The awful truth about blogging

Every so often someone writes a post giving tips on how to create a successful blog. Simon World has such a post and, for the most part, his advice is good. But the post itself is noteworthy and you should bookmark it because of Simon’s excellent compilation of posts that other bloggers (mostly quite successful bloggers) have written on the subject.

Let’s look at a few facts about the top twenty blogs from the TTLB Ecosystem:


  Blog Date started Links Traffic
1 Michelle Malkin June 2004 6,171 86,967 Journalist
2 Instapundit August 2001 6,119 127,741 Academic
3 Daily Kos May 2002 5,271 560,636
4 Captain’s Quarters October 2003 4,595 30,947
5 Power Line May 2002 4,078 69,986
6 Boing Boing January 2000 3,890 ?
7 LGF February 2001 3,866 88,994
8 The Drudge Report 1998 3744 ?
9 Eschaton April 2002 3,314 119,069
10 The Volokh Conspiracy April 2002 2,898 16,317 Academic
11 Outside the Beltway January 2003 2,772 7,623 Academic
12 Talking Points Memo November 2000 2,697 ?
13 Wizbang April 2003 2,551 14,299
14 Hugh Hewitt January 2003 2,446 29,484 Academic, journalist
15 The Washington Monthly August 2002 2,426 45,559
16 Mudville Gazette February 2003 2,296 5,736
17 The Huffington Post May 2005 2,276 ? Journalist
18 Andrew Sullivan August 2000 2,086 30,768 Journalist
19 The Evangelical Outpost October 2003 2,017 935
20 La Shawn Barber’s Corner November 2003 2,008 ? Free-lance journalist

More than half of the top twenty are professional writers; several are academics; some were celebrities at least to some degree before beginning to blog.

There’s something else to note: both traffic and links decay rapidly once you get past the top few blogs. ur-blogger Clay Shirky observed quite some time ago that the pattern follows a power law distribution. And from the table above one of the things that jumps out is that longevity is one of the important factors: only two of the Top 20 Ecosystem blogs started after 2003 and both of those were started by people with some degree of celebrity prior to blogging.

There’s another little piece of prevailing blogging wisdom that I have serious doubts about: the idea that the most successful bloggers have something unique or fill a niche. With the exception of Boing Boing (and Boing Boing is the oldest by a considerable margin) all of the top blogs comment on news of the day. Sure, they have constituencies and points-of-view. Unique? Hardly. But most have been in their niches for quite some time.

So, here are my tips for becoming a top blogger: be a celebrity academic or journalist and start your blog in 2000 or before. Be outrageous. Attract attention. Throw red meat.

Or, better yet, pick another goal. I don’t have any ambitions to break into the Top 100 blogs (or even the Top 500). So I won’t be disappointed if I don’t make it to the top of the Ecosystem. I write in my blog to garner a bigger audience for my ideas, to express and, consequently, improve my ideas, to improve my writing, to sharpen my mental acuity (I can tell you with confidence that blogging has improved my attention span and sharpness), and for the social aspects of blogging—the fellowship.

So here are my tips for success in blogging:

  1. Identify your goals in blogging. Make them high enough to require effort but low enough to be achieveable.
  2. If you achieve your goals, re-examine them. If they’re still legitimate, be happy with what you’ve accomplished.
  3. Your style and content will by definition be suited to the audience you attract. Consider how big that audience actually is. Either change your style and content for a larger audience or be willing to accept the audience that your style and content attracts.
  4. Market your blog but don’t be an idiot (I’m still working on this one).
8 comments… add one
  • Being on the wrong end of comparative advantage hurts a bit ;o)

    Excellent post Dave !

  • For what it’s worth, Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story in January of 1998 . . . way before any of the others jumped in . . .

  • You’re absolutely right, Sissy. I knew that but it had slipped my mind for some reason. I was gauging his blog’s age based on his archives which only seemed to go back that far. I’ll change the table. Thanks.

  • I’m trying to comprehend Michelle Malkin being popular in our nation. Her particular brand of bile is so bitter, it’s hard to understand why so many people link to her. I can’t stand to hear her talk on the television, let alone read her stuff. Seeing her blog on other people’s blogrolls gives me an instant picture of their objectivity.

