Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Blog Content Types and You

So okay, before we get to actual content about things that are things and not un-things, let's talk about blogs themselves, which are an un-thing.

First of all, the current use of the term "blog" is a weird-but-brilliant kind of marketing thing. When I first heard the term like five years ago, it seemed like it implied, basically, "crap." Oh sure, it was short for "web log," but the first blog site I saw had a slogan like: "Blogger: A Place For Your Blog." Which, if you don't know what a blog is, sounds a lot like, "Blogger: A Place For Your Shit." As far as I could tell, there was no difference between a blog and a livejournal. So I thought, "That's stupid," and moved on.

So I was pretty surprised when people started talking about blogs as this next big thing that was going to revolutionize journalism and the internet. Huh? Some guy writing a livejournal was going to change the face of journalism?

Well, by now you've realized what the difference between a blog and a livejournal is; a blog is meant for public consumption. It's by and large a nonfiction medium, usually involving opinion, usually about something. At some point a blog started seeming less like another name for an online diary and more like another name for an online column.

What I've always found fascinating about this whole thing is how the hell it happened. What in the name of the Greek God Pan made people decide some other guy's rantings were worth reading? And why that guy?

Thinking about it now, the answer to that question isn't so much different to the answer to why certain columnists in traditional media become big. Some have some special expertise, and others got lucky. That latter group was easier to explain though in the days of print. Why do you read retard X? Well, because retard X is printed in TIME.

An independent blog though doesn't get that kind of inherent credibility. The kind that says, "I paid a million dollars to offset print hundreds of thousands of copies of this, so it better be good."

So I got to thinking what kind of content people look for on blogs, and how that might relate to my blog, and the blogs of other nobodies like me making anonymous pieces of nothing somewhere in the world wide web. A lot of these content streams are as old as newspapers, but I'll talk about their relation to the online world. Ready? Here goes:

Reviews - Possibly the ultimate democratic content type; there's a reason you can find reviews integrated into every online store, portal or info site on the web these days. What makes the review such a perfect thing for bloggers is that when reviewing something anyone can have implied credibility.

The most challenging question for any blogger is, "Why should I care what you have to say?" With a review, the answer is simple: The blogger has read/seen/tasted the product, and you have not. You want to know if you should. It also helps that traditional reviewers, who wanted to be, you know, qualified or something, are sometimes out of touch with a populace that says things like, "I don't care, I liked Matrix 2 and 3 anyway." These people are looking for like-minded people. And if there's one thing the internet is filled with, it's idiots with opinions*

Reviews have some decent staying power, but to be a sustained review site, you have to review things very promptly - people don't want to wait a week to know if they should see/buy/read this week's new release, and more importantly, people need to know when to check your site.

Interviews - Another great potential content stream for blogs that doesn't often happen. Here again we have an obvious source of credibility, of a sort. Why should I read Spak's blog? It has an interview with some other person I'm actually interested in. Another nice thing about interviews is that they don't have to be time sensitive and remain relevant long after they've been posted.

There's just one problem - in order for someone important to take the time to give you an interview, they usually need to be kind of convinced it's worth their time. Which means, you already need some notoriety. That's one of the reasons these things don't happen in blogs much. Another is that most blogs are mostly driven by the personalities of their creators, something that interviews don't help you leverage at all.

News Commentary - This is a tricky and weird one. I'm lumping sports commentary in with this, by the way, or any other medium's current event reactions. Obviously, this is a pretty popular way to fill kilobytes these days. Something happens, you respond to it. Just like a real reporter, bloggers are always looking for content, and always looking for a current hook to make what they want to talk about relevant. Of course, generally all they have to add to the discussion is their own opinions. So what makes these blogs worth reading?

Here's my hypothesis: I think people read these posts primarily because they confirm and lend importance to the obsessions of our lives. For example, back during Massachusetts's Gubernational** election season, I was following the campaign pretty intently. Whenever news broke, I'd rush to the blogs. Not because they'd keep me informed, but because they'd confirm my perceptions and validate my interest. The news might report that Healey was running the rapist add, but it was the blogs who would say, "That shit is fucked up." Watching the debates, I'd think things like, "I wonder if Grace Ross was trying to look like a librarian," or, "Is it just me, or does Kerry Healey look just like Doctor Blight from Captain Planet?" Of course, no one on TV would talk about these things, that's why I needed the blogs.*** I didn't need their insights, I needed evidence that someone else cared about this crap as much as I did.

So how does this stack up for blogs as a content stream? Well, as everyone is so fond of pointing out, blogs are uniquely positioned to do this thanks to their short response time. The disadvantage is that this kind of content lends no credibility. The answer to the question, "Why am I reading this?" is "because it's there, and because it's about something you're interested in." Which, if you're bored at work might be enough reason to read a blog, but isn't usually sufficient to draw you to one blog or the other.

For this kind of content to work, a blog must update on a regular basis, and daily is probably best. But if you can keep up that kind of schedule there is a reward - readers will get hooked on you like crack. The ultimate goal is to be part of someone's daily routine, the site they must visit every day to see your glittering take on the day's happenings.

Analysis - This is pretty rare as I'm defining it here. An analysis blog would provide actual factual analysis (as opposed to opinion-based commentary) of whatever its topic might be. Examples might include working with obscure baseball metrics, or providing inside information on obscure corporate practices. This stuff also lends credibility. Why read me? 'Cause I'm the guy with the info.

Random Pontificating - This post, for example. These non-time-sensitive articles are on the weak end of the content stream, strategically thinking. They don't offer any inherent credibility. They rely solely on the writer's voice or credentials being compelling enough. That's fine if you're say, Mark Cuban (www.blogmaverick.com), but not real useful for ye random internet shlub, which is what this post is really about. These articles also don't have any inherent advantage over their print counterparts, apart from being unfettered by word count, which scarcely matters because on the internet, shorter is better.****

Of course, a good Random Pontification is like an essay. It's well reasoned, well argued, original and insightful. If it's about a topic you care about, you might find it fascinating reading. Or you might say, "Why the hell am I reading an essay in my spare time?" I don't know, but if you've read this far in this post, you've clearly got a lot of said time on your hands anyway.

Link Posting - A lot like News Commentary, only without the commentary. A lot of blogs spend entire posts just linking to stuff. The worst part? It's not a bad practice. I frequent Warren Ellis's blog (www.warrenellis.com), not because I like his writing, but because he often digs up weird-ass news stories I want to read.

Probably, there is some kind of content I've forgotten, but I think I've covered my bases.

So what have we learned? I can hear you thinking "Fuck all" from the past when I wrote this, but hang on. We've learned that certain content streams are inherently superior when it comes to building readership - namely those types that give your blog some form of credibility. Tops in this stream are the Interview and the Analysis, both of which give you something the other guy doesn't have. Reviews are also good, particularly if you're reviewing an overlooked product or an advance copy. Commentary, on the other hand, is superior for retaining readers. Random pontificating... well, strategically I have no idea what its value is. Crap. Maybe I should have known that before I blew a few thousand words on this rambling.

Will any of this have an impact on the future of the Spak Report? Probably not. Know why? Because I really enjoyed writing this random pontification.


* Present company not excluded.
** Man, I love the word "Gubernational." When else can you use the word "guber" and sound smart?
*** N0t that ANYONE else got the Doctor Blight resemblance. Seriously, look at her! She's one freak chemical accident and poorly-rendered CGI sidekick away from being an Eco-Villain.
**** Obvious irony not lost on me.

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