Like many things in this world—Bill Gates, the Internet, Sandra Bullock's character in Love Potion #9—blogs started out humble and nerdy. Ten years ago, a man named Jorn Barger launched something he called a "Web log," entitled Robot Wisdom. It was—and still is—a "log of the best Web reading," Barger says. "Hardly anyone seems to remember that."
Perhaps that's because, over the past decade, the blog has morphed into something much louder—and more lucrative. Barger never planned to make any money from his Web log, and he never did. But today's blogosphere is a more mammon-driven place. Viewed through the lens of business, one might say that blogs are even coming of age.
Steve King, a senior fellow at the Society of New Communications Research, estimates that blogs attract between $50 million and $100 million of ad money a year, a figure that's multiplying rapidly. The blogging ranks at big-media companies have swelled; The New York Times, whose parent company now draws more than 10% of revenue from online operations, had upward of 40 blogs at last count. And interest in buying up blogs has grown—along with the dowries. Two years ago, AOL paid about $25 million for Weblogs Inc. Were Nick Denton to want to sell his Gawker Media empire (Gawker for media types, Defamer for Hollywood watchers, Wonkette for political junkies) today, some bloggers—jealous, we're sure—have speculated that he could get up to $100 million for the lot.
Such a value on your head (and on your words) inevitably changes the way you talk about yourself. Arianna Huffington may still refer to her eponymous Post with words such as "community," though by Web standards it's more a metropolis; what Barger described in 2005 as "100 different windbags with no common voice" is now 1,800 strong. HuffPo's recently hired CEO, Betsy Morgan, a Web veteran poached from CBSNews.com, is introducing a new word to the business: She prefers to talk about the "brand."
The increasingly corporatized blog is now behaving differently. Whereas a family of blogs might simply seek a new voice or five, a blogging brand acts more like Britney Spears's slowly-growing-back head of hair: It's desperately seeking extensions. What new revenue streams are available? How else can it pump up visibility? For Gawker, it's books. For TMZ.com, it's TV. For TechCrunch, it's conferences that charge participants $2,000 and up to attend.
A blog brand is like Britney Spears's hair—desperately seeking extensions.
As these brands expand, an online parlor game has developed. One blog comments on another's potential buyout value, which might have the effect of inflating the price tags (and certainly the imaginations) of them all. That ever-reliable Henry Blodget, writing on his Silicon Alley Insider blog, valued HuffPo at around $60 million; economics blogger Felix Salmon rustled up the $100 million number for Gawker Media and wrote, "Imagine: the first blog IPO."
The desire for growth—toward whatever end—is driving these nascent media empires into interesting territory. While Huffington claims to be operating on the fly—"we've never had a five-year plan," she says—she has strong ideas about where her site should go in the near future. Those include adding more investigative journalism: "Blogs need to do the hard work of breaking more stories," she says. She's hiring reporters, and also diversifying her readers' heavily political diet, adding sections on business, entertainment, and lifestyle.
What she is describing seems a very different creature than the baby she brought into the world two years ago, but it's often said that babies grow up more quickly than you realize. What she envisions feels quaintly familiar—like a bits-and-bytes version of something we've seen before. In fact, there may be a word for it: newspapers. And we all know how well they're doing.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.