The weblog is difficult enough to define, but can be even more difficult to grade. What makes a blog successful, and how does one measure that success? In print media, particularly journalism, success is often measured by circulation, which in turn is measured by money made from sales. Most people who read a particular newspaper buy a copy and are instantly counted as a reader and as a sale. But blog readers are not always so easy to count. The success of a blog, whether written for money or not, demands a different form of evaluation. The virtual community that forms around a blog is both an indicator of the size of the audience being reached and the degree to which the blogger connects with other people, so the development of the community should be seen as the best indicator of a blog’s success.
Print media rely on sales figures to rank one publication against another. Perhaps one of the most coveted top book lists is The New York Times’ Best-Seller List. According to The New York Times, the “best-seller list is based on weekly sales reports obtained from a scientifically selected sample of bookstores throughout the United States. The sales figures represent books that have actually been sold to the public” (Blatty). Sales are used to count readers, and high sales are associated with high popularity. Books that appear on this list are considered successful, because a large number of people chose to purchase it. Of course, there is no way to measure how many people actually read it, with the possibilities of multiple people reading the same copy, or a copy being purchased but never opened. Because of this impossibility, it simply has to be accepted that sales be the statistic used to rank books. Similar lists exist for other forms of print media as well. While it is true that nothing stops someone from creating their own subjective ranking, the only useful way to objectively compare modern print publications is to compare sales. This obviously becomes more difficult to do when trying to compare blogs.
Blogs lack the financial data of print media, and so rely on different statistics to prove their popularity. If a successful blog is one that is widely-read, a number of ways exist to attempt to objectively rank blogs against each other. Hit counters track the number of times a blog is visited, though unless IP addresses of computers are tracked, hits may become inflated by a small number of people visiting repeatedly in a short period of time. Because blogs are constantly updated, regular readers may check the blog frequently, even though a new entry has not yet been posted. Should those hits still count? Many blogs also provide quick ways to email a post to a friend, keeping track of the number of times a particular post is emailed. Sites like Digg.com allow readers to “digg” entries they like, but a blog must be registered by the blogger for this to be an option. Digg describes itself as a site that “surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users. You won’t find editors at Digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content” (Digg). If an unregistered blog generates a lot of traffic, but is not getting any hits on Digg, does it not deserve the recognition as a “top blog” that a registered blog with a lot of diggs and comparable traffic has? None of these statistics really sets up a useful objective system for comparing one blog to another.
Blogging can also be profitable to some bloggers, but even this is not a good way to measure a blog’s success. A newspaper makes money every time a copy is sold. But most bloggers that earn any money from blogging earn it by advertising on their websites and selling links to other sites. There are some blogs that are associated with corporations and print media that pay professionals to write blog entries, but many bloggers who choose to set up and publish their blogs themselves (the vast majority of bloggers) must rely on advertising and merchandise and occasionally donations to make any money. The money earned has absolutely no connection to the number of people reading the blog. Most people are probably unlikely to click on the advertisements or buy the merchandise. Bloggers can also earn money from pay-per-post sponsors, much as journalists writing columns (Dosh). A blogger, however, is still usually her own publisher, and any money made correlates to the number of posts written, not to the number of readers. Bloggers who attract more traffic may be paid more than bloggers who attract less, but this pay difference is still not usable as an accurate measure of readership in pure numbers. Blogs are almost always free; there is no subscription fee. Even if a blogger is making money, she is not making it on a per-reader basis.
If so many statistics, each with its own variables exists, and if money is such an unreliable indicator of actual readership, it seems impossible to objectively compare one blog to another. If blogs are to be recognized as their own genre, it would be helpful to have some sort of scale, even an arbitrary one, to see how different types of blogs can define each other. One could argue that a book that makes The New York Times’ Best-Seller List is not necessarily the finest example of literature, but this objective way of determining success does provide us with a useful way to talk about literature. We can look at a book on the list and know that this is what a successful book looks like. It can be compared to other successes and failures within its genre to see how it differs. An objective way at looking at the success of a blog would allow us to examine a large number of blogs from the same perspective, and to make comparisons to determine what characteristics define a successful blog. For a genre that is still so early in its evolution that we do not even have a concrete definition of it, being able to make comparisons is a useful tool.
