Sunday, October 26, 2008

Whither Blogging?

In a comment, Digger Jones poses a deep question:
Just another random question for you: Is blogging of this type going to continue to be be viable in the next 5 years? I'm seeing more stuff happening in video with embedded links and annotaions. The stuff going on at Voicethread is also very interesting, but it makes me think this might be a dying medium. How does something like this compete with something like YouTube?

Just wondering about your take as an industry insider.

This one requires an essay to answer, so you know this is going to be a longer post. :-) To make this a useful discussion, we need to know to the meaning of the phrase blogging of this type and the definition of viability.

For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to define "blogging of this type" in two senses.

  1. The content conveyed on a blog and the structure used to present it to the reader.

  2. The services or applications that bloggers use to create and host their content.

The first definition is motivated by your references to video and semantic web technologies that make finding non-textual content easier. The second is motivated by my own professional experience and some other essays that I have read.

When asked to define the term blog, most of us would probably point to a diary as a reference point, because a blog typically contain entries organized in reverse order of entry. Many blogs resemble real-world diaries because they contain very personal thoughts and experiences, but blogs are used for much more than that, and those uses vary according to who is creating and hosting them.

Personal blogs written by individuals have been used to:

  • Keep friends and family abreast of day-to-day events.

  • Express emotional reactions to personal experiences.

  • Digest and comment on current events, especially politics.

  • Entertain readers with passages of original creative writing.

  • Share links to other interesting content.

  • Track progress in a personal improvement effort like training for a triathlon or losing weight.

  • Chronicle a life changing event of significant duration, like pregnancy or cancer.

  • Engage in citizen journalism.

  • Share the contents of memes and hoaxes that are usually propagated by e-mail.

Professional and corporate blogs have been used to:

  • Write about emerging issues within the author's domain of expertise to build a reputation and achieve "thought leadership".

  • Open up a direct conversation with customers about company initiatives.

  • Provide a behind-the-scenes look into the company.

  • Add perspective to current events.

  • Post official announcements and marketing messages.

Blogging started out as a mostly one-way textual medium. I can remember when Blogger offered no built-in facility for reader comments and when the ability to post images was a value-added service that you had to pay to get.

The rise of broadband and the support of video in Flash brought video embedding to the masses in a way that QuickTime and RealVideo had failed in years past. YouTube made it fairly easy to upload short clips, and people seized on that to post the following:

  • Home movies to share with family and friends.

  • Clips of people engaged of acts of intentional inanity.

  • Alternate interpretations of popular songs through cover performances and music videos.

  • Transfers of music videos, movies, commercials, cartoons, and other copyrighted content from old VHS and Beta collections.

Also lowering the barrier to entry has been that YouTube is free.

Digger makes mention of efforts to add semantic information to video clips that would aid search engines and wonders if this might be a replacement to blogging.

Besides video, there have been other communication media that have been perceived as competition to blogging. Podcasts have been around for several years, both as a supplement and as an alternative to blogging. People have also pointed to the rise of microblogging sensation Twitter as another threat to blogging.

So now that we have surveyed the landscape of traditional blogs and the potential successors, we're now in a place to speculate about where things are headed.

In order for the standard text blog to be replaced by the newer technologies, a couple things would need to happen:

  1. Those writing standard blogs start to use non-blogging media instead or lose interest in blogging altogether.

  2. A monotonically increasing percentage of new content creators opt for non-blogging media.

If you look at all of those purposes for which people blog that we listed above, how many of these would be better served by the other technologies?

Twitter helps people keep in touch with neighbor nodes on the social graph, and it can be a great way to propagate reactions that fit cleanly into a sentence or two. Unless you are gifted with the ability of creating engaging blurbs on a regular basis or you are famous, most people are going to be of the same opinion that was expressed so bluntly by my ex-coworker at the Titanic, "I just don't find much use in following my friends and knowing when they're going to take a dump." Twitter feeds have also been the birthplaces of some petty insult matches between people, even high profile personalities.

Although it takes less time to speak words than to type them, podcasting can require more effort than composing a blog post. Podcasts can run for several minutes to the better part of an hour, and filling that time with something that is coherent and engaging requires preparation. Moreover, unless you are just a flawless extemporaneous speaker, you're going to make mistakes as you make your recordings, which may require some editing.

Podcasts make sense for people who have built up a readership that is eager to her his or her thoughts on a subject area. They are a great add-on for the thought-leadership blogger. But for the personal blogger who may write about a lot of things, a podcasting series or audio blog is probably a bridge too far. See for example, FTN's foray into podcasting, or the dabbling in audio posts that Desperate Husband engaged in before he ceased blogging altogether.

Video creation raises the bar even above and beyond the podcast. You have to make sure that either you look good, or your accompanying visuals are compelling[2]. Dumping the contents of your camcorder or webcam up into a YouTube clip is one thing, editing footage into a coherent work on a regular basis is another thing completely.

