16 April 2009

The meme remains la même

[biking sculpture]The future of wine writing is not blogging.

OK, so now that I’ve pissed off just about everyone likely to be reading this, let me explain…

The world of wine, and especially the world of wine writing, benefits from a multitude of voices. There’s no doubt of this. One of the least important but still sad effects of the ongoing (though long-inevitable) decline and fall of newspapers is the loss of the wine coverage that usually precedes their demise. Winemaking regions derive special benefit from vibrant, locally-focused coverage, but there’s plenty of value to be found elsewhere. In my own market of Boston, for example, there’s barely any wine writing to be found. Nationally, Food & Wine no longer has a wine editor. (Why not just call it Food?) I could go on…

Many think the “2.0” version of the web, long in ascendance if not always in fulfillment of its hype, will replace what’s been lost. There are reasons to doubt this, which I’ll iterate in a moment. But more importantly, this lays the burden of hope on the wrong recipients. Blogs (or tweets, or whatever else that might follow) aren’t going to replace newsprint wine writing. But bloggers might.

Confused yet?

In terms of creating a collaborative, multi-directional wine experience – the promise usually trumpeted by proponents of Wine 2.0 – bloggers are actually rather late to the party. Wine fora have played in this realm for a long time: alt.food.wine, the wine communities on CompuServe and Prodigy, the original Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group, the Mark Squires forum (now part of the all-powerful eBob empire), and on and on.

Over the many years of their existence, a few things have been learned about the potential advantages and disadvantages of much-hyped 2.0 era. For example: while some of the fora were “communities of equals,” others worked on the expert model. The latter proved to be the stickier of the two concepts. The former are especially prone to splits, offshoots, declines, and all the normal trends and lifespans of online communities, while the latter provide a consistent draw, even as participants come and go. It’s now clear that to hold a community together over the long term, it helps to have a draw aside from the community itself. For while a community can provide great value (especially given quality contributors), the seemingly inevitable human desire for authorities has remained more powerful. This is a slightly dismaying outcome, but the numbers don’t lie.

Corollary to this, both types of forum tend to attract and/or develop their own authorities, and from this a second lesson can be drawn. Authorities are a mixed blessing, because while they bring elevated value to a community’s knowledge, they skew the discourse of the community from many-to-many towards several-to-many or one-to-many. Moreover, they’re especially prone to lead an exodus as that authority grows, for reasons both good (a desire to monetize their utility) and less so (conflict between competing authorities). People point to blogs and other, newer media as an exercise in social communication, but what’s the actual draw of a successful blog? First and foremost, it’s the authority or authorities that helm it. Without them and the audience they create, the community that coalesces and participates would form elsewhere. And were the community uninterested in authorities, they’d be on a community-of-equals wine forum. Since the numbers show that they’re not, there’s good reason to believe that, whatever they say, they’re still interested in some sort of authority…maybe not as the entirety of the meal, but at least as the centerpiece of the dish.

Additionally, while the value of fora is often professed to be the collegiality of its participants, their actual success or failure relies more on the more tangible benefits it provides (which, in the case of wine communities, means information about specific wines, regions, producers, and businesses). Collegiality is unhelpful when no one can answer a question, and as a result people naturally gravitate towards communities of greater expertise. That swell of numbers is followed by an increase in tangible value, which in turn attracts greater numbers, and so forth. Similarly, a decline in information leads to a decline in participation, and vice-versa. Wine fora have not proved immune to Darwin. Again, the lesson that can be drawn by blogs and other divergent forms is that while collegiality, community, and population matter, it’s the quality of information that matters most.

But the success of a blog is not measured by its population, at least not in the way a forum’s success is. Yes, success is measured by traffic – and comments matter – but the physical format of a blog places far greater importance on an original post than the comments that follow. Most of the really successful blogs are one-person shows, more or less. In comparison to a wine forum, then, a blog is actually less egalitarian by its very design, whatever the intent or motivation of the host. (Twitter is a little different, but comes with certain inherent limitations of its own.) So again, we return to the essential element: the blogger him- or herself. As Johnny Carson once said regarding the success or failure of late night talk shows, it’s not about the style or the guests, “it’s about the person behind the desk.” He could have been talking about blogs.