Community has become that comparison point. Readers can leave comments on the entries in most blogs, and the blogger is able to respond to those comments. Other readers can then choose to leave their own comments, respond to previously made comments, or just read the existing comments as an extension of the entry itself. Nesbit defines community as a social structure that “encompasses all forms of relationship which are characterized by a high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment, social cohesion and continuity in time” (Cohen, 375). Virtual communities incorporate these features with variations to suit the unusual medium of the internet as a meeting space. Blogs that form large and active communities tend to be written with a more personal style than many corporate blogs, and the personality of the blogger is an important part of the writing style. Blogs exist so that people can be free to make their opinions known without censorship, and readers are invited to respond to those opinions. Successful blogs are ongoing conversations between readers and writers, with the writers continuing to post new content and the readers continuing to respond to that content. Blogs originally began as simply a way to share links to other websites, but they have developed into a genre that is defined by its community. Without a community, a blog is really an online column.
Many sites provide lists of the most popular blogs on the internet. Some do it purely by site traffic. The blog with the greatest number of hits gets the top spot. Others rank blogs by their Google or Alexa page ranks. Others are simply lists of the compiler’s favorite blogs. The list of the “30 Most Popular Blogs” (February 2008) on eBizMBA.com and “The World’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs” in The Observer at Guardian.co.uk use different criteria to make up their lists, but they show a considerable amount of overlap. (Both lists appear within the first five hits for the Google search “most popular blogs” as of 13 May, 2008.) eBizMBA.com describes their ranking system as “a combination of Inbound Links from Yahoo Site Explore (entire site not including internal pages), Alexa Rank, and Compete and Quantcast U.S. Unique Monthly visitor data” (eBizMBA). The list includes the statistics for each blog. The list in The Observer is an example of a list assembled subjectively. No statistics are given. Instead, a paragraph describes each blog and explains why it is successful, which may be due to a large readership as seen in the statistics given on eBizMBA, or may be due to a strong influence the particular blog has had on the genre as a whole, which obviously cannot be measured numerically. Neither list makes any specific reference to community.
The number one blog on both lists is The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-blog/), the liberal online news source started by millionaire Arianna Huffington. The blog is designed as a virtual newspaper with many professional bloggers contributing stories. The statistics on eBizMBA show it to be the most frequented blog of all the entries on the list. The Observer credits it as a landmark in political blogging. The blog itself is actually rather unusual in several respects. It is written by a sizeable staff with editors much as a newspaper, and it exists to make money. The original fame and money of its founder played a huge role in making it the success it is today, however the revenue actually made by the blog is not connected to its success. The blog is free to read; a reader can be totally invisible and without any impact on the financial success of the blog. Yet it is certainly successful. Nearly every entry (and there are many entries posted in just one day) earns at least a handful of comments from readers with many getting around forty or fifty. More controversial or provocative posts earn well over a hundred, even five hundred comments. A few posts earn several thousand comments. Many readers take the time to write thoughtful responses that ask further questions or challenge particular points, and readers often respond to each other. A recent post, for example, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amb-marc-ginsberg/swift-boating-comes-to-je_b_102009.html) shows how a single story may provoke an ongoing conversation within the community of readers, beyond the original blog post. This sets the blog apart from print media where community of this type is not possible. If this post had been printed in a newspaper, the reader response and conversation would be limited to a much smaller group of people. On the web, anyone with an internet connection can become involved. The fact that so many people have chosen to become involved makes this a successful blog, because involvement is the point of blogging. Otherwise, a printed newspaper would suffice. This blog has achieved something that print media cannot.
Another blog appearing on both lists is TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/). eBizMBA ranks it as number twelve, and The Observer ranks it as number three, describing it as one of the most influential blogs focusing on technology. The blog is written by a small number of posters and earns money through advertising and PaidContent and similar sites (Aldred). The community visible through reader comments on this blog is smaller, but no less involved. Most posts earn at least a few comments, and about half get between twenty and forty, sometimes more. The significant characteristic of this community is that the readers’ comments are often very conversational. This blog fits the stereotype of a “geek blog,” and its readers clearly embrace it. This is not just meant to be a news source for technology fans. A technology magazine would meet that requirement. This blog enables people with similar interests to essentially “geek out” with each other while sharing information. Communities are a way for people of similar interest to meet others like them and thus find personal validation. A successful blog is one that would allow for this sort of community to flourish around a common interest, and that has certainly happened here. The bloggers themselves often respond to readers’ comments as well, allowing for engagement between writer and reader that is not usually seen in print media. The success of this blog is therefore not based in the amount of money it makes, but on the degree to which the reader is able to relate to the material posted and to the other readers who take the time to comment, further adding to the written content.
