State of the professional blogosphere

If blogs keep doubling at the current rate, Tim Bray figures everyone on the planet will have one by 2009. What exactly will all those blogs be used for? As Tim notes, part two of Dave Sifry's recent tour through the Technorati data mine identifies an emerging phenomenon that Sifry aptly dubs "the magic middle":

...these are blogs that are interesting, topical, and influential, and in some cases are radically changing the economics of trade publishing.

Tim Bray asks: "Perhaps a new thing in the world?" No and yes, I think. What's not new is the topical clustering. We've seen that before; it's the architecture of the Usenet. I've long expected the same topical clusters to emerge in the blogosphere.

What is new, though, is the shift from communal publishing to personal publishing. A newsgroup isn't anyone's monetizable asset. A blog can be owned and sold, and as Dave Sifry says, that will transform trade publishing.

There are lots of niches to be occupied by these new kinds of trade publications. But when you add them all up, the number falls far short of the number that most intrigues me. The number I have in mind is smaller than billions of MySpace- and LiveJournal-like diaries, but bigger than tens or hundreds of thousands of trade publications. It's on the order of millions to tens of millions of blogs that narrate the careers of people in every professional field.

On the assumption that this trend was emerging, I spent part of my winter vacation sketching out a book proposal that would explain how and why to use a blog as a kind of 21st-century resume/autobiography. But when I looked for examples of this kind of blog, I couldn't find them. At one point I invited my readers to refer me to examples of professional blogs. Their responses were illuminating.

One respondent is a scientist employed by a government agency. He has a blog, and would like to use it to explain his published research and relate it to public issues. But he doesn't, because he's not sure his employer will be OK with that. So instead he blogs about things unrelated to his work.

Another respondent is a PR professional who formerly earned a Ph.D. in literature. She doesn't write a blog. If she did, she's not sure whether or how her passion for literature, which can and does influence her PR work, should be reflected in a professional blog.

For business owners and freelancers the case is clear-cut. Growing numbers of these folks are using blogs to project their professional identities onto the web. So are academics, though given the freedoms they enjoy, not as many as I'd expect to see by now. But the conventionally employed, who are still the overwhelming majority, are -- quite understandably -- reluctant to narrate their professional lives online.

If you look for blogs written by teachers or doctors, for example, you'll find mostly pseudonymous ones. In theory that wouldn't be necessary if these blogs stuck to Wikipedia-like documentation of factual knowledge. But if that's all you wanted to do, you could do it in Wikipedia. In practice what a lot of people would really like to write about is their real-world expertise. And for a variety of reasons, they often can't.

In the case of teachers and doctors, that expertise intersects with the lives of other people in ways that preclude open discussion. In other cases, that expertise is competitive. For example, although I read two well-known tech bloggers -- Tim Bray and Jeremy Zawodny -- I don't actually know what Tim is working on at Sun or what Jeremy is working on at Yahoo.

I raised this issue of professional blogging on a recent episode of the Gillmor Gang show. This response and this comment support my conclusion that there are a lot of folks who would like to narrate their professional lives online, but can't.

I've shelved the book proposal for now. Will it be viable in five years? Ten years? Never? I'm just not sure. The issue here isn't simply that employers don't get what blogging is or can be. I think that's changing. I think there is an emerging consensus that professional lives can, should, and will be lived more transparently. But a successful negotiation of the limits of that transparency will be incredibly tricky. I'm hopeful that we'll get there, but doubtful that we'll get there soon.

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