[man blowing glass]The trajectory of successful bloggers is, largely, a common one. From tentative and overtly humble beginnings, with success and greater access comes greater authority, a willingness to take risks and be controversial (or a deliberate choice to do so; controversy is always good for traffic) from the perspective of an outsider, and finally an assumption of authority and controversy from the perspective of an insider, as an acknowledged authority. (Sometimes, this leads to problems, but not always.) The progression from voice-in-the-wilderness to authority and leadership is a change that happens to the blogger, not the blog, and will be reflected in an historical survey of the posts. For those whose primary publication outlet is a blog, it’s nearly always true that early entries will be modern, blog-style posts (pithy, link-ridden), but that later entries look an awful lot more like traditional print columns. They’re longer. They’re more authoritative and declarative. They educate or provoke, but at greater length, and yet with less elaborate justification for each point of potential controversy; authority is assumed by the writer. Sometimes, actual journalism – research, sourcing, fact-checking – creeps in, born of both desire and necessity.

This is all to the good, by the way. There’s a place and a future for the sound bite format, to be sure, but as a different kind of webslinger once learned, with power comes responsibility. This is no less true for bloggers than it is for journalists in other media. In fact, the maturation of the wine blogosphere demands this evolution if it is to supplant or be coequal with, rather than aspire to, the power of other forms of media.

These days, the most successful bloggers of all get to move on. Not that they abandon their blogs (though some do), but rather that they gain access to other media. Newspapers (such as they are in these times), magazines, even books…the final step in new media success is often measured by joining the old.

Or at least, that has been true up until now, and may continue to be true for a while yet. In the future? It’s hard to say, especially given a rapid rate of technological and societal change. My suspicion – and it’s based on little more than a hunch, though one founded on several decades of experience in different forms of new media – is that it will change. New media will develop its own measures of success that render irrelevant those of the old media. (This, I hasten to add, is hardly an original thought on my part. Though it may be an overly optimistic one.)

So why, then, do I say that the future of wine writing is not the blog, but rather the blogger?

As noted earlier, there’s hardly a difference between the most successful wine blogs and the most successful print wine columns; other than the physical format, they look and act pretty much the same (and of course, most print columns are read online anyway). The one major difference is that almost all blogs lack an editor. Editors can be a mixed blessing, to be sure, but as the format continues to mature, the lack of them is going to be an issue for someone. Controversy is all very exciting, but inaccuracy (and worse, defamation) can be permanently damaging, and sooner or later someone’s going to pay a price for doing something that a good editor would never have let them do.

But the thing with professional editing is that it costs money. As, it’s important to add, does wine blogging. At the very least, someone has to pay for server space and traffic. Then, as authority and success brings their accordant responsibility, the need of a blogger to explore their subject more deeply and/or broadly increases; this, too, is not without cost. Ads help, but as everyone in new media knows, they’re rarely remunerative enough to support the rigor of actual journalism. Until that changes, blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit…which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine. However, there’s a difference: as more and more print writers disappear, things actually improve for the few that remain, but as the number of bloggers increases, competition for already-insufficient ad money will only escalate.

[sagrada familia detail]For any new media to take that last step to dominance of a category, someone’s going to have to pay for it. For now, a combination of ads and crossovers to old media are the patchwork covering the problem. That won’t continue. Will bloggers continue or improve their work, even if they’re losing money? Maybe some will, out of altruism or thanks to a hefty personal supply of otherwise-sourced funds (a/k/a a “real job”), but the lack of remuneration is no less damaging to the category than it is in the print world. First because it makes valuable authority available only to the otherwise wealthy (the effects of which can be seen rather clearly in the world of print wine criticism; just count the number of lawyers and doctors), and second because it reduces the quality of discourse by putting a cap on the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge that brings enlightenment to wine writing, whatever the medium. Authority matters. Knowledge matters. Experience matters. None are free.

The success of the blogs-and-beyond world of wine coverage has been presaged by the fractalization we’ve already seen among critics. What started with just a few voices entrusted with the vast general-interest audience has become a growing chorus of focused coverage from dedicated enthusiasts: Allen “Burghound” Meadows, Peter Liem, Parker’s new gang of hires, and so forth. This will continue, and more importantly will broaden to include writers, rather than just critics. Blogging in particular is ill-suited for comprehensive criticism of the type to which we’ve become accustomed, but it’s perfectly-suited for writing. Which is, by the way, what most of the best wine bloggers do, in lieu of standard criticism.

