Sunday, September 14, 2014

The group blog failure mode

The other day I learned that Skepticblog, a group blog I used to read, is no longer updating.  This made me reflect on group blogs, and blogging in general.

Over many years of reading blogs, I've seen a number of group blogs*, including Cosmic Variance, Queereka, Skepchick, Friendly Atheist, Rationally Speaking, and of course I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda.  Sometimes group blogs work well, providing a stronger update schedule, and allowing for dialogue within a single site.  Sometimes, they do not work very well.

*Specifically, I'm thinking of "closed" group blogs where the contributors are handpicked, not an "open" group blog where anyone can contribute a piece.

Group blogs have a particular failure mode where one blogger dominates the updates, and the others only periodically offer updates.  In my subjective opinion, the less prolific writers are usually worse, probably because they have less practice.  It becomes a bit of a death spiral, where the dominant blogger feels like they're being too dominant, and the infrequent bloggers feel like their writing doesn't match the quality or tone of the rest of the blog, and everyone ends up blogging less than they would otherwise.  In this failure mode, it seems like the group blog would be better off just being an individual's blog.  But it also seems inappropriate to say so, because it would discourage the infrequent bloggers, further contributing to the death spiral.

I think what's going on here, is there are multiple blogging "types", which we see reflected both in group blogs and individual blogs.  Some very small fraction of people blog frequently, obsessively, and for long periods of time.  I fall into this category, and so do most long-term bloggers.  Other people are initially excited, but quickly lose that excitement.  You basically can't tell what type you are without actually trying it.

If a bunch of people start individual blogs, most of those people will lose interest, and let their blogs die.  A smaller number will continue writing for a long period of time.  The prolific bloggers are the only ones we tend to see or remember, but I have reason to believe they are in the minority, because I know what often happens with group blogs.  If the same group of people gets together and start a group blog, usually only one or two people dominate, and the rest become infrequent contributors.

Crucial to the success of a group blog is a way of finding multiple prolific contributors.

One possible model, like we do on The Asexual Agenda, is to periodically call for new contributors.  Out of every batch of new contributors, there are some who are prolific, and we slowly accumulate those kinds of writers (or at least replenish them, since most people do eventually slow down).  Some people are less prolific, but still good because we screen for writing ability.  And since we have multiple prolific bloggers with different writing styles, hopefully these people never feel discouraged for having a different style.  Some people never contribute anything, which is also fine.  This model requires some level of popularity to maintain.  (It also helps that we draw from a lot of pre-existing bloggers.)

Since I opened this topic by talking about Skepticblog, I'm implying that Skepticblog was falling into this group blog death spiral.  Skepticblog is an odd case because all of its contributors are credentialed in some way.  It originally consisted of the full cast of a Mythbusters-like TV show pitch (which never succeeded).  Of course, credentials don't necessarily guarantee that someone becomes a frequent blogger, so Skepticblog has, throughout its history, been dominated by one blogger or another.  That's not why I stopped reading it though.  I just lost interest for more mundane reasons.