3. The shape of the religion blogosphere

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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This report can pretend to cover neither the vast array of blogs that publish about religion nor even those specifically devoted to religion or particular religions. Instead, it will focus on the sectors of the English-speaking—and largely American—blogosphere that are engaged in conversation about religion in public life. The emphasis is on:

  • The subset of the “active blogosphere”—“the ecosystem of interconnected communities of bloggers and readers at the convergence of journalism and conversation” (Technorati)—that specializes in religion
  • Crossover between academia and public discourse
  • Coverage of religion as it relates to broader culture and politics

Not included in this report are the many religion blogs that focus on lifestyle, personal experience, or the internal affairs of particular religious communities (except when the affairs of those communities are demonstrably of interest to a wider public).

In some cases, it is debatable whether certain sites count as blogs at all. Some, for instance, prefer to describe The Immanent Frame as an academic forum. Religion Dispatches and Killing the Buddha call themselves online magazines and host their own blogs, but the line between magazine articles and blog posts isn’t always perfectly clear—both appear on a rolling basis, exclusively online. Gray areas are inevitable in such an amorphous, evolving medium as blogging; this report takes the wide view. 93 sites were chosen by editors of The Immanent Frame for analysis based on quality of discussion, influence, and participation in a common conversation—inevitably, the sample is incomplete, as the blogosphere is a vast, widely distributed, and messy thing. Hereafter, for simplicity, this subset of blogs about religion will be called the “religion blogosphere.”

3.1 Mapping the network

It should be evident by now that the religion blogosphere is no unified, clearly-delineated thing. Important insights about religion in public life appear on blogs that don’t necessarily specialize in the topic. Those that do specialize in religion form distinct subgroups and clusters around institutions and areas of particular interest. And they, in turn, draw habitually from more mainstream blogs and news sources, as can be seen in this simple network analysis of the religion blogosphere on December 13, 2009 generated by IssueCrawler:

There is a clear group of large circles at the center, which represent the most linked-to domains in the religion blogosphere (size is determined by indegree count and location by indegree centrality). Some, including getreligion.org, christianitytoday.com, and beliefnet.com, are themselves part of the religion blogosphere. Others, like pewforum.org and nytimes.com, are outside information sources that religion bloggers commonly link to. The blogosphere’s shape is anything but smooth.

3.2 The A-list

For all the lip-service lent to the democratizing potential of the blogosphere, it can be a very inegalitarian place. Following a power-law distribution, so-called “A-list” bloggers dominate the traffic and therefore the influence, while millions of smaller blogs can expect little of either (Shirky 2003). In the blogosphere at large, according to rankings such as Technorati’s top 100 and Time’s top 25, the A-list is by and large devoted to politics, technology, and entertainment.

None of the blogs discussed in this report were part of Technorati’s top 100 at the time of writing; the closest was biologist PZ Myers’ Pharyngula. But because the religion blogosphere is a tiny subset of the blogosphere as a whole, with its own particular concerns, those sites in it that draw the most overall traffic might not be the ones that other religion bloggers happen to be most attentive to.

To get a quantitative picture of how influence is distributed in the religion blogosphere, the blogs included in this report were ranked according to three public, Web-wide services: Technorati, Alexa, and Compete. Technorati (1), which specializes in blogs, bases its “Authority” metric on how many other blogs link to a given blog in their posts. Alexa (2, 3) and Compete (4), on the other hand, derive their numbers from the subset of web users who use their respective plug-ins in their web browsers, not unlike the “Set Meters” that companies such as Nielsen use for television ratings. In addition, the number of comments on each of the last 10 posts from every blog was averaged (6). All these numbers come from December 3-4, 2009.

Metrics such as these are part of the picture but not all of it. Kathy Gill (2004) has argued that more pointed measures need to be used for mapping the blogosphere in addition to Web-wide services like Technorati, Compete, and Alexa. She observes that they fail to capture, among other things, the influence of a site within particular subcultures, as we see from the differences between these raw numbers and the network analysis of the religion blogosphere above.

