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December 06, 2004

who you are

I've been in meetings for eight straight days--including the weekend, which was swallowed by the huge Congressional Conference on Civic Education. During this period, eight or ten people have told me that they read my blog. I'm interested in that information, because I have very little other data about my readers. Technorati lists about 40 blogs that currently link to this one; I assume that their authors come here periodically. Otherwise, I don't know much.

But now I have a theory. I believe that a high proportion of you work in various aspects of civic renewal. You are civic educators or service-learning instructors, you organize deliberations among adults, you register voters, you work to make libraries into truly public spaces, you assist in the democratic development of poor countries, you create software for civic purposes, or you study one or more of these efforts.

Furthermore, based on some recent conversations, I believe that many of you are not generally interested in the "blogosphere." Indeed, this may be the only blog you ever read. That's one reason why there aren't many comments per visitor on this site--many readers have no other experience posting text online, and it doesn't come naturally to you. Why should it? Writing comments on a website is a strange thing to do.

This provokes a thought about the role of blogs like mine. Serious analysts have determined that blogs obey a "lognormal distribution." If we array them in descending order of popularity, we find that a few sites have more than a quarter of a million visitors every day and more than 2,000 links from other blogs. Then there's a precipitous decline and a long "tail" of millions of blogs that have modest traffic and few incoming links (like the one you're reading).

This is the explanation: a link from a super-popular blog like DailyKos would instantly give me thousands of readers. To get a big site to link to me, I should comment on it. Bloggers read comments about themselves and sometimes choose to reciprocate. But every time an ordinary site like mine links to a mighty incumbent in the hopes of attracting its attention, the major blog gets even more traffic. Thus the "rich get richer."

None of this is bad. A huge network probably needs a few focal points, or (to change the metaphor), a few common spaces that many people visit. Although popularity reinforces itself, a blog must also be good to remain popular. There is competition at the top. One way to retain readers is to make useful judgments about other blogs. Instapundit is justifiably famous for distributing attention to newcomers, mostly (although not exclusively) on the right. Because he has used his focal position well, he has strengthened the overall "blogosphere" and especially the conservative side of it.

I'd like to have ten times or 100 times as much traffic, but after 500 posts and two years of blogging, it's pretty clear that I'm not on my way to becoming a focal point of the blogosphere. So I'd rather change the criterion. I believe this blog addresses a diverse but relatively specialized community of people who are working on similar tasks. You're a reticent group (when online) so you don't comment a lot, but the comments are thoughtful. Some of you use this site as a kind of bridge to the blogosphere. You don't have much time to surf blogs, but you're happy enough when I refer to a relevant entry on some prominent site. You're not here because of a link from another blog--although I welcome those--but because you Google-searched a phrase like "youth civic engagement" and this page came up. Even more likely, a colleague sent you here. If you come back, and I hope you do, it will be because my hodgepodge of material roughly matches your own professional interests. We're in the same "community of practice."

Is this true? I'd be glad if you'd let me know. (Email is fine.)

Posted by peterlevine at December 6, 2004 02:52 PM


I visit regularly, but it would be wrong to say we share a "community of practice"; as much as I admire and am interested in a lot of the work you've done and are doing on civic engagement and learning, it's not something I'm involved in. I'm a fairly typical university professor, teaching political theory. However, we may be part of the same ideological community, to the extent that we share a concern for thinking and arguing about politics in light of participatory, progressive, populist, communitarian and/or civic imperatives. I actually read a fair number of blogs, but there are few I come back to with much regularity, simply because so many blogs spread themselves so thin that it's rare to see much sustained engagement with core issues, particularly issues about which I have a lot of questions and opinions. Your blog, Peter, is a pleasing exception to that reality. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at December 6, 2004 05:37 PM

We've been in touch, so you already know that I'm in Texas, actively politically, and interested in what holds communities together. Professional interest? Not really. I come by because you write well and make things interesting. I suspect that if your subject were the mating habits of Bay seaweed you'd still draw a crowd!

I'm also a blogger (your site has a link there) and am someone who spends time in political blogs where I drop links to your site whenever relevant. People who've let me know they've checked this site out are impressed, as well we should be! A link in Kos -- my blog has experienced that -- will give you a sudden surge of visitors but then it will subside to steady growth again.

Truth be told, with the exception of a few, the blogs with the most hits and comments turn out, over time, to be the least interesting.

Posted by: PW at December 7, 2004 12:22 AM

I blow your whole profile out of the water. I'm a librarian (in practice, not a researcher or professor). We are geographically close (in meat space). I think that's how I originally found you - a PG county search. I subscribe to more than 200 feeds -- when yours is updated, I read it when I get a chance. I've commented here, too. I've expressed several times in my blogs that chasing audience changes the blog - please continue as you have been - don't mind me!

Posted by: Christina Pikas at December 7, 2004 03:35 PM

Your blog is more successful than you give yourself credit. First of all, the median blog is dead (no posts at all in the last 9 months, say). Second, 40 recognized inbound links is well above average even for live blogs. My guess is that you are in the top 2-5 thousandths of blogs. (There is a large mass of live blogs that probably only have 4-6 inbound links and get only hundreds of visitors a month. I'd guess that you get hundreds of visitors a day.)

To me, you are a thought leader in a small niche that I happen to be interested in. Since your signal/noise ratio is high, I tend to read it before most of the other 60+ blogs I track via bloglines. I comment occasionally, when I feel I have something of value to contribute.

In my opinion, the reason that there aren't more comments is because your blog, by technical design and in the way you frame your posts, is not a discussion forum. It's a site to read expert commentary, with a limited opportunity for reader feedback. I can't tell you whether is it is worth it for you to invest the time you do in feeding this project, but it is certainly worth the time I spend reading it.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at December 8, 2004 04:19 PM

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