Content Populism: Blogs Are Not Conversations, They Are Echo Chambers

Posted on March 8, 2008
Filed Under Blogs, Crowd Stupidity |

When I first began blogging back in 2003, it almost felt like a form of media disobedience. We were called “amateurs” but we felt more like “revolutionaries.” The Cluetrain Manifesto had set us free. We were going to talk about what mattered, the stuff the main stream media ignored. We would let readers respond. We would link to each other and praise, criticize, and hold others accountable for what they said. Blogs were conversations. It was the future of media.

Like most ideas about the future though, this one was a little off track.

Today it is obvious how naive we were. Like so many others before us, we viewed this new and groundbreaking thing through the lens of egalitarian nobility. We though that the average person was smart, educated, interested, informed, and had something relevant to say. What we found out was very different.

It really began when programs were released that made it easy to monetize a blog without directly finding an advertiser on your own. People who previously had no interest in blogging suddenly realized they could write better than most of the existing bloggers, and thus could make some decent money. Blogs quickly became dominated by professional writers and media companies. And these new blogs attracted most of the readership. Businessweek could launch a blog and in one month have more traffic and RSS subscribers than most regular business bloggers ever dreamed of having. By 2006, blogs were mainstream media too.

Commenters, as it turned out, only had something relevant and insightful to say about 10% of the time. The rest of the time they promoted viagra or porn, said something stupid like “first”, started childish arguments involving name calling, or made relatively obvious statements that contributed nothing to the discussion. Commenting turned into a way to get your blog linked from a popular blog, or to try to gain some linkage by brown-nosing a popular blogger. The average person wasn’t nearly as insightful as predicted.

Flies in Vinegar Jars
The worst thing that came from blogging over time is that it didn’t encourage discussion about important things nearly as much as it caused a rise of circle jerking, back patting, and echoing the sentiments of everyone else. Groups of bloggers all read and linked to each other, ignoring the little guys and the very ideals on which the blogosphere was founded. This circle jerking has led to the “fly in a vinegar jar syndrome” that has built much of the web 2.0 bubble in recent years.

You remember that story, don’t you? The fly born in the vinegar jar believes it is the sweetest place on earth… but only because that is all he knows. Bloggers are flies of the worst kind. We lambast people who don’t get all orgasmic about web communities and social media. “What?! You don’t read Digg (Reddit, Mixx, Stumbleupon, etc)?” As if people who don’t spend every waking moment in a narcissistic online love fest are somehow lesser beings. We pretend the offline world has little to offer. Seriously, what loser would go for a walk in the park when he or she could be turning their Facebook friends into vampires instead? It’s a crisis of values for sure. Or have we just become used to the smell of vinegar?

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I do not want blogs to go away. They are useful, and by lowering the barrier to entry for publishing, we get to find some diamonds in the rough that we otherwise would have missed. But a lower barrier to entry also creates a lot of noise and garbage, and what irks me is this classification of the noise and garbage as some kind of great egalitarian paradigm shift.

What it boils down to is this… the blogs making money are not usually the ones that are not the most well written, the most interesting, or the most educational. They are the ones that have adopted a policy of content populism. They give the people what they want, even if those wants are the result of uneducated and unexamined thinking. Then everybody jumps on the bandwagon and agrees with each other and talks about how great it is that Facebook is valued at $15 billion or whatever. And I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of people asking me about Robert Scoble. I don’t follow him and I don’t care what he is doing. I don’t care what is on Techmeme, or Digg, or anything else because I believe in an idea that is extremely radical in this day and age…that what I read should be determined by what interests me, and not what is popular or crowdsourced. Yes, it is heresy, I know. And if you are going to argue that the fact that something is popular shows that people are interested in it, I will call bullshit and say that popularity is a feedback loop, and that people simply think they should like what is popular.

So here’s to the iconoclasts, the independent thinkers, and the guys out there like Nick Carr, who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. You are the true bloggers. You represent the real spirit of the blogosphere. Thank you.


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