a guest post by Bora Zivkovic of Science And Politics
Blog Carnivals And The Future Of Journalism
I recently assembled the fifth edition of the monthly Meta-Carnival, a round-up of all known blog carnivals. ... Bigwig of Silflay Hraka, the inventor of the very first carnival (as well as the term "carnival"), used to collect them but has recently decided to just link to my latest edition of the Meta-Carnival, as has the Editor of Blawg Review.
What is a blog carnival?
A blog carnival is a blog-post that contains links to posts on other blogs. How does that differ from a linkfest, or for that matter from most of the stuff that early blogs (and many blogs today) routinely did? In the early days of blogs, there was no original content - blogs WERE collections of links. How are carnivals different?
Rounding the carnivals up every month, in addition to frequent hosting, sending entries and linking to new editions, gave me, I think, some insights into what makes a carnival and especially what makes a succesful carnival. I'll now attempt to systematize what I think I learned. I will repeatedly use analogies to hard-copy journalism and to physical spaces.
What makes a carnival successful?
In order to succeed, a blog carnival needs to: a) have a clearly stated purpose, b) appear with predictable regularity, c) rotate editors, d) have a homepage and archives, and e) have more than one person doing heavy lifting. Let me go over these one at a time.
A) Purpose. Several carnivals, particularly the older ones (e.g., Carnival of Vanities), are all-purpose "Best of..." blog-newspapers and magazines. Nothing wrong with it, of course. NY Times is an all-purpose newspaper and Time is an all-purpose magazine. However, nobody collects NY Times as a prized collection: once read, the issue gets recycled or used for lining the bird cage. Similarly, having a post on - or even hosting - such a carnival may bring you an avalanche of hits for a few days but is highly unlikely to bring you new regular readers. If you prefer a physical analogy, it is like going downtown or to a park when the weather is nice and bumping into a lot of nice people, yet it is unlikely that you will exchange e-mail addresses with any of them, or ever see them again. This was a chance encounter.
Contrast that to more narrowly focused carnivals (e.g., Grand Rounds for medicine and Nursing Moment for nursing). They are blog equivalents of specialty magazines or even technical journals. In physical space, they are analogous to political rallies, MeetUps, seminars, or even scientific conferences. These are the places to go when you are looking for people who share a specific interest with you. You are likely to exchange a lot of e-mail addresses because you want to stay in touch with such people. Sending an entry to a specialized carnival exposes you to bloggers who are inherently interested in your writing. Hosting one makes you even more visible (like giving a plenary lecture at a meeting) and after the temporary avalanche of hits subsides, you will realize you have acquired a number of new regular readers, bloggers who put you on their blogrolls and on their RSS feeds, who keep coming back and linking to your posts. This is how a community is built.
B) Regularity. It really does not matter how often a carnival is posted as long as it is posted at regular intervals. Blog Of The Day and Funny Stuff are dailies. Most carnivals are weeklies. Some carnivals appear every two (e.g., Tangled Bank and Smarter Thank I) or every three weeks (e.g., History), or once a month (e.g., Balkans), or even quarterly (e.g., Carnivalesque and Carnival of Bad History). More narrowly focused a carnival, and more expertise it requires from the bloggers who submit their entries, less frequently the carnival can appear and still retain a decent size and a high level of quality of posts. Carnivals with unpredictable schedules tend to be neglected as unreliable. Can you imagine a newspaper that sometimes shows up on news-stands and sometimes does not? Ferdy, for instance, does not link to carnivals that have irregular schedules. Do it right, or don't do it.
C) Rotation. The first blogs in history were link-fests. Content appeared later. So, if you publish a blog-post that contains a bunch of links to other blogs, how is that a carnival? How is that different from just any other blog-post that is full of links? Even if you give it a name, and a theme and very regular schedule, it is only YOUR post. It better be a very creative and unique service to the blogging community (e.g., Friday Ark) or else nobody will come.
Most carnivals rotate hosts. Every issue is hosted by someone different. Some carnivals have definite "homes", yet the carnival makes regular trips to other blogs for guest-hosting (e.g., Carnival of Education, or Carnival of Sin). Best Of Me Symphony is always on the same blog, but the editor is always somebody else (a guest-editor), and that carnival is always done very well textually and visually and has earned a reputation over time.
Carnivals that are always hosted on the same blog, always by the same editor, and are sometimes irregular in scheduling tend to die off. Add to that linking primarily to posts chosen by the editor (e.g., Blog Tower and Carnival of Insanities) and I would not call it a carnival any more, but a vanity press. It is just a link-rich post by that person on that person's blog - something we all do at least occasionally.
