The Market for Bloggers

Those of us who have been using the Internet for awhile have watched the waxing and waning popularity of a variety of discussion media – beginning with USENET newsgroups, then listservs and chatrooms, various types of conferencing interfaces, IRC channels, and now weblogs. A few of us even remember FIDONET and dial-up computer BBS fora prior to the general accessibility of the Internet. Blogs seem to be the latest in a long line of electronic discussion formats.

Researchers who study the social structure of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have noted that CMC discussions appear to evolve through one of a discrete set of predictable life-cycle progressions. Most start with a period of initial growth and enthusiasm, where participants join the forum and post actively. A very few discussions achieve an equilibrium of arrivals and departures that sustains them in a steady state over a long period. More often, they fall into decline; some slowly collapse in on themselves, like a white dwarf or neutron star, leaving only the charred husk of their former vibrant community. Others vanish like supernovas in the fiery violence of flame wars.

I will leave the metaphor at that, although if one thinks hard enough, there is probably some CMC parallel to the development of black holes.

What causes the eventual demise of most – perhaps ultimately all – CMC discussion fora? A branch of political economics, called public choice theory, offers at least one predictive model, a social analog to the theory of “lemons markets” in goods. Public choice theory predicts that volunteer organizations, such as professional societies, will tend to be dominated by individuals from the fringe of the organization, or by marginal practitioners of the profession. Why? Time is a scarce resource, and volunteerism is typically a time-intensive activity. The tangible rewards are typically quite modest; sometimes amounting only to slight social or reputational benefit. Economic man, as envisioned by economists – what my wife has dubbed the “maximal utility rationalizer” – will tend to use that scarce resource so as to capture the greatest value. The time used volunteering could be used to generate income, or to enjoy more relaxing leisure activities.

This implies that those most capable of contributing to the organization are likely to use those high-value skills in other, more rewarding ways. It also implies that those most active in the organization will be individuals from the fringe, for whom the visibility offered by participation advances their personal agendas, or is a reward in itself. Alternatively, those most active may be individuals of marginal skill, whose opportunities to use the volunteer time more profitably are limited.

CMC discussions display many of the same characteristics as volunteer organizations – they are time and labor intensive, and the rewards for participation are fairly modest. The time spent on CMC conversations could be used for more tangible pay-offs; to generate income, or secure tenure, or raise children, or go fishing, or many other high-value activities. Over time, the most interesting and skilled participants in a CMC forum will tend to put their skill toward those other activities. Those who remain active are increasingly those who literally have nothing better to do with their time. The lack of interesting posts discourages yet others from participating, and the forum enters a death spiral until it eventually fades away.

Alternatively, it may become dominated by crackpots and trolls looking for recognition or advancing marginal agendas. The collision of these volatile participants produces flame wars that swamp the forum signal with noise, driving the few remaining participants away. A good moderator can stave these outcomes off for awhile, but often they occur despite a moderator’s best efforts.

This model poses a number of difficult questions – first, what are those of us who are blogging, especially those who are blogging a lot, doing here? Second, are blog participants or their interactions in any way different from those in previous CMC media, such that we might expect blog life-cycle to be different? Does the model predict the ultimate fate of Times and Seasons, or can an onymous, LDS blog escape the predicted demise?

Special bonus question: Why doesn’t the Church, as a volunteer organization, succumb to the public choice “lemons” model? Or does it?

36 comments for “The Market for Bloggers

  1. It’s an interesting question. I certainly hope that this blog can avoid becoming a burnt-out white dwarf, or a black hole. At the same time, I recognize the danger.

    Blogs of this sort are time-intensive and energy-intensive. They do require a more or less steady influx of new readers, and they also require a steady stream of new material from the bloggers.

    That said, I’m hoping we can avoid a few of the dynamics that plague other fora.

    A major advantage is the ability to filter participants. This blog is an outgrowth of an extended discussion on the LDS-law e-mail list. I used to participate on the listserv a lot; now most of that time goes towards blogging. I like the blog better because I can control it. We took a few of the participants from the listserv who I and others felt were high-value contributors, and the blog began.

    The listserv is great, but we were able to add the step of filtering, and starting the blog with four people who we felt were likely to make high-quality posts. Two more more came on board quickly, for an original six bloggers.

    Then we brought in several guest bloggers. Some of these ended up becoming permanent bloggers, which has worked out very well. Again, we’ve had a good chance to filter out people and decide which voices we would like on the blog.

  2. I agree with Kaimi that control over primary content is the key to lasting success for blogs. At least this addresses the crackpot/troll problem. We may get crackpots from time to time, but we don’t allow them to post entries (and we can be moderately successful in blocking them from posting comments).

    One problem that many blogs wrestle with is whether to allow comments. Comments are a big feature of T&S, so I hope we always have a vibrant community of commenters, but we have had occasional challenges with civility. And perhaps more unexpected, our success in generating comments can sometimes make the site hard to read because the volume is so great. This is a challenge, but not one that is likely to spell the demise of the blog, I think.

