Balkinization  

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Legal Blogosphere and The Diffusion of Legal Expertise

JB

Paul Caron did a study of law blog traffic rankings for the last year. Brian Leiter, who lands in the top fifteen twice for his two blogs, notes:
Curious that four of the top five have almost nothing to do with law; four of the top five are right-wing blogs; and three of the top five have almost no intellectual content. Welcome to the blogosphere!
I think, in fact, that this is pretty much what we should expect. Blogs directed at popular audiences generally get the largest traffic. Specialty blogs, including blogs that specialize in delivering legal expertise, are usually niches, generating relatively low traffic that is nevertheless useful to the communities that read them.

We have to keep in mind that the "legal blogosphere" is not one thing. It is actually a combination of different types of sites, offering political punditry, gossip, clipping services of newsworthy legal events, clipping services of events of academic interest, and scholarly commentary. If you categorized sites in this fashion, and then asked which genres were likely to generate the highest traffic, your guess would probably not be far off from the results that Caron found.

Instead of seeing the glass half empty, you should see it half full. Forget for the moment about those sites that draw readers primarily through political punditry, cultural commentary and/or gossip. Confine your attention solely to the sites that make it their business to deliver serious academic content, week after week. Call this segment the academic legal blogosphere proper.

These sites are engaged in something very important: the diffusion of professional expertise. It is a diffusion that would not have been possible on this scale before the age of the Internet and remember, we are still in the earliest stages of this development. These legal blogs simultaneously (1) allow academic communities of interest to form; (2) forge connections with lawyers and judges in practice who pay hardly any attention to law review scholarship anymore; (3) put informed legal analysis into the hands of journalists and political writers who can now find it more easily than they ever could before; and (4) offer lay persons a window in to what legal experts think.

Here is the point: Even the least trafficked of these expert blogs probably gain more readers in six months than most law professors could hope for in a career.

To me, at least, it is encouraging that our friends at the Volokh Conspiracy have managed to get and keep as many readers as they do while still maintaining a high standard of academic discussion. They do this in part by crossing genres far more than most of the other academic blogs: They mix legal analysis with punditry, cultural commentary, leavened with occaisional jokes, puzzles and games. The medium allows you to do this. They have, over the years, created a pretty good mix that brings their readers back but doesn't insult their intelligence either.

I think that the future of the academic legal blogosphere-- by which I mean that subset that devotes itself primarily to serious academic commentary-- is very bright. It will never get the same readership as blogs that specialize in punditry, but it is doing something that most law professors have always dreamed of-- bringing ideas that they believe are interesting and important to a far larger audience, reaching people outside the legal academy who want to know what law professors actually think about the law. Surely this is a worthy endeavor, whose success we legal academics should all be proud of.


Comments:

I have to wonder: at what point will ranking systems acquire a life of their own like the US News rankings? Will the bloggers then modify their offerings in order to increase page views? Do they already?

I assume economists and biologists would find the popularity of blogs a fruitful source for research on issues like the founder effect, increasing returns, and other issues.
 

Academic lectures which mix in related topics outside the specialty being taught, current events and humor also tend to be more popular among their audiences. There is no reason this should not be the case in the blogosphere.

Law and politics are joined at the hip. It is therefore natural that lawblogs like this one would also include a healthy dose of politics.
 

The glass is half full...but of what? I think it's possible that both Profs. Leiter and Balkin are correct. Sure, if the focus is on "serious" commentary, then jubilation! One problem, of course, is that these new technologies of diffusion are inept at reliably making that particular distinction. The legal blogosphere is not monolithic, but then neither is traditional legal scholarship. There is cause for concern that folks who resort to the web fail to respect its variegated supply. They fail also to register at a conscious level that their resort to library collections had been (and remains) facilitated by the mediation of library staffs, and yet I think there is something of a tacit expectation that the same holds for web content.

On the other hand, just today I presented to a class of international and foreign law students. The topic was the use of electronic resources, specifically free web-based resources. I made a point to spend some time discussing blogs as sources for what I refer to as "prospective legal research," a.k.a. current awareness. One student mentioned that she had to prepare a memo about a case that had been handed down that day. Her approach? Check the legal blogs, where instructive opinions were flowing freely and, more importantly for her, links to primary materials appeared even in advance of their (costly) versions on Lexis or Westlaw.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

@Dean, darned even-handed of you to end as you did. Caveats notwithstanding, the best and brightest seem able to get good from "The Blogosphere(tm)", and, similar to my arguments supporting use of wikipedia, it isn't because anyone with a 3 digit IQ takes any given source as authoritative, but because blogs and such can serve as such great launching points for as deep and wide a comparison of materials as one could hope for.

