Public intellectuals are successful suppliers of commentary in the attention market for serious thought. Blogs are a relatively new technology that substantially alters this market. More people can now nurse aspirations to be public intellectuals, but blogs also make plain the difficulties of actually reaching a public in ways that books do not. Blogs also vitiate other romantic ideas about the public intellectual as transcendent figure. Even so, blogs may well provide the services for which transcendent public intellectuals are often lauded better than these figures ever did.
That's the abstract of Blogs and the Attention Market for Public Intellectuals by Northwestern University sociologist Jeremy Freese (if that link doesn't work, go here).
If you have been into blogging or blog-reading as long as some of us have, you won't find much in there that's new; it's nice to have a summary, though.
Here, for example, is Freese's take on the evolution of a blogger's (political) views / stance towards extremes:
No one has studied the effect of audiences on the stances bloggers take. Blog archives allow one to read the opinions of some bloggers back before they had the audiences they presently do, and a story of audience-author co-evolution is easily sketched. An intellectually engaged person of moderate views begins blogging about political issues. Mostly, they get no response, but the response they do get accrues disproportionately to posts that either provide especially clear representations of a perspective or offer unusually provocative arguments. Links from major blogs to small blogs can bring in a hundred times more readers than an author usually gets. Links from major blogs to small blogs overwhelmingly support the political orientation of the major blog (that is, major bloggers argue with one another and draw on obscure blogs for support). If attention is rewarding, incentives for blog authors to provide more commentary in line with what generates reaction is plain. Blog authors may thus increase attention by focusing only on a subset of their opinion or expressing especially extreme versions of their opinion. In other words, engaged intellectuals often enter the blogosphere with an eye toward shaping the opinion of an audience, but that audience may more strongly influence the intellectual by what they reward with attention.
Here's something that I wish Freese hadn't said (;-):
Blogs are highly unusual among leisure-time activities in that readership is highest during conventional working hours. Blogs owe much of their popularity to the rise of a workforce engaged in jobs that involve many hours of unsupervised, anomic isolation in front of a computer. In part, blogs feed an enormous craving for distraction that many members of the American reading public have. ...