Everywhere I go I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
It's just that relatively few people have realized it, yet. As I so often say: When there's big money involved, the alternate modalities will be co-opted. (Or crushed.) Even more than information wants to be free, money wants to make more money. We're now sitting in that fragile cusp (oh, hell, we may be past it) where the "winners" of the next gold-rush will be decided. It's not a huge gold rush -- not yet -- but in its own way, it will be just as hokum-driven as the dotcom boom.
I know this because I bothered to do some simple math with numbers in a news story about American blogging habits. From Britain, of all places. A friend pointed me to the BBC's obligatory popular rundown on what a blog is and why their readers should care, combined with a little bit of exoticism regarding us cousins. The article relies heavily on a report from Pew Internet and American Life Project; it's thin on details, but the do provide us with a helpful bullet list in their sidebar:
- Blog readership has shot up by 58% in 2004
- Eight million have created a blog
- 27% of online Americans have read a blog
- 5% use RSS aggregators to get news and other information
- 12% of online Americans have posted comments on blogs
- Only 38% of online Americans have heard about blogs
By implication (according to the sidebar), of Americans who've heard of blogs (38% of online Americans), 71% have read read them (27% of online Americans -- 27/38=.71); and a bit less than half of those have gone on to post comments (12% of online Americans -- 12/27=.44). (Less interesting, but more impressive: about 30% of people who've heard of blogs have posted comments...) Interesting. If taken at face value (which wouldn't be a good idea), that means almost half of people who've read blogs have posted comments to them. Before we even start to think about commercial applications, that may well represent a radical increase in the population of people participating in online forums.
But here's the real meat: When they saw those numbers in the sidebar, direct marketing people in the reading audience (who eat, sleep and breathe much more complex math than that) were drooling on their keyboards. Consider that a direct mail campaign is regarded as doing very, very well at 5% response. These are not numbers to swing elections as a constituency; but they are well into "thought-leader" territory. These blog readers are high-throughput nodes. They're the folks who spread Jib-Jab movies and forwarded the Kick Osama Butt song. At least, that's how the consultants will spin it.
Also quite interesting: Almost a fifth of people who've "read a blog" (5% of online Americans) use RSS readers to aggregate blog content. RSS readers by their definition identify regular readers, so something in excess of about 20% of blog-readers are regular blog-readers. And the stream of drool intensifies.
You have to actually do some math to sort all that out, mind; I think they're probably better at it over there, but I wonder if they weren't actively hiding those numbers by not crunching the numbers. (In America, I'd just go for ignorance -- I don't have much faith that our reporters have the math skills to calculate a proportion.)
I can honestly say that I never thought blogging was a fad. But I will go out on a limb (not that I have to go very far) and say that "podcasting" was dead before it started. Or, at least, the meaning of the term will change. "Podcasting" will come to be the audio equivalent of "TiVO", as we start to see those forthcoming gizmos that let folks TiVO-ize satellite-radio broadcasts. They'll start as special attachments for iPods. (Perhaps even as an iPod itself -- though I don't think Apple will go that far. It would hurt iTunes sales.) Then they'll spread to other music players ("there are music players besides the iPod?!"). Podcasting as we currently know it will die a quick and inglorious death, mourned only by the people who hoped to have their name forever attached to the term.
Blogging has previously never really been at an equivalent risk. The technical barriers to entry are low: A decent secondary education and enough disposable income to afford $10/mo or less in hosting fees. They face very little competition. (Well, except for newspaper columnists. What are those? Well, um, they're these folks who'd regularly get their "blogs" printed in newspapers. See, these newspapers, they're printed on really big paper, so everything is in columns, and a columnist would get one column out of six on the page... ... Newspapers. They print them, on paper, and sell them to people so they can carry them around and read them.... How do they know how many to print? They don't. A lot get wasted. Yes, I know that's a waste...)