Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So what makes...

a successful blog? I surely don't know for certain, but it's a question I've seen discussed a time or two and I'll offer some thoughts.

If one listens to the hype about Web 2.0, one would assume that a good blog needs to have an open and active comments section. Then it's not just a series of thoughts by a single person, which could seem boring after a while, but it becomes a community in which the blogger throws out ideas and the intelligence of the crowd magnifies those ideas.

There's a lot wrong with that theory, clearly. All the successful blogs of The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, James Fallows, and the rest, seem to have quite large followings, and there is nary a comment to be found on them. At some point someone seems to have reached the conclusion that there was no need to create that kind of community on these blogs, and they seem to work fine.

[Note 1: I find Andrew Sullivan pretty good, if exhausting to read, but does he always have to have a target for his feelings? I wasn't in love with Hillary's run, but Sullivan posted many times a day on why she was such a bad candidate. Now that she's gone, it's on to Sarah Palin. To be sure, he is talking about important things (The Twelve Lies of Sarah Palin is a must-read), but it is tiring to wade through the number of words he puts down about her every...single...day.]

[Note 2: I'm using Web 2.0 in its most common definition, that of user-generated content, which is how most people seem to take that term. For an alternative view, read the invaluable Hank Williams at Why does everything suck?, who has been writing some posts (one recent one here) on Web 2.0 vs. Web 3.0 - very provocative, uncommon thinking.]

Furthermore, given the relative meaninglessness of the vast majority of comments that are written, that community objective certainly isn't being realized very often on the sites that do allow comments. Despite the publicity about how the Web is what the users will it to be, I've seen little so far that convinces me that we're getting particularly close to that. Too many blog comments are still the random scribbling in the margins of a book you find in the street; there's a far greater chance that the book is interesting than the scribbling.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of coming around to a prosaic idea: Content remains defined by the original content, and the model really hasn't changed all that much from the newspaper, book, and magazine method we've had for years. If someone's blog is reasonably well-written with interesting subjects and opinions on those subjects, it's probably a good blog.

We may one day move beyond that, to a point where the Web enables new structures that allow blogs to be more than their base-level material, but I don't think we're particularly close yet. (That's not the case with non-blog material, and admittedly I haven't tried to define "blog" here. For a look at what someone is doing that tries to use the Web in a more expansive way, check out this post by Joel Spolsky, in which he describes how some folks are trying to redefine Programmer Q&A websites, which are, for the most part, dreadful and disappointing. Even if you're not a programmer, it's worth reading the post to see how some people are trying to think beyond the already-ossified way things are done on the Internet.)

So, if I were to offer advice to a new blogger, it would be to write interestingly about interesting things, and let the Web 2.0-type stuff take care of itself. In the end, you will learn more from your own efforts than from your comments (some people will argue with that statement, but I'm referring to the vast majority of blogs), and the discipline of casting your thoughts out into the ether will prove useful to you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suggest people write what's on their minds and in their hearts. This is one way LiveJournal differs from blogs. I think many bloggers are hindered by an arbitrary public-private split that an all-public model encourages. I've learned the most from the few times you've told me how you feel rather than what you think. Carrie: Not so much. But even there it's clear she's gung ho on publication, and it's driven by her feelings, but somehow that's not sufficient on a blog. No, we have to make big rhetorical swings, or we're not blogging. Well screw blogging. I'll be a LiveJournalist to the end. The discussions there aren't all public, and that helps people self-organize. The power of the individual to self-select their community structure at LJ make all-public blogging seem like a miserable idea to me.

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