Drafting my disclosure statement reminded me of an issue I’ve been meaning to discuss for a while. I don’t blog for money; I’m uncomfortable when other legal academics do. For the most part, we don’t need the money to operate our blogs, so bringing money into the picture creates some unnecessary tensions.
This is not a condemnation of commercialized blogging. When a corporate executive writes for a company blog, the self-interest is both obvious and irrelevant. Full-time bloggers, like full-time journalists, need to get paid or they don’t eat. And plenty of hobbyist bloggers would have a hard time if their blogs weren’t self-funding. My concerns are more specific to legal academic blogging. Professors have a special calling. We’re paid to be intellectually independent.
Nor am I saying that law professors should never mix the blogging arts with commerce. There’s no firm line between blogging and other activities in the public eye. Just as it’s okay to for professors to be paid to write op-eds, best-selling books, and newspaper columns, it’s okay for them to be paid to blog. Glenn Reynolds blogged for four years for MSNBC; it was a great gig for a law professor and good for the academy that he took it.
My point is only that adding money to a blog introduces a set of subtle interlocking pressures: maximize readership, drive readers to ads, measure everything. The steps some legal bloggers take to satisfy these pressures can undercut the free flow of ideas at the heart of the scholarly ideal.
Finally, some blogs are so popular that their hosting costs are beyond what any one academic should be expected to pay out of hobby money. These blogs need sponsors just to exist. (Perhaps law schools could treat them as faculty promotion expenses—but that would raise a different set of independence concerns.) These blogs have no choice but to wrestle with the issues I’ll describe below. The rest of us, though—and that’s the overwhelming majority of lawprof bloggers—have moderate readerships and few expenses. We can avoid the tensions altogether, and I think usually should.
Let me explain.
The Business of Blogging
It’s easy to run a legal academic blog without paid advertising. Consider Opinio Juris (professionally hosted at PowerBlogs), Discourse.net (largely self-administered, with hosting at DreamHost), and Leonard Link (on a school-specific subdomain of TypePad). I do it, too. It costs less than it would if I spent the time on more traditional forms of “entertainment.” For those law professor blogs that do take ads, the most common model is to place banner or text ads in the sidebars or header. Here are some examples:
I’ve never heard anything to suggest that the sponsored blogs do anything untoward based on who’s sponsoring them. Even Prawfs’s Course Preparation Project has been scrupulously honest about not endorsing any publisher, and since we all need to use a casebook, it’s not as though the Project affected total casebook sales. But here, perhaps, is the first value of independence. My blog isn’t sponsored by a publisher, so my own endorsement—I’ve consistently found Aspen casebooks to be outstanding—comes free of any taint of suspicion. I might not be able to say that as credibly if I took ads from them. (For this reason, I’m also not an Amazon affiliate; I don’t want anyone to fear that my book recommendations are driven by self-interest.)
The bigger concern, which unites both sponsored blogs and ones with network-served ads, is that pay-per-click methods create a systematic incentive to increase readership. (Aspects of this argument may sound familiar to readers of Ed Baker.) Of course, more readers is generally good; we should generally prefer to have our ideas reach broader audiences. But the pressure to add readers can have unhealthy consequences.
First, showing ads to readers is itself a waste of their attention. I assume that people come to my blog either by mistake or to read what I have to say. Neither reason provides an excuse for me to steal a few tenths of a second of their time by bombarding them with distracting ads. We don’t put Pepsi ads in our articles; we don’t hang T-Mobile posters on our office doors. I’m not convinced that academic blogs should be different.
A closely related problem is that only readers who see the ads can click on them. Readers who use feedreaders, though, don’t normally see the ads on a blog’s web pages. The short-run profit-maximizing response is to provide only the first few lines of each post in the feed. Readers who want to read the whole post need to click through to the post’s page—with attendant ads. Again, this practice wastes readers’ time. It also interferes with practices that speed ideas to new audiences; you can’t run a search across all the feeds you read if only some of them are full-text.
Similarly, the drive to monetize readers encourages blogs to keep a close hold on their content. None of the ad-laden lawprof blogs listed above offers its posts under a Creative Common license. (By way of contrast, Feminist Law Profs and the Becker-Posner blog, both of which are ad-free, use Creative Commons licenses.) I doubt that this tradeoff was explicit in most bloggers’ minds, but it’s a good example of a deep and subtle tension. Blogging for money encourages a particular way of thinking about your writings, one that sees them as a resource whose value can be improved through close management. That way of thinking can make it harder to remember that ideas are naturally as free as the air to common use. As law professors, we of all people should be most attuned to the social value of giving our ideas away freely to all comers to do with as they will.