D) Homepage and Archives. Whenever I assemble an issue of the Meta-Carnival, it takes me a few minutes to update carnivals with homepages and hours to update the carnivals without homepages. In a sense I am a "professional" while doing this search, but how about "amateurs"? They'll find it even harder. Imagine a new blogger who first discovers a carnival and reads an issue #23 or so, and wants to check out previous issues. If there is a homepage (or home-blog-post) that contains the archives of all previous issues, it is a breeze. If there is no such thing, the task is extremely difficult, in some cases impossible. Now imagine 50 years from now, when there is an issue #2523. Imagine the immensity of the archives and its value to historians. Start your archives now, while it is still relatively easy to have everything organized. If mainstream media hides its archives behind subscripton wall, while carnivals keep well-organized archives for free, guess who will be more relevant in the future?
E) Community Effort. On my own blog, I am the King. So are you on yours. Why should I come to your blog and submit to your iron-fist rule? One reason why carnivals hosted by a single blog/editor do not have wide readership and tend to whither away is because of a lack of a sense of ownership by a broader community. All the points above, e.g., a sense of purpose, rotation of hosts, regularity/predictability, and the existence of a central place and archives, tend to foster the sense of community. People find each other through the carnivals and keep coming back for more. They see how entering a carnival leads to an increase of regular readership, and hosting one even more so. The originator of the carnival wisely fades into the shadows and lets the carnival take a life of its own.
Carnivals as the Glue of the Blogging Community
There are two ways blogs in general and carnivals in particular can foster community. One is to introduce to each other people from all over the world who are interested in the same topic. I have written at length about this process, with a particular example of how blogging is going to change the future of science. In a sense, that is what one tends to think of first about the benefits of the Internet in general. If you have access to the Web, it does not matter who you are or where you are - you are an equal participant in the global endeavor, whatever that may be. If you like cats, you will meet other cat-lovers from all around the world at the Carnival of Cats.
The second way blogs foster community is on a local level - meeting people locally. This is particularly relevant for political organizing, and to some extent for doing business locally, but meeting local bloggers with similar hobbies and interests (or even dating!) is just around the corner. Geographically delineated carnivals help people in finding each other. So far, carnivals of Indian, Asian, Iraqi and Afghan, British, Canadian (separated into Lefty and Righty) and Balkan bloggers have been doing well. While Blogger, Google and Techorati estimate that there are about 10 million blogs worldwide, with thousands being started every day, I have heard recently that there are additional 10 million bloggers in China! I am assuming they developed their own software and are thus invisible to our search engines. However, those are still large land areas to cover. More recently, two even more narrowly local carnivals appeared (I guess a certain critical mass of bloggers needed to be attained first): North Carolina bloggers and Montana bloggers. These carnivals serve as virtual MeetUps, and often lead to real-life meetups as well as community action.
Lefty and Righty Carnivals
Why does it appear that conservative bloggers are dominating carnivals? It could be due to chance, or perhaps there is a reason, or perhaps this is just an illusion. Is it the greater connectivity of conservatives? Is it the greater individualism of liberals?
Let's look at it historically. The very first carnival, Carnival Of Vanities, was started by a conservative blogger and attracted primarily other conservative bloggers. How many liberals regularly read Silflay Hraka after all? So, this was natural.
For about a year, this was the only existing carnival. During this time, many conservatives got aquanted with the idea of a carnival and soon started a few new ones (e.g., Bonfire Of Vanities, Carnival of Capitalists, Blog Mela, and SEVERAL! Christian carnivals), while most liberals have still never heard of the concept. Another year passed. Once new carnivals got started around topics that have nothing to do with one's political persuasion, e.g., medicine (Grand Rounds), science (Tangled Bank), history, or philosophy, the liberal bloggers got gradually introduced to the concept.
Last year saw an explosion of new carnivals. Every month I have to add a few new ones to the Meta-Carnival (while also reporting on the demise of some). Is there a Liberal Carnival as an equivalent to and balance to the Carnival of Vanities? No. An early attempt was Blog Tower, but it violated all of the rules (A through E above) of successful carnivals and I doubt it will recover. A few weeks ago, the idea was broached on Crooked Timber (and a cool name - Speaker's Corner - was suggested), but nothing came out of it due to, I suspect, a conflict between the wish of Timberites to make it a Crooked Timber kind-of-thing, and the wish of others to have it community-run. Recently, a new (and excellent!) Carnival of Un-Capitalists was founded with an explicit purpose to counter the Carnival of Capitalists, i.e., to put together best posts about economic issues from a Progressive perspective. Canadian Liberals have the Cavalcade Of The Canucks, as a counterbalance to the Canadian Right wing's The Red Ensign.
