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The Weblog as Digital Pub

The Weblog as Digital Pub

Vicki Fox Smith> It’s often said that the blogosphere consists of personal weblogs and those that link to, or expound upon, news of one sort or another.

According to this dichotomous blogging-world view, personal weblogs are often viewed as being boring, ego driven crap while the other sort are characterized as the pretentious blathering of journalism wannabes.

Whenever some study of the blogging world comes out, various writers take a go at it. Such was the case recently with the release of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. This study found that between 2 and 7 % of the Internet connected public keep weblogs, and 11% read them.

In Blog No More, Frank Catalano used the Pew study as an excuse to bash blogging both as a form of writing and as being over-rated in terms of influence. He summed up blogging this way, “In most cases, blogging is nothing more than a very public form of self-important self-abuse.”

A more blog friendly analysis of the same Pew study appears in Is The Blogosphere Half-Empty, or Half-Full? by Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. Driscoll points out that more people blog than tune into CNN, but he still uses the personal vs. pundit model of dividing up the blogosphere.

Driscoll, a blogger himself, sees weblogs as being far more powerful, and posits that the power comes from their inter-connectedness.

“It’s only by working together that the Blogosphere has achieved its impact. For most newspapers and TV news channels, news stories appear in isolation. In contrast, the best Weblogs share links, examine each other’s posts, and stress-test the facts and opinions of the major media repeatedly and from multiple angles, to see if they hold up. As I wrote in February of 2002, shortly before launching my own Weblog, it’s no coincidence that Blogs took off in popularity after 9/11”

I think viewing weblogs in terms of influence as the end-game misses the mark. It begs the issue of why people blog, what they get out of the experience, and why folks read what other bloggers write.

I prefer to think of my own weblog, and the weblogs I like to read, as digital pubs.

Like pubs, weblogs can become a huge part of the everyday life of both individuals and a community. Unlike the bricks, mortar, and beer on tap pubs, you get to the digital variety by simply turning on your computer and “walking” into the URL. Time and space become of secondary importance, though we often find that we want to hang out there when something big is happening in the world around us.

As readers, many of us spend a fair amount of time finding the weblogs that are a good fit for us. If we want something other than straight information or passive amusement, we want to spend out time visiting and commenting on weblogs where our ideas are welcomed and we are treated well. We want to become regulars. With a nod to Cheers, we want everyone to know our name.

One consistent complaint about weblogs is that they are insular. On political blogs you generally run into a virtual echo-chamber of like minded people. Weblogs organized around relationships, hobbies, or sports are no different in this regard.

For some analysts, this is seen as a negative. And it would be if the goal of a weblog were to engage people in meaningful discourse and educate them about key issues. But it’s not, even when it may appear that it is.

No, even though it is seldom stated, the goal of a weblog is to attract, build, or reinforce a sense of community, a place where people come to feel a certain sense of comfort, a sense of belongingness when issues that are important to them are being discussed. Usually, but not always, that means a certain consistency of beliefs and ideas.

Recently I have started to check in on a weblog that gets 2000 hits a day. It is an active, very interactive, kind of place organized around a political perspective quite different from my own. The weblog owner recently wrote that his home on the web had been judged by a well known web analyst as being one of the Internet’s 100 most influential weblogs.

I wandered into this space only because he had linked to my site when I hosted Carnival of the Canucks a few weeks ago, bringing 200 of his “regulars” to my own little pub. They didn’t stay long, and they didn’t comment, but they showed up in my referral logs.

I’d have to be just plain silly to try to squeeze into a booth at his pub. No one there is likely to agree with anything I have to say, and, unless I just enjoy creating controversy, there just isn’t any point in attempting to elbow my way in. His regulars no doubt felt much the same thing when they visited my weblog.

His weblog is a pub; it’s just not my pub. And while I may stop by to eavesdrop on the conversation from time to time, no one there will ever know my name.

The weblog author is the publican in this scenario. Much has been made of the fact that many weblogs are short lived. Every single one of them, even the ones that disappear after a few entries, was begun by someone who thought they would enjoy public writing and that they had something worth reading.

Worth reading doesn’t mean important necessarily, nor does it mean well written. Most of the time it boils down to being interesting enough to attract some visitors, patrons if you like. In the weblog as pub world, patrons generally pay their tab in the form of interaction, most often through commenting. But, attracting people who do more than read and move on is not the simple matter some bloggers believe it to be. There are just too many pubs on the web; and bloggers who are serious about wanting to create a community around their weblog usually find they have to do some work, some PR.

That may mean visiting and commenting on other weblogs, talking about your weblog on mailing lists and bulletin boards, and making the rounds. It can also mean linking to other people who are doing pretty much the same thing you are, something that is counter-intuitive if you are thinking real life pubs. Think of the world of weblogs more like a pub crawl with a core group of people who visit each other’s weblogs talking first here, and then there,

You can type your heart out, but unless you make the effort to establish yourself as part of the community of bloggers, you can build it, but they may very well not come. And why should they?

If you want to bypass some of this community building, having recognition from some other venue helps a whole lot. The professional writer, comedian, actor, photographer, academic, or athlete has a built in audience. So do the techie theorists and gurus.

Even relatively minor celebrity can make a difference. It is sort of like those not so great restaurants that do well, at least for awhile, because they are associated with a particular person who already has fans. Every once in awhile the celebrity establishment is truly outstanding. The rest fold up shop or limit their clientele to those who want the brush with celebrity more than they want good eats.

If building a weblog community sounds like a lot of work, well it is. At least it is if you want to build a popular pub, one where people come by regularly and interact with each other. It helps at this point to have some measure of quality as well. Grammar, spell checking, and design get more important too, unless your audience is made up of people whose skills in this area are no better than your own.

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If you get really good at it, and word of your weblog gets around, eventually a shift can happen.

When the circle of patrons extends beyond a few good friends, weblogs may legitimately be seen as having some influence–at least among the still relatively small group of folks who recognize that particular pub as being one of their homes on the web.

Instead of going all over the web, you, as publican, may find yourself visiting the same relatively few over and over again or interacting only with folks who stop by your place. The community may get bigger, but membership, in the sense of who feels comfortable openly interacting there, may change.

The community may even move off of the weblog itself as the weblog author enters the rarified air of A-list bloggers who often interact in more private ways, or at conferences and media events. Their community then may become other bloggers of similar repute, perhaps augmented by a posse of some sort. They often write about each other.

Some of them, not many, also go out of their way to encourage and mentor people who are just beginning to do this thing we call blogging.

At some point, commenting may be turned off as new folks stop by not to interact, but to observe, and to have something to talk about elsewhere. It’s not that community is no longer the focus, the community is just not a public one.

It doesn’t always happen this way. Some publicans get enough validation and enjoyment when a few good friends stop by and interact with each other. People may visit back and forth, but any growth that happens is a byproduct of the the environment that is created through this activity, perhaps supplemented by a little linking.

Other people set out to blog because they really do want power and influence, and if they use community building skills, they may get that–even if building community is only a means toward an end. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. These are the same people who, in the non-digital world, would open a Starbucks or one of those chain type outlets designed to look like a pub if they had the start-up funds.

I wish them all the success they deserve and vast amount of income from their google ad-words too.

And me? I think I’ll go check out the comments on my weblog, check out what my friends are up to on theirs, and call it a day–unless I find something new to pontificate about.

Vicki Fox Smith edits the blog: Just in from Cowtown and this article was republished with her full permission from her post here. Aside from being a friend of the Blog Herald and a new contributor, Vicki is also joining the team at BlogsCanada as a judge in the BlogsCanada Top Blogs section.

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