March 13th, 2006

Blogs Are Institutions, Just Like Old Media Companies


So Dave Winer wants to stop blogging, and Mike Arrington says, NO, you can’t, because Scripting News belongs to “us,” the readers. Mike is half right — Dave does “own” Scripting News, but the blog has become an institution, like any other Old Media company. Dave suggested that he should sell Scripting News to TechCrunch, and the truth is he could.

As a Media institution, Scripting News has an identity of its own, which could, in theory, be perpetuated even after Dave has left the scene.

It’s an odd comparison, but this is reminiscent of Ana Marie Cox leaving Wonkette. At the time, I observed:

Blogging and citizen journalism is undoubtedly a revolution, but (capitalized) Media, AKA the Institution, is still greater than the (lowercase) individual.

But why is this so? Weren’t blogs supposed to be the antidote to institutionalized media?

It’s because Wonkette became a brand and a community. So it’s still Wonkette even without the wonkette. More importantly, as a successful brand, Wonkette became a successful business, and it’s still a business without Ana Marie. (Why didn’t Lat go back under the robes? Because Wonkette is a better brand, and a better business.)

This theory of the ontology of blogging, stated simply, is:

Blogs are PUBLICATIONS whose brand identity exists separately from the “publisher” (i.e. the blogger).

Under this theory, the blog phenomenon represents an explosion in micro-publishing, but blogs still live and die by many of the same rules as Old Media publications. Which is why the “gatekeeper” debate has eaten up so much bandwidth — just because you publish, doesn’t mean you will be read.

The counter-theory to blogs as media institutions is that blogs are “cults of personality,” i.e. Scripting News is Dave Winer, and thus has no value without him.

I think the reality is somewhere in the middle. Most blog brands are developed through strong personality and distinctive voice, but once established, they take on a life of their own.

If Dave abandoned Scripting News and started a new blog with a new name, would it be fundamentally different from Scripting News, even if it was still Dave? I think the answer is yes.

  • billg


    For me, at least, the filter is secondary. If Dave's not publishing there, I'm not there. I feel that way about many blogs I read. It's the perspective and voice of the writer that attracts me and keeps me reading. The links to other information sources are an artifact of the technology. Their value to me depends on the context provided by the commentary. (Imagine the uselessness of a bare list of links with no accompanying narrative.) Winer's blog is one of a number that I'd continue to read if they moved their publishing platform from the web to something else, like paper.

    I don't think this has anything to do with personality cults, or the ability of a blog to survive the departure of its founder and sole contributor. So, I'm not disagreeing with your assertion that a blog is as much of an institution as anything in the traditional media. But, I'm not sure highly personalized singleton blogs are the best example. Multi-author blogs with existing institutional structure, e.g., Performancing, seem much more likely to survive the departure of any single writer.

  • Billg,

    Scripting News is not just Dave's commentary. It's a filter -- it points to other information that readers might find valuable. Even if Dave's commentary went away, the filter could remain -- and someone with a similiar perspective on technology could, in theory, take his place.

  • billg

    A more apt, if strained, comparison might be between Scripting News and a popular columnist in a local newspaper. If the sole reason I buy the paper is to read that columnist, and if I read nothing else in the paper, why would I continue to buy the paper after the columnist stops writing?

    I read Scripting News because it is the place where Dave Winer publishes what he writes. If he stops publishing on that site, I'll stop reading it.

    It isn't the technology that distinguishes blogs like Scripting News. It's the unfettered connection between Winer and the words he publishes there. He could do the same thing using a mimeograph machine.

  • Andrew Lasey

    When is gone, I'd like to imagine Dave creating a quiet little blog somewhere deep in xanga, under an pseudonym.

  • If Dave abandoned Scripting News and started a new blog with a new name, would it be fundamentally different from Scripting News, even if it was still Dave?

    Reminds me of comic strips. Berke Breathed made his fame, rep and money on Bloom County. He has since struggled to recapture that magic with Outland and then Opus.

    Garry Trudeau continues to write, but long ago stopped illustrating, Doonesbury. Is it the same strip now that it was when he was the lone creative? Nope.

    The original creators of Blondie, Dick Tracy, Shoe and many other strips have passed, but the strips continue under new authorship to varying degrees of creative success.

    And wisely, Charles Schulz made sure Peanuts would expire -- at least, new strips -- when he did.

    If Dave started a new blog five years from now, you'd have to wonder if it would feel too much like Breathed coming back with Opus long after the greatness of Bloom County faded from memory. Similar cast of characters, but the story just isn't as interesting.

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