It will be helpful, therefore, to consider the sites cited as trusted sources by the religion bloggers themselves. The IssueCrawler data (6)—from December 13, 2009—shows the sites that are most linked-to by other sites in the religion blogosphere. The final list (7) derives from the survey of bloggers conducted for this report (see section 4). The sites listed are those which two or more respondents described as among their favorite and most trusted sources for content.

Each metric represents only a partial picture of a blog’s popularity and influence. In many cases, data about certain blogs is unavailable through a given ranking. Data for blogs located in subdomains or subdirectories can’t be isolated through Alexa (e.g., http://subdomain.domain.com/subdirectory/); this excludes blogs hosted on sites like Beliefnet or those of many major newspapers. Also, some blogs have not been claimed on Technorati and therefore don’t have an Authority ranking. On Faith, for instance, appears on neither but would likely rank quite highly if it did. Nevertheless, a glance at the top sites according to the following lists will convey a sense of the A-list of the religion blogosphere.

(1) Technorati: Authority
This measures the number of blogs linking a given site in the recent past. Only sites registered on Technorati have an Authority rank. Unfortunately, Technorati recently redesigned its Authority system, and many blogs that used to have an Authority ranking no longer do.

  1. Pharyngula (724)
  2. Crunchy Con (699)
  3. God’s Politics (648)
  4. Archbishop Cranmer (627)
  5. Religion Clause (608)
  6. City of Brass (601)
  7. Progressive Revival (593)
  8. Jesus’ General (593)
  9. Whispers in the Loggia (593)
  10. Killing the Buddha (582)

(2) Alexa: Traffic Rank
Alexa ranks each domain’s traffic compared to other domains, based on visitors and pageviews over the last three months. Only those blogs that are featured prominently on the domain’s main index page are included. The lower the rank, the more traffic the site receives.

  1. Elephant Journal (88,275)
  2. God’s Politics (109,602)
  3. Street Prophets (111,782)
  4. Slacktivist (115,562)
  5. MuslimMatters (129,597)
  6. Religion News Blog (135,500)
  7. GetReligion (140,673)
  8. Religion Dispatches (162,146)
  9. Talk to Action (184,380)
  10. Religion News Service Blog (230,711)

(3) Alexa: Sites Linking In
This estimates the number of unique sites linking to each domain. Again, only included are those blogs which are featured prominently on the domain’s main index page.

  1. God’s Politics (1,404)
  2. Jesus’ General (1,108)
  3. The Wall of Separation (1,091)
  4. Religion News Blog (990)
  5. La Shawn Barber’s Corner (989)
  6. Evangelical Outpost (895)
  7. GetReligion (873)
  8. Religion Dispatches (687)
  9. Talk to Action (666)
  10. Slacktivist (617)

(4) Compete: Unique Visitors
Compete estimates the number of individual users who visited each site in a given month. Unlike Alexa, it compiles data for blogs located in subdomains, though not data for blogs in subdirectories.

  1. Religion Dispatches (45,809)
  2. God’s Politics (42,627)
  3. Religion News Blog (40,003)
  4. GetReligion (32,802)
  5. Elephant Journal (31,735)
  6. Whispers in the Loggia (25,546)
  7. Talk to Action (18,834)
  8. The Wild Hunt (17,292)
  9. La Shawn Barber’s Corner (16,393)
  10. Tikkun Daily Blog (15,003)

(5) IssueCrawler: Inlink count from total network
This extraction from the IssueCrawler data ranks sites based on the number of sites in the religion blogosphere they receive links from.

  1. GetReligion (23)
  2. OnFaith (18)
  3. ReligionDispatches (17)
  4. dotCommonweal (16)
  5. God’s Politics (13)
  6. Street Prophets (12)
  7. Whispers in the Loggia (12)
  8. AltMuslim (11)
  9. Articles of Faith (11)
  10. Christianity Today blogs (10)

(6) Average comments per post
For each blog, the number of comments on the last 10 posts were counted and averaged in order to measure the extent of user discussion. Some blogs, it should be noted, don’t allow comments at all.

