When I hear the word "bloggers," I tend to think of the A-listers. But the top 100 are not the quarry of the Pew Internet & American Life Project telephone survey of bloggers, published today. They're stalking the larger universe of 12 million adult Americans who blog.
Who are all those bloggers? Why do they blog?
The Pew report, written briskly and ably by Amanda Lenhart and Susannah Fox, delivers an array of provocative findings about bloggers. The most immediately startling for me was the repetition of the phrases "about half " or "nearly half" to describe various blogger attributes. About half of all American bloggers are men, says Pew. About half are under the age of 30. About half use a pseudonym. About half say creative self-expression or documenting personal experiences is a major reason for blogging. About half think their audience is folks they already know. Half say changing people's minds is not a major reason behind their blog, and about half had never published before starting their blog. (The margin of error for the telephone survey was plus or minus 7 percentage points.)
Pew's blogging masses couldn't be more different than the American A-listers. Most A-listers are men over 30; have published before; are in it primarily to change public opinions and not to share their experiences; know only a fraction of their readers; and don't conceal their identities.
Continuing the Pew half-theme, we learn that about half the bloggers surveyed say they don't know anything about the size of their audience, and only 13 percent claim to get more than 100 hits a day. Are these bloggers telling the truth about their 100 hits, or are they inflating? The 10 highest reports of blog traffic came from males, a gender well-known to exaggerate size when given the opportunity.
If few people are reading all these blogs, they've got good reasons. Most bloggers tell Pew they post material for themselves, not an audience, with 37 percent describing their blogs as personal diaries or journals. About half post less often than "every few weeks," which means even if people want to listen they won't hear anything new, and about six in 10 spend only one to two hours a week tending their blog.
So, who listens with any frequency? Other bloggers and family. Pew reports that 90 percent of bloggers say they've read other blogs. Only 39 percent of the Internet audience says it has read someone else's blog. Of the surveyed bloggers, 52 percent say family members check in, and 9 percent claim that the news media has paid attention or cited them. But 9 percent of 12 million bloggers comes out to about 1 million bloggers. Have radio, TV, newspapers, and other official news media really acknowledged that many blogs or bloggers? I wish Pew had supplied the gender information on this one. Another reflection of male size syndrome, I'll bet.
I'm not disparaging bloggers, so please don't treat me to a high-tech lynching. But this study shows that at this early point in the blog era, the great mass of bloggers aren't set on replacing reporters. The top 100 or top 1,000 may consider themselves "citizen journalists" of one sort or another, but the survey finds that 65 percent of bloggers don't consider their output journalism at all. They're just expressing themselves in a leisurely fashion, inspired by a personal experience (78 percent, says the survey), and their blogs are a "hobby" or "something I do, but not something I spend a lot of time on" (84 percent).
Again, I'm not disparaging hobbies or navel-gazing: I have hobbies I can bore you with, and I navel-gaze. But the Pew report indicates that only a tiny fraction of current bloggers have any ambition to fulfill the blogs über alles designs some media theorists plotted for them.
Lenhart and Fox write that the blogging-world snapshot they present could change quickly. The blog audience is growing, with 57 million Americans confessing to the habit. (I, for one, read a dozen each day via RSS and monitor blogs' coverage of my work.) New readers and writers are still coming online, and teenagers—not represented in this survey—are learning the craft of self-expression on social networking sites. Will the next Pew snapshot find bloggers engaging the outside world in greater numbers instead of cataloging their own? Will teenagers give up navel-gazing when they graduate from MySpace to the greater Web? If all these people really want from the Web is a hobby and to talk to their friends and family, they'd be better off taking pottery lessons and purchasing more cell-phone minutes.
The Slate homepage lists my column in the "Blogs +" category. I consider my column a +, not a blog. Send your blog dreams to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
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