Why people blog — and why journalists keep missing the point

There is a shortsighted misunderstanding of the motivation of most bloggers that I keep encountering as I’m out there talking about Say Everything. The people asking me questions are naturally, for the most part, journalists; and as I write in the book, journalists as a class have a particularly hard time understanding why most people blog.

This jumped out at me as I read this passage in today’s Wall Street Journal review of Chris Anderson’s “Free,” which was written by Jeremy Philips, who is executive vice president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns the Journal along with vast tracts of the media landscape:

If you have a blog, “no matter how popular,” the revenue from AdSense — a Google service that places ads on Web sites — will probably never “pay you even minimum wage for the time you spend writing it.” Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. But if you have to earn a living from the Web, “free” can be a problem.

Note the alternatives Philips offers: You might blog for money. You might blog for fame or influence or as a “loss leader” for your real business. But nowhere in his world is there room for the actual motivation that drives most bloggers: a desire to express themselves, to think out loud, to exult in the possibilities of writing in public — and learn from the pitfalls, too. Maybe there’s a payoff in enhancing your reputation, but there can also be a payoff in simply enhancing your experience at communicating your thoughts and ideas. Speaking to a big crowd is alluring but speaking even to a small group of friends is rewarding, too. For the great majority of participants, blogging is a social activity, not an aspiration to mass-media stardom.

It is very hard for journalists to understand this because the opportunity to express themselves in public has always been a part of their professional birthright. So they won’t notice that motivation even when it’s staring them in the face. When you point this out, you are almost always greeted with a sort of cynical sniff: You can’t be serious. But I am!

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  1. Ehud

    The underlying idea that you can reduce the motivations of people to one word (“money”, “fame” etc.) is so utterly simplistic that it raises concerns about the analytic abilities of those offering any analysis that can be summarized by a such a set of alternatives…

  2. The implication “without payment there would be no writing” is directly analogous to “wihtout pimps there would be no sex.” Lovemaking is utterly beyond their comprehension.

  3. I have a (decently popular, at least by Vancouver standards) personal blog where I’ve expressed exactly the point you’re making, and I am SO glad you recognize it. Your insights are very well taken, many of us blog for ourselves. Even though my blog stats show increasing readership and I enjoy interacting with my readers, I ultimately, completely, utterly and selfishly blog for my personal pleasure.

  4. Great post. I started blogging because it gave me an outlet at a time of difficulty. But I was surprised that I actually liked writing. The interaction is one thing, but for me, it’s ultimately about providing information that no one else will talk about (where I often get called many derisive names, much to my enjoyment. And I get to use cool words like “derisive”!). But over and over, people either comment or email me how mine is the only site where they could find the information they needed.

    I agree with Raul. I blog for myself. What happens after I post something is a bonus. Of late, my blog is serving as a reference (and not just to myself) as I keep going back to it like an encyclopedia depending on the project I’m working on. A tangent, but still a significant one I would think.

  5. Good points. And, to regurgitate a bit what you and others have seen, the idea *and* actuality of the masses pecking away at the mindshare that professional journalists have captured hitherto scares the *** out of them, so they are not merely questioning the rationality of the “business model” of all these unlicensed, unvetted bloggers–they are positively praying to the Higher Power that all the mindshare thieves will see that they can’t make money and just give up.

  6. I’ll just add (although you may have covered this in your book): ‘and to not be edited’ to the list of blogging motivations. The freedom of having an audience (no matter how small) come to you because they like what you have to say and the way you say is huge, as opposed to having to write to a publication’s readership, because when ad sales are involved, the demographics are always a factor.

    My personal irony is that I was never able to make it as a freelance writer – I had pitches ignored, pitches refused, and, in one spectacularly lovely moment, a pitch stolen and assigned to one of the editor’s buddies instead. Yet as a PR person, I’ve never once crafted a pitch on behalf of a client that didn’t end up getting mainstream media coverage.

  7. I wrote my first blog post in an anonymous corner of something called Blogspot sometime in the early 2000s, before I was interested in journalism, when I had a 56kbps modem connection and a beat up desktop whose dual purposes were to run AOL and Photoshop.

    The content of that first post? Probably some middle-of-the-night poetry, the sort of thing I would have scratched on the back of a bar napkin or receipt in those days, the sort of thing I poured into spiral notebooks through high school years, etc.

