Branding, blogging and the attention economy

Every online community loves a meta-conversation, a discussion about the community itself, and the blawgosphere is no exception. But even by those standards, the explosion of posts ignited by a article on women law bloggers was remarkable for its strength and immediacy.

Published yesterday, the article posited a relative absence of women blawggers (rather ironically, considering the term “blawg” was coined by Denise Howell) and suggested various hypotheses to explain the shortage. Within 24 hours, the article had touched off responses across the blawgosphere, from Nicole Black, Ann Althouse, Mary Dudziak, Christine Hurt, Diane Levin, and Laurie Mapp, along with Scott Greenfield and Robert Ambrogi.

The upshot of most of these posts is that the writer failed to look deeply enough into the legal blogosphere, restricting her research to the most highly trafficked sites and those of large law firms. While that’s true, I also think there’s something to be said for male law bloggers’ tendency to link to other men disproportionately more than to women. I think it’s also worth noting that if there is a serious paucity of women bloggers, it’s mostly inside of law firms, especially the larger ones. I may be verging on cynicism here, but I think that’s largely because two things law firms don’t tend to take very seriously are the careers of their women lawyers and the utility of blogs.

Several bloggers also pointed out that until this article asked the question, it had never occurred to them to think about the gender of the other bloggers they read or linked to — it was of the sheerest irrelevance. My own blogroll includes bloggers like Carolyn Elefant, Susan Cartier Liebel, Connie Crosby, Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, and Penelope Trunk, but until I made that list, I had never thought about the male-female breakdown. Ditto for the people I follow on Twitter, including most of the above as well as Victoria Pynchon, Mina Sirkin, Donna Seale, Kelly Phillips Erb, and too many others to list. But just because I haven’t thought about blawggers’ gender before isn’t an excuse to not think about it now, and I’m glad for the opportunity to learn about more women law bloggers worth reading.

But what really struck me among all the posts on this topic, and what I’m really interested in writing about today, came from Ann Althouse. Responding to the suggestion in the original article that women avoid blogging because they’re more prone to professional or personal attack, she wrote: “The internet is not going to coddle and comfort you. In fact, the internet wants you out of here.” [Emphasis in original] While the delivery is a little harsh, I think this is a powerful and profound statement, and every lawyer who intends to build her or her profile and brand online needs to be aware of it and accept it.

The blogosphere is intensely, almost fanatically competitive. There are millions upon millions of blogs out there, and each of them needs readers’ attention to survive the way you and I need air. There’s only so much of that attention to go around, producing what Davenport and Beck called the attention economy — the decision to view or listen to something has become a significant economic choice. You could also analogize the blogosphere to the Cambrian explosion, an unprecedented and unexplained flourishing of life on Earth on a massive scale about 500 million years ago. Either way, there are only so many resources to go around, and if you really want to make a go of it in this environment, you’re in for a tremendous fight.

Some of the sadder (to me) comments in all the posts about women law bloggers came from lawyers who started blogs and gamely maintained them for as long as they could, but eventually gave up after generating very little traffic and attention. I’m a writer at heart, and that heart goes out to anyone with a manuscript unfinished or a blog abandoned because they grew discouraged by the lack of audience interest. But while some of these projects could have been saved with better marketing or friendlier circumstance, many failed on the merits — either their subject or their style, or both, just wasn’t compelling enough to earn attention credits from an increasingly busy, demanding and fickle readership.

I’m not suggesting it should be any other way, mind you — if all the 900,000 blog posts in the last 24 hours actually got read, the global economy (such as it is these days) would lurch to a sudden halt. And every environment throws up obstacles to ensure that only the truly talented and committed reach anything like a rarefied atmosphere: Seth Godin’s The Dip talks about how medical schools create the buzzsaw barrier of Organic Chemistry in undergrad to weed as many people as possible out of the pre-med stream. These are realities of every competitive environment, and they apply to the blawgosphere too.

Law blogging proponents can be a little cavalier in their standard recommendation that you “start a blog” — I’ve certainly been guilty of that sometimes. But lawyers who want to use blogs to build their brands and promote their profiles need to understand just how challenging a path they’re choosing. Even assuming you’re a really good writer and you know your subject area really well, you need to be realistic about these cold facts:

* Other lawyers are blogging about this too. Unless you’ve chosen an extreme niche, your chosen field is very likely already occupied or soon will be. Check out all the blogs tracked at the ABA Blawg Directory or LexMonitor for a sober assessment of your playing field.

* The noise level on the Internet is staggering. Everyone on the Net is yammering at everyone else to pay attention to them, and users are always on the edge of being overwhelmed. Legitimate SEO strategies are indisputably important, but appreciate that your ideal readership is always a little deafened.

* Your readers read more than just blogs. This is the single biggest mistake in every publishing medium: magazines assume that their readers only read other magazines, newspapers think they only compete with newspapers, bloggers compare themselves only to other bloggers. Everything that is printed, broadcast, sung, illustrated or otherwise meant for a sensory target is part of the attention economy. You’re up against YouTube and Extreme Home Makeover whether you like it or not.

* The Internet demands commitment. Millions of blogs are abandoned every day, and the Net brushes them aside like litter. What the Net wants from you is a sign that you’re willing to stick it out through the bad times (and there’ll be bad times, believe me). Blog readers don’t just check out the post Google has led them to — they check out how long you’ve been posting and how frequently you post. If you’re in for the long and steady haul, readers are likelier to trust you and return to you.

Look, I’m a strong believer in the Chuck Jones school of creative motivation. Jones was once asked whether his Warner Brothers cartoons were meant for children or adults. “I don’t draw them for children and I don’t draw them for adults,” he replied. “I draw them for me.” At the end of the day, the number of people in your Delighted Audience has to be at least one: you. And nobody has ever said a blog is only as worthwhile as the number of readers it has: Rees Morrison, for one, has said he blogs as much for his own records and to facilitate his own thinking, and doesn’t blog to attract clients or generate work.

But if you want to blog as a way to promote yourself — and I really think every lawyer should at least seriously consider doing so — also seriously consider that it’s not as easy as falling off a log. You’ll find yourself, as we all tend to do, checking your daily visits log and counting the number of RSS subscribers, and wondering how to raise them. You’ll find yourself (or a partner, colleague or spouse) inevitably asking about the ROI on this project. You’ll wonder why, even with good content and steady visitors, you (or even your whole gender) can seem invisible to people writing about the legal blogosphere.

If you’re not prepared for this beforehand, then blogging can be a deeply dispiriting experience. But if you are prepared, and you’re both realistic about the challenge and committed to the goal, then the rewards can be extraordinary. The Internet doesn’t want you here –but you can want to be here more.


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