  1. Slacktivist (345.2)
  2. Comment Is Free Belief (301)
  3. The Wall of Separation (130.6)
  4. Damian Thompson (85.2)
  5. Pharyngula (83.9)
  6. Archbishop Cranmer (65.8)
  7. Holy Post (40.6)
  8. Christianity Today Politics Blog (37.2)
  9. All Things Catholic (35.8)
  10. Steven Waldman (33.3)

(7) The bloggers’ favorites
Each of the sites below was cited two or more times in the 19 responses to this report’s blogger survey (see section 4), in which bloggers were asked for their “favorite websites and/or blogs about religion, particularly those that [they] might rely on in generating [their] own content.”

  • The Immanent Frame (7)
  • GetReligion (6)
  • Religion Dispatches (6)
  • Talk to Action (5)
  • God & Country (4)
  • Beliefnet (3)
  • Bold Faith Type (3)
  • Christianity Today Liveblog (3)
  • On Faith (3)
  • The Revealer (3)
  • Street Prophets (3)
  • Articles of Faith (2)
  • Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (2)
  • Blogging Religiously (2)
  • Dispatches from the Culture Wars (2)
  • Episcopal Cafe (2)
  • Sarah Posner (2)
  • Jesus’ General (2)
  • Killing the Buddha (2)
  • New York Times religion feed (2)
  • Spiritual Politics (2)
  • The Wall of Separation (2)
  • Whispers in the Loggia (2)

While none of these lists gives a complete picture of the relative influence of the blogs listed, together they offer some useful insights. Take, for instance, Elephant Journal and Religion News Blog. Metrics 2 and 4 place them at the very highest levels of influence. But 5 and 7, which focus more particularly on the religion blogosphere, suggest that they aren’t of great interest to the rest of the religion blogosphere as such. The widely-read Pharyngula, too, is absent from 5 and 7, implying that despite its traffic and influence, religion bloggers don’t pay much attention to it—perhaps because of the dismissive tone its author takes toward religion. In contrast, while The Immanent Frame doesn’t make it to the top 10 of any Web-wide metrics, it ranks well in the religion blogosphere, according to metric 7, perhaps due to the perception of academic cachet. (Some of its standing may be attributable to the fact that the survey was conducted by Immanent Frame editors.) Evidently, the religion blogosphere has a hierarchy quite separate from that of the blogosphere as a whole.

Blogs associated with larger institutions and establishment media tend to do quite well; Pharyngula is part of Seed Media Group’s ScienceBlogs network, Crunchy Con and City of Brass are part of Beliefnet, God’s Politics is the blog of the Sojourners community and magazine, Street Prophets is affiliated with the politics blog Daily Kos, and Religion News Blog is published by Apologetics Index. Nevertheless, independent, online-only sites make a strong showing as well; these include: Talk to Action, Jesus’ General, GetReligion, Slacktivist, and Whispers in the Loggia. In such cases, smaller sites carry influence far in excess of their shoestring budgets. It is also notable that, with the exception of Slacktivist and Archbishop Cranmer, all of the top 10 blogs with the most comments belong to wider networks.

The pecking order of the religion blogosphere takes different forms depending on how one frames the question.

3.3 A rough typology

Blogs, sometimes as a matter of principle, are not easily put into boxes. Unlike traditional publishers, bloggers aren’t anxious to categorize their content according to the aisles in a bookstore. Instead, they strive to cultivate a unique voice, a loyal community, and an eclectic collection of source material. Nevertheless, religion blogs do fall into certain groupings. Note that the examples of each listed below are hardly exhaustive.

Political opinion
Discussions of religion and politics, often from a well-hewn partisan perspective.

  • Archbishop Cranmer
  • Bold Faith Type
  • Christianity Today Politics Blog
  • Crunchy Con
  • God’s Politics
  • Progressive Revival
  • Religion Dispatches
  • Street Prophets
  • Talk to Action
  • Tikkun Daily Blog
  • The Wall of Separation

Culture and ideas
Discussion of religion in life, culture, and society.