    The bigger challenge will be finding bloggers willing to generate content. Over the past two months, I have been relatively inactive because other demands have taken me away from the site. Fortunately, the other bloggers have more than compensated for my absence, but it is conceivable that all or most of us would simply tire of this exercise and exit. I don’t expect that to happen, but I think that is the most likely source of trouble for any blog.

  3. In addressing CMC discussion fora, I was of course considering blogs with comments — that is what makes the blog many-to-many communication, rather than a one-to-many (or, six-to-many) vanity press. It is also what allows the creation of community. The lemons problem will primarily arise in the comment interactions.

    Filtering and exclusion are a useful moderator’s tools, but past experience with listserv and chatroom interactions indicates that they have to be used with just the right touch. Moderator censorship can be as deadly to the community as unrestrained trolling.

  4. Good to hear these challenges carefully described. I think these pressures will exist for T&S, but I am optimistic that
    a) the particular kind of community happening here is distinctive enough that the rewards for those interested are higher than they are for a lot of CMC (which reduces the influence of those typical negative trends), and
    b) as has been said, the primary posters are a big enough part of setting the tone that it’s unlikely to slide too much.

  5. What do you do with a “bad” post? Simply remove it? How are you filtering out problematic interactions?

    I’m interested because I think you have to do it, but since it is essentially censorship, the debate will inevitably wane and die. I’ve seen it happen over and over, proving Dan’s point here.

    I’ve posted a lot to the Internet, and I’m not very proud of the fact. One of the things that bothers me is that my long, carefully worded posts aren’t permanently archived, as they would have been in the last century if I wrote them as letters. On one board (Home Theater) my posts were tallied, and I had over 2,000! Some of these are very short, but many were lengthy dissertations on various movies and DVDs. All of these are lost, in the sense of being unreviewable in the future.

    I’m not sure I can qualify as a more interesting poster, but I do seem to have more time on my hands than others (since I’m single) and communicating this way is as good a way to fill up that time as fishing. I’ll probably be one of those that lasts to the bitter end.

  6. One more little comment. I was invited to post at BCC by Steve Evans, who is my Home Teacher, a member of my Ward. I know Kaimi from that Ward, and when I ventured over here to Times and Seasons, I saw that I knew Nate Oman, since he’s married to my cousin. And Richard Bushman has posted here, as well — he’s in my Ward too. I think “living” friends are more likely to keep a board alive, than simple cyber friends.

  7. You’re certainly welcome to quote from the post.

    The degree to which blog participants know one another “face to face” is also interesting. Ten or fifteen years ago, when newsgroups and listservs were the preferred CMC mode, we had visions of the Internet creating great global communities of distributed participants, bringing together the diversity of humankind, building the global village, etc., etc. What research seems to be showing with the current generation of Internet users, who prefer blogs and IM, is that they tend to use CMC to keep in touch with those they see or know in physical space — not a far-flung virtual community or global village.

  8. I know Nate from college. John Payne, who comments here, was my roommate in college. John is also Kristen’s cousin. I took a class from Jim F. at BYU.

    And in a particularly far-flung achievement of interrelatedness, the fact that D. Fletcher is Nate’s wife’s cousin (neither of whom I’ve met personally), means that she is also related to Julie (now Sheffield) who was in my ward in California.

    I am inclined to agree that any given forum only has a limited life span. But these personal connections (and mine are fewer than many of the posters here) go a long way to staving off the inevitable entropy.

  9. It really is interesting how many meatspace connections there are in this cyber-community. Aside from my cousin Kristine (not Kristen, Frank!), I used to judge debate with Nate Oman. I also know frequent commenter and contrarian gadfly Lyle Stamps from the BYU– we were in the same MA program. Frank McIntyre was my roommate and partner in crime (especially crimes against art). I have taken classes from two recent guest-bloggers here: Damon “The Thinker” Linker and Big Daddy Jim Siebach. Melissa Proctor, currently (?) guest-blogging here, is a Sunday School teacher in my ward in Boston. There are another handful of folks I have run into here in the comment boards that I know from the real world, but this list is long and boring enough already.

    Moral of this story: It’s a small world, after all. And the Mormon world is especially small.

    Supplementary moral: Frank had better start spelling Kristine’s name right.

  10. Ben Huff’s my best friend’s wife’s cousin. & I’ve seen Jim F. striding across campus, his head bowed philosophically. & also: the other day I had a brief conversation with Prof. Siebach’s daughter about Umberto Eco! Amazing!

  11. What about Eco?

    I think the key to any mailing list, forum, or blog is new blood or new topics. Blogs are slightly different than forums or mailing lists due to the hyperlink abilities inherent in the format. You can have a blog constantly linking to new information external to the group. Thus even if there isn’t new blood in one way, you can have a new influx of information by these external links.

