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Is it a way for monomaniacs to grab their 15 minutes of fame, somewhere to hang out between jobs and just shoot the breeze, a tool of the marketing industry or a new business model for the publishing world?
Blogging is turning out to be a malleable art form.
In the popular imagination, the leading exponents of this new medium are often regarded as opinionated amateurs, highly idiosyncratic and occasionally deeply knowledgeable; they are driven to write by a passion to broadcast their views to the wider world.
Success, however, is challenging that image. As the online audiences for the most prominent bloggers grow – and the opportunities created by their new-found fame multiply – their differing motivations are becoming more apparent.
The writing may have started as an end in itself for many, but other interests have started to take centre stage. Successful bloggers, it seems, often find themselves under pressure to do anything but blog.
Nowhere has this transition been more obvious than among the select band of A-list bloggers who pontificate about the state of the technology industry. Having been among the first to take to blogging, these commentators have also been among the first to find themselves drawn to other things.
Most still maintain some involvement in blogging, but almost all have cut back on their writing as new jobs or businesses have started to dominate their attention.
To some extent, it is a natural transition that can occur in any career. “People fall in and out of things all the time,” says Dan Gillmor, a journalist who became one of Silicon Valley’s best-known early bloggers before trying his hand at business and, more recently, founding the Center for Citizen Media, a joint initiative of the University of California and Harvard University Law School.
Yet it seems that their very success is starting to draw some away from the medium that won them prominence.
For some, blogging has turned out to be a useful way to advance a campaign, a way to launch an idea into the world. Success may reduce the need to keep campaigning, or it may lead to a deeper involvement that extends beyond writing.
This year Dave Winer, credited with creating the really simple syndication technology used to distribute internet media content, announced that he would end his Scripting News blog, probably by the end of this year. The RSS technology he had championed had become widely adopted. “Blogging doesn’t need me any more,” he wrote.
“He’s declaring victory and moving on,” says Steve Gillmor, Dan’s brother and himself a prominent tech blogger who just dropped his latest blog to focus on building a business around the technology idea he had promoted. He adds that while traditional journalists value their objectivity, bloggers often see themselves as waging a political campaign that extends beyond the writing.
For others, meanwhile, blogging has been a stepping stone to new employment, part of a career progression that may or may not have been consciously planned. Robert Scoble, who attracted a considerable following as a full-time blogger employed by Microsoft, was lured away in June to join a Silicon Valley start-up.
“A lot of people use blogging as a way to get consulting work or their next job,” says Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch.
Success in attracting a sizeable audience has led others to consider turning their amateur passions into full-time businesses. With 500,000 unique users a month and 1m page views, Om Malik, a journalist who specialises in broadband issues, says his pastime is now attracting enough of an audience to become a business in its own right.
“I could either have continued what I was doing or taken it to the next level,” says Mr Malik, who recently took in outside capital to hire full-time reporters and expand his blog, GigaOM. “We are coming to the point where a lot of people will be asking themselves that question.”
While amateur bloggers such as Mr Malik become accidental entrepreneurs, others, such as Mr Arrington, have been drawn to the medium from the start by its commercial potential.
In at least one respect, though, the tech bloggers have something in common: the predicament of how to continue to nurture the very blogs that in many cases accounted for their success.
By its nature, blogging is time-consuming. “My frequency of blogging has dropped some because of all the things I’m trying to do,” says Dan Gillmor. “It’s a hard thing to keep doing. It’s a beast that demands to be fed.”
For those who have tried to build a business around their blogs, this raises a particular danger. Drawn into becoming entrepreneurs and hiring other writers to extend their reach, they risk losing their personal connection with their audiences.
“I have to write – the thing will die if I don’t write,” says Mr Malik. He argues, though, that this is nothing new in the publishing industry: newsletter writers have long faced this predicament, and the successful ones are those who strike the right balance between their entrepreneurial and journalistic jobs.
Most say that they will not completely abandon the medium, even if they have less time to write. Echoing the comments of others, Steve Gillmor describes blogging as a “conversation”, one that has created a connection with others online, and one he intends to maintain in some form.
Asked to comment on his own plans to give up blogging, Mr Winer said he would reply only through the medium of his blog. “Blogging is a lifestyle, not something you do in between things,” he wrote. However, he says he is also ready to switch his attention to what comes next.
“If I’m blogging every day, I won’t have the incentive to create new software. Blogging is good enough, but it may be possible to do something richer and more powerful and I want to find out.”
Gateway to a serious venture
Mike Arrington, a serial entrepreneur based in California, spent part of his time between jobs last year researching ideas for his next start-up. As it turned out, the research ended up becoming his next business venture.
“I was really burned out,” he says now. “I had enough money from the company I had sold to take a year off. I lived on the beach [in Los Angeles], I worked out, I had a great time.”
To try to spot promising business openings, Mr Arrington says, he set out to research the wave of new web 2.0 internet companies that were being set up. That research became a website, TechCrunch, which has risen during the past year to become probably Silicon Valley’s hottest new blog.
Like many bloggers these days, Mr Arrington thinks big. He has set his sights on creating a technology publishing empire out of a collection of low-cost websites. His target: to create a web 2.0 version of CNet, an online technology publisher that was one of the biggest publishing ventures to emerge from the dotcom days.
For now, TechCrunch claims 30m-40m page views a month, barely one-tenth of the traffic generated by CNet. But by launching a range of narrowly targeted blogs, echoing the spread of subject-specific sites run by the more established online company, Mr Arrington aims to create something of comparable scale at a fraction of the cost.
“In a year and a half I will get to the scale of CNet,” he declares.
The initial burst of interest in TechCrunch already demonstrates the commercial potential. The blog generates about $10,000 a month from advertising and $60,000 from sponsorship, says Mr Arrington. A recently launched job board has added “a couple of thousand dollars a day”.
Of rival bloggers who are also out to turn their writing hobby into a serious business, Mr Arrington says: “I don’t think anyone has come close to monetising on the scale I have.”