Working draft!

Todd Epp retired from blogging last week. Or did he? In the blogospheric equivalent of a letter of resignation, Epp cites eight distinct reasons why he is stepping away from blogging, but he never calls it quits. He is resigning not from posting but from posting regularly, daily, from the sort of blogging that is necessary (though not sufficient) to move a blog to the A-list of any blogosphere.

Thinking of Epp’s declaration in terms of a resignation letter is instructive. It tells us just how much blogging can come to mean to its most avid practitioners. It suggests a deep sense of obligation to the readers, as well as a need to explain or justify oneself to those readers when disengaging from them. Epp’s eight reasons are all perfectly reasonable, but they also seem wholly unnecessary. Even in a paid position, an employee has no obligation to do more than give an employer two weeks’ notice. Epp has labored for four years online without contract or pay (not counting minor ad revenue and contributions). He needs no more excuse to stop blogging regularly than a man does to play less golf. Yet he offers eight excuses:

  1. He’s out of daily material that he feels is “worthwhile” to his audience or at least himself.
  2. He isn’t as closely connected to political sources and thus doesn’t have as much access to “juicy stuff.”
  3. His personal and professional lives are demanding more time.
  4. Serving as referee and attending his son’s soccer games are occupying more of his time.
  5. He is pursuing a new service opportunity by joining an organization (which he will name later).
  6. He wants to become more formally involved in Buddhist practice and education.
  7. He feels the number of local blogs make it “harder and harder to break through the noise and clutter and yes, even the good stuff.”
  8. Likening the increase in local blogs to the settling of the American West, he says the excitement of being a pioneer has faded: “It isn’t as much fun as it used to be.”

These reasons show a mixture of motives for blogging. His final reason (and we may debate the significance we might attach to the placement of the final reason) treats blogging as a hobby, something that must be fun to be worth doing and something that may be rightly cast aside due to a decrease in fun. Yet Epp recognizes an obligation to provide value to his audience. He acknowledges having less value (less “worthwhile” material) to provide. His comment about the growing number of local blogs and his list of recommended local reads says value is still available to readers and that Epp’s absence will not significantly degrade the amount of value available. He makes an effort to cast his resignation as a shift of focus from one form of service to another (or to others). Epp’s reasons, taken at face value, recognizing blogging as not merely a hobby, but a social activity creating clear obligations to the community and requiring strong assurances that the community will not be harmed by the withdrawal of a participant.

Epp’s departure from the blogosphere also reveals a problem that social knowledge management shares with firm-based knowledge management: churn. Members of the organization come and go. Sometimes they leave us their knowledge; sometimes they hit delete. In a blogosphere, capturing that knowledge is perhaps even more challenging than in a formal organization. We have no formal policies for capturing knowledge when someone leaves the effort. We have no exit interviews or any other obligations beyond each blogger’s sense of duty to the community. Epp still exhibits that sense of duty with his reasons for leaving and recommendations. it is quite possible, though, that a fading of that sense of duty could be a primary reason other bloggers would stop contributing to their chosen blogospheres. When bloggers leave, their former fellows generally have no way to replace that voice, to find another blogger who can fill that void. With no hiring or formal hierarchy, each departure promises to change the reading and linking habits of community members and thus change the structre of the blogosphere itself.

Let me use Epp’s blog as an example. I recognized, and I suspect a number of other bloggers in South Dakota’s political blogosphere, recognized Epp’s South Dakota Watch/Middle Border Sun as the leading left-leaning blog in the state. But what do we mean by “leading”? The branch of Epp’s blog appearing on consistently drew more traffic than any of the other “Issues Blogs” on that site. But “leading” doesn’t carry any clear authority with respect to content or practices throughout the blogosphere. Epp was not an editor-in-chief, and small efforts Epp made to organize South Dakota blogosphere discussion groups and aggregation websites did not gain traction. That’s perhaps less a reflection of a lack of leadership skills and more a reflection of a general desire of South Dakota bloggers to maintain an informal network of communication, friendship, and occasionally loosely coordinated efforts. (Past attempts at coordinated efforts support this conclusion: The Dakota Blog Alliance of 2004 consisted of conservative bloggers interested in helping John Thune unseat Senator Tom Daschle but did not last past the election. The South Dakota Shovel arose from a Sam Adams organizing event in the summer of 2008 to promote conservative causes in that year’s election; that site lasted six weeks, going dormant two months before the November election even though its contributors continued actively blogging on their own sites.)

So if Epp occupied a “leadership” position in the South Dakota political blogosphere, it was an informal position perceived by fellow bloggers and readers, and perhaps not even a unique position. No one in the South Dakota blogosphere has called for a conference or sent out a mass e-mail to discuss how to fill the gap created by Epp’s departure. No one is suggesting criteria or a process by which a “leader” might be designated, any more than such criteria or a process placed Epp in a position of “leadership”; the members of the commnuity appear to be going about their online business the same as always, generating content and assuming that interesting, useful content will rise to the top. Such a definition may not even happen; the community may wax or wane without the emergence of any recognized leader.


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