  • This is an interesting riff on an earlier post you did re American Digest’s disappointment at not being blog-rolled by one of the biggies…whom, I forget exactly (blogging has improved my writing skills, not my memory). It was there that I first encountered koinoinia as an aspect of blogging. My previous context was theological so *that* was thought-provoking and it’s been on the edge of things for awhile. I’m gonna have to do a post, I guess.

    Meanwhile, I went so far as to buy the koinoinia book — large group meetings in which dialogue leads through dissent to understanding is what I think is its premise — but it didn’t help in this context.

    The idea of community and extensions of small communities in the blogosphere needs to be explored by minds deeper than my small muddle puddle. But community there is, and wouldn’tcha know, there are some who live on top of the hill and lots who go about their daily wordsmithing down here in the valley.

    It’s all quite interesting to watch, never mind the participation. Hmm…perhaps watching (lurking) might get boring if one didn’t eventually jump in…

    I like the potpourri of invective, links, recipes, jokes, photos and amazing facts that make up the posts in my favorite blogs. The others — the biggies — are interesting for what others tell me about them. With only dial-up, I don’t bother to try to load them. I figure it’ll trickle down eventually.

    I don’t read People –don’t know who those people are when I pick up the rag in a doctor’s office — don’t have a TV, listen to radio occasionally, and am generally out of the loop. It’s heaven. I don’t need to get away from it all; I’m already always there.

    But the blogosphere — ah, now *that’s* entertainment.

  • Dave — If you’re not into the Long Tail yet, I think you’ll find it a fascinating way of looking at the broader implications of the merging of production/distribution/consumption which you’re highlighting in your analysis of the blogosphere.

    Shorter Long Tail — the dramatic decrease in production and distribution costs on the internet doesn’t necessarily defeat the “power law” (80% of traffic comes from 20% of items) but makes it possible for items in the “long tail” distribution to generate meaningful profits. In turn, that means there’s a future for products that would otherwise have never found an audience/market. Amazon’s books versus bricks-and-mortar bookstores is the classic example.

    The big lesson is that niches are now exciting places to exploit. Or as one wag put it, the Long Tail is “an embarrassment of niches.”

    When you combine the Long Tail with the “economics” of open source — where people have a range of incentives for sharing their work product other than simple money-in-exchange-for-product (whether directly from consumers or from advertisers) — you start getting a model of blogospheric dynamics that makes some sense. It’s not that the “dominant link hierarchy” isn’t important, but it’s a whole lot more elaborate than is typically discussed. There are, in fact, lots of link hierarchies for lots of niches — and for a blogger, the hierarchies that matter vary not only according to a blog’s content (what niche(s) the blog belongs to) but the sorts of objectives of blogging that you identified in your post.

    For a description of how one group is combining individual bloggers’ pursuit of personal goals with Long Tail niches into a business model, here’s a post from Jason Calicanis. I’m not sure it’s widely applicable outside the business/tech sphere, but his views have considerable overlap with yours about what makes for “successful” blogging.

    Current work on the Long Tail can be followed on the blog of that name, which is written by Chris Anderson of Wired. He wrote an original article on the Long Tail last year for Wired and is now working on a book. The blog is where he thrashes out a lot of his thinking and shares some of his research. In addition to the expected topics — publishing, music, movies — he’s done a lot of thinking about where TV is going. He’s recently had a debate going on with Mark Cuban over the future of broadcast TV.

    Anderson’s most recent post on link hierarchies and blogging is here. He also has a very good sidebar “clip blog” that highlights posts from other blogs and articles elsewhere that deal with Long Tail-relevant topics.

    All in all, one of my favorite sites.

  • Thanks, Nadezhda.

    Yes, I’m aware of the Long Tail. They’re talking about something that’s somewhat different than I’m talking about in this post. Yes, the nature of the long tail means that if you stake out a niche you can still run a profitable business. For me this is not entirely good news. I’m not interested in blogging as a business (or even a revenue generator) and it’s my curse that I’m a generalist, horizontal thinker, and divergent thinker in a world that doesn’t really value any of those.

    Consequently, I make a scant living with a minimum of effort in a profession that occupies a fraction of my time and a smaller fraction of my intellect.

    And that’s as succinct a version of why I blog as any I’ve come up with.

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