The Flat Legal Blogosphere, and What To Do About It

navelgazing.jpgChris Bowers, introducing the new site Open Left, offers this extended description of the rise of a new, interactive, progressive blogosphere. Read it: it provides a nice contrast to our legal blogosphere, and a forecast of where we might be headed.

Bowers states that five years ago, the progressive blogosphere was marked by five traits

  1. Individual. A single writer produced virtually all of the front-page content. Group blogs were extremely rare.
  2. Independent. Five years ago there were virtually no “official” blogs for electoral campaigns, party committees, politically focused news outlets, think tanks or advocacy organizations. Whatever blogs were around were independent of established media and political outlets.
  3. Hobbies. Five years ago, political blogging as a profession simply did not exist. Advertising was non-existent on progressive, political blogs. Fundraisers for the proprietors of blogs were extraordinarily rare. No one blogged full-time and no one used blogging as a primary source of income. Blogging was a hobby that operated almost entirely outside the market economy.
  4. Limited Communities. Comment sections were not moderated in any way, shape or form. Registration was never required to post a comment. Opportunities for reader generated content, such as diaries, were limited. Comment threads were sparse by today’s standards.
  5. Less varied and original content. Original reporting and research almost never took place. Multimedia options such as video were equally rare. Guest posts from prominent media and political figures were unheard of. There was comparatively little in the way of direct activism on behalf of candidates and causes. Overall, at the time, content in the political blogosphere could be accurately characterized as micro-punditry on current events that was driven almost entirely by reporting from established news sources.

Sound familiar? It does to me. With minor exceptions, the legal blogosphere exists in a communal space that dates back to 2002. You know, before we invaded Iraq.

By contrast, Bowers states that today, the “short tail” of the progressive blogosphere (i.e., the highly trafficked sites) is marked by: (1) a norm of group blogging and a resulting wealth of new content even on weekends; (2) blogs produced by institutions; (3) professional bloggers; and (4) Self-Reinforcing communities (“Specifically, through software platforms such as Scoop and Soapblox, several highly trafficked websites now give registered users the ability to produce their own self-directed content in the form of user diaries. This has not only increased the amount of content produced on many blogs, thus further enhancing their competitive advantage in content production, but in many cases it has actually deterred people from starting their own blogs.”) Such characteristics enable modern political blogs to “evolve into fully-fledged boutique media and activist outlets” with investigative reporting, election analysis, fund-raising, etc. Such blogs don’t just report on political reporting: they are part of the story. One downside to this story is entrenchment: new blogs can’t compete or break into the ranks of the elite.

By and large, the legal blogosphere has not embraced the model of the short-tail of the political blogosphere. Let me try to provide a global sense of the landscape of the legal blogosphere.


1. Group Blogs Do Not Predominate: Unlike the political blogosphere, the one-person operation remains a very important part of the short- and the long-tail of the blogosphere. Among the highest traffic sites are many run by one individual (Berman, Bainbridge, Leiter, Caron, Ribstein, Solum, Althouse/Reynolds (if the last two count as law bloggers).) Others are run as groups (ScotusBlog, Balkinization, Volokh, CO, Prawfs, Discourse, Conglomerate, Jurisdynamics). But there is no clear trend, as I once predicted, toward further consolidation.

2. Traffic is Stagnant: Critics notwithstanding, I still think I’m right that the legal blogosphere’s growth has slowed significantly. One major law blog has seen a large increase in daily visits (SCOTUS Blog), and a few others (Opinio Juris, for example) have seen a gradual increase to around 1,000 visitors a day. But on the whole, the explosive growth in traffic of 2002-2005 no longer exists. Sites are bumping around basically where they were a year ago.

3. New Entrants are Rare: I think (though we need a new census). I imagine that almost every law professor or lawyer who wants to blog has now heard of the medium and has either joined the fray or decided to abstain. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly hard, as I’ll discuss in a moment, to break into the game and find readers. (Orin Kerr predicted this outcome in 2005; my colleague Peter Spiro discussed abandoned blogs in late 2006).

4. There are Few Professionals: Here, we can see some parallels to political blogging. A few reporters and the gossip-hounds are doing this full-time, but by and large lawyers aren’t quitting their day jobs to make money from blogging. The amateur/hobby status of law blogging is likely driven by the smaller audience of readers for law than for partisan political analysis. With the exception of Reynolds and Volokh, I imagine that no law blog could, even when fully monetized, gross more the low five-figures a year.