That said, blogs aren’t comprehensive. In fact, they can’t be; no one authority can, in our dizzying modern world of wine. A fanatical single-subject blogger may be able to provide quality coverage of that subject (whether it be a region, a grape, or some other field of interest), but it’s more likely that a subject of interest to a given audience must be surveyed across a wider selection of blogs. And if, as is even more likely, the audience has other interests than that single subject, this task increases. A connection must be made between blogs and their potential audience, but – like editing – marketing costs time and money. It is one thing to read Peter Liem’s blog for interesting Champagne commentary. It is a very different thing to read fifty blogs in search of similar information. And it is yet another thing to read 100 blogs in search of commentary on the full range of wines and subjects that interest an audience. Almost no one has that sort of time, especially – as noted earlier – as the content in which they’re interested broadens, deepens, and lengthens thanks to the ever-increasing skill of the bloggers.

This is why blogs themselves aren’t the future. The success of old media wine journals and most of their new media successors is intimately connected to their one-stop-shopping format, in which all available content is presented in a single location (be it physical or digital). But the necessary and desirably-expanding cloud of bloggers, all with something interesting to say, is – from a practical standpoint – impossible for anyone but the unemployed to find and follow, even with the best aggregators and filters.

Choices will have to be made. And those choices will be made based on the interest and authority commanded not by the blog format, nor by the appeal of new media or 2.0-era community coalescing around content, but by the source of the content: the bloggers themselves. In fact, the very expansion of authoritative blogging that leads to this revolution will act in opposition to its collaborative aspects, for given that time is inherently limited, a reader that chooses to participate is giving up an opportunity to read something else, and vice-versa.

In other words, the larger part of the audience will flock to authority, just like they’ve always done, and the focus will be more on that authority than on communitarian corollaries. The ever-evolving network provides interesting and worthwhile tools that old media lacks, but it does not change this fundamental principle. Fully collaborative environments exist and are of unquestioned appeal – at the very least, they’re better than their lack – but people still want their gurus. As before, the numbers don’t lie.

Or, as I believe someone may once have said: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Wink Lorch said...

A fine and necessary discussion, most of which I fully agree with.

There is one other major difference between blog posts and conventional print articles and that is the possibility for reader comment on the blogs. It is just this potential of comment/discussion between blogger and reader that those who argue that blogs are the future claim is their most important point of difference. And, it's true that the most successful wine blogs do attract lively and occasionally excellent, useful discussion, something you rarely get with conventional articles even if they are reproduced on-line.

However, it really is only the 'mature', experienced bloggers (most of whom are writing for print media too and developing broad experience in the world of wine) that attract this type of useful discussion. So, yes, it's the bloggers who are the future, you are right, not the blogs.

firstpress said...

I prefer to think of readership flow moving towards perceived leaders than to perceived authority. We will always need leaders that we trust. Authority supposes that we need these leaders to be experts. On the contary, one of the main reasons why we read wine is because we want entertainment. If it turns out that our 'leader' is also an authority it can be taken as a bonus. Nothing more. Leaders are those who are doing 'it' to our satisfaction. Yes, bloggers will be more important than blogging but I say unless we have entertaining blogs, bloggers won't have any readers. If we seek authority in our bloggers then we seek a smaller circle and a rarified community. You identified the most important aspect of the debate when you mentioned critique versus writing. The latter suits blogging and entertaining. It appears to have attracted a wine readership flow that will be hard to stem until a post blogging platform adopts a new leadership mantle all of its own.

Anonymous said...

Awesome thoughts. I completely agree with the whole angle. The future is in "trying things" vs. being told what to try. Example: I found this blog, I did not read about it (well I cheated.. Twitter), and I like both the wine and the social media, but I don't like when wine bloggers become newspapers. AN open community is the future of any kind of marketing, blogging, etc.

thor iverson said...

Wink, thanks, and I appreciate your thoughts.

