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.


  1. Many congratulations on a long and fruitful run!

    The first dedicated gadget blog I remember is — running since the mid-1990s!

    1. Man, that takes me back. (I had no idea that Julie and Judie “broke up.”) I think that they reported on this thing that Microsoft used to do for gadget bloggers, especially those with a PDA concentration, where they’d bring them to Redmond for a conference (Moebius?) where they’d get all this incredible swag, all in an attempt to promote WinCE/Pocket PC/Windows Mobile. I used to dream of getting in on that action.

  2. Falling action and denouement are oft-neglected phases of creative efforts. Sensing the finite boundaries of one’s own long-term project should simply initiate another set of design problems to be tackled. From my experience, it just wasn’t taught or mentioned in schools — everything is geared towards the upward, skyward trajectory.

    I’m reminded of “The Night Journey” — a game designed by Tracy Fullerton and Bill Viola. Instead of a quick death, the player may wander in a protracted period of settling darkness, and continue to make explorations and discoveries.

    –EC Brown

      1. Can we also have “pour” corrected to “pore” as in “to pore over”?

        Well, we all gripe over percieved errors, and forget we all make them too.  What’s the future of blogs? who knows, but be proud of what you’ve created.
        that it’s had its day and gone? So do we all.

  3. This is a world I never reached with all my dopey blogs. Having such a rise and eventual fall is a dream.  My deviantart at one point go real popular for a bit then it crashed back down. My move is I float off to something new, regretfully and hope for the best. Diminishing returns.

    That or I suck. Leaning more toward suck.

  4. I hope you aren’t planning to get rid of hosting your blog, even if you stop updating it. I’m the kind of guy who fairly frequently gets a ten year old router and does a quick google to figure out how to configure some fairly obscure option, and I can’t be the only one — so your most popular page probably won’t drop down to zero in hits for the next five years. Sometimes I try to work with fifteen or twenty year old tech. Sometimes I’m trying to get a feel for an era through the era’s tech reporting. If all else fails, at least send a complete archive of the site to or ask Jason Scott to make a copy; documentation on old tech (~3-20 years) is somewhat ironically harder to find than documentation on older (~50+ years) tech — a situation that I would like to counter.

    1. Thanks for mentioning this. I plan to keep the site up forever (until we switch to heads-up non-text-based neural information patterning). The archives have Google juice, and there’s a lot of great reference material there. I won’t be surprised to make a few hundred dollars a year for a long time, covering any marginal costs of hosting and domain name registration.

  5. I too had a moderately high traffic site that I started in the beginning of the last decade. Mine too offered advice for a niche market (killing pop up ads before browsers or third party software solutions.). The site was featured in USA Today, Tech TV, the Village Voice and a few other places. Yep. I made money from advertising and from donations. But my real rewards came from just doing it.

    I was not a professional blogger and had no aspirations of becoming one. It was fun. I met a lot of great people and pissed off the legal departments at Double Click and Verisign.

    Within a few years of inception browsers improved. People no longer needed to tweek their HOSTS file or bake their own cookies to foil pesky advertisers—the niche I developed for began to dissolve. I got to shutter the doors and hang up a Gone Fishing sign and I did so with gratitude for the good times I had.

    There will always be vertical markets and they always evolve or collapse into a rubble of memories.

    Good luck in your new endeavors.

  6. …and one day there will be just one site from where we begin access the world’s information. In our minds perhaps? Congrats on a successful run and all the best. Always enjoy your contributions here!

  7. Thank you for the years of relevant and useful content, especially during those hair-pulling days of 802.11 hardware/standards incompatibility. The bulk and larder of what’s out there these days seem to be little more than content farms, fan-boy and fan-girl squee-a-thons.

  8. And some blogs are frozen in time, beautiful and significant.  Justin’s Links From The Underground is what I am thinking of in particular.

  9. Thank you for sharing with us your experience of running your site/service.

    I think this subject is a very good one, and I am very interested in it, where there have been so many sites, which people have put huge amounts of work into, which in many cases had times of luster and flattering popularity and relevance, and as opposed to those important sites which have been destroyed by corporate interests and anti-competitive practices, like big music download sites, there are so many sites like your own which were once cutting edge, and spawned and inspired so many other sites to follow.

    I think there is much to be said about the experience of building a site or service of value, but which may not necessarily be lucrative or properly monetized, and perhaps experiencing times of relative growth and popularity and vibrance, only to experience the evolutionary nature of the internet and changing interests, and dropping traffic numbers, in contrast to the work it takes to keep it going, poised with the questions, has it’s time come and gone, and should it remain as a static museum, or should it be shut down, and laid to rest.

    It is, in and of it’self, a great journey to build and run a site that one is really into, especially where it is well received and attended, it is an opus experience…   But in the modern internet, high traffic sites are largely bought up and consolidated by the big media companies, and access to such traffic (let alone for free), has become rare, and it was access to such mainstream strength traffic flows on par with the mass media which launched so many a site in the early days.

    I think what pressed to the top was how the crew did -lot’s- of television reports between 2004 and 2007, and it was that mass media coverage that put it into orbit.

    I think there are many other people who have a very similar story, who struggle now with the question of whether to keep going in a changing network environment that can bury a site as quickly as it brought it to great prominence, once upon a time.

    Congratulations on your successful run!

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