5. Institutions Do Not Dominate: Here again, there are some institutional blogs, from the ACS Blog to the Chicago, Georgetown, and Houston, faculty blogs. But, by and large, institutions are not an important part of the law blog universe. (Putting aside the numerous blogs sponsored by law firms, which exist primarily to market the firm’s services). Why not? I have been surprised, for example, that so few law schools have promoted in-house blogs, or (even) paid to sponsor existing blogs. This would seem to me to be a cheap (compared to glossies) way to advertise in a rich reputational market. But faculty members won’t commit to a group blog unless and until law blogging is rewarded in tangible (tenure/money/chair) terms, which to date it has been only in the exceptional case.

6. Our Communities Are Limited: Again, with the exception of Volokh, law blogs have sparse comment threads. The VC comment threads have aspects of a community, with repeat visitors and inside jokes, but in the absence of filtering software or a way to rate commentators, I have the sense that the chaotic aspect of commenting often drowns out interesting voices. This, for me, is one of the starkest differences between law blogs and politics blogs: we don’t seek to create real communities of readers to generate and react to content, but instead seem to replicate the one-directional atmosphere of the classroom. I’ve talked with some folks about this issue, and the response has been that law blogs’ unique role is to provide credible information and commentary about technically difficult legal issues. If that is true, then a wiki- or scoop- model of content generation and community development isn’t particularly tailored to what we’re about. That is probably true for law blogs written by law professors. But why hasn’t some entrepreneur started a community portal with the aim of engaging and stimulating discussion by members of the public about legal rules, decisions, and policies?

7. Law Blogs Are Largely Reactive: Here, some qualification is in order. Some law blogs, like Berman’s, Balkin’s and Volokh’s, have driven national debates on issues like torture and sentencing. They have done so through “original” reporting on legal issues, in a significantly deeper and more comprehensive way than reporters on the “law beat” ever could. These blogs really show the value added of law blogging. But, overall, most law blogging, even at high-traffic sites, remains parasitic on the main-stream media.

Despite not having evolved in recent years, law blogs have entrenched traffic flows. I bet that were you to look at the most popular/linked to/visited sites written by law professors, law students, and lawyers about law a year ago, and the top ten today, there would be at most one new entrant. This is so despite a lack of technical innovation over the last year. Even blogs written by insightful (and well-known) law profs seem to be having a hard time finding a broad audience.

So were are we going? I’ll leave that question largely to a future post. But I’ll close with the hope we are going somewhere new, whether it is a new space for legal publishing, virtual conferences and communities, or providing unique, informal connections between citizens and their government.

The old, flat, legal blogosphere can’t last forever. Can it?

Related posts by me on this navel-gazing topic:

1. Snarking at the Blogwagon.

2. The Future of the Blawging Market

3. Why Build When You Can Buy

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16 Responses

  1. David Zaring says:

    To me one of the surprises is that the legal blogosphere isn’t really like the economics blogosphere. I think we do rely on group blogs to get the posts out – they don’t so much. Their bloggers are also more senior than ous. I’m not sure they’re better – lots of long clips to popular or semi-popular press in there – but they sure are different, both in readership and in format.

  2. Is the first wave of blawgs stagnant. Absolutely. Has Concurring Opinions read itself lately, or taken a hard look at its blogroll? They’ve become institutions that take themselves too seriously, can’t see beyond the “regulars” and struggle to remember why content was interesting in the first place.

    But that’s what has brought on a new wave of blawgs. The vitality that has lapsed into complacency in the first wave is back in the new wave. And that unfortunate fact is that the old timers in blawgs are just like the old timers anywhere; they don’t like the new guys. We know who was here first, and appreciate the old time blawgs. But we’re working at it anyway, whether we’re given a big warm welcome or told to get lost. And we’re building up our own audience. Most importantly, we’re having fun. Are you still having fun?

    SHG

  3. Gordon Smith says:

    Scott, You condemn Concurring Opinions for taking itself too seriously, but I have no idea what that means. Especially when I compare the posts here to the posts on Simple Justice. They seem pretty similar to me. I would be interested to read your thoughts on what distinguishes the “new wave” of law blogs from the old timers.

