This is the fourth and final entry in a series dealing with blogging and the wider societal trends that have contributed to the rise of blogs. This first article is here, the second here and the third here.
I am sure that some people reading this series are interested in beginning a blog of their own. I am not going to get into the nuts and bolts of how to sign up for a blog, but rather want to give you an idea of how you can choose a subject to write about.
I think it is important to realize that we live in a world that is quite a bit different from what it was even five or ten years ago. Allow me to change emphases for just a moment and look to the world of music. Seven years ago the band ‘N Sync released an album, No Strings Attached, that sold 2.5 million copies in its first week. Experts think this may mark a high-water point of the music industry and that this feat will never be equaled. Similarly, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, still the best-selling album of all time, has sold over 100,000,000 copies. No other album comes close and most people within the music industry think this will never be equaled. Stranger things have happened of course (and most of them have happened to Jackson) but it seems that the music industry is changing. In fact, the most recent of the top five best-selling albums of all time was released in 1980. You have to go to somewhere around the 50th best-selling album of all-time to find one that has been released since 2001 (and it’s an album by Eminem, if you have to know). Of course at the same time music has become increasingly popular. While tools like Napster have certainly cost the music industry billions of dollars, album sales continue to flourish. More albums are selling overall, but individual albums are selling in lower volumes. What we see happening is the rise of the niche.
Chris Anderson has written a fascinating book called The Long Tail (see my review) in which he describes this pattern. The Long Tail is a term that refers to a phenomenon you can see in many graphs. I find it very helpful in understanding the blogosphere. The long tail refers to that portion of the graph which skirts the 0 on the x-axis, but which never quite reaches the bottom. Anderson found that products with low demand or low sales volume can collectively make up as great or even greater market share than the few bestsellers. He found this with books, music and nearly everything else that is sold today. Where there are only a few products that make up the left side of the graph, there are a nearly unlimited number that make up the tail. Again, it never quite reaches the 0 mark. Because the Internet gives us unparalleled access to books and music, more and more people are becoming interested in niche products rather than in only the bestsellers. Hence a person browsing music catalogs will find vastly more categories today than in the past. While a few albums may sell millions of copies, millions of albums will sell at least a few copies, combining to eclipse the sales of the bestsellers. And again, the same is true of books and, of course, blogs. Blockbusters are now less important and niches more important.
So today more and more of us are gravitating to that long tail even when it comes to our taste in blogs. The blogosphere as a whole could be mapped to a graph like this, with the Y-axis representing traffic and with each blog occupying a point along the X-axis. There would be 81 million blogs on this graph. Of course we could also extract only Christian blogs and plot them into a graph that would have the same general form. We’d see a handful of blogs that receive a great deal of traffic and then a lot more that receive increasingly fewer visitors. We could then look deeper into the Christian blogs and extract blogs dealing with any number of niches: blogs dealing with homeschooling, stay-at-home moms, preaching, book reviews, and so on. Each of these groupings would, again, have a similar graph.
My counsel to people who are interested in blogging and who wish to have some kind of influence over others, is to join the long tail. In other words, choose a subject which interests you or for which you are particularly gifted, and write about that. Ask where God has gifted you and given you a passion. Those who want to jump immediately to the top-left of the graph are going to run into problems and will only end up disappointed. There is probably not room for most Christian blogs to gain a readership of tens of thousands and, frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever see Christian blogs even begin to parallel the numerical success of the gossip, gadget and political blogs. The long tail necessarily means that within each area a few people will see the bulk of the traffic. However, there is room for as many niche blogs as there are niches. You may not be able to have yourself recognized as an expert in all fields, but you are likely to be able to be an expert in a niche field.
Quite high up on the tail of the Christian blogosphere we see Justin Taylor writing a blog that covers news that is of interest to conservative or Reformed Christians–it is primarily an information blog. A little further down we see Carolyn Mahaney and her daughters writing a successful and influential blog for women interested in learning issues surrounding biblical womanhood. We see Bob Kauflin writing a blog that seeks to help worship leaders and any of us who love and value worship. Further along we see Colin Adams, a pastor in Edinburgh, Scotland, writing a blog targeted at expositors. And on and on it goes. Each of these people have, either deliberately or inadvertently, identified an audience and are now providing content that is interesting and important to these people. With more and more people reading blogs, there are endless opportunities to begin a blog that allows you to be influential in an area that is of particular importance to you.
On a personal note, I would encourage you, and especially if you are not a pastor, to prayerfully seek to understand if you are really suited to this task. The warning of James 3:1 (“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness…”) would seem to apply to the blogosphere as much as anywhere else. A short time ago I was challenged and convicted by this passage and others like it and on that basis approached my pastor and elders and asked them not only to keep me accountable but to challenge me if they felt I was unsuitable to be a teacher. This has become a more immediate concern as I have begun to accept invitations to speak at conferences and in churches. This may not be necessary in all situations, but I certainly felt that it would be a necessity for me. I do hope other bloggers will consider whether having some kind of accountability in place may help them as well and I leave this as a challenge to anyone here that has a blog.
This has been a long series and I’m going to wrap it up. First, though, I would like to say a word about the future of blogs. There are some who are already forecasting the end of the blogosphere. While the blogosphere has seen its share of triumphs, it has also seen more than its share of failures. Many people, and perhaps even the majority, still do not take it seriously. I prefer to call myself a writer than a blogger as there are many times that I’ve seen people’s faces flash just a moment of disbelief or disgust when they’ve heard the word “blog.” I’m looking forward to the publication of my book so I can legitimately call myself an author! I would not be surprised if there comes a time when the word “blog” is forgotten. It is entirely possible. But as long as the Internet exists in its current form we will not see the end of the amateur, of people like myself who enjoy posting online and who feel that, somehow, we can use this medium to impact our lives, the lives of other people, and maybe even the course of history. There are some who compare the rise of the blog as being similar to the invention of the printing press. Time will tell but I doubt that history will draw such a comparison. However, I don’t think the rise of the amateur, even if it only for a brief period, will go unnoticed. And the church needs to prepare herself.
Ultimately, as Christians we want to impact the world for Christ. I am convinced that we can do this through the blogosphere. People from all walks have turned to the blogosphere. Enthusiasts of every conceivable hobby have started blogs to share their enthusiasm and to find like-minded people. This is well and good. But we, as Christians, are called to a higher ideal of using blogs as the means to a greater end. The great challenge for us is that we are going to need to be people who blog not just about God but who blog for God. And those are two radically different tasks.