  • AltMuslim
  • The Point
  • Charlotte Was Both
  • Christianity Today Liveblog
  • Comment is Free Belief
  • The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog
  • Elephant Journal
  • Episcopal Cafe
  • Evangelical Outpost
  • First Thoughts (at First Things)
  • Killing the Buddha
  • Monkey Mind
  • On Faith
  • Irtiqa
  • Muslim Matters
  • Pharyngula
  • Theolog
  • Vox Nova
  • The Wild Hunt

Academic research and reflection
Written mainly by academics with other academics in mind.

  • At the Intersection
  • Call & Response
  • Faith and Theology
  • The Immanent Frame
  • The Prosblogion
  • Religion Clause
  • Religion in American History
  • Spiritual Politics
  • The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Original reporting on, or drawing attention to, religion news stories.

  • Articles of Faith
  • Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion
  • Blogging Religiously
  • Damian Thompson
  • FaithWorld
  • God and Country
  • The God Blog
  • Holy Post
  • Religion News Blog
  • Religion News Service Blog
  • Whispers in the Loggia

Commentary on the press
Ongoing critique of how mainstream press reports discuss religion.

  • GetReligion
  • Muslimah Media Watch
  • The Revealer
  • The Scoop

Again, categories like these tell only part of the story. They don’t necessarily reflect the clusters that blogs form with links to one another, as a detailed network analysis would. Like so much of the Internet, the religion blogosphere is a system of self-directed, independent parts, fueled by a variety of motivations and following no coherent underlying design.

Some of these groupings are more cohesive than others; the “political opinion” blogs, for instance, share relatively more of a conversation than the others, reading and referring to each other regularly. “Culture and ideas” blogs tend to be active in conversations outside the religion blogosphere specifically. Pharyngula and Irtiqa, for instance, often cite scientific and stridently-secularist blogs. First Things blogs, like First Thoughts, typically refer to politically conservative sites. Academic blogs tend to appeal to specialized audiences; The Prosblogion addresses philosophers of religion, particularly in the analytic tradition, while The Immanent Frame’s emphasis is social theory, and rarely the twain shall meet. That these blogs participate in communities beyond the religion blogosphere means there is little redundancy among them, as each draws from such diverse sources and conversations. On the other hand, such eclecticism means that authors across the religion blogosphere don’t pay attention to each other as much as they might.

3.4 Beyond “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” (and Muslim)

Because this report is focused on English-language blogs about religion in the public sphere and the academy, and because only certain religious traditions are a major part of public debate in Anglophone politics and society, it does not attempt to present the full spectrum of diversity among blogs about religion. There are, in fact, blogs out there for just about any living (or even not so living) tradition within reach of an Internet connection. But, inevitably, the A-List is likely to be dominated by sites that focus on the prevailing traditions of the Anglophone public: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. (Notable exceptions include, for instance, Pharyngula, which is atheist, The Wild Hunt, which is pagan, and Elephant Journal, which is influenced by Buddhism.) Many sites discussed here, however, seek not to limit themselves in this respect to the usual suspects, even if they often do; taking their subject matter as “religion” generally, and not any particular religion, they regularly feature posts about traditions that are less widely-represented.

With its ease of access, the blogosphere certainly offers the means for under-represented traditions to find a public voice. The vitality of the Western Muslim blogosphere shows, through sites like AltMuslim and MuslimMatters, how blogs can enable religious minorities to enter into weighty discussions online with each other and the world beyond.

3.5 Communities in the making

Although the contribution of blogging to sectarian religious institutions is not within the purview of this report, the community-building at work in the religion blogosphere, which often overlaps with these institutions, cannot be neglected.

In old-guard organizations like the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations, blogging has created space for discourse that leans against prevailing trends. At sites like Progressive Revival, Episcopal Cafe, and the Christian Century’s Theolog, mainliners maintain a rich public conversation about the present and future of their communities. They do so, meanwhile, often outside the auspices of traditional ecclesial bodies (whose populations are in a state of decline), possibly pointing toward a shift in the locus of intellectual leadership.

