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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Blogosphere: A Nebula Spawning Nascent Business Models?

It is certainly no understatement to say that the world of publishing will never be the same. In fact, change may have already become the new constant in the industry by the time ebooks took off, thanks mainly to the phenomenon known as “blogging.” I suspect this term is already obsolete, due to the differentiation that has taken place under the rubric, and yet we are like turtles even just in noticing the need for change to keep up with change.  How, in other words, might blogging catch up to itself?

The term “blog” has come to cover such a vast terrain of writing genres and purposes that additional descriptors are often necessary to convey a blogger’s particular niche.  For example, Robert Reich, a lawyer who teaches at Berkeley, draws on his professional expertise and government experience in blogging on public policy. He cross-posts on the Huffington Post so his ideas will reach more people. Meanwhile, a retired grandmother undoubtedly exists out there in the blogosphere, writing about her grandchildren—what they have been doing lately, perhaps even a picture of what one drew in art class and a video of another learning how to skate. Being on Facebook to keep in touch with old friends who live far away, the grandmother might provide links to the text, pictures and videos on her home page. Because the lawyer and grandmother are doing very different things, the terms “blog” and “blogger” have become inadequate to the task of distinguishing the various types of blogs. That is, the terms have become too vague as descriptors (and even misleading).

How, for instance, might we distinguish the bloggers whose blogs are essentially businesses from the bloggers who blog as a hobby? How can we distinguish between essays written by professionals and scholars and diary entries written by teenagers? I suspect that because blogging began closer to the latter (as depicted in the motion picture, Julie and Julia), the term itself (as well as “a blog”) carries a certain “inertia-bias” that subtly undercuts the credibility of content beyond “what I did today.” Given the rate of change in the “industry,” I would have expected the “comet trail” to be shorter (i.e., less residual reputation). In short, we need some new terms to differentiate the branches now that they have grown so far from each other; merely pointing to the tree trunk is no longer sufficient to indicate a particular branch. A better analogy might be the expanding space of the universe eventuating in more distance between galaxies. At some point, two clusters (of galaxies) should be classified as in different regions of space—space itself having expanded sufficiently—because one locater term alone will have become too vague for either cluster to be located easily. 

Generally speaking, blogging has come to reflect the complexity and diversity that exist within our species. What Robert Reich “blogs” about is eons away from the blogging depicted in Julie & Julia. I instinctively resist admitting to people that I “blog” because I have seen the dismissive response. So I tend to tell people that I write essays applying academic theory to current events in ethics, business, and government. “They can be found at my web-site,” I demur—gilding the lily so as to stave off any implication that I’m posting recipes on a blog. I referred to my site as a newsletter until someone told me that more credibility goes with the term, “a blog.” As Jack Nicholson said in one of his films, “Never a break!”

The other area where the blogosphere has been slow to catch up with itself—as if it were travelling close to the speed of light in slower time—is monetization. I suspect that dirty word has suffered from the residual tail of inertia wherein “diary” or “political pundit” is still the default for “blog.” Who in their right mind wants to pay to read what some stranger did the day before, or what Joe the plumber thinks about Congress (Joe ran and lost—so much for Palin’s pig-tails). However, where Robert Reich is applying his legal or governmental knowledge and experience, he has every right to expect his writing to fetch a good price. I have drawn the line between essays like this one that are only loosely analytical and others that involve academic work on my part. At some point, the presumption that what I have spent decades learning should be free (as if by some right) becomes insulting.

Therefore, along with the new terminology that is necessary to distinguish between disparate sites, the monetization spectrum from ebooks to online diaries needs to be demarcated—say, for example, in distinguishing between a scholar’s book or article in the making, a lawyer’s critique of a court ruling or a proposed law, a novel in the making by a new writer, a budding political pundit’s view on how government officials are doing, and a teenager’s advice on the perfect date or how to hit a home-run (or both!). From a monetization standpoint, these qualitatively-different contents should not all be monetized at the same subscription price (or amount of advertising). In fact, not all of them should be monetized! Staying with the terms “blog” and “blogging” prevents us from making such distinctions, which I contend are intrinsic, albeit clogged up. Under the circumstances, I am amazed that some “bloggers” have been able to treat their “blogs” as businesses and can rely on them to make a living. Considering the fusion of not only books and courses, but also “radio shows” and videos with websites (or “blogging”), pressure will only build until value meets price.[1]

      The "Crab" nebula is 6,500 light-years from Earth and 5 light-years across. The nebula is the remnants of a massive star that collapsed and exploded (i.e., a supernova). New suns and planets form out of the elements. Viewed from Earth as a "visiting star," the nebula was first recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 CE. Interestingly, that was the time of the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

Lest it be said, “Oh, the market will do that,” the blogosphere can be likened to a stellar nebula in which only the faint outlines of heavenly spheres are as yet discernable to the naked eye. We might have a nebula in search of business models not yet extant. Hence, this essay is a sort of plunger designed to push the clogging pulp through the pipes and out of the way, so new water can flow, facilitating a new movement. What is needed of course is brain-power, not shit, matching the thought that went into the software that gave rise to the blogosphere in the first place.

Like global warming outstripping the ability of ecosystems in the far North to adapt, the blogosphere is so foreign to us that our ability to adapt to it cognitively (and strategically as entrepreneurs) has so far been outstripped; so too has our perceptual and cognitive ability to update terminology. Assuming rather simplistically that market competition will somehow squeeze out new, more discerning terms, and novel business models, each capable of connecting to a particular type of "blog" in the still-forming industry, is naive. Instead, innovative strategic and "critical" (i.e., assumption-questioning) thinking, along with trial and error, is necessary before competition can have a chance to fine-tune or reject the various models that have been introduced. Treating all the requisite innovation as technological is like ignoring dark matter in solving gravity equations.[2]

1. MOOCs, or very large online courses, demonstrate just how difficult it is to create a viable business model when the industry is so new and unlike any existing industry. I suspect the model wherein users are charged only if for verified-identity certificates will fail because they do not enable college-credit. More of a difference is necessary from the content that available without charge. Of course, the college or university whose faculty member teaches the MOOC benefits from the publicity, and the MOOC non-profit could perhaps support itself via advertising and/or charging the participating universities a fee (though that might discourage participation).
2. "Blog" picture source: www.dailyblogtips.com