In an intriguing essay in the Atlantic, Benjamin Cohen argues that the blogosphere, in which the top 50 blogs account for 42% of all blog traffic — and 21 of those blogs are owned by outfits like the Times, ABC, AOL, and CNN — is looking more and more like traditional media in its economic and social structures.
Almost everyone weighing in agreed that blogging has become more corporate, more ossified, and increasingly indistinguishable from the mainstream media. Even Glenn Reynolds had a slight change of heart, admitting <a href=”http://ideas.theatlantic.com/2009/06/interview_with_glenn_reynolds_part_i.php” target=”outlink”>in a June interview</a> that the David-and-Goliath dynamic is eroding as blogs have become “more big-media-ish.” All this has led Matthew Hindman, author of <i>The Myth of Digital</i> Democracy, to declare that “The era when political comment on the Web is dominated by solo bloggers writing for free is gone.”
This seems about three-quarters right to me. Clearly the blogosphere has opened things up and allowed more voices to be heard. Yet it’s also clear that the blogosphere is becoming more tightly structured in the highest traffic areas, with increasing overlap between networks of favored people and relations in the blogosphere and in mainstream media. Some of this is to be expected, as alliances and relations and networks in each world move into the other: bloggers going mainstream(ish) bringing along their blogging friends, and MSM or MSM-like institutions going web bring their relations there.
I suppose this has its dispiriting side. Yet idea that the blogosphere was and is a strict meritocracy is bunk; success (or audience, anyway) there relies not just on talent for reporting and writing, but on a mix of that talent with talent and taste for self-promotion, generating controversy, working (virtual) rooms, picking the flashy battles, and building social networks — not to mention luck in possessing such fortunes as a matter of birth, family, or other arbitrary circumstance — that is not terribly unlike the mixture that generates success and audience in more traditional media. That’s obviously a meritocracy of a sort. But the merits in question aren’t limited to quality of work.
This shouldn’t surprise us too much; ‘same as it ever was.’ On the web as in print, “it’s clearly true,” as the article notes, that “there is a difference between speaking and being heard,” and “far from leveling the playing field, blogs have simply built up challenging new pathways to success, ones that with their familiar requirements–impress the right gatekeepers, court a mentor, work one’s way up from the inside–mirror the old-media ways.” This is how life works. So it’s how the blogosphere works too.