The debate about blogs and their merits and limitations is still a furious one: As newspapers try to move toward a more interactive format in an effort to stay relevant, reporters are being encouraged to blog about their area of interest as well as write their regular news stories, and writers of books are encouraged by their publishers to blog in order to create a more approachable personality that will attract attention to the book.
Newspapers use blogs to enable quicker updates about rumours and news, to provide a set of links to other informative sites, to expose the process of gathering information (as the daily blog is almost by necessity a first-person narrative) and to provide a forum for comment, correction and shared experience. Book publishers, or hopeful authors-to-be, use them simply for publicity.
An article you may have read in The Globe and Mail on Monday, a New York Times News Service story by Douglas Quenqua, pointed to a 2008 survey, carried out by Technorati.com, of 133 million blogs. The survey found that only 7.4 million of them had been updated in the last four months and concluded that 95 per cent of blogs were essentially abandoned. The problem seems to be mainly that people who begin writing blogs with great ambition find that it is difficult to attract audiences and so they end up writing for themselves and their families. Without an audience, they can acquire no advertising. Even very popular and widely read blogs have difficulty earning a significant income from the kind of small ads that one can sell on the Web. The authors become disheartened and they quit. Blogs end up having "a higher failure rate than restaurants," says Quenqua.
There are several forms of personal blog, but the main three types are: (1) the compiler or aggregator of information about a specific subject, with links to various news stories and updates, which may have a clear journalistic function; (2) the professional journalist's blog, paid for by a news organization, which reads very much as his or her regular reporting does, and has the same financial resources behind it, but happens to be online; and (3) the amateur opinion column, which can often degenerate into a diary.
But the lines blur: There can be a confessional tone even to the professional reporter's blog, when it's about the process of gathering the news. Blogs are often blamed for spreading unsubstantiated rumours and blurting unconfirmed reports, but there can be a value in hearing those things as they come out, as long as they are clearly labelled as such. The most enthusiastic tech-heads praise this process as transparency; they say we should think of this unfolding news as a "beta" version of news, similar to the untested computer programs and video games that are released for the public to play with. (And Twitter, by the way, is becoming a serious tool for instant news updates from eyewitnesses to developing stories.) A lot of freelance writers also maintain blogs, on which they post or link to all their recent articles, as a form of self-promotion, which is a great idea, but frighteningly time-consuming. It's not directly lucrative in itself.
The purely personal opinion or life-story blog has a smaller chance of becoming vastly popular. It's this kind of blog, I suspect, that is most frequently begun and then abandoned by aspiring authors. (Although two kinds of these seem always likely to get attention: the sex-worker blog, with its titillating glimpses of the underworld, and the disease blog, which documents the progress of something horrible.) But it's this kind of personal-opinion/life-story blog that authors are most frequently encouraged to engage in by publishers. The theory, I guess, is that readers want a personality they can follow, empathize with and engage with. It's the theory behind getting authors to do live readings as well.
The unspoken underpinning of the idea of writers' blogs is that the author has to take the time to interact online with the readers, just as she has to smile and chat with fans after readings. Publishers also really like it if authors get involved enough to start a Twitter feed about their book, or maybe make a short video dramatization of a scene from their book and put it on YouTube. These pressures are amusingly dramatized in the YouTube monologue Book Launch 2.0, by Dennis Cass, in which a writer gets increasingly frustrated by his agent's suggestions for self-promotion until he says sarcastically, "Twenty years ago, when I wanted to become a writer? A big part of the dream was being able to put little videos on the Internet."
It goes without saying that this effortful and technically complicated self-promotion is in the writer's interest and therefore will not be directly paid for by anyone. And that brings us back to the fundamental problem, as yet unsolved by the most committed of futurists, of the economics of the free Internet. The basic requirement for any serious research, any protracted and learned piece of writing on any subject, is money.