Pretty funny the spam this post attracted.

As for Jack's actual post, I would add to his items 2) and 4) "students".
 

I think that Professor Balkin is right on. It's a general rule. If your product appeals to a smaller audience, your sales will be lower than another product in the same field that serves a larger audience, even if your product is better.
 

I perceive a confusing version of the "quantity inverse to quality" rule in comparing this blog to Volokh. From a lay perspective, both appear to have posters and postings of similar quality. But the popularity ratio is 4-to-1 in favor of the latter, and my impression is that the VC comments (also several times as numerous per post as here) are noticably less substantive on average than here.

Questions:

- do others have the same impressions re relative comment quality?

- can it be that the inverse relationship kicks in strongly even at such low absolute numbers?

- is there an obvious reason that I'm missing for VC being the more popular (they seem to have dropped the puzzles and I don't see a huge difference in the amount of punditry (or humor, for that matter - I think my LOL relay gets tripped at least as much here)?

- Charles
 

Charles, I think the answer is that VC isn't "more popular," so much as the unabashedly liberal Balkinization is less. That's just a sign of the times. I hang here instead of there because I quickly get fed up with so-called libertarians who nonetheless have no qualms about, inter alia, illegal invasions of formerly sovereign nations. Some sharp folks, no denying, but not my cup of tea. (Still, vastly superior to Bainbridge.)
 

A non-lawyer I know who reads both this blog and VC told me that he reads the posts here and the comments there. The reason: he considers the posts here to be of higher quality, but the comments here tend to get bogged down in response to trolls, while over there the volume of posts assures that there will be at least some substantive discussion.

I'd add another distinction, namely that the posters at VC respond more often to comments in the threads. That probably increases the thrill of commenting -- everyone hopes that someone more important will notice their brilliance. Of course, the opposite is perhaps more frequent....
 

"the comments here tend to get bogged down in response to trolls"

The comments here get "bogged down" primarily by contributions from one person and responses thereto (see as an extreme example the 2/15 post re. McConnell and FISA). To a lay person, these seem more substantive (though futile since the participants are clearly at ideological impasse) than the often petty partisan tripe in VC comments (and occasional posts, also mostly from only one or two contributors).

Anyway, thanks to both for the responses.

- Charles
 

@Bart: Apologies in advance for "speaking" of you "as if you weren't in the room". I've enjoyed having space for pleasantries in our interactions of late and would love to protect that, but I also feel Charles deserves a frank response.

Charles: "..."bogged down" primarily by contributions from one...To a lay person, these seem more substantive...

Giving the devil his due, that's the problem. Like it or not, our dedicated Administration apologist (despite his disclaiming such a role) sounds good. I don't know if it's a native facility for persuasive-but-unsound argumentation or the result of studious reading of neo-con propaganda guides like Newt's famous 1996 memo, but whatever the cause, it's an undeniable phenomenon.

And yet, several of our most readable and most thoughtful commentors (Mark Field comes to mind) seem to have no problem resisting the urge to engage Bart. Likewise, I've never been able to get any of our hosts to even tacitly accept the proposition that Bart's antics rose/rise to a level warranting any official action on their part.

Coming from a psycho-socio-linguistics background I am endlessly fascinated by this ability to provoke engagement long after demonstrating the futility of same (it tastes similar to what Interactional Theory calls "Inability to Leave the Field".) I don't know of any way of shutting this down absent some means of social control, such as coordinated group shunning or authoritative sanction, and blog comments communities are ill equipped for such (itself an interesting topic for contemplation.)

The best rule remains, invite people you like, make an effort to engage new people so long as they "play nice" (which is not the same as simply agreeing with you) and don't spend time where you believe it will do no good. Much easier said than done, but worth it in the end.
 

Robert -

Well, I'm in the somewhat awkward position of having nothing substantive to say in response to your thoughtful comment but feeling an obligation to acknowledge it. Since you approach this issue from a professional perspective, perhaps my reaction to the phenomenon will be of some interest to you as a data point.

Although - as indicated before - I am ill-equipped to assess the content of many erudite-sounding comments in this forum (at least without an investment of effort beyond that which I'm willing to make), I readily recognize an authoritarian bent when I see it in a commenter and know that further debate typically is futile. And having consequently on several occasions "Left the Field", I also know the associated feeling of "defeat" - one of those many feelings that can trump rationality. But my feeling of futility almost always overtrumps.

As for bannng, IMO it is appropriate only for obvious misbehavior - extreme profanity and/or personal attacks, blatant thread hi-jacking (as we seem to have done here!), etc. And in the case in question, it appears that many derive some pleasure by responding. Who are we to deny them that?

Thanks again for your replies.

- Charles
 

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