Exploring the Myth of the Average Blogger
David Eaves has a terrific post up about what he sees as myths held up by “old media” about new media. It’s well worth reading for seeing all the different places we’re talking past each other and the intersections where fear, uncertainty and doubt are choking off brighter possibilities.
What really jumped out at me was the first myth Eaves tackled — the myth of the “average blogger.” As he sees it, print journalists think they are competing against the average quality of online content, and when they see that most of that content is frankly poor, they are lulled into a false sense of security. In Missing the Link, a collaboration with Taylor Owen, Eaves wrote that “those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”
This is a critical insight, and I agree with Eaves that it leads to all sorts of misapprehensions. He cites a false sense of security. To that, I would add a retinue of sins imagined and overblown: Bloggers making errors that go uncorrected, Web writers driven by antisocial behavior and personal animosity, and the idea that these peddlers of hateful, subpar content are leading legions of readers astray.
The world has profoundly changed. Not so long ago, gatekeepers determined what would be published in newspapers, magazines and books, and if you didn’t pass muster with those gatekeepers, it was very difficult to reach an audience of any real size. This didn’t ensure that all content was excellent, or even good — insert the name of whatever trashy novel you thought foretold the death of literature here — but it did have the effect of confining a lot of dreck to fliers and mimeographs. Today, it’s child’s play to publish, and anyone who publishes has a huge potential audience awaiting them.
But the key word there isn’t huge or audience — it’s potential. As Eaves notes and many an eager new blogger has discovered to his or her dismay, no one reads the average blog. As Eaves notes, print media aren’t competing against the average blogs, but against the best ones. Writers of average blogs have discovered a hard truth: Publication does not guarantee an audience, and the existence of something online does not mean anyone is reading it. And the failure to grasp this drives a lot of the hand-wringing about blogs and the Web.
One reason this misapprehension is hard to shake is basic human nature: We always think our enemies are united, powerful and implacable, when in fact most of them are every bit as divided, inefficient and careworn as we are. But as I’ve written before, another reason has do with the way search works online.
In the physical world, commonly accepted information that a lot of people consume is easy to find, while obscure or problematic information is hard to find. But online, it’s all one. If what you search for is out there, you will find it very quickly, no matter how wrongheaded or cruel or otherwise flawed it is. And this instant response leads us to an error borrowed from our real-world experience: Because we quickly find what we’re looking for, we assume many other people are looking for that information too, and are reading it. (Particularly when it’s something erroneous or cruel about ourselves or something we care about.) But this isn’t necessarily true: It’s often the case that no one is reading that information at all. It is only our search that fit the lock that plucked it momentarily out of obscurity.
You can now do an end run around the old gatekeepers, but people don’t have substantially more time to consume information than they ever did. And so there are new gatekeepers springing up everywhere, to reduce the torrent of information to a manageable flow. Readers make use of technological tools to help them filter information. With the rise of the social Web, they are increasingly able to make the collective judgment of their peers serve as filters and gatekeepers. And journalists and other experts have an invaluable role to play here as well, curating information and bringing the good stuff to a wider audience. The gatekeepers now operate downstream of publication, but they still exist. If anything, their roles are more important than ever.