Billmon on the death of blogging

One of my very favorite bloggers, Billmon of the Whisky Bar, has written an obituary of the blogosphere we once knew and loved, maintaining it is fast being devoured by commercial interests and thus becoming “domesticated.”

But the piece won’t be found on the Whiskey Bar, which sadly appears to have closed indefinitely. Instead, it appears in today’s LA Times.

[A]s long as blogs remained on the commercial fringes, the playing field at least was relatively level. Audience was largely a function of reputation — for the frequency or quality or ideological appeal of the blogger’s posts. Costs were low, and few bloggers were trying to make a living at it, so money wasn’t an issue. It may not have been egalitarian, but it wasn’t strictly hierarchical, either.

That world of inspired amateurs still exists, but it’s rapidly being overshadowed by the blogosphere’s potential for niche marketing. Ad dollars are flowing into the blogosphere. And naturally, most are going to the A-list blogs. As media steer readers toward the top blogs, the temptation to sell out to the highest bidder could become irresistible, and the possibility of making it in the marketplace as an independent blogger increasingly theoretical.

I should have seen the writing on the wall earlier this year when the World Economic Forum, the ferociously trend-following CEO club, sponsored a panel session on blogging at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The discussion quickly turned to the commercial possibilities of blogging, leading one advertising executive to wonder why the big media companies didn’t swoop down and buy up the popular blogs while they were still cheap.

At the time, the idea of buying a blog struck me as funny, like trying to buy a conversation. Now, having seen blogs I admired mutate into glorified billboards, and having witnessed the emergence of the “sponsored” blog (in which the blogger is literally an employee of, or contractor to, a corporate owner), I can see who’s likely to have the last laugh.

I have mixed feelings about this theory, and I think Billmon may be exaggerating the magnitude of blog commercialization. I think it was simply inevitable. Once you have a place where a dedicated audience congregates and that audience is open to the suggestions of the host, the hawkers simply can’t resist trying to exploit that audience.

But I suspect (hope?) bloggers who have integrity won’t be corrupted by the BlogAds and the banners. And if they are, I think they’d rapidly lose their audience. Blog junkies tend to have a low tolerance for BS — they visit sites for perspective and information, not for commercial pitches. And if a major medium were to actually buy up popular blogs as Billmon predicts, I suspect (hope?) the readership would plummet, because it wouldn’t be a blog anymore.

Billmon makes another point, however, where I have no mixed feelings. I agree with it completely.

As blogs commercialize, they are tied ever closer to the mainstream media and its increasingly frivolous news agenda. The political blogosphere already has a bad habit of chasing the scandal du jour. This election season, that’s meant a laser-like focus on such profound matters as the mysteries of Bush’s National Guard service or whether John Kerry deserved his Vietnam War medals.

Meanwhile, more unsettling (and important) stories — like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or the great Iraq weapons-of-mass-destruction snipe hunt — quietly disappear down the media memory hole. And bloggers either can’t, or won’t, dig them back out again. As the convergence with big media continues, I suspect there will be progressively less interest in trying.

This is a major disappointment of mine. Blogs should be calling out the media for their worst trait, i.e., pack journalism, a process that focuses glaring light on a single issue, pursued by the entire press corps, that is dropped like a hot potato the instant the next super-story emerges. Then, as Billmon laments, the story sinks down the memory hole. Finis.

Instead of resisting pack journalism, many of the biggest blogs seem to be moving in parallel motion with the mass media, letting truly important stories die on the vine as they rush breathlessly on to the next scandalette du jour. A real shame.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Because blogging is free, is there really that much of a risk that it’s going to die out? I mean, once some blogs become mainsteam, people will want to call them out the same way they used to do with the big media, and so you’d have a kind of second generation of anti-BS blogs. You kind of pointed that out when you mentioned that the readership of some blogs would decrease once the writers sold out. The anti-BS audience will always be there, and so long as there is a medium exists with which they can express themselves, blogs will continue to exist as we know them.

September 26, 2004 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

(Political) Blogs R News

Blogging has either reached an unprecedented peak as a new journalistic form — or it’s now reached the point where its going to lose its status as the journalistic story flavor of the month. Two excellent – if in some

September 27, 2004 @ 12:33 am | Comment

So much energy is bound up in the top political blogs on the election, that you expect the blogs to follow the leads of the candidates.

It’ll be more interesting once that driving force is removed for the majority of the blogosphere. Perhaps there will be a few key sites that still take “marching orders” from political HQ, but a lot of the ads and ad money will dry up. And the energy and animosity will fade for the snark crowd.

(it may stick around for those that peddle fear of islamo-fashists and Eye-legal Eye-mmigrants taking away good ‘murkans precious vitality, but fear never goes out of fashion. ask willie horton.)

And the Whiskey Bar currently holds the image from “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” by Hunter S. Thompson. (modified version of this is the adopted logo for Senior House at MIT.)

September 27, 2004 @ 3:05 am | Comment

Waa, waa. Little baby is upset that his special sandbox was discovered by others.

It’s a natural progression for any technology, so suck it up Billmon.

September 27, 2004 @ 10:27 am | Comment

Hmm. A blogger with a dead blog writes poignantly about the death of blogging, while thousands of new blogs spring up everyday.

I think there has always been a pack, and it’s no surprise that the pack focuses on hot stories during an election campaign. Meanwhile, there are fascinating blogs with great quality thinking and writing starting up this very minute. It’s kind of like nostalgia for your favorite garage band…..once they become famous, they’re not a garage band anymore. You’re going to have to find a new one to recapture the excitement.

Pruning your “favorites” list is a great practice.

September 28, 2004 @ 1:30 am | Comment

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