Tag Archives: blogging

I started this blog late last November, and I’ve been seriously involved since early March. It’s been four months and a great experience. I wanted to share my thoughts, but also thank the people that have got me where I am today: if not where I want to be, well ahead of where I started.

I’ll start with where I am. A very small number of my posts command almost all my visitors: the most read 1 10% of posts hold over 70% of all the page views. This is not surprising considering the power-law distribution of views by rank (logarithmic scale):


My most popular post (perhaps unfortunately) is a recent review of Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration with over 22% of the pie. More encouragingly, one of my favorite posts, an outline for a Ricardian tax reform, comes in second at 13%.

Network effects are real, and at this point I should thank the people that helped a few of my posts go as far as they did. Other than Twitter, which dominates in links to my blog but unfortunately would be a nightmare to untangle, Tyler Cowen and especially Brad DeLong really helped lift my blog of the ground. I really am a better blogger, and perhaps quasi-economist, with their help: because of their attention (together bringing in over a fifth of my total views!), but also certainly the content on their respective blogs. As far as journalists go, Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews helped push some of my favorite writing forward as well. And while one blogger at Slate can bring me thousands of hits, nothing has helped me more than Twitter. While tweets from popular journalists like Matt O’Brien help tons, the consistent support from loyal followers with not many followers of their own goes even farther. I can’t go into further depth without an expensive Twitter analytics package, but know this isn’t empty gratitude.

The most useful help doesn’t come from links at all. When I started blogging, Evan Soltas was kind enough to give me a rather detailed guide to the blogosphere. In real life I occasionally impress some people with my age, but Evan seems to be the real wunderkind, and his advice brought me a long way. He was happy to let me post it on here, and here’s a part:

The best advice I can give you is that doing what other people are doing (especially when your sample is of the top bloggers) is a good way to never get to the top. By this I mean short posts with long excerpts and your brief commentary, or other things like that. This sounds like counterintuitive advice, because it’s natural to imitate succes[s]. But the correct reasoning, at least so far as I’ve been able to tell, runs in the other direction. If other successful people are doing it, then it’s probably in their comparative advantage but not yours, and that they already satiate the market for readers in those areas. Most importantly, their advantage comes from prior traffic. You don’t have that, nor did I.

That’s the negative reasoning side. Here’s are some positive implications.

(1) You need to do original work. Dig around FRED, OMB, CBO, Eurostat, NIPA, Google Finance, etc. Make graphs. Analyze.

(2) You are better off writing specific/detailed pieces than general overviews. This will require you to be better at and highly knowledgeable in some area of the field than your competition: for me, that’s monetary policy, fiscal policy, and macroeconomic theory. You should pick what interests you.

(3) You are better off disagreeing constructively or reconciling contrary views than echoing a consensus. You cannot afford to say what everyone else could say.

(4) You need to write frequently. This is because you don’t have a natural traffic base and presumably want to build one rather than single-time visitors. I wrote basically every single day from January to July of 2012 before I was hired by The Washington Post and Bloomberg. I still average 7 pieces a week (two in Bloomberg, five in The Washington Post).

(5) You shouldn’t be partisan. Partisan is predictable, and new voices are most interesting when they are objective or balanced. By balanced, I don’t mean shallowly centrist, but rather thoughtful to both sides, even if one takes a side. […] This thoughtful market is not satiated, trust me.

Not surprisingly, I think this is one of the most valuable things I’ve done. Perhaps to your surprise, I didn’t think I would be writing about economics much, and I certainly didn’t think I had the competency thereof. I was clearly brutally wrong about the first point, and definitely hope I am about the second one, too. While I’m not taking any economics classes first semester in college (engineering schedules have [un?]fortunately strict requirements), the amount of math, modeling, and reading I’ve done to keep up has made me a sharper thinker – and hopefully writer! – on many fronts.

There’s an excitement to knowing your work may be read by your favorite thinkers, and hence an associated pressure. I’ve burned many more articles than I’ve posted, forced to rethink just to make sure I don’t submit anything shoddy. That filter slips, sometimes, and this rather confused reaction to the trade deficit is a good example. All in all, I’ve never been compelled to think as quickly but thoroughly as I do now – I look forward to joining a debate club later on!

I do want to increase the scope of my blog, potentially to computer science which has been a pet interest of mine for a while (and key to my declared major). This is because I think economics has a naturally lower barrier to discussion – which leads to a lot of bullshit commentary – but I hope that hasn’t been the case as far as my writing goes, but that isn’t for me to judge. I’ve found blogging about both computer science and economics to be natural, as in this post about the EMH, and only hope I can get even better as I learn more formal logic.

However, my blog has been mostly about economics which leads my to my final note of thanks, to Ms. Indrani Verma, who was my absolutely fantastic high school economics teacher. You would never guess that she is battling cancer today with her conviction to make it to school and be the best damn teacher possible – every day. While my blog may be more frequented by college, rather than high school, educators, I know every Economics 101 professor wishes their students had taken her class.