    The main reason I got off mailing lists was due to limits on time at various times as well as it appearing that the same topics kept coming over and over again.

  12. I think the reference to Eco was supposed to just point us towards something else, but I can’t be sure.

    D., I promise Kevin & I WILL home teach you this month, if only to avoid an article by your sister in the Trib about my negligence…

  13. Oh, the article’s already written and at the press. With pictures. You’re going to jail, buddy…


  14. I should’ve cut it off after “daughter.” It was just my mad attempt to fit in to the T&S cosmos. Clark, we were merely discussing The Name of the Rose, was William a believer, when Jorge eats Aristotle what does it mean, etc. Steve, the reference wasn’t meant to point to anything, but what did you have in mind?

  15. “…control over primary content is the key to lasting success for blogs. At least this addresses the crackpot/troll problem. We may get crackpots from time to time, but we don’t allow them to post entries (and we can be moderately successful in blocking them from posting comments).”

    Is this problem (and this solution) materially different from the problem (and standard solution) of the commons?

  16. I didn’t shave this morning or I’d be at the HBLL right now checking out Eco’s semiotics book, which I’d devote my weekend to as a penance for being so stupid. I’ve already got one beard infraction on my official record, however, & I’m in no mood to walk the razor’s edge.

  17. Not to get off topic too much, but I’d not recomment Eco’s _Semotics_ as an introduction. It’s not bad (I learned it from it) but it’s not ideal and has a few errors of various sorts in it. (Not that I missed the joke, mind you)

  18. Eco is, IMHO, a better author than semiotician. The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum rank among my personal favorites. I agree with Clark about the Semiotics book – not just errors, but it has a difficult structure and is generally unfriendly (unlike the other very friendly semioticians out there!).

    If you really want to dive into semiotics, a quick romp through the internet will do for most people. Otherwise, you’d have to start with Saussure, I think, and nobody wants THAT.

    BTW, sorry for the stupid semiotics pun. You know you’ve hit bottom when…

  19. It’s useful if you already know semiotics and particularly Peirce and Saussure. But it’s not really an introduction, more a reference book for aspects of semiotics you might be intrigued by and want to see Eco’s view. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language is much better, but once again not for beginners and a background in philosophy of language is probably helpful.

    As for Eco as an author, he was good. Like Steve his first two novels are among my favorites. However his last two, The Island of the Day Before and Baudrillo kind of suck. His essays are much more interesting. His history of Europe in terms of language, The Search for the Perfect Language is a must read. While I think he gets the hermeticists somewhat wrong, his debate with Richard Rorty in Interpretation and Overinterpretation is also a must read.

    Good resources for starting out in semiotics are, as Steve mentioned, available on the web.

    I’d start with Semiotics for Beginners which I often recommend. A nice reference to the jargon of semiotics can be found at the Principia Cybernetica Web Since modern semiotics really starts with Peirce (and in many people’s mind never really caught up with him) I always send people to the Peirce Gateway

  20. “However his last two, The Island of the Day Before and Baudrillo kind of suck.”

    Besides its pithy accuracy as a literary critique of Eco’s latest novels, Clark’s word reminded me of young Stephen Dedalus’s first semiotical reflections:

    “Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect’s false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.”

  21. Ahh, I can’t believe we let Bloomsday pass without an encomium at T&S!! Thanks for the quote Kingsley.

  22. Daniel Chandler has published his introductory website material in paperback as Semiotics: The Basics.

    An even more fun introduction to semiotics, both Peircean and Saussurean, modern and postmodern (pick a couple from either column) with examples drawn from the book of Mark, is George Aichele’s Sign, Text, Scripture: Semiotics and the Bible.

    How did we get onto this topic exactly?

  23. Dan Burke: I pointlessly mentioned Eco & then Steve made a joke which I didn’t get which led to Clark explaining the joke to me which led to me asking Clark for further clarification.

    Greg Call: There’s reference to Mormons in Ulysses:

    “SECOND WATCH (Awed, whispers.) And in black. A mormon. Anarchist.”

    This is part of the frenzied speculation in the Circe episode about Leo. Bloom’s true identity. It is immediately preceded by “Jack the Ripper,” which may or may not let us in to fair Dublin’s attitude toward Mormons at the time.

  24. Kingsley: I’ll have to check the Annotated Ulysses to see if there is an amplication of this mention.

  25. Greg: Yes, do. I’d be very interested to know. I can’t remember if Joyce had any interest in Mormons from the major bio.s, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had.

  26. Here’s the entry in Gifford, Ulysses Annotated (UC Press, 1988) for the passage quoted above:

    “The Mormons did wear black; and the controversy over their belief in the practice of polygamy (from their beginning in 1831 until the decline of the practice in the early years of the twentieth century) gave them considerable notoriety. Anarchists, though their policitical convictions were serious (if fanatical), were traditionally caricatured as wearing black clothes, black slouch hats, and carrying lighted black bombs.”