Some recent carnivals are dominated by liberals, even though politics is not important for the topic. For instance, Carnival of the Godless, Skeptic's Circle, Carnival of Bad History and Tangled Bank tend to attract the folks from the reality-based community who are largely liberal. Carnivals of the Balkan bloggers and Montana bloggers are liberal due to chance: their founders are liberal and the first entries were naturally from other liberal blogs. Some other carnivals are pretty evenly balanced, e.g., carnivals of history, philosophy, kids, education, and Tar Heel Tavern (NC bloggers) are consciously kept politically balanced. Thus, while MSM may be perceived as liberal by the Right, and perceived as spineless sellouts to the Bush regime's propaganda machine by the Left, the carnivals, all in all, are pretty balanced. There is a complete range of opinions voiced from one extreme, through the moderate middle, to the other extreme.
I think that the New York Times of the Lefty blogosphere is DailyKos! Every year Markos Moulitzas gets irate when people nominate DailyKos for Koufax Awards in the category of "group blogs". He loudly proclaims that it is HIS blog. But, it is not. Not any more. Ever since he enabled Diaries, Kos has lost control of his blog. I personally almost never read the posts by Markos. I rarely ever go to the front page. But I go there often and read the Diaries. DailyKos has grown into the biggest and best carnival online today. It is the Carnival Of Record in a sense that NYTimes is a Newspaper of Record. Likewise, in comparison to DailyKos, Carnival of Vanities is like Washington Times: the main Righty outlet, but far from the influence of NYTimes.
Carnivals as Journalism
Blogs themselves, no matter what is written on them, are often thought of as "new journalism", a bottom-up kind of journalism that will complement (and keep on their toes) the better-funded top-down journalism of the MSM. With 10 million Chinese blogs and another 10 million blogs around the rest of the world, and the numbers rising fast, the amount of material on blogs is overwhelming. Daily news aggregators (like del.icio.us) and other blog aggregators are worthy attempts at sifting through the mass and concentrating worthy information in one place. Blog-specific search-engines, like Technorati (and the invention of Tags), is another attempt to organize the enormous amount of blog-generated information.
I have a hunch that in the future it will be the blog carnivals that will emerge as the online equivalents of hard-copy media. Carnivals organized around strong concepts, published on rigorous schedules, well-archived, and community-run will outlive their mushy competitors and become the online equivalents of not just TIME magazine, but also GQ, Vogue, Parenting, National Geographic, People, and, why not, Science and Nature.
Carnivals are still new and young. Most people are trying to be nice to each other. Hosts/editors are usually quite happy to publish links to every entry they get. However, this is already starting to change. With an increased popularity of carnivals and number of entries, the editors are starting to, well, editorialize. Recently, a host of the Carnival of Vanities, Dr.Zen, quite rightfully and forcefully slammed some shallow ideological pieces submitted to the carnival, resulting in quite a discontent in the conservative blog circles. Even more recently, an editor of Skeptic's Circle published but strongly criticized one of the entries, leading to an excellent discussion in the comments. The Modulator, host of the Friday Ark has very strict rules about what is accepted: only posts that contain photographs of extant animals. However, he still publishes the links to posts that are not accepted (e.g., fossils, drawings, plants, bacteria, etc.) in a separate "chapter" of the carnival. I have hosted nine carnivals so far and once I decided to not include and entry that was a pure piece of political propaganda, chockfull of erroneous "facts" and much misleading language. I never mentioned that I did it. It was my editorial prerogative to chose what not to include in the carnival. I assume that other hosts have done the same over time.
What I was trying to do with the previous paragraph was to illustrate that many carnivals are now in the process of leaving the initial phase of sweet-tempered grab-bags of whatever people submit, and entering a phase where editors are starting to pay attention to quality. The "rules" of submission are being tightened. Entries are being denied. Editors are starting to editorialize. The comments are not just "good job on hosting the carnival, Bob!" but actual discussions of the pieces presented in the carnival. The carnivals are now well on the road to becoming real journals, but, importantly, they will ALWAYS remain bottom-up community-run journals, and that is what is going to revolutionize the world of journalism.
Update 07/27/05: Bora Zivkovic, who wrote this guest post, recently penned a follow-up article about the current state of blog carnivals—a pithy meta-carnival in which he calls it like he sees it.
Blawg Review is included in his overview among a select few "carnivals that are doing everything right and more" to quote Zivkovic. High praise indeed, which we appreciate, but we're not sure we agree with his impression that posts submitted to Blawg Review "come mostly from conservative bloggers." Others might have thought just the opposite. As a matter of fact, we think that the submissions to Blawg Review are as diverse as the persuasions of lawyers in the general population (not in the prison sense).