Recognizing the possibility of such a shift in Catholicism, high-level meetings at the Vatican have discussed how blogging is shaping the conversation about Catholicism and have even suggested the idea of issuing guidelines for Catholic bloggers. “In the past, the church’s educational efforts included helping people decide what they should or should not watch,” said one archbishop. “Now it must also help them decide what they should or should not produce”—including, he added, what they post on the Internet (Wooden 2009). Daily dispatches from Vatican correspondent John Allen’s All Things Catholic blog, together with the more gossipy Whispers in the Loggia, are part of a blogosphere that lends a new degree of transparency to a hierarchy more accustomed to an older media environment. The kind of discourse available on less judicious blogs has already made a strong impression on the curia. “I have been appalled by some of the things I’ve seen,” said Roger Mahoney, Cardinal of Los Angeles, about the blogosphere, adding: “Of course, I’ve been the object of some of them.”

Meanwhile, leading American Catholic magazines like Commonweal, America, and First Things all have widely-read blogs, each of which caters to its own subculture within the Catholic Church. The same can be said for the blogs of magazines associated with other religious communities, including The Jewish Daily Forward, the New Humanist, and Christianity Today. In this respect, blogs represent an extension of the role traditionally played by these magazines, but they do so in ways that inevitably adjust the roles of editors, writers, and readers: editors edit more content less; writers write shorter, punchier pieces; and readers become commentators. The resulting community may be more vibrant and interactive than ever, but likely less carefully defined.

The religion blogosphere has seen wholly new kinds of belonging form as well. Over the last decade, Killing the Buddha has become a destination for, in the words of its “Manifesto,” “people made anxious by churches.” Open Source Theology, which serves the “emerging church,” allows for open-ended discussion about theology for a nascent movement within Protestant Christianity, one small and spread-out enough that offline meetings aren’t always an option.

The emergence of new blogging communities has political consequences. Just as sites like MoveOn.org and DailyKos rallied the political left during George W. Bush’s presidency, Talk to Action, Tikkun Daily Blog, Religion Dispatches, God’s Politics, and Street Prophets (itself a subsidiary of DailyKos) helped to cultivate a specifically religious language for the Left’s political priorities, which many felt the mainstream Democratic Party had abandoned. While such blogs can’t take sole credit for the Democrats’ rediscovery of religious language during the 2008 campaigns, the fact that prominent activists like Michael Lerner and Jim Wallis are also bloggers attests that blogs played a crucial supporting role.

With comments and up-to-the-minute updates, the interactivity of blogs makes them ideal for fostering communities, especially ones that have yet to find a place among more traditional religious institutions. How, precisely, they do so has been examined by some (Cheong et al. 2008, Cheong and Poon 2008, Dawson and Cowan 2004) and deserves further study.

3.6 What counts as journalism?

As religion desks at national and regional media organizations have disappeared amidst sweeping budget cuts, many journalists specializing in religion look to the Internet—and the blogosphere in particular—for their rescue. With lower overhead and greater flexibility, blogs offer the opportunity for a renaissance in serious religion coverage, just as they are becoming key sources for business, entertainment, and technology news.

One positive sign, certainly, has been the success of blogs labeled, in section 3.3, “commentary on the press.” GetReligion and The Revealer have developed loyal followings for their discussions of how religion is represented in news stories. These blogs, their authors say, have pushed reporters in old and new media alike to be more careful and nuanced in their coverage of religion, suggesting that—contrary to some conventional wisdom—blogs are capable of elevating the level of public discourse and expanding its breadth. Even more to the point, a number of religion journalists at conventional media outlets maintain blogs that enable them to cover more stories than the space in their primary media alone would allow. Stand-out examples include FaithWorld, Blogging Religiously, All Things Catholic, Articles of Faith, and (for popular culture) The God Blog. The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog, which once offered highly-regarded original coverage by reporters, now mainly features commentary by a panel of religious leaders.