I’m not going to thank my parents because, well, that would just be predictable! (And they know it too).

I’ve had a bit of free time over the past few hours, so I went through MRUniversity’s “Economics of the Media“. This might be the most relevant course on there right now. That’s saying a lot competing with a very thorough consideration of economic development and the upcoming intellectual history of economics.

The course does a fantastic job of exposing less experienced students to more nuanced aspects of microeconomic theory (multiple equilibria, network externalities, weak vs. strong natural monopolies, etc.) in the process of dissecting the functionality of media. They’re probably a bit light on the underlying mathematics, but deliver the intuition very, well… efficiently. This is an important point: the course runs all of five hours. And in the spirit of MarginalRevolution, it does a good job of sending us to interesting links on the subject. Most ironically, its biggest drawback is very little consideration given to blogging as a medium of information. More on that later.

The value of this course derives from the unquestionable importance of understanding how we get our information. We can listen to Noam Chomsky lament about Manufacturing Consent, but until we understand the economic motives of an organization, it’s tough to appreciate the complexity of mass media.

Given the market oriented propensities of Tabarrok and Cowen, there’s a rather subdued, but well done, attention to market failure. For example, I’d be much more interested in a discussion of economic rents earned by those who win a radio frequency auction first; and the long-run consequences thereof. Similarly, the treatment of some piracy as “economically optimal” is disconcerting to those (of us) who actually pay for everything: but that’s an argument for another day (and I’m not suggesting either are promoting piracy, but obscuring certain moral principles by speaking about it only in the form of consumer surplus).

For someone already familiar with basic economics – and doesn’t need to be guided through its immediate application to the media vis-a-vis theory of the firm – the most interesting section is definitely the last: “Media and Economic Development”. Here the foundations of the first part are solidly applied to understand the role media plays in human development.

This, ultimately, is its most important role. We learn about news in the context of food crises, women, and even diseases.

So this course has my highest recommendation, but there’s a big gap. And maybe it’s because it deserves a course of its own, I was surprised to find how little the economics of blogging was mentioned. This is a deeply relevant subject because, as I’m sure any “loyal MR reader” would tell you – the quality of information and debate is just far better on the blogosphere.

But talk of it “replacing” standard journalism (which, by itself, is another topic that deserved more time!) is just nonsense. Rarely do we see bloggers investigating human systems in the same way Steven Brill did with America’s healthcare, or Bob Woodward with Watergate.

But Cowen and Tabarrok talked a lot about payola, barriers to entry, network externalities, and operating costs in the context of cable news. These are each intimately connected with blogging, if not immediately apparent. To take this further, let’s see what a blogger wants:

  • An engaged audience
  • Influence (?)
  • Pageviews (either for influence or advertising revenue)
  • Links on other influential sites (eigenvector centrality, really, a la PageRank)

To this end, “payola” may not necessarily take the explicit form it does with a disk jockey. Rather, consistently linking to another blogger – I’m speculating – creates a set of expectations wherein the other blogger might feel obliged to link back. Of course, he won’t link back to crap, just like you can pay no reasonable amount to have a DJ play music everybody hates.

Just like classic payola, the art is in getting the readers (or listeners) to believe the link (or record) is something that is natural to the medium itself. If I can take my arbitrary speculations further, I’d expect this quid pro quo to be less pronounced among the more renowned bloggers where a greater readership isn’t really needed or, more likely, happens spontaneously.

But the more interesting comparison is simultaneously thinking about barriers to entry and network externalities. On the one hand, blogging is extremely cheap. Self-hosted domains come at dollars a month, and Blogger, Typepad, and WordPress offer highly affordable platforms. It’s much more like, using the analogy from the course, writing a poem than publishing a magazine.

On the other hand, to the extent readership and centrality is one’s goal, network externalities might make it difficult for new authors to gain traction. There is no “monopoly” in the sense of Facebook here. But there are a relatively small group of maybe 200 bloggers which approximate, graphically, a clique. Weighted by directed links, the group would be even smaller.

Part of this is on merit. These are obviously the most insightful, exciting, and engaging authors. But because they all have busy lives and are limited in time, they will prefer to read only those they credibly trust to be insightful. On par, this creates a graph that, within a certain bound, has an extremely high clustering coefficient, balanced by very low overall clustering (the latter defined precisely as the number of triangle-cliques existent divided by the total number of such cliques, or n choose 3).

In a “competitive” blogosphere, someone’s readership would be immediately determined by the absolute quality of his work. No questions asked. In the absence of any traditional barriers to entry, network effects have to play a role. To what extent does online debate approximate a Popperian “marketplace for ideas”?

These are all questions that I can’t answer in any confidence, only speculate. But after listening to “Economics and the Media” I would be excited to hear a series specifically understanding the economic dynamics of blogging.