  4. I’ve responded to several of the points raised (it was too long for the comments here) in a separate posting:

    Is the Blawgosphere Stagnating?

    –ET

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    Scott, I hadn’t read your blog before today (did you send me a link when it launched?) but I have now. I tend to agree with Gordon that it looks relatively similar in content and format to a traditional law blog, although I like your inclusion of multi-media bells-and-whistles on the left side (small nit: it is a little bit busy, I think, for easy reading). I don’t know if you are part of a greater new wave: indeed, I didn’t know there was a new wave. Who else should I be reading?

    But even so, the point I was trying to raise was that notwithstanding the excitement brought by any individual blogger, as a medium law blogs have not significantly evolved since 2001 or 2002. That is something we ought to look twice at. For what it is worth, I don’t think that CO is complacent. We’ve launched a bunch of new projects in recent months (law review forum, intern roundups) and have had some pretty terrific blogging by guests and regulars alike on various topics. I’m having fun, blogging on a variety of topics, from outsourcing lawyers to avoiding napolian rioters. But so what? We’re not reaching new audiences or fundamentally grafting ourselves into law schools (for profs) or the legal profession (for lawyers).

    Eric, I’ll try to respond to your thoughtful comments on your blog.

  6. Mike O'Shea says:

    Dave, what would that sort of “grafting” look like?

    Not asked sarcastically (though I’m also not responsible for any macabre cyborg visions that the verb suggests).

  7. Dave Hoffman says:

    Cyborg? I was thinking more of a mutant plant hybrid. With eyes and perhaps some small teeth.

    Ahem. Well, consider the analogy. Political blogs are now an integral part of campaigns’ messaging; they energize bases and mobilize fundraising; they start political scandals. They are inside the establishment.

    Law blogs, by contrast, are treated (mostly, and with exceptions) by many law schools as sort-of-hobbies, or, perhaps, as a form of editorial writing. Law blogs by lawyers are a form of marketing and advertising, but none of the big firms (that I am aware of) has come on board by investing significant, credited, associate time to the practice.

    “Grafting” would happen when law schools bring blogs in-house; make them part of the mission, the promotion, and the subsidized intellectual energy of the institution.

    Now, maybe this isn’t a good idea. Many blogs just aren’t that good, and it would certainly be very hard to find ways to evaluate whether folks who blog are doing a “good job”. And there is a very strong strain of thought out there that blogging is “for fun”. Such views would resist a trend toward professionalization.

  8. Frank says:

    I think this is very insightful; here are a few thoughts from a co-blogger:

    1) The point about creating a community of commenters is very interesting, and raises some questions along the lines of Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation”/”Science as a Vocation.” [I’ll plead guilty to Scott’s charge of taking myself too seriously right now!]

    A political blog is going to measure its success by its traffic and the community of activists it generates. A truth-seeking blog is going to care much less about the “numbers” than about having a core of “ideal readers” who can either correct or buttress its points. To speak of people who’ve commented on my posts–I’d prefer one Patrick O’Donnell or Daniel Goldberg to a hundred anonymous “right ons!”

    2) I feel I owe it to the really good commenters to read their blogs as often as I can if I have anything substantive to add. So I guess I can’t hope for too many commenters, or I’d be worn out by reciprocating!

    3) The lack of institutional support is notable. What the law schools need to realize is that attention is essentially a zero-sum game, and to the extent that other social sciences or disciplines grab that limelight, they leave less room for law. Moreover, blogs have become an essential way to influence discourse. Think of the role of

    –Balkinization re the DOJ & torture

    –Hasen in election law

    –Berman in sentencing

    and many others. These scholars are very influential, in part due to their blogging.

    4) Re new entrants: Perhaps a better organization of ours (And other) blogrolls would help. For example, organizing it by subject area (or linking to a page where it’s organized by subject area). Rebecca Tushnet does this for some IP blogs on her 43(b) blog.

    Also, we have to update blogrolls more frequently, which I’ll try to do soon.

  9. Gideon says:

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as “stagnant” and “dynamic”. Political blogs are a different beast. Lawyers blog for several reasons, some of which may be conducive to heavy, original posting, some of which are not. I, personally, am not looking for business nor am I looking to market myself. I blog purely as a hobby and for the sense of community it provides (yes, it can be achieved without 200 comments per post and inside jokes) and in some instances to learn.

