Apex Reached? Moving From Bloggers To Communities
by Chris Bowers, Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 09:46:58 AM EST
While this is not conclusive evidence of the political blogosphere reaching an audience plateau over the past year, it does strongly suggest a plateau has occurred. Current estimates of a daily audience of 4-5 million for progressive political blogs, and an occasional audience of up to 13-14 million for all political blogs, are now appearing in multiple sources. While this gives the progressive blogosphere a substantial, at least 2-1 edge in both daily and occasional traffic on the conservative blogosphere, since our traffic is now stagnant I am not ready to toot our horn when pointing that out. Just as I once proclaimed that the aristocratic right-wing blogosphere was stagnating, it now seems that the community oriented left-wing blogosphere is stagnating as well.
Despite these numbers, I believe it would be a mistake to argue that "the death of political blogging" is imminent (I put that phrase in scare quotes because I can't even begin to count the number of times I have been asked about what will result in the death of political blogging). Instead, I believe this means is that the world of online political content generation is moving away from the top-down model of an individual, independent blogger producing the majority of new content for a given website--a model which was dominant through most of 2002-2005. Now, the paradigm is shifting toward a more networked, community-oriented model where a much higher percentage of the audience participates in the generation of new content. Blogging, including political blogging, is still quite healthy, as long as it encourages user-generated content and relies on a group of main writers rather than a single individual. However, the days when an individual blogger can start a new, solo website and make a big national splash are probably over. The blogosphere and the netroots are transforming, not dying off.
Take, for example, Dailykos. According to resident statistician jotter, while overall site traffic on Dailykos slightly declined in 2006 compared to 2005, user participation in the generation of new content on the site actually increased by 20%. This shifted the overall reader to content generator ratio within the Dailykos audience from about 25-1 in 2005, to just 15-1 in 2006. That is a substantial shift for only one year, and demonstrative of larger trends. Looking at the websites ranked in the top fifteen in terms of page views the Liberal Blog Advertising Network, only two and a half, Political Animal, Eschaton and the Talking Points Memo side of the TPM netowrk, are still primarily single-blogger operations (those also happen to be some of the oldest political blogs around). Further, while political blogosphere traffic has remained generally flat over seventeen months now (apart from election-related spikes), social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have continued to expand at the same exponential rates that the political blogosphere once expanded (although MySpace is starting to flatten out as well). It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the growth social networking sites continue to experience while even community oriented progressive blogs remain flat was mirrored in 2003-2005 when group and community-oriented progressive blogs rocketed past top-down, individual-based, no comments allowed, right-wing blogs in terms of traffic. Even though it is benefiting a small number of large websites, the ability websites such as YouTube or Facebook give their audience to produce their own content has allowed those websites to perpetuate their viral stage of growth and development much longer than websites which offer fewer avenues for community-generated content and networking.
In addition to the end of the era of the highly successful solo-blogger, I forecast that this development toward user-generated content will carry two other important ramifications for the political blogosphere. First, the already extreme gap between the political engagement of netroots activists and rank-and-file voters will grow even wider. With more people not just consuming political information online, but helping to generate it, netroots activists will continue to consolidate as a sort of "elite influential" subset within the American political system. Second, in order to remain successful, more than more political blogs will transform into full-blown professional operations that can be considered institutions unto themselves. In addition to community development, they will more frequently produce difficult, original work (beat reporting, investigative journalism, professional lobbying, national activist campaigns, original video, commissioned polls, mass email lists, etc.) that until now have been mainly the province of long-established news and political organizations. Competition from other high-end blogs will continue to raise the bar in this area, as the days of thriving on punditry alone are further confined to diaries and comments off the front-page.
Phew. This is not going to be easy, and it may all collapse if blogger can't find better revenue streams. After all, you can't run a professional organization and upgrade your user generated content options without money to pay programmers and full-time employees. Many wags compared the collapse of Howard Dean's Presidential campaign in 2004 to the dot.com bust of 2000, but the real bust could happen in a more traditional economic sense two or three down the road. I know hat I won't stop trying to find ways to keep the progressive political blogosphere moving forward, but I can't deny the difficulties that lay ahead.
Update: Really, really, good comments everyone. Thanks for the feedback.