Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

2009, the year blogging sold out

A year ago I wrote that 2008 was the year the Internet moved out of dad’s basement, the year that ended a decade of hype and told publishers it was time to put up or shut up.

The Internet moved out in 2008 and went through 2009 like a bewildered college kid. It took its first faltering steps into the real world and gave up on a lot of big dreams. 2009 was the year the Internet put on a suit and learned to suck up.

A lot of smart people lost their jobs in 2009 as web publishers panicked and ad revenue dried up. A dozen of my favorite bloggers lost their jobs as news sites rejected quirky, distinctive voices and turned into boring corporate media machines.

The Internet may be more useful, more profitable and more efficient as we head in to 2010, but sites that survived the recession did it by sacrificing style and personality, as if charm is a luxury we can no longer afford.

2009 was the year the Internet went corporate. There’s a blandness in the medium now. Even the snark has a tired, forced quality to it, as if everybody is just going through the motions, hyping the same tired stories over and over again, waiting for the next celebrity screw-up to sweep through and pay the bills.

2009 was the year the Internet surrendered to groupthink. I didn’t read Gawker because I wanted to see a bulleted list of what came out of Anna Nicole’s stomach. I read Gawker because I wanted to see my favorite writers react to current events. I wanted to read reactions and analysis from smart, funny writers that I had a relationship with.

Now all that personality has been stripped away and every blog on the Internet has become TMZ Lite. The success of TMZ.com dominated 2009.

No one can deny what Harvey Levin has accomplished over there.

TMZ may be a tabloid, but in a world obsessed with celebrity death and celebrity screw-ups, being first with revelations about Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson carries a lot of weight.

Any success is bound to attract imitators, particularly in a recession when sites are too poor to break news and too scared to write opinion.

The recession turned the Internet into a dull corporate echo chamber of fake news and manufactured outrage.

Here’s my advice to bloggers in 2010: Don’t try to be TMZ. TMZ already exists and they’re better at being TMZ than you are. Don’t try to compete with giants on their home turf. Focus on what makes your site unique — the experience, the opinions and the personality of your writers. Don’t parrot the gossip sites, react to them. Critique them.

Find a voice and trust it. Don’t worry about the 30,000 readers who rush in from Digg and leave your site in 28 seconds.

Focus on the 3,000 readers who visit you every day. Focus on the 300 readers who link you from their personal blogs and repost your stuff on Facebook. Focus on the 30 readers who write good comments and create a community that people will come back to.

Drop out of the tabloid rat race and tell us what you think. I don’t need to read the same three facts on 30 different blogs. Don’t just parrot TMZ. Give me something to read after TMZ.

2009 was the year of the pageview, the year that bloggers sacrificed long-term audience for short-term flash. Individual publishers and advertisers know better, of course, but the guys who write the checks are still focused on raw traffic.

I’d like to think 2010 will be the year that changes that, but pageviews have been an obsolete measure for years and they’re still holding on. The truth is, a short-term burst of site visits is worth almost nothing in real terms. Big spikes look great in PowerPoint, but it’s the boring, constant visitor who pays the bills.

Blog publishers, big and small, have to stop thinking about raw numbers. Stop worrying about the weather, the mercurial ups and downs of your daily site graph, and start worrying about your core audience.

Stop worrying about how to capitalize on the latest celebrity buzz and start worrying about who you have a relationship with.

Why are readers coming here and why do they come back? Who are they and what do they want? Put up the obligatory link to TMZ when the next celebrity dies, but take your time with the follow-up. Don’t tell us what we already know. Tell us what you think.

Step out from behind your corporate logo and let readers see you as a person. Nobody has a “relationship” with Gawker or TMZ. Readers have relationships with people who write. Encourage those relationships; encourage your writers to develop a voice and put stories in context.

Focus on what makes you unique, and make the Internet worth reading again.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 1, 2010 at 11:35

Posted in Columns

One Response

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  1. Almost by definition the big is bland, so an attention-regulated species like ours is going to tend toward bland.

    Ten years ago no one knew how to make money on the Internet, although selling dog food looked promising. Today we know that advertising and direct-sales of relatively complex commodities, like books and consumer electronics, are the only ways to do it.

    Blogging was a way to generate page views for ads, although it pales beside social networking. Facebook and MySpace are just GeoCities with a few additional bells and whistles to connect people together, but they do what Prodigy did back in the day, and UseNet post-1995: give banal people with nothing interesting to say a means of saying it… to everyone.

    Like any art form, commercial success requires a critical apparatus that acts as a filter for the mass audience. What blogging got instead was corporate America creating brands.

    This is the thing that the Web has so far failed at: crowd-sourcing criticism. The music scene is still struggling with this: without labels to engage critics (by paying for ads in the magazines they write for) unsigned bands don’t get reviewed, and as such remain largely invisible. Some manage to clamber upward to visibility and success, but it’s enormously hard even by ordinary “starving artist” standards.

    The next great killer app for the Web is going to be some kind of ungamable auto-critical apparatus. Once that exists, so people can go to it to get reliable recommendations of bands or books or movies that are good (rather than “that they might like”) then the corporate hold on Web media will be broken. Or so I dream, anyway.



    January 2, 2010 at 11:46

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