I try not to blog about blogging, it’s a bit disappear-up-your-own-backside, but a couple of things happened recently that made me stop and reflect.
The first was the death of Norman Geras a couple of weeks ago. I remember how he linked to an early piece I wrote in the days when there were only about a dozen people reading my blog. We had a brief online conversation afterwards. He was clearly a great believer in blogging and keen to encourage anyone starting up, even if he’d never heard of them.
Norman was one of the early blog pioneers in Britain. 2003 was the Year Zero for British blogging, as the coincidence of simple-to-use platforms and the Iraq war prompted dozens of people to start publishing their views. Not many of the blogs from that first wave are still going. Some of their authors became ‘proper’ journalists, others just jacked it in and drifted away. Nevertheless, I was surprised when a blog that I’d always thought of as a permanent fixture packed up last week. Sunny Hundal’s decision to close Liberal Conspiracy caused an outbreak of soul-searching.
The amateur blogger is dead, said Stephen Tall.
[M]uch has changed in the political blogging world in the last six-plus years. When ConservativeHome and Lib Dem Voice (and other single author bloggers like Iain Dale and Paul Staines) started out, the scene was a lot less competitive. Other than the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site, the mainstream media by and large left it to us amateurs.
Not any more. These days, the Telegraph, Spectator, New Statesman, Economist and Independent all offer highly successful blogging platforms for their own writers.
[T]he rise of the mainstream blogging has crowded out most of the amateurs. Many are still blogging, but look down the 2008 list of top 100 political blogs compiled by Total Politics magazine – and compare it with who the most influential online political voices are today – and you’ll get a sense of how the caravan has moved on.
All this is a far cry from the hyperbole of the early years when some over-excited people claimed that blogging would destroy the mainstream media (usually abbreviated to MSM, with an implicit sneer). It was never going to happen, of course. I don’t know who first paraphrased CP Scott with ‘Comment is free but facts are expensive’. It’s true though. Bloggers don’t have the resources to keep picking away at a loose thread until an entire scandal unravels, or to grind through pages of expenses data, or to prove a political opponent’s innocence during a vicious smear campaign. It takes lots of time, money and people to do that.
In the early years, a lot of blogs were one-man (or occasionally one-woman) opinion columns but opinions are ten-a-penny, even well written ones. I can get as many of those as I like down at my local. Too many of them are just echoes of those expressed by mainstream columnists. Is it any wonder that, far from being destroyed by the blogosphere, the mainstream media colonised it.
All is not lost for blogging though. Chris Dillow countered with the very welcome news that he has no intention of packing up.
[A]mateurism has a lot to offer. Stephen says that “if you want your blog to get noticed now, best to develop a niche.” But the thing is that the MSM has left a lot of big niches. Sunny’s right that “there is just too much opinion out there”. But a lot of voices doesn’t mean we get a diversity of ideas.
There’s an awful lot which the mainstream ignores. Perhaps the main question I ask before blogging is: “what needs saying that isn’t said elsewhere?” And I’m rarely stumped for an answer.
Alex Marsh said something similar.
Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University, who blogs at Mainly Macro, is a fantastic exponent of the art of communicating actually and potentially complex ideas to an intelligent lay audience. He writes mostly about economics, but also has some important things to say about politics and evidence-based policy.
I would say that most of my favourite bloggers fall into this category. Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling never fails to connect contemporary political and policy issues with some fairly abstruse ideas and obscure corners of the academic literature in interesting ways. Frances Coppola has built a significant profile as an independent expert on what is happening in the banking industry.
The mainstream media does, indeed, leave some very big niches and people who can explain stuff in simple but not simplistic terms fill in the gaps. For example, derivatives have often been cited as one of the evils that led to the financial crisis, yet I’ve never seen anything, even in the ‘intelligent’ newspapers, explaining what derivatives are and why they are not, necessarily, the concoctions of the devil. You need to go to Frances’s blog to find that. That’s what makes me read blogs nowadays; content and ideas that I just can’t find elsewhere.
I don’t agree with Chris about this, though:
I’m mystified by people who claim not to have time to blog. Blogging takes only around an hour a day of my time, and much of that is time I’d spend thinking about the things I blog anyway.
Perhaps Chris just has a very ordered mind. These days, I find it difficult to do much more than a couple of pieces a week. Actually, it’s not so much the time and it’s certainly not a shortage of things to say. I could happily knock out something every day. For me, it’s the head-space that’s the problem. Over the past year or so I’ve had some tricky projects to deal with and all sorts of personal stuff, like my house flooding, that has taken up my mental energy. Sometimes, I find that, even if I have an hour to spare and a blog post dying to come out, I just don’t have the capacity left to order my thoughts. Rather than write garbled nonsense, I just don’t bother.
Before you start, I’m not fishing for sympathy here. I choose to blog, after all. No-one is forcing me. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to write sometimes. I suspect many bloggers give up because they simply run out of energy. Amateur bloggers usually have day jobs so, for most of them, blogging will be a bit as-and-when.
In the early days, people talked about making money from blogging but very few people ever have. It’s now becoming quite difficult to make money from writing at all. For most people, then, blogging will always be a labour of love, which, as Chris reminds us, is where we got the word amateur from in the first place.