Other problems have more to do with attracting and counting reader than with showing them ads per se. Amateur bloggers obsessed with their hit counts can fall into these traps just as deeply as professionals can. Money just provides the motive and the means. The motive is that one wants to maximize revenue and therefore starts keeping close tabs on readership. The means is that the very technologies used to calculate ad revenue also supply readership information and therefore tighten the feedback loop between posting and counting. Either way, the effects are troublesome.
One issue is privacy. Most bloggers have visitor logs, even if they don’t necessarily look at them. But using log-analysis tools, whether old-school or new-school, turns the logs into a surveillance system; you can start to profile your users. It was easier in the days before web-service feedreaders, but an author who studies her logs closely can still sometimes tell, for example, what time a particular reader of her blog wakes up in the morning. Of course, if you’re using network-served ads, you’re outsourcing that profiling work to Google, or DoubleClick, or Amazon—each hit on the blog goes into their gigantic data bins for later mining. As law professors, we can debate how serious these blog-based privacy intrusions really are. We can … but we haven’t.
Counting visitors also affects the substance of what we write. I’ve talked to law professor bloggers who’ve looked at their hit counts in deciding which topics to pursue. Some lawprof blogs operate under codes of topics, style, and form. Even those blogs that don’t explicitly think about how to write are influenced by general expectations of what a “law professor blog” looks like, expectations that in part come from profit-maximizing blogs. I suspect that guest-bloggers are sometimes welcomed as much for increasing traffic as for being interesting.
These are all subtle temptations. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a wide audience, but sometimes writing to please oneself or a select few is how important ideas get their start. Every interesting blog starts with its author’s idiosyncrasies. One of the great virtues of the blogosphere is that it lets people pursue their personal intellectual agenda until it finds its audience out in the right part of the long tail. Even if your goal is to maximize readership in the long run, sometimes the best way to do that is to ignore your readership in the short run. (Otherwise, you turn into Gawker.) The easy availability of concrete reader statistics can distract an author from the softer but harder-to-measure attributes that make a good blog satisfying to write and to read.
The curse of easy measurement can likewise affect form. Since many readers arrive from search engines, it makes a certain kind of sense to optimize your pages to make them attractive to search engines. Again, not all such effects are bad. Designing your pages so they’re easy to read helps readers. But what’s attractive to a search engine isn’t always attractive once you arrive. Search-directed redesigns also have redistributive effects; part of what you’re doing is stealing hits from some other poor schmoe out there. And if he retaliates in kind? The search optimization arms race is an ugly affair, one that law professors should be especially wary of.
This last point illustrates the more general state of psychic corruption engendered by too much focus on one’s blog juice. One blogger told me that he no longer links to another site when he criticizes it because he doesn’t want to increase his foes’ PageRank. If he gets to the point of no longer discussing their arguments lest he increase their salience, it will be a sad day for academic discourse. We know from discussions of the U.S. News index, download counts, and other indicia of ranking how corrosive status competitions within a hierarchy can be. Blogging for money sets up conditions of measurement that encourage bloggers to see themselves as taking part in such competitions. Again, the profession of professor is a special calling that should make us wary of joining such Red Queen’s races.
I can’t point to many specific instances of trouble. In part, I don’t want to call out people by name, in part that I haven’t seen any obviously awful fallout from the commercial aspect of legal academic blogging. Perhaps no posts have suffered from sponsorship, but it’s in the nature of such conflicts of interest that I might never see the damage. Indeed, the damage can take place without anyone at all being consciously aware of it.
A lot of professional bloggers do wonderful, ethical, wonderfully ethical work. I also have many friends in the legal academy who blog in part for money. The legal blogosphere is filled with intelligent and ethical people. It may be that all of the ones with ad-laden blogs have thought through these issues, settled on editorial policies that seem to them best, and found ways to counteract the subconscious pressures to sell out. But wouldn’t it be easier and more self-evidently aboveboard for law professors simply not to take blog advertising at all?
UPDATE 2008-01-16: Thoughtful responses from other quarters:
- Michael Froomkin: “[A]lmost all of these problems (other than the aesthetic and attention costs of the ads themselves) can and do exist with purely non-commercial blogs also.”
- Ann Bartow: “Linking to certain blogs, or simply maintaining them in your blogroll, can advance agendas with which you strenuously disagree, even if you are generally on the same side politically.”
- Mike Madison: “It seems to me clearly possible to advocate strongly for broad and full and unconstrained distribution of knowledge and culture, yet to remain intrigued but not necessarily sold on Creative Commons.”
- Eric Goldman, via email: “I find that being in the AdSense network (1) gives me more cred when I talk to other publishers in the network—I’m not just a law professor, but I’m part of the club, which improves my ability to evangelize my ideas, and (2) helps me understand the way AdSense works in ways that I couldn’t understand if I wasn’t involved, which helps improve my research efforts.”