Is the blogging bubble about to burst?

I’ve been worrying about the viability of blogging recently. Partly it’s finding myself squeezing this kind of thing in before breakfast and wondering if I really ought to get a life (although I’ve always thought work-life balance was over-rated – depends on the work, depends on the life….). But it was also the raised eyebrows (and envious tones) from a few colleagues in other development agencies, whose tone suggested that blogging was some kind of extraordinary self-indulgence that Oxfam should really clamp down on.

At the same time, like everyone else in this corner of the blogosphere, I was shocked when Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi announced that they were closing down the popular Aid Watch blog due to Chinese meal syndrome – they wanted to stop snacking and free up more time for longer research pieces. Interestingly, they also cited the urge to move from talking about aid to talking about development. Is aid-bashing fatigue breaking out? Elsewhere a few political blogs have been closing down in the UK recently, citing the increasing nastiness of the blogosphere and the lack of a business model that can allow people to earn a living from blogging.

So is the blogging bubble about to burst? Am I finally going to have to learn how to use twitter? Or just go back to writing books and 40 page policy papers? Don’t think so and to explain why not, here are some suitably self-justificatory thoughts about the role of blogging on development.

dog_blog_cartoonFirst, there are plenty of benefits to the blogger, and I don’t just mean a license to scrounge review copies of new books. Blogging forces you to read stuff more carefully and come to a view, it provides an immediate (though fairly small) audience for exchanges of daily thoughts and opinions, and you build up an archive of links + virtually every intelligent thought you’ve had (and a few others) for the last 3 years. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the big cheeses in Oxfam take more notice of something on the blog than if I send them the same thought in an email…… Feeding the blogbeast is undoubtedly a pressure, a daily monkey on your back, but in my experience, it’s a creative one.

But enough about me, what’s the wider organizational cost-benefit of having a (part time) blogger on your payroll?

There are some tangible benefits – there’s enough feedback to suggest that some posts get picked up by the media, or influence academics, other NGOs and (occasionally) policy makers. But I think it goes a bit deeper than that kind of direct (and attributable) impact. Blogging has turbocharged a part of the development discussion best described as the ‘ideas space’ – the daily churn of ideas, buzzwords, priorities, spins and slants which serves to accelerate the evolution of the conventional wisdom of the day. Remember variation, selection and amplification – the three elements of evolution? Blogs are probably best at the selection bit, chewing over new ideas, sifting and rejecting, setting agendas. Some go viral (think ‘Bottom Billion’ or Andy Sumner’s paper on where poor people live these days), while most sink rapidly into well-deserved oblivion.

That chatter influences the views of pundits, politicians and aid workers alike. Over eighty years ago, Keynes memorably pointed out  that ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ That’s still true – decision makers often resemble living fossils of the dominant schools of thought at the time when they went to university. But now the thoughts of last week’s bloggers are overlaid on that deeper, more immovable frame of thought. Gramsci would have blogged from prison.

I’m not sure NGOs have sufficiently woken up to the increased importance of the ideas space. Look at the wonky end of the developmental blogosphere and they are noticeable by their absence. Are we clinging too much to policy paper land, albeit with added press work? NGO blogs tend to be unengaging – either gushing or leaden. Or anonymously corporate – the best-read blogs have a face and a personality, and institutional blogs, whether from thinktanks or NGOs can be pretty dull affairs.

Given the demands of solo blogging, it may be that the most sustainable option is to assemble a group of faces, rather than an institution or an individual. A View from the Cave reckons CGD has got the right  balance between individual personality and institutional identity. Global Dashboard is another example of an a stable of bloggers that produces enough (too much?) output without killing anyone. Any others?

So although periodic shake-outs are inevitable, blogging has to evolve a bit to become more sustainable, and individual bloggers will always drop out through exhaustion, boredom or life changes, I reckon this particular form of cyber soap box is here to stay. Sorry.

Update: look, I really wasn’t fishing for compliments, (at least not consciously), but thanks anyway…….

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Comments

20 Responses to “Is the blogging bubble about to burst?”
  1. Paddy Coulter

    I agree, aid & development blogs will remain a crucially important public space for as long as mainstream media continue to fail to give adequate coverage to this area. Compare and contrast the numbers of environment correspondents (even in The Sun!) with the paucity of reporters with a specialist development background. So no pre-breakfast slacking, Duncan, your blogging fraternity out there needs you!

  2. J

    This blog has been a fantastic way to keep up-to-date on new developments (for lack of a better word…) in the development ‘space’. And, in the process, I’ve learned a lot more about Oxfam’s initiatives. Keep up the good work!

  3. James Ian McKay

    Don’t even think about giving up yourself Duncan! We need our daily injection of debate on development issues. It is true that the problem with a lot of blogs is that it becomes an extension of people’s egos, allowing people to pontificate on anything they want. I remember one organisation I worked in where the big boss wanted his own blog, but actually didn’t have any ideas to communicate….so he got his head of communications to do it for him….but then after a few months she left the post! Result? An embarrassing silence on a blog that should never have seen the light of day. Your one, on the other hand, definitely helps to pull together a lot of disperse material and make a contribution to where the current debates/controversies are. Oxfam likes petitions, right? We will have to start a petition ourselves if colleagues manage to close your blog! Cheers….