One blog that ranks particularly high on one list but does not appear at all on the other is Dooce (http://www.dooce.com/), the personal blog of Heather Armstrong. The Observer ranks it as number five, crediting it for defining the personal blog as we know it today since 2001. Dooce’s hit statistics and page rankings are not high enough for it to appear on eBizMBA’s list. Dooce exists primarily as a diary-style blog, but makes enough money to support Armstrong’s family through advertisements. The Observer explains the appeal of Dooce, noting that “readers feel that they have been brought into her life, and reward her with their loyalty.” And indeed, Dooce not only attracts a lot of readers, it also invites a lot of comments. Not all entries allow commenting, but of those that do, nearly all have several hundred, even over a thousand comments from readers. Many are relatively short and simply express gratitude for a new update, but a number of them share personal experiences, as if the reader were simply taking a turn in the conversation initiated by the blog post. The blog reads like a well-written and enjoyable piece of realistic fiction, but the honesty of Armstrong comes through as a very real person to whom her readers can relate. This fits Nesbit’s definition of community most closely. There is personal disclosure, not only from the writer to the reader, but from the reader to the writer, and from one reader to another reader. The goal of this blog is not to make bold statements or to make money, but to share thoughts with other people, and it achieves this exceedingly well. Though it does not receive enough hits to make it onto eBizMBA’s list, its individual entries earn more reader comments than most of the other blogs on that list do on a regular basis. Dooce has not succeeded in making a lot of money, but it has succeeded in creating a strong and unique virtual community that sets it apart as a blog, not just a diary or journal.
Clearly, successful blogs create communities. Communities are developed through comments made by readers and writers on blog posts. But what about people who merely read the blog, and do not bother to comment, the so-called “blurkers”? The Huffington Post receives a large number of comments, but a far larger number of page views. Only a very small percentage of its readers are actually visible in the community. Should blurkers be considered a part of the community? If they are, page views should be enough to gauge a blog’s success. But if blurkers are not true members of the community, than calling a blog with a lot of hits but no comments successful does not make any sense. I am personally inclined to define the community of a blog as the blogger and commenting readers. Readers who do not take the time to comment or do not feel invited by the writer to comment play no significant part in shaping the development of the blog. The blog is the first written genre to be influenced by both the writer and the reader, and it is unfair to acknowledge a blog as successful if it does have input from both sides. The writer cannot help but be changed, however slightly, by what she reads in the comments. A reader cannot help but be changed by reading other’s peoples comments on the same piece of writing. It could be argued that hit counters are enough, and that just knowing that people are reading could influence a writer. But this is no different from a columnist in a newspaper. As long as the newspaper sells, the columnist can be fairly certain that people are reading her work. A blog without any direct input from the readers is just a column in a different format. But a blog that is influenced by writers and readers is something else entirely, and is therefore a successful example of a new genre.
Success can be defined a number of different ways. If we wanted a list of the highest-earning bloggers, or the most frequented blogs, it would be fairly easy to gather and interpret these data. But to simply make the claim that a certain blog is “the best” is to make a statement with absolutely no indication of criteria. How should the best or most successful be decided? Successes are often breakthroughs. They are achievements that create something new or redefine something old. The blog is a new genre that is still in its early development. A successful blog could be defined as one that further defines the genre, setting it apart from other styles of writing. The biggest difference between print media and weblogs is not the format. A newspaper can easily be made available online. That does not change its genre. But a blog allows for a level of interaction between writers and readers that is impossible in print media. A successful blog, therefore, is one that will further develop this virtual community to further set the blog apart from print media. This is especially important since so many blogs post content that would not be out of place in a magazine or newspaper or memoir. The blogs discussed previously certainly do. What stops them from being merely electronic versions of their printed counterparts is their use of community.
Aldred, J., et. Al. “The World’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs.” The Observer, 9 March 2008. 13 May 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/mar/09/blogs
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Cohen, R. and Kennedy, P. Global Sociology. MacMillan: London, 2000.
Digg. “About Us.” Digg Inc. 2008. 13 May 2008 http://digg.com/about
Dosh Dosh. “How to Make Money Blogging: 7 Strategies to Help you Get StartedImmediately.” Dosh Dosh, Internet Marketing and Social Media. 2006-2008. 13 May 2008 http://www.doshdosh.com/how-to-make-money-blogging-seven-strategies
eBizMBA. “30 Most Popular Blogs: February 2008.” eBizMBA.com Inc. 2008. 13May 2008 http://www.ebizmba.com/articles/popular-blogs