Such genre-bending should serve as a reminder that the traditional lines between reported journalism and editorializing—much less between instances of pure advocacy and self-promotion—have yet to be clearly defined in the blogosphere. It isn’t always easy to distinguish one from the other, though in the eyes of trained journalists, the distinction is all-important. At the Intersection, for instance, provides informative reports on religion and politics, much as one would expect from a reporter. However, the blog doesn’t mask the fact that it is published by Public Religion Research, a private strategic consulting firm, and serves essentially as a publicity tool for the company’s work. This phenomenon calls to mind the inserts that sometimes appear in newspapers that resemble news reports but are actually paid advertising. On the blogosphere, such examples seem less insidious simply because they are so commonplace.

Another liminal case, and one of the most widely-cited and read participants in the religion blogosphere, is On Faith. Though hosted jointly by the The Washington Post and Newsweek, it doesn’t hold itself to the standards of journalistic reportage; instead, it draws short, opinionated essays from (often prominent) public figures who are often unapologetic about representing institutional and ideological agendas. More than a newspaper’s opinion page, it calls to mind the talking heads that spar on television.

While distinctions such as these might become clear to those who are well-versed in the religion blogosphere, they will not always be evident to casual readers. If robust, reported journalism is to find a place in the fray, either it will have to change its standards or impose those standards visibly and consistently on the rather bewildering and inconsistent medium of the blogosphere.

From the perspective of journalists themselves, perhaps the most daunting concern is one of financing. The blogosphere, except for a few isolated cases, has yet to be able to support the kind of investigative reporting that print newspapers and magazines have provided in the past. Sites like Religion Dispatches and Comment is Free Belief might pay at least some of their writers, but rarely enough for them to do sustained reporting. This is, again, a subset of a dilemma that plagues the news media in general. But with religion reporters in particular rapidly losing their jobs or being transferred to other desks, the question of whether truly professional journalism is plausible in the blogosphere has come to be a particularly urgent matter. If the answer is to be yes, it will require a deeper institutional and financial commitment from those concerned to see true religion journalism flourish online.

3.7 Is there really a religion blogosphere?

The very idea of a religion blogosphere—a network of blogs devoted to discussing the place of religion in public life—is in some respects a construction of this report. There is no canonical list or definition to bound such a thing, and different observers would make different choices. Nevertheless, the community here identified does represent the possibility of a common conversation among a diverse set of voices. The blogging medium allows for far more cross-fertilization among far-flung communities than currently exists, and a wider variety of blogs would doubtlessly benefit from paying closer attention to one another than they do. There could be, for instance, more consolidation among them at the institutional level to facilitate interaction. Beliefnet provides its numerous blogs an automatic audience, including readers who might not otherwise find them but who have a general interest in religion. Less formal networks and link exchanges might suffice to foster a stronger sense of community.

At the same time, part of what makes the religion blogosphere so powerful is its capacity to easily participate in exchanges with other kinds of blogs that have overlapping interests. Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, a popular politics blog at The Atlantic’s website, regularly covers matters of religion, and often cites religion blogs in the process (especially Crunchy Con), exposing them to a very broad audience. Informed Comment, the widely-read blog of Islamicist Juan Cole, doesn’t focus on religion per se, but Cole draws on his training in the study of religion for his essays on politics and Middle Eastern affairs. Regularly attracting mainstream media attention and readerships far beyond blogs that focus specifically on religion, these two are reminders that the religion blogosphere need not and should not keep only to itself. Staying in conversation with more mainstream concerns will ensure both the continued relevance of religion blogs and that the wider public discourse benefits from their expertise.

While there may be strength in community and thus an opportunity for a new kind of conversation about religion to emerge among religion bloggers, they should resist the temptation to ghettoize themselves. There are benefits to keeping the religion blogosphere’s boundaries undefined and porous.

The eclecticism of the religion blogosphere as it stands—made up of journalists, critics of journalists, academics, satirists, non-profits, and activists, each with their particular constituencies and expectations to satisfy—means that there is a considerable breadth of views that one can access relatively easily. There could be far more diversity still. Perhaps this report, by naming and describing the religion blogosphere as such, and putting the construct into currency, will encourage bloggers to work more collectively even while expanding their variety.

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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