I think video posts make a lot of sense for personal bloggers, like citizen journalists or family bloggers, who have a need to put the reader live on the scene of an event. It's also helpful for those who might use it in a corporate blog to illustrate a dynamic process that isn't easily described in text, or to demo a new product. Digger's DDR posts aside, video isn't a place that anonymous bloggers would have a lot of attraction.

In some instances, video can seem just downright gratuitous. Although not really an instance of blogging, job ads can be good example of this. Back during my Great Job Search of 2007, I noticed that one area recruiting agency started adding "click here to view a video about the job" links to their job board posts. These videos were clips of a recruiter sitting in his[3] office pimping the job with a modest amount of preparation. The presentation was not much less inspiring than a PBS volunteer pledge pitch[4], and most of the time, the clips just drove home the message that headhunters can be vapid and shady.

Semantic web technologies will help non-textual content to be searchable, but in the short run, this will involve adding tagging information. As wonderful as this is, I don't place much faith in video bloggers making use of this diligently for the same reason that software engineers are bad about entering meaningful messages as part of their source code commits. For too many, adding summary information in a consistent manner is just too much work.

I think blogs also make a lot of sense from the content consumer perspective. Many of us bloggers read a lot of blogs ourselves, oftentimes managing the onslaught with RSS feeds. Since the volume of content is large, I have to do a lot of skimming to filter out what's truly interesting. The human eye and the brain can do this well. You can't do it with audio or video.

Whether new entrants into this space choose blogging or some other content technology is not clear. If anyone has any statistics, I'd love to know. If I had to guess I'd say that blogs haven't lost their edge, especially within the scope of financial and political commentary, where there is so much demand for clarity and analysis.

I think there are some questions about the viability of the major blogging services and their competitors.

Blogger offers an easy and hosted way to blog, but it survives by virtue of it's backing by Google. The financial turmoil is putting a crimp on online advertising revenue, which is a big source of money for Google. If advertising continues to remain in a slump for an extended period of time, would it be unreasonable for Google to reconsider whether its ownership of the blogging company, especially since it has a lot of blogs that do not host ads? What then?

Some are arguing that despite being ahead of the curve in many areas in the past, blogging service LiveJournal has made some bad choices that leave it left behind in the area of social networking web services.

SixApart (MovableType) and Automattic (Wordpress) offer standalone and hosted blogging products. Both have garnered funding over the past year or two, and each views the other as a hostile competitor. Both have found loyal users in the consumer and professional blogging spaces. However, a good part of their strategy is hinged on scoring ad revenue for their subscribers. If online advertising dries during this slowdown, that could force them to restrategize.

Twitter's unreliability earlier this year made it the stuff of countless jokes. Yes, they continue to secure funding, but the punditry is skeptical that it can survive in the long run with it's current form of operation.

For all of its popularity, YouTube is still something of an enigma from the business standpoint. Google has made no secret of the fact that it has been trying to figure out how to monetize the site. And there has been some recent analysis showing big media-backed, which doesn't focus on user-generated content, has been doing a better hob of "selling out its content" than YouTube has.

From all of this, it should be clear regardless of which side of the divide one sits, there are challenges to the viability of both the blogging services and their competitors. I don't think that the blog is doomed to obsolescence, but there may be some turbulence that weeds out weaker competitors.

My employer is pretty bullish on the future of blogging from the corporate standpoint. They take a different viewpoint, arguing that encouraging employees to set aside time for blogging will result in better organic search rankings[5]. Better placement leads to reader clicks to the blog site. The blog site becomes a customer acquisition tool.

When done right, the corporate blog has relevant content, written by authentic voices, and frequently updated. It provides a more compelling introduction to the customer than most corporate websites, which are sometimes nothing more than sleek digital brochures. From the corporate standpoint, blogs may not be threatened by other technologies, but they may threaten the prominence of the standard model of corporate websites.

[1] -- Face it, people tend to be drawn to content if the presenter is hot.

[2] -- For an example of a recurring video feature that has compelling visuals, take a look at the "Zero Punctuation" video game review series by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw over at The Escapist. While the reviews are side-splittingly funny, they are laced with profanity and sexual references.

[3] -- No, I'm not being sexist. All of the videos involved male recruiters.

[4] -- Relax, I'm a fan of both PBS and NPR. The pledge drives just drive me nuts. Although this past pledge drive with the local NPR station had a howler of a plug from the host of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and the guy who does all of the "Support for this program comes from..." voice overs for NPR. They hypothesized about what life would be like without NPR, and they had the voice over guy taking orders at fast food restaurant, acknowledging each customer order item with a description of where the item came from.

[5] -- This shouldn't be too hard to envision with one of Digger's blog ranking in the top 10 for Google's search against the keyword "Schnarch". Several of my own posts have ranked very high on topics in his books. I believe that my own blog ranks higher than Schnarch's website and the Google Books copy of one of his books on the term "Normal Marital Sadism".
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