Regular readers will by now have noticed that I’m increasingly skeptical when it comes to the grand claims of some blog evangelists. Blogging is just not as important as it’s been hyped up to be by those of us whom it happens to affect most: bloggers and journalists.

The blogosphere in its current form is important only insofar as it is demonstrating the enormous potential of systems of distributed information-gathering and -distribution.

But that hardly means the fundimental politics of information are changing as drastically as the blog evangelists like to believe. In fact, a reality-based evidence-based view of blogging points to an emerging political economy not too dissimilar from old media.

Consider this exchange between University of Wisconsin journalism professor (and blog skeptic) Lewis Friedland and blog enthusiast Jeff Jarvis. Friedland points out that as with old media, a handful of big blogs dominate:

Blogs like everything else on the net are subject to certain laws of exponential traffic, sometimes called Power Laws. And while there may be 1.65 million Blogs out there that are semi-active, there are a very tiny, tiny handful of those notes that are actually read. And they in fact do control traffic, that’s the way traffic on the net works. And to say that because anybody can be a publisher that that opens up a broad range of voices is a delusion really.

Jarvis thinks this doesn’t matter because most bloggers don’t aspire to a mass market:

…you’ve got to look at it in a new way, this is a world of niche. Mass market is dead, the mass of niches is going to take over media. And I think that’s important to rethink the Power Law calculation. That’s the old way of saying you can only have one paper in town, now you can have a thousand. They’ll all have their audiences.

But there’s the rub. The major glitch to the notion of democratic deliberation has always been that while everybody was free to talk, only a few were actually being listened to. The high cost barriers to entry into mass-market publishing compounded the problem. Blogs were supposed to do away with these disfuncions by making everyone a publisher whose views would be descriminated against on intellectual quality alone. Rejoice, oh Habermas-reading masses: the age of rational-critical discourse is at hand.

Alas, no. The big still dominate the blogosphere. Even within each of Jarvis’s niches, a handful of major blogs dominate — just like old media, which also carfully segmented into specialist target audiences. Where’s the great revolutionary change here?

Blogs are important: they are creating a participatory audience for the dominant media. They are creating a destributed (and transparent and therefore self-aware) feedback mechanism for the transforming legacy media and dominant new media. Don’t underestimate this. But don’t exaggerate it, either. But blogs are not providing front-line reporting. They are just repackaging existing information for new niche audiences the way journalism always has. And they are certainly not radically democratising political communication — yet.

Clay Shirky’s article about blogs and power laws is a well-known explaination, and Seth Finkelstein has further thoughts on this.