What even is a blog?

Blogging is simple, snappy and straight off the cuff, right? Wrong. Heavy is the shelf that bears the weight of scrapped attempts to complete an ODI ‘blogging strategy’ and yet the number of ODI blogs and bloggers continues to grow.  In a recent blog on From Poverty to Power, Duncan Green discussed why the UN doesn’t have more bloggers. He asked: ‘is blogging an established part of the landscape and is there a successor waiting in the wings?’, assuming that if blogs are a part of the furniture then everybody should be encouraged to get comfortable with them. My answer is ‘yes they are and no there’s probably not’.

For the incubation years of the ODI blog there was a fairly strict sign off procedure as well as an intensive editing process that often meant people felt blogging was more effort than it was worth. It also gave us very little scope to use blogging to respond to breaking news.  Over a couple of years and thanks to a growing library of blog related success stories (positive emails from peers, requests from journalists, links other prominent blogs) we have been able to create positive feedback loops that have led to more and more staff using blogs as a way of introducing people to their research and responding to events. It’s not always been easy but we have successfully encouraged previously reluctant staff to engage with blogging to the extent that the problem now is now too many blogs, not too few.

This growth is a clear reflection of the fact that blogging has becoming an accepted part of the dissemination package that researchers can deploy to get the word out about their latest offering. So should we assume all institutions need to be encouraged to blog? I’m not convinced.

The reasons why some institutions are better than others at blogging almost certainly come down to internal cultures and core missions – if neither of these provide an incentive to blog there’s probably little hope. It’s not an easy nut for any organisation to crack which is probably why the best blogs don’t tend to belong to institutions, they belong to individuals.

Blogs fall into four broad categories* all of which face challenges to their longevity, although I’m not convinced these are life-threatening.

  1. The single person or personality driven blog tends be wide-ranging and heavily opinion led. It is something of a river of consciousness where the author shares views on the matters of their day. Being owned by an individual gives a degree of flexibility and independence to the author who can publish at will and without overbearing employer interference.
  2. Institutional blogs are publishing platforms which tend to be created and monitored by organisations using them primarily to promote their own messages.  They have a different risk threshold to deal with, particularly for evidence based outfits like think tanks. Firstly, a blogger might start a diplomatic incident by overstepping the mark in their comments relating to another organisation, individual or even country. Secondly, they might get their facts wrong and thirdly, they might not make a very convincing argument.  All of which can threaten reputations.
  3. News blogs are run by media organisations to share news stories. They tend to have larger readerships than any of the above blogs but are much more responsive to the news agenda.  Without a strong message for a broad audience you’re unlikely to get published.
  4. The fourth category is the thematic blog which pulls together contributions on a specific issue from a range of sources. It encourages sharing of expertise and learning – Wonkcomms is a good example.

So what challenges do the different types of blogs face now and in the future?

Thematic blogs bring together groups of people with an interest in the same thing – just like online messageboards or email discussion groups did in the days of yore. Platforms such as Linked In now enable likeminded people to talk through issues in real time without the need for the time investment that comes with putting together a decent blog. Recent Wonkcomms discussions about ‘Whether or not to hire a digital manager’ have attracted plenty of comments that fall short of blogs but make for interesting reading none the less. So it is possible that communities of practice blogs might be usurped by quicker platforms able to deliver more real-time discussion of issues. But on the other hand some topics require a bit of thought before you wade into them so I’m not sure the sun will be setting on these kinds of blog anytime soon.

Institutional blogs are tricky for the reasons set out above but you can also make a case that they don’t follow best practice when it comes to online outreach.  ODI’s award winning digital strategy preaches ‘being there’ as a tactic which encourages us wherever possible to place ODI content on external sites that are heavily frequented by our target audiences.  If we were to follow this edict to its logical conclusion then ODI opinions published by ODI wouldn’t exist, we’d simply be linking to content published elsewhere.

Some of our staff were born bloggers, others were not but all of them need to be able to publish short opinion pieces somewhere. That’s why the ODI opinion platform exists. Where we can’t publish off-site we publish on our own site. These days that is the only extent to which an ‘ODI blog’ exists – but we couldn’t get by without it and I can’t see it going anywhere just yet.

News blogs are in a strong position. Almost all bloggers –whether individual or institutional are happy to blog for news organisations and they rarely see them as ‘competitors’. The biggest change in news blogging has been the emergence of the ‘live blog’ which presents more of a challenge to established forms of journalism than it does the success of more traditional blogs.

Last but not least are the personality driven blogs. These were in many ways the trailblazers of the blogging phenomenon but they are also the most at risk. The demands on your time and your ideas appear to be such that without a rollcall of supporting bloggers it is hard to sustain a personal blog for more than a couple of years. The explosion of Twitter and the increasing flexibility offered by platforms such as Twitlonger provide a more immediate outlet for sharing thoughts, ideas and frustrations that didn’t exist at the dawn of the blogging age. All of which means it is probably harder than ever before to sustain the motivation required to maintain a successful blog. A faithful few might manage to plough on but there are probably more reasons than before not to bother – especially if you have access to a corporate outlet for occasional offerings.

The recent event on the Future of Think Tank Communications contained a lot of discussion about the proliferation of different digital content. There’s still room for much more creative use of audio, video and data visualisation (see the World Bank’s Tumblr), but short bursts of thought and opinion will continue to find a home on blogs for now.

* Don’t get me started on categories of blogposts, we really wouldn’t want to go there!

Jonathan Tanner tweets as @tannerjc

Media and Public Affairs man at the ODI.

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Posted in Opinion
5 comments on “What even is a blog?
  1. richarddarlington says:

    There are only 7 types of blog posts & there are only 4 types of pegs to start them off. I reveal all in my blogging master class. Ask me nicely & I might share with you

  2. Very interesting blog post about blog posts. Guess it comes down to either knowing what your audience is, or creating your own from scratch by filling a niche. Institutional blogs are a bit like institutional twitter accounts – a bit dry and controlled. The most exciting and best read content comes from individuals with more freedom, which is how I’d like to see my organisation develop. With all these things though, it’s all about good content rather than words for words’ sake.

  3. bloggs74 says:

    Nice post Jonathan. I know that when IDS decided to embark upon the creation of blogs for each of our research teams some eyebrows were raised and at least one high profile development blogger informed me confidently that institutional blogs were doomed to failure. We have certainly not found this to be the case. We now moderate no less than five research team blogs. They have all proved to be quite successful. They simply provide our researchers with an outlet they never had before which many have used successfully to build their profile and promote their work as well as engage in topical debate. Of course there are challenges and there are some researchers who will never blog. But most are willing to give it a try and some have become really quite prolific. All in all we have seen the team blogs really change behaviors and strategy here at IDS in a very short time.
    James Georgalakis
    Head of Comms, IDS

  4. Hans Gutbrod says:

    I think your comment is right on target.

    I think there is one other question, which is not so much whether blogs will at some point become obsolete, but whether institutions that do not blog will at some point appear obsolete, and even become obsolete. I think there are a number of organizations in development that worked as aggregators, and the Internet is making them less relevant, since it allows a number of horizontal relationships that previously were simply not possible.

    With these organizations, the problem is not so much that they do not have a digital strategy, it is that they are floundering in a more existential way. And the absence of active blogging illustrates that within those organizations, people are not particularly eager to share information, and in some ways may also not have that much to say.

    That does not mean that these institutions will go away, since some of them just have entrenched budget lines. But it does mean that these institutions will become even less relevant than they might have been before.

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