    Are some “old blogs” “stagnant”? Sure. But not all. While I’m not sure that there is a “wave of new blogs”, there are several new blogs that are just as good, if not better, than some of the old guard.

    Frank hits upon a good point: blogroll organization and turnover. I think it is quite important to add new blogs to blogrolls in appropriate categories and subscribe to them as well. With the new fangled RSS readers out there, it isn’t a burden to add a few extra blogs to your reader, to check them out. Maybe you’ll see some quality postings (not you, personally, just bloggers in general).

  10. Gideon says:

    Hmm, for some reason my comment has not appeared. I’m unsure of whether you moderate comments for the first time (or in general), so I am going to assume it was a glitch. Here it is reproduced, so in the event it ends up duplicating itself, please delete.

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as “stagnant” and “dynamic”. Political blogs are a different beast. Lawyers blog for several reasons, some of which may be conducive to heavy, original posting, some of which are not. I, personally, am not looking for business nor am I looking to market myself. I blog purely as a hobby and for the sense of community it provides (yes, it can be achieved without 200 comments per post and inside jokes) and in some instances to learn.

    Are some “old blogs” “stagnant”? Sure. But not all. While I’m not sure that there is a “wave of new blogs”, there are several new blogs that are just as good, if not better, than some of the old guard.

    Frank hits upon a good point: blogroll organization and turnover. I think it is quite important to add new blogs to blogrolls in appropriate categories and subscribe to them as well. With the new fangled RSS readers out there, it isn’t a burden to add a few extra blogs to your reader, to check them out. Maybe you’ll see some quality postings (not you, personally, just bloggers in general).

  11. Eric Goldman says:

    David, I’m not sure I agree with your underlying assumptions about the data, and it sure would be nice to have some empirical backup for some of your claims. But if we stipulate to your assumptions, I wonder if blawg traffic is flat precisely because blawgs are largely reactive? If so, there should be new entry opportunities for blawgs that provide differentiated content, like blawgs that break new stories. But as you and I know, generating new and differentiated content is hard, and that acts as its own barrier to entry. Eric.

    PS FWIW, I’ve created a census of Bay Area Blawgers and I’m still seeing lots of new entrants. http://www.ericgoldman.org/Resources/BayAreaBlawgers.pdf

  12. Gordon Smith says:

    A quick note on blogrolls, mentioned by Gideon and Scott. Last year bloggers spent a lot of time debating whether blogrolls were “dead.” Of course, people still use blogrolls, but they have become a lot less important as a way to find new blogs, in part because of the rise of RSS. If blogrolls are stagnant, it is probably because people don’t care enough to maintain them. When bloggers really want to boost a young blog, they link to it in a post.

  13. Xanthippas says:

    The old, flat, legal blogosphere can’t last forever. Can it?

    I can only hope so, as Bower’s vision of a blogosphere dominated by bloggers attempting to cozy up to politicians is not at all interesting to me.

  14. Anne Reed says:

    It may be that law blogs have evolved in so many directions that the phrase “law blog” itself confuses the discussion. It’s easy to feel a gap between older, established blogs and my younger one, but on reflection that’s probably not the distinction. It seems more apt to me to say that separate and overlapping communities of law blogs have developed. All these groups often say things of interest to the others and even step across categories sometimes, but the dynamics driving them — and the way David’s questions apply to them — are different.

    Professors’ blogs offering a different medium for thinking and scholarship, journalistic blogs like the WSJ blog, and issue-based blogs like Overlawyered are different from each other — but for various reasons they all seem likely to develop in the direction of group blogs, institutional sponsorship, and professional bloggers. (Firedoglake and TalkLeft can already be called legal blogs as well as political ones.)

    On the other hand, practitioners’ blogs — like Scott’s, Gideon’s, Eric Turkewitz’s, or my jury blog — couldn’t exist at all in that paradigm, and this group is growing too. I wonder whether what seems like “flat” is really two-directional development.

  15. Gideon says:

    Gordon – that’s part of the point Scott was making (I think). Bloggers “debating whether blogrolls were dead”?

    Do you think linking to a blog in a post is the better way to “boost” it? Wouldn’t a permanent link that is always on the front page be better?

  16. One minor correction: Except to the extent that it demonstrates my multiple personalities, discourse.net is not run by a group, but only by me. I do have a guest for a week or two a year while I go abroad, but that’s it.