  4. Anna Coryndon

    Please don’t stop blogging Duncan. Your blog is a good antidote to standard NGO blogs. Ideas space is really important, and policy papers etc couldn’t exist (at least with impact and relevance)without that ideas and debate process.

    Great if you could fit in some books and longer pieces – but no 40 page policy papers please!

  5. Rémi

    Duncan, like many others I would just want you to carry on: if I had to follow only one blog on development, I would keep this one. Really the reason is that, as a “development practitioner” (bit on the field, bit looking for money, bit supporting organisations from behind a desk), this blog is far more “practical”, i.e. not just focused on aid, and not just field-driven cynicism either…

  6. Grande fromage

    You’re not allowed to stop. How else do we find out about books and 40-page policy papers, whether by you or anyone else? More important still, where else to find concise summaries and critiques of the books and papers — so useful in this information-overloaded world.

  7. Rinus van Klinken

    I just noticed that there is no other way to indicate agreement, other than through posting a comment. Herewith: keep blogging. Your dilemma resembles much of development work. The most useful inputs do not create a discernable direct output.Forget looking for linearity..

  8. I too had noticed the decision of several high profile bloggers to quit, and suspect it may have something to do with the mainstream media muscling in on bloggers’ territory. A lot of newspapers and other media outlets have incorporated blogging into their websites, publishing content online that doesn’t make it into the paper’s print edition.

    The Guardian’s Global Development site and Poverty Matters blog are a relevant case in point. They publish blogposts by Guardian writers as well as by prominent bloggers and influential thinkers in the development industry.

    Could this kind of move undermine other bloggers, drawing traffic away? Or does it give them extra strength by expanding the space in which the development blogosphere operates?

    On a separate point, I never understood why FPTP and AidWatch insist on making blogging a strictly daily activity. Surely that risks burnout, puts extra pressure on time, and makes blogging a chore rather than a pleasure. Bill and Laura, for example, could make AidWatch an occasional blog, posting only when something of particular interest crops up rather than stopping altogether. And if you’re thinking of following them, I would urge you take this idea on board first.

  9. Other benefits to blogging (on development and human rights): democratizes policy debates – giving influence to atypical pundits for example; creates space for citizen journalism; breaks down cultural and territorial divides so that ‘knowledge’ becomes more than what elite institutions tell us about the world…

  10. Blogging is a good creative exercise – I totally agree with you there – that’s the reason I started blogging.

    I found, as a writer used to doing longer articles it honed my research and writing skills (and definitely editing ones).

    It has forced me to think deeper about issues and, as you say, take the poition on things that I have always wanted to take, but didn’t always have the luxury of doing when writing for the paying client. That’s a dilemma a lot of writers have to face.

    My blog is the only place I feel free to really be myself and write about what is important to me, and I feel the same freedom comes through in your blog Duncan.

    So I am adding my voice to the others to say keep it up, and I’d encourage anyone to blog because it is really the only alternative to the mainstream media that has any bite (in my not-so-humble opinion).

    Just wish I had more hours in the day – you’ve inspired me to write a post sometime today for my sadly neglected blog!

  11. Duncan, your blog and Chris Blattman’s are both essential reading — ways to keep in touch with your voracious consumption (& generation) of new ideas, research, work in NGO land. It’s worth the effort. I find personally that it’s best for me to blog (on Africa, development, and China) irregularly, when I have time and web access (not weekly) and some passion about an issue. Keep up the good work —

  12. PS Baker

    Your blog is a major asset to Oxfam, you present a very balanced and well reasoned front for an important but sometimes insufferable bunch of people…

    For those of us who are not real development wonks, your clear and non technical delivery is highly appreciated. And as others give up you will become more and more influential.

    So yes, please keep blogging, but no, don’t bother with tweets – you’re not Steven Fry.

  13. Ian

    +1 on Pablo’s comment
    ( Two things: 1) Please, keep blogging; 2) Please, begin tweeting)

    And partly for selfish reasons. Otherwise how am I going to be able to cite you as great example of what WE should be doing to engage more in the aid ideas space.

  14. Shupiwe

    When I did my MA ten years ago in the dark ages before blogs the only access there was to debate with senior policy makers, researchers, practioners etc was through seminars and conferences.

    Blogs like FPTP would have saved me all those train tickets! Although your blog does mean you miss out on free sandwiches and orange juice…

  15. Another, love your blog + please keep blogging vote from me too.

    It might not feel this way to you as you bang out a post at 7am but I think of your blog as a development activity.

    We’re still not even close to having all the answers to the key questions of development. And through publishing your learning and thinking here I reckon you contribute to our inching forward…

  16. Well I am glad blogging is not out of fashion just yet. At IDS we are investing a lot of effort to get our researchers blogging and we have even starting launching research team blogs. These try and avoid the institutional blog corporate approach which as you point out is often dull. But these team blogs do give a group of academics a space to discuss and reflect on a wide range of issues that all relate to a particular development topic. First to be launched was our Globalisation team’s blog that has quickly gained many loyal followers http://www.globalisationanddevelopment.com/ and coming soon is our Participation team’s blog and our new Climate Change team’s blog.

    Duncan: that’s an interesting alternative – themed group blogs. Still reckon you should put faces on the contributors though

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