You're right that commenting is an important difference between blogs and print (though again, less so between blogs and online versions of print articles; the quite lively response to Asimov's blog could easily be replicated alongside his column, were it NYT policy to encourage such things), but it's not a difference between blogs and forums. On that continuum, the blog is the one occupying the middle ground, because comments on blogs are "devalued" by the layout in a way they're not by most forum layouts. The initial post is thus privileged, and thus the primacy of the blogger over the community is enhanced, especially when compared with an open forum.

What's interesting to me, looking over the history of the technologies through which we've communicated about wine, is how those technologies respond to the content, but also shape the content. One of the tensions of open forums is that voices that achieve (or which to achieve) authority or primacy do so at a certain cost to the community...or, as mentioned in the original piece, they leave. Blogs give such folk everything they ever wanted: an uninterrupted, one-owner pulpit (putting aside collaborative blogs for a moment, of which there are few in the world of wine) that doesn't abandon the idea of a community, but exhibits clear preference for the pulpit-owner's content.

I do feel I may have danced around what started as my central thesis, which was that while blogs (or something else) may well be the venue for the wine communication that replaces the old print model, it won't be because of the blog format, it will in some ways be despite it. For every Château Petrogasm, doing something that's actually different, there are scores of very, very popular blogs whose posts differ from the average print column only via occasional evidence that they haven't been put through an editor's wringer. So blogs have added comments to the form, yes...but as I said before, comments could be added to the print articles, which most people read online anyway. When they're not, it's only a matter of philosophy on the part of the publication (and it should be noted, more than a few of the most successful blogs outside the world of wine have "turned off" their comments).

This, too, might be a vision of the future for blogs and their offspring. What if, say, Alder had eBob's or the Spectator forums' traffic in his comments? What would that mean for community, readership, and the quality of those comments? I think it would almost have to mean the same thing it does on wine forums: more overall content, but more low-quality content to sift through, and participation suffering as a direct result of the pace of content, because people who can't read everything will be far more selective about what they do read, and even more selective about inserting themselves into the conversation.

thor iverson said...

firstpress, thanks for responding. Indeed, you've caught the subtle shades of meaning in the way I use the term "authority."

I suppose I can't disagree with you that qualifications are, to an extent, less important that leadership. And even though I find that a little unfortunate, it's no different than in any other medium. That said, part of authority is communicative skill, which I think satisfies a justifiable preference for "entertaining" blogs; there are writers with less knowledge than they should have, and there are writers who barely seem to deserve the designation, but I'm not aware of any successful bloggers that lack both qualities.

Following on the difference between criticism and writing, which I do think is crucial to understanding the divergent ways in which wine communication is evolving, it might be more accurate to say that critics -- at least as currently-conceived -- are going to have to exhibit authority to succeed, while writers may be able to get by on their communication skills. I know I'd prefer a post in which a curious blogger learns something from a wine, place, or person and describes that encounter with skill than a dully-written essay by someone with immense knowledge but little interest in the presentation thereof.

thor iverson said...

Anonymous, thanks for reading (and finding me).

I do have a concern that, as blogs continue to look more and more like newspapers, and as they grow in readership, the community they add to the form is necessarily de-emphasized by the nature of the content and devalued by the ever-increasing number of participants. That's what I was exploring in the essay, and I think even the most successful wine forums have shown the pitfalls that await, though I don't know that any of them have shown how to overcome those pitfalls. The tragedy of the commons will, almost inevitably, rear its head.

It seems to me that the one true disadvantage a diverse group of interesting and skilled bloggers faces in contrast to print or to wine forums is the difficulty in delivering, or perhaps I should say packaging, the content for the interested reader. Like many, I use an aggregator to read blogs because I can't keep up with all of them any other way. But there are some costs to that approach (for example, I often don't see their ads, which hurts their potential revenues), and even the most brutal top-level skimming takes more time every single day than I can really afford, yet far less time than the content deserves.

I don't know if there's a technological solution to this problem or not. One solution that's already been tried (not in wine) is that of The Huffington Post: just group all the bloggers together in one place, under a single brand. Though I suppose you'd object that they've just recreated the newspaper -- and you wouldn't be wrong -- it does achieve its purpose. As do The Atlantic's new "channels" on business, politics, and food. But really, these are just taking the old media models and filling them in with new media content. There are some strengths to this approach -- the availability of editors is one -- but something crucial to new media is, I think, given up in the translation.