Blogging: Just How Much of a Phenomenon?

It is pertinent to note that we are not talking about measuring the success of a specific blog, but of blogging as a phenomenon.

Before tackling the admittedly difficult question of measuring its success, let’s pause and ask, What is blogging? At one level, it is a tool which individuals use for communication and self-expression. Indeed, this was the only use conceived initially. As its usage soared, it also emerged as a tool for on-line ‘communities’ to interact and disseminate news or useful information. The most recent emerging use (completely unancticipated in the early years of blogging’s existence) is for commercial organizations to interact with various stakeholders.

Thus, a reasonably general definition of blogging would appear to be, a technology that lends itself for use by individuals, communities or organizations as a means of communication, information dissemination or interaction.

How do we go about establishing a measure of the success of anything? One way is to identify its “potential”, and measure what proportion of that potential has been achieved. For example, if your company sells flat-panel TVs, the potential market would probably be equal to the number of households in the world having a household income of more than a certain figure. If you are trying to popularize a new ‘world language’ that you have invented, the potential probably corresponds to every human in the world speaking the language. If you sell beer, the potential sales would probably correspond to each adult in the world drinking 150 liters a year!*

However, it is frequently difficult to assess potential in this manner. A surrogate, more practical approach would be to identify the ‘best’ achieved by anybody so far. If you are an athlete, your ‘best achievable’ may be the current world record in your event. In the TV example above, the ‘best achievable’ may be the sales volume achieved by the market-leading company.

Thus, the problem reduces to discovering the ‘best achievable’ usage of blogging. To do this, we must stretch our imagination a bit and ask, what are the “best” technologies** that meet roughly the same needs that blogging does, and what is the usage they have achieved? The “best” technologies we have that allow communication, information dissemination or interaction are probably telephones, email, and conventional web sites.

The number of telephone lines (fixed and mobile) in the world is estimated at around 2.1 billion. Similarly, the number of email users is in the region of 600 million.

How many websites exist in the world? Yahoo indexes 19 billion web pages, while Google indexes about 9 billion. Taking the smaller of the two, and assuming the average website has around 20 pages, the number of websites may be approximated as about 500 million.

Let’s be conservative, taking the smallest of the 3 figures (for telephones, email users and websites) which is 500 million. To be play it even safer, let us assume that many websites represent uses that blogs just cannot. So let us say that the figure of 500 million overstates the figure we are looking for by 90%. This leaves 250 million (assuming many websites are defunct, etc.). It appears safe to say that this represents the usage that blogging must achieve. Thus, the “best achievable” number of blogs is, at the very least, 250 million. The current number of around 80 million thus suggests that blogging has covered about a third of the distance to its “best achievable” usage.

Of course, we will be shortchanging blogging if we end this analysis without considering time frames. While telephones have taken 20+ years to reach their current usage (counting only from the time mobile phones were invented), email has taken 15+ years, and the web 10+ years, blogging has been around only 6 years or so.

To dwell a bit on how technologies evolve over time, let us look at an elegant concept, the ‘S’ curve. What this says, very simply, is that every technology has an initial period during which it grows very slowly. As it improves and gains usage, it crosses an ‘inflexion point’, beyond which growth takes off rapidly***. Further down, the technology reaches a maturity stage where growth once again slackens. Metcalfe’s Law, which holds that the usefulness of something goes up exponentially with the number of its users, applies during the high growth section.

Thus, in S- curve terms, blogging can be thought of as having crossed the inflexion point, and being about 30% of the way to the peak. In other words, 70% of its potential is yet to be achieved.

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