Blogging Eyeballs

The Eyeball

Wednesday's release of the results of a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project hasn't gone unnoticed by the media, old or new. The summary report—A Blogger Portrait, on their site—finds that "the ease and appeal of blogging is inspiring a new group of writers and creators to share their voices with the world." While this seems encouraging and upbeat, the survey also seems to have uncovered some disturbing truths about who's really doing all this blogging, and why. I think the resulting commentary—based on what I've seen so far—from various corners is interesting. In some ways, it's far more interesting than the results of the survey itself.

Since a survey is intended to reveal statistical trends, I generally don't expect the survey to analyze its own results, or otherwise interpret its own findings. I like to do that myself, although it's helpful, sometimes, to find out what others think. In this case, the thoughts of others really illuminated the polarity that seems to characterize the discussion of blogging right now. On one side are those who see the phenomenon as an irritating—and hopefully transient—exercise in delusional thinking: hordes of pajama-clad wannabe journalists, glassy-eyed and ignorant, storming the gates of tradition. The opposite polarity accommodates the more optimistic, who believe any communication is good communication as long as it isn't censored, or otherwise regulated.

Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large, and he wasted no time launching his own commentary on the Pew survey. In his Who Are All These Bloggers? And what do they want? article, he breathes what can only be described as a sigh of relief at the survey's results.

I'm not disparaging bloggers, so please don't treat me to a high-tech lynching. But this study shows that at this early point in the blog era, the great mass of bloggers aren't set on replacing reporters. The top 100 or top 1,000 may consider themselves "citizen journalists" of one sort or another, but the survey finds that 65 percent of bloggers don't consider their output journalism at all.

Whew. They know they aren't journalists; they realize it themselves! Maybe they don't really want to take over after all. Maybe they're just hobbyists. But then, forced to contemplate the prospect of budding adolescent bloggers, the angst flickers again.

Will teenagers give up navel-gazing when they graduate from MySpace to the greater Web? If all these people really want from the Web is a hobby and to talk to their friends and family, they'd be better off taking pottery lessons and purchasing more cell-phone minutes.

Joe Garofoli, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, weighed in with what also seemed to be a measure of relief. After noting that the Pew survey dispels the popular perception that bloggers are pajama-wearing partisan ranters making up facts, he uses a Philadelphia woman as an example of the more typical blogger, then goes on to quote the president of the Media Bloggers Association.

"Many bloggers have a certain degree of disdain for journalists," said Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association ( "When people talk about bloggers influencing the media, or politicians, you're talking about maybe 200 bloggers."

Influence may be their reward for now. The Pew study found that only 7 percent were blogging to make money.

"That's good," said Cox, "because a lot less than 7 percent of them will make any money doing it."

But maybe that's exactly the point. If most bloggers aren't in it for the money, and don't answer to anyone but themselves, isn't it also more likely those 57 million American adults who read blogs—according to the Pew Survey—find something reliable about them? Sure, a lot of blogs are personal diaries, social outlets, or otherwise make no attempt to sway public opinion. But every blogger has the potential to become the eyes and ears of their own local sphere, if that's what he or she wants to do. There isn't a news agency, regardless of resources, on the planet that can consistently drill down to that level every day. And in a rapidly developing situation—New Orleans comes to mind—bloggers are already in place. The professional news teams may not arrive for days, and even then, they can't be everywhere at once.

In the role of impartial reporter of truth from ground zero, it may not make much difference how the sentences are put together, or whether that amateur journalist has the proper credentials. I've never been big on the quantity over quality school of thought, but the sheer number of potential reporters out there in the blogosphere—12 million in the United States alone, according to the survey—could mean the difference between learning the facts, and wondering what really happened. That's a lot of eyeballs.

One interesting point concerning the Pew survey is the size of the statistical sample. While it's certainly possible this survey's findings accurately mirror the reality of cyberlife in the US, it's also possible the 233 people interviewed for the study don't completely define the 12 million bloggers in this country.

In any case, the worried journalists may find the solution to their problems lies in the self-regulating nature of things. If a blogger's readers can't understand what the blogger is trying to say, or if the opinions are so outlandish—or so plagiarized—as to be virtually pointless, the blogger won't have any readers before too much time goes by. The blog will just fade to black.   


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