Sunset of a Blog


Photo: Rajeev Nair / Ill. Rob Beschizza.

Should we pity a once-popular blog when its time in the sun has come and gone? Not so much. I'm watching the sunset of a moderately high-traffic site I've run for a decade, and that seems the natural course of events. Like the hecatomb of evolution, many blogs rose and then were slaughtered in the crucible of viewer attention (and blogger interest). Those that survive are fitter—or at least live in areas with abundant page views.

A recent glance at my statistics put me in a funk, briefly, until I dashed through Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief, adapted for the fast-paced online age. Denial: The stats must be broken! Anger: This is an awesome site; everyone must be blind! Bargaining: Maybe if I do a redesign? Depression: All that effort, for naught. Acceptance: Hey, what's going on at Reddit?

The site, Wi-Fi Networking News, has been mostly a one-man band, run by yours truly since April 2001. I launched it after reporting for The New York Times on the new and bizarre phenomenon of Wi-Fi hotspots, which were in their infancy, and poised for explosive growth. (Bonus points: The picture that accompanies the article was taken in a train station in Fremont, Calif., that my father once leased as a furniture store in the 1970s.) Wi-Fi meshed with my technical knowledge and interests, and it seemed like the right star to which to hitch my wagon.

The site received inordinate attention, even to my ego-driven self, after some months of operation because I mixed straight technology reportage, opinion, and normal link-to-others blogging. There weren't that many blogs like that at the time, partly because it was difficult to build an audience. I was still near the start of my freelance career, and was suffering through the dotcom collapse, which left folks like me without as many paying outlets, and the pay was worse. Reporting for my own blog seemed like a wise course of action, and a calling card that did in actuality bring me more paying work later on.

I was also early on in accepting sponsorship, and then later advertising. The blog was never a vast moneymaker for me, but it brought in some tens of thousands of dollars a year in its best years, and I was able to hire a part-time collaborator for a couple of years as well. John Battelle's Federated Media, which started up in part to push ads to Boing Boing's pages, took me on as an early experiment, and they still power the page impressions on my site.

But as a niche player, I could only fill up that niche. As more general sites appeared in which Wi-Fi played a role, my blog shrunk in importance. I even helped move this along, as I discovered in 2007 that the Wi-Fi site was part of the inspiration for the first in what are now legions of gadget blogs. (I'm sorry.) Peter Rojas, the first editor of Nick Denton's Gizmodo, said in an interview back then, swelling my head:

We came up with this idea for Gizmodo...if we were going to do a blog, it had to be something about technology. And we were really inspired by Glenn Fleishman’s Wi-Fi Networking News, which is a blog that he had done which was almost kind of like a trade journal about Wi-Fi, which was still a relatively new technology....And so if you were a technology journalist or someone in the industry, it was like a great place to go. And it was very focused. And we thought, “Well what if we did that with something like gadgets...

Rather touching, that. Rojas left Gizmodo to build Engadget for Jason Calacanis (it was later purchased by AOL), and later gdgt with a close colleague. I might quibble about which of these sites and some others of similar scale are worth consulting (or trusting) today, but they filled the zone of technology news, competing among themselves for any scrap of information worth publishing. (Hey, even Boing Boing had one of those for a while, led initially by the inestimable Joel Johnson.)

Now hundreds upon hundreds of similar but inferior sites daily pore over the least bit of unintentionally revealed dibs and dabs, or purely speculate, and then clusterlink to each other in the echo chamber of technophilia. Many thousands (or tens of thousands) of scabby sites simply excerpt articles from others, making the furore even louder. Haven't you all had the experience of finding an inadequate few grafs about new technology, following the link to the original story, and repeating until you were five sites away?

I kept the Wi-Fi site focused, however, as I lack the true obsessive nature of the gadget hunter, and I prefer more than a handful of hours of sleep each evening. That proved my undoing, and I don't regret it. I had a good run in the mid-oughties. The site prospered from the confusing state of wireless networking that lasted until about 2008. The term Wi-Fi is a trade group's kiss of interoperability, ostensibly assuring that all such branded hardware works together. In practice, until relatively recently, the combination of different generations of hardware, operating system support, third-party add-on software, and security measures, such as firewalls, often prevented one-click access.

This was particularly the case with 802.11n, which is now the standard flavor of Wi-Fi found in all gateways, laptops, and nearly all mobiles. For three years, the industry roiled around different elements of the protocol, releasing pre-standard uncertified gear that often didn't work across different makers' models. The industry opted for a grand compromise in early 2007 that prevented it shattering into chipmaker-specific gear.

Good fortune also came in 2004 with the short-lived run of municipal networking, in which towns, cities and counties promoted large-scale Wi-Fi networks built for indoor and outdoor use. Right-wing, bought-and-paid-for thinktanks created several negative reports, based on incorrect analyses of fiber-optic networks. I fought back. Of particular interest is my 2005 post "Sock Puppets of Industry." But it never seemed like municipal networks would take off because of technical limitations of Wi-Fi. I penned a dubious take for The Economist in 2006 at the height of the fervor, which peaked in 2007. Out of well over a hundred planned efforts, only a few were built and a couple remain active. (There's been a recent uptick in interest again with a more realistic basis using better-suited equipment, and public-safety wireless networks, often using licensed bands dedicated for the purpose, have worked quite well on the whole.)

The Wi-Fi site's traffic peaked at the top of muni-Fi hype, receiving about 250,000 page views a month in 2006 and slightly fewer unique visitors. It has had a slow and inexorable decline since. It now welcomes about 25,000 visitors monthly who look at a page or so each. Most visitors are reading older pages, directed there by Google. The most popular page of all time is how to set a password on a Linksys model that hasn't been sold for a few years. As traffic has ebbed, I have updated the site less frequently.

Everything has its season, and the paucity of visitors corresponds both to the level of competition from general technology reporting and gadget sites, and to the ease with which Wi-Fi now performs. When Wi-Fi was hard, my site was useful; when it's like breathing air, not so much.

Such independent reporting sites as mine are fewer and farther between, because we simply can't afford to devote the time without at least some moderate recurring income. The promise of making a living from advertising turned out to be a function of the power-law curve described by author and academic Clay Shirky in a famous 2003 essay. More popular sites inevitably became substantially more popular, while attention wanes disproportionately on sites that receive somewhat less attention.

Partly, too, newspapers, magazines and purely digital operations absorbed the lessons of the blog—breezy, informal, brief, and timely items—which took mojo away from sites that couldn't market to existing large readerships.

Boing Boing floated to the top of the blog-slash-reportage world, as it fed ever more readers ever more items from a growing cornucopia of wonderful things. My site and many like it sunk to the bottom as fewer visitors led to fewer visitors. And that, dear readers, is why you find me at this address today.

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