    Yeah, I was one of those.

    But suddenly, I had a public place to put it, available for anyone to stumble upon if they should happen by.

    It was terrifying, and I forgot about it immediately.

    A few years later, getting into media studies and journalism, I found it, spruced it up a bit, and for two or three weeks before I moved on to a hosted WordPress account at one provider or another, that thing I had started in the middle of the night was my blog. I started expressing myself, I found the part of my voice I wanted to get out, I read hundreds of blogs, and when it was starting to work — when I was starting to get a few readers — it wasn’t terrifying anymore.

    These days, when students, or journalists, or anyone still new to expressing themselves on the Web asks me, “but have you ever made any money from your blog,” I say yes.

    Yes, I have made money from my blog. Expressing myself online has been the key way I’ve made a name for myself in this business — or any business — and the way I’ve met and learned from hundreds of peers, colleagues, and mentors. Three jobs in a row now, the existence of my blog has been a crucial deciding factor — it’s how people know me, know my ideas, know where I think information and communication are headed.

    Oh, and the newspaper articles I wrote at the largest paper I ever worked for? They’re in an archive behind a paywall. So, journalists, good luck with those clips. I’ll keep pointing people to my blog.

  8. Some bloggers are laughing all the way to the bank, most by doing what they love. In the second category we are relating to readers in a way that some journalists might not understand until their jobs disappear. There will always be a need for journalists, but the ones who will ride the wave are the ones who get engagement, tribe and other concepts that go way beyond their current thinking.

    Great journalists tell stories and for now, the medium is the story (is it still the message, maybe Macluan was right?), mocking the medium is shooting fish in a barrel. No real original thought here Mr. Philips.

  9. Funnily enough, I started blogging whilst working as a full time journalist, and I still combine freelance journalism and blogging around my career in marketing.

    One of the funniest conversation I had was with an online Editor – I’d offered to write some short pieces as unpaid work for one the titles my company published, as deadlines were tight and problems kep looming.

    Having written them, he suggested that ‘it must have been nice for you to get back to writing’.

    I had to remind him that I’d been running two blogs single-handledly and had been managing a daily writing and publishing schedule.

    Even if I went back to solidly writing for eight hours every day, I can’t see myself giving up on blogging, simply for the fact it allows me to pick subjects, express myself, and break all the rules of house styles and brand values at any time I like!

  10. Ben Lukoff

    I just wish I had more *time* to write. It’s not about the money for me, but money would be nice, because money buys you time. If you make no money from your writing, you have to do it in your off hours, and if you have a full-time job, a family, and other responsibilities, well, you just won’t be able to write that much.

  11. excellent points all. As per Ben’s comment, there isn’t much on my blog, but I go with Whimsley’s epigraph,
    “This here is a relaxed, slow-moving weblog. It ain’t one o’ them hyperactive updated-all-the-time weblogs. Slow down a little.”

    My audience is approximately ten people and myself, but that’s OK. It is possible to write in public and have no public.. still writing entertains me and there’s no harm in it.

    Laura at 11d had an excellent post too,

  12. I like to paint and then write something that enhances my art, my picture or it might just have nothing to do with my picture, my writing on my bloggs are for me in the first place, I agree with what Cléo Saulnier Says: ” I blog for myself. What happens after I post something is a bonus. Of late, my blog is serving as a reference (and not just to myself) as I keep going back to it like an encyclopaedia depending on the project I’m working on. A tangent, but still a significant one I would think. – Cléo Saulnier Says: July 8th, 2009 at 2:30 pm.”

  13. There are 10’s of different revenue streams you can have – Google Ad’s are nothing. I you have 20 blogs which are indexed and then submit your blogs to buyblogreviews.com you can earn over $2000 profit a month for 2 hours work a day and that is on top of your day job.

    Generally I get $6 X20 a day from people buying ad space on my blogs which amounts to $3600- all I do is write a 100 word review with some anchortext and get paid. A commision of 40% is payable but when you have a quantity of blogs on your side you could earn a fantastic living from this.

    The only downside is that its a boring thing to do – the upside is the boredom only lasts around 2 hours a day.

    Research before you talk about the minimum wage – you have no idea what you are talking about.

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