A while ago I noticed a strange phenomenon where the act of subscribing to a blog seemed to kill it; a disproportionate number of seemingly thriving blogs would suddenly cease to be updated right after I subscribed to them. Did I have the Touch of Death, or was this just part of the circle of life? Clearly, this is a burning question, as is impacts both my sanity and the health & safety of hundreds of innocent blogs across the blogosphere.
We've all heard through the grapevine that two thirds of blogs are abandoned, with a significant number of them having only a single post. (One of my papers cited this as from 2003, where "abandoned" is defined as having not updated for two months; somewhat ironically, the URL cited as the source no longer exists. You can find an overview of the findings here)
While some blogs convulse with obvious death throes near the end (a series of posts stating, "Sorry I haven't posted much lately, I promise I'll write more!"), many simply go dark with no warning. Some of my favourite now-dead blogs still happily display their last innocuous post. I admit I find this disturbing; I sort of feel as if blog services should overlay the homepage with a grey filter and epitaph. That people abandon projects is of no surprise to me, but the very nature of the Internet and blogs means that, while a failed knitting project can quietly collect dust in a corner of one's home, a failed blog is left to rot fully within view of everyone on the Internet.
I was unable to find much research about the lifespans, success and content of blogs. Various articles assure me that much research has been done into the rising popularity of blogs generally, but I've failed to find them. I have been able to find pages and pages of articles about political and health blogs, despite every single one of these articles beginning with, "Much research is lacking on the topic of political blogs..." I suppose that reveals where academics' interests lie, but it does not address my most urgent, burning questions.
I did find one article from 2006 which seemed a promising start. In "From the Personal to the Profound: Understanding the Blog Life Cycle," the authors Gurzick and Lutters outline a blog life cycle. They so successfully hit the nail on the head that their suggestions resonate through the intervening years and make me shiver with embarrassment. I can bet that most bloggers reading today will identify with their phases:
Stage 1 – Non-directed, Personal Storage
This is a stage that many of us are painfully familiar with. The ease of creating a blog on many of the popular platforms means there is a very low barrier of entry to blogging. You don't need a purpose or a goal driving you in order to create a blog. How many of you have made a blog, said "Hello, world," then sat back and asked yourself, "Now what?" It is at this point, Gurzick and Lutters write, that people start posting cat pictures.
Okay, those aren't their words exactly. Their words exactly were,
[...] the ease of posting leads it to be used simply as a mechanism for storing items of interest found online. This can include images, files, links to other sites, and whole sections of web pages that are copied and saved to the blog.But we all know that the end result result of posting
items of interest found onlineis cat pictures. And not only do new bloggers post nothing but cat pictures... they post their cat pictures at a frighting rate. A new blogger (assuming they got past their first post) will often post three or four time daily!
Here is the weird bit: From my own personal experience of blogging, reading blogs, and checking out new blogs, this stage seems to be of a critical importance for the health of a blog. (Okay, maybe people don't literally need to post cat pictures for their first few weeks of blogging, but for the quality of content produced in those early days, they might as well.) Bloggers that do not have an initial period of "personal storage" tend to lose steam very early on. I think this is why tech and video-game blogs in particular seem to have a high rate of failure. In these infant stages, when the UI of the platform and practice of blogging itself is unfamiliar, it appears to be too much to demand that a blogger produce intelligent, well-researched and original content.
What kills a blog at this stage? I suspect it's boredom, mostly. The novelty of having a place of one's own on the Internet wears off pretty quickly, and if a blogger fails to think of things to put there, they'll just abandon and forget about their blog.
How did I get past this stage? I definitely went through this stage in the beginning, but at the point that I would begin to grow bored with my pet project, I discovered custom templates. I breezed through this particular stage by spending some quality time with the GIMP and teaching myself the finer aspects of CSS. I also created a blog on Tumblr, and eventually also a twitter account, so my Blogger blog stopped being the place for me to post one-liners and quotes.
Stage 2 – Growth and Aggregation
Here is the stage where bloggers begin producing more original content. After they have a firm grounding in how to actually post and navigate the interface, they sit back and become aware of their audience - or, more often, their lack of audience. Having just gotten comfortable with the posting UI, most people aren't skilled enough to properly interpret viewer statistics - if they have any - and are sort of fumbling around in the dark. A blogger at this stage doesn't know who their audience is or what they want to read;
Without knowing the makeup or desires of their audience, these bloggers place high importance on the frequency of posting, often assuming that their readership is motivated by the number of posts they create. This need to post frequently leads to the use of easy to create material such as online quiz results, movie reviews, or what one blogger called, “prefabricated content.” An abundance of, “what I had for lunch today,” posts are typical.
