

The magazine approach elicited some interesting comments. At Ann Althouse's blog, Joan complained: "now he expects me to visit three different sites? Nope. " (Actually, all Joan needs to do is to go to ProfessorBainbridge.com to see if there is anything of interest to her on any of sub-sites. In addition, each of the content blogs has sidebar feeds of headlines from the other content blogs. So there's lots of links between the sites to help readers navigate the system.

In contrast, Mark Tapscott concluded: "I expect ProfBainbridge.com could quite possibly be followed by a bunch of smart bloggers intent on directing the highest form of flattery in his direction."

So why split one reasonably successful, albeit hardly A-list, blog into three pieces? By explaining the reasons for my decision, I hope other bloggers will be better able to assess whether a similar move makes sense for them.

The Professional Rationale

Wisconsin law professor and popular blogger Ann Althouse has devoted a lot of time to thinking about the way academics can incorporate blogging into their professional and personal lives, having written a number of thoughtful posts and essays on that subject. In commenting on my decision, Ann concluded that she prefers "one blog with mixed topics," but she also understood why others might want a sharper division between professional and personal blogging:

I can see how someone else might prefer to highlight a topic (like wine) and to keep the professional part completely professional. It's likely to be more comprehensible to colleagues, and there probably are some people who would only be interested in following you down one path but not the others. ...

Is Bainbridge's way the way of the future? We shall see. It's one way. I think it will appeal to some who blog a lot -- most people can't keep up three blogs -- and who want to write about their professional subject in a style that they worry is not entertaining enough for lay readers or who want to maximize the credit they get for the professional writing they are doing on the blog. It may work as a way to get more of your colleagues to read your blog. Some of them probably don't want to wade through the daily posts to see what you are writing about law.

Her analysis nailed my rationale. I've been reasonably successful using my blog as an adjunct to my scholarly agenda. Case in point: From Vice Chancellor Leo Strine's opinion in Trenwick America Litigation Trust v. Ernst & Young, L.L.P.:

"In an incisive article and a thoughtful blog comment, Professor Bainbridge is critical of jurisprudence that expresses the view that directors owe fiduciary duties to the corporation itself, rather than a particular constituency of the corporation." Trenwick America Litigation Trust v. Ernst & Young, L.L.P., 906 A.2d 168, 195 n.75 (Del. Ch. 2006) (emphasis supplied).

A number of judges and lawyers have told me they routinely read my blog to get my corporate law comments. These folks are the primary intended audience for my legal scholarship. Unlike a lot of legal academics, who write mainly for other academics, when I set down to write a law review article, the people I have in mind are judges and practicing lawyers. I want to persuade them.

My assumption - based on lots of conversations with members of my target audience - is that a professional blog focusing solely on technical legal analysis, without requiring the reader to wade through political opinions, wine reviews, and so on, will be more effective in reaching this target audience. Hence, I created the Business Associations Blog. These readers can bookmark that site and/or subscribe exclusively to that site's feed. As such, I'll be able to use this corner of my section of the blogosphere more effectively as an adjunct to my vocation.

Conversely, I also no longer have to worry that my generalist readers will get bored. After all, there was always something incongruous about going from a post that used the jargon of Oliver Williamson's New Institutional Economics to analyze some aspect of corporate governance to a post about the comparative merits of white and black truffles.

The Utility Payoff

While I thus see blogging as an useful adjunct to my traditional scholarship, I've also found blogging about politics, religion, food, photography, dogs, cars, and wine to be fun. It's a hobby. Being a fairly competitive guy, of course, I want to succeed whether I'm pursuing my vocation or my avocation.

Like a lot of bloggers, I'm obsessed with my hit and link counts. After all, that's the psychic payoff. (Plus, of course, a successful hobby blog can be modestly rewarding monetarily through ads and so on.)

After three years of blogging, ProfessorBainbridge.com had become reasonably successful, but it was decidedly not A-list. The daily hit count had stabilized at about 3000. In other words, I had bumped into the problem identified by NYU professor and web guru Clay Shirky:

A persistent theme among people writing about the social aspects of weblogging is to note (and usually lament) the rise of an A-list, a small set of webloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the weblog world. ... In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

So how do us B- and C-listers compete with Kos, Reynolds, Sullivan, and so on? (Some folks will tell you they have no aspirations to compete; indeed, they'll probably tell you that thinking about blogging as competition is immoral, fattening, or otherwise wrongheaded. Of course, they're probably wearing Birkenstocks and writing on a Mac, while sipping Fair Trade coffee and puffing a doobie.)

I found an answer in the same place as I had found the question; namely, the work of Clay Shirky. In discussing how TV networks compete in a world of 500 channels, Shirky observes:

It is obvious that both the networks and their advertisers are soon going to have to adapt to a fragmented media market where nothing regularly reaches 20 million people, and the only way to get mass will be niche plus niche plus niche.

The analogy to the blogosphere seems clear. There are a handful of stand-alone blogs that reach a mass audience. They dominate the blogosphere the way the broadcast networks still dominate TV. Competing with them looks to be a non-starter. Instead, for the rest of us, targeting "niche plus niche plus niche" allows us to build mass in the fragmented world of the blogosphere.

Or so I'm betting.

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