What kills a blog at this stage? Most bloggers report that the reasons they like to blog is 1) to have a place to express themselves and 2) in the hopes of forming a supportive community. In the earliest stages of blogging, you spend a lot of time showing your cat pictures to an empty room. The depressing truth that few people want to know what your 5 favourite songs are is often enough to kill a novice blogger's interest in the whole thing. The thrill of seeing hits from Germany and Brazil becomes somewhat weakened when none of your posts have a single comment.
At this stage, lots of people abandon their blogs in favor of the warm embrace of social networks. According to recent results from the Pew Internet Project, teenagers in particular are abandoning blogging in favor of social networking sites. The number of (American) teens who report having a blog has halved since 2006, yet the adoption of social networks has skyrocketed. Who'd have thought; it's easier to find an audience for "top 10" lists and meme images on Facebook than on Blogger!
At this stage, too, is where the people who thought blogging was a get-rich quick scheme tend to realize they're barking up the wrong tree. When I see a new blog that is covered in ads and affiliate links, I just smile cynically to myself because I know they'll never make the cut.
Stage 3 – A Personal Voice
Many writers and bloggers reach a stage they call "finding their voice." This is the point at which writers become comfortable with writing, and when they forge an identifiable style. For bloggers, it can also be the point at which they define the subject matter of their content, providing they didn't pick a subject area from the beginning. In addition to becoming more comfortable with their writing style, they begin to identify the make up of their audience;
The content of a blog begins to take on more of its author’s personality. [...] At this stage the blogger is beginning to learn about the nature of their audience. This newfound understanding promotes the posting of content deemed more applicable to their readers
The feverish rate of posting from the previous stages will usually settle down into a more maintainable frequency (often to the relief of the subscribed audience - I know of very few blog readers who will tolerate a more than one or two posts daily). At this point, too, does a sort of filter set in - there are fewer music video posts and more thoughtful, personalized posts. A common transition phase is to schedule themed days (e.g. Movie Monday or Fashion Friday). It provides a consistency, while still giving the author a sort of crutch in that they don't have to come up with brand new topics every week. Once a blogger has reached this stage, they have an actual healthy blog, in my opinion; something that can stand on its own merit. It is usually at this time that a blog begins to obtain regular readers.
What kills a blog at this stage? I would say an inability to collect a sizable audience. When a blogger begins "writing for an audience," it can be difficult to continue when they find out your audience is nonexistent. If a blog fails to attract readers other than friends and family during this stage, and the blogger fails to get any meaningful feedback, they are likely to give up. This is perhaps the most depressing stage, because up to this point a lot of work has gone into the blog - a new blogger begins to really pour their heart and soul into their blog - and yet they feel alone and ignored.
Many blogs are permanently frozen at this stage, probably because there is no sure-fire way to drum up interest in a blog, and attracting an audience is half the result of real effort, and half blind luck.
Stage 4 – Established and Interactive
Here, finally, we have a thriving, mature blog. Not only does the author have a "personal voice," has completely stopped posting cat pictures, and are posting on a solid and sane schedule, but they have a high level of interaction. The really successful bloggers at this point will find ways to interact with their readers outside of their blog - through effective use of social media, for example - and have managed to build a community.
The change from posting content for a particular audience to the direct engagement of its readers classifies the final stage in the blog life cycle. [...] Likewise, blogs at this level are more often known to their readers by the persona of the blogger as opposed to specific content they have posted.
People begin to seek out the blog because they like the blogger as a person; they value their opinions and ideas because of this history the blog author has established. Comment sections become a valuable extension of the post with related discussion. Participation on other blogs is a key component to growing a blog's audience, for example through guest posts and link sharing. Community is the distinguishing trait in this stage.
What can kill a blog at this point? Most people would say a blog has "made it" once they reach this stage... and yet, fantastic blogs still go dark with no warning and for no reason. A fair number of the blogs I have followed and loved were well-established, respected and has sizable communities - and then the blogger suddenly disappears without a peep. For some people, it could be that they made a mistake in the previous stage, and made their blog into something that pleases audiences but doesn't please them as an author. For others, I think "real life" just intervenes; a busy day becomes a busy week becomes a busy month and suddenly it's been three months since you've posted. It is difficult to return to a regular blogging schedule when you've been off it for so long. I have certainly witnessed blogs successfully resurrected but, more often than not, they simply die a quiet death.
In the end, all great blogs will die, probably far before their authors do. It's sad when they go, but we have to recognize that like all hobbies, people rarely continue with one thing for longer than a few years. To all the bloggers who are reading this, I will say one thing: learn to recognize the signs of a dying blog, and when the time comes for your blog to pass on, don't be afraid to say goodbye.
D. Gurzick, W. Lutters "From the Personal to the Profound: Understanding the Blog Life Cycle" CHI '06 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, 2006.