Sunday, 2 December 2012

Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet

Today we're hosting a guest-blog from Eisel Mazard, whose blog may be familiar to many of you (it has been in our Blog Roll for some time). I also explored Jeffrey's post on the decline of Buddhism online at my Patheos blog here back in July. As I said then, it's a complex issue. I was using Google's Ngrams, which only display data up to 2008, and Eisel looks at specific discussion groups. Could the discussion be going on somewhere that we're not looking? Blogs like this one and James Ure's Buddhism Blog continue to grow, and the Buddhist Geeks have been successful enough to hold two large conferences. My own blog over at Patheos just had its best month in terms of visitors (but most of that was due to a post about the 2012 US Elections). What do you think? Do you have a blog? How is it performing in terms of numbers, comments, and/or lively sense of community? --- Justin Whitaker

Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet

The culture of communication is changing: this makes it difficult to measure any kind of cultural change through the lens of any given medium.  In an earlier article, I commented that one of the problems with counting the number of Buddhists in America through a telephone survey is that the culture of the telephone itself has changed in the last 20 years (who will answer an unknown number in the middle of the work-day, etc.).  However, the simple fact that I'm here dealing with is the decline of the discussion of Buddhism in English.  In some ways, the numbers speak for themselves, and in some ways they require quite a lot of talking to.
Jeffrey Kotyk recently drew attention to the sheer decline in the use of the word "Theravada" itself through Google's own statistics; you can compare that chart to what seems to be declining interest in Zen Buddhism, and other key terms (see his article, here).  Although interesting, staring at that chart (below) raises many questions about what type of change the Google Ngram statistic really measures (in relation to changes in the publishing industry specifically, and the culture of communication generally).  By contrast, the more colorful chart above is very simple: it shows the decline in the number of messages sent to an online discussion forum (namely, "Pali: The Pali Collective").
There was a generalized complaint about declining activity from the "Progressive Buddhism" blog a few months ago, too: "…so many of the 'names and faces' of 2007,8,9 and 10 are gone or have simply shifted interest…".  That complaint is evidently applicable to "The Pali Collective" and many other online discussion groups I've recently glanced over; when I look back at the archives of messages from 2007, I can see the names of a few Pali scholars whom I know/knew and respect, who are evidently no longer active in the forum.  However, "The Pali Collective" is still a relative success story: a large number of groups that I looked up have completely ceased to exist.  Others, like the (declaredly) academic forum moderated by Richard Hayes have gone silent, but have not formally shut down.  Circa 10 years ago, that forum was an extremely noisy place.
The Dhammadutas group (as shown above) declined into silence, and was then taken over by Spam.  Clicking through the archives, 2009 seemed to be the last year of real (human-to-human) communication on the forum, but it had already been in decline for some time.
By far the most active discussion forum shown in any of these charts is "Dhammastudygroup", but we nevertheless must observe a decline over the last several years (the level of activity is now roughly half of what it was at its peak).
This discussion forum for Black Buddhists seems to have been a convivial gathering around 2006, but declined soon thereafter, and now has not had a single message posted in 2012.
The broadly inclusive forum named "Sangha" has now declined to a tiny fraction of its former level of activity.  Although I'm showing a (roughly) 10 year period for each of these forums, I would note that "Sangha" was actually founded in 1998.  As such, this is probably one of the longest-running (continuous) discussion forums for Buddhism (in English), although it is not as old as the (now-moribund) forum overseen by Richard Hayes that I mentioned before ("Buddha-L").

I have seen many, many other examples of decline (and, frankly, I do not know of any real exceptions to the rule).  I've presented charts based on Yahoo groups specifically, because they display their own statistics in a manner that is easier to read than Google groups and other competitors (glance over the grid of numbers, e.g., at the bottom of the Buddhadasa group… also in stark decline).

Are we looking at a change in the culture of communication, or are we looking at an indirect indication of a real cultural change?  Before I started a blog of my own (à bas le ciel) I did look through a long list of possible websites that I could have (instead) become a contributor to.  There were no good options.  Although I do still have three articles in peer review, in the last few years I've surveyed my publishing options on paper, again and again; the choices that exist (for an author) are similarly bleak, and many of the publications are in an ongoing state of decline.

Is the growth of my own blog now an exception to the rule?  Although I'm surprised at my own growing number of readers, I also see this small-scale success in the context of the collapse of other modes of publication that should have (or could have) been available to me.  19th century journals really did contain "notices" written as casually as these blog-articles (often more casual still) and a forum of that kind (on paper) is now severely lacking for anyone in the field.  As I mentioned in recent articles, we no longer have the type of "scholarly pamphlet" that the Buddhist Studies Review and the Pali Buddhist Review used to be (as recently as the 1990s).  In looking over the charts above, however, we seem to be witnessing the shrinking of the internet (as a forum for Buddhism in English) especially since 2006.  If you've been actively searching for blogs or new publications on Theravāda Buddhism lately (and, perhaps, this is how some of you discovered my writing in the first place) you will have noticed: I don't have much competition.  As time goes on, I seem to have less and less competition, not more.


  1. Is it time to play spot the logical fallacy? *Yahoo Groups* have been in decline, and this parallels exactly the rise of social networks. Yahoo and everything Yahoo has been in decline since about 2007. So it would stand to reason that *any* selected groups of Yahoo Groups have been in decline as well. Similarly anything Usenet's going to have been in decline as well.

    Does anyone remember Usenet?

    Me, I never used those groups at all. While I don't use Facebook or Google + to promote my blog or its ideas,'s not all that important.

  2. Right, Mumon. Buddhists are still writing stuff and arguing and carrying on, it is just that WHERE we do all this nonsense moves around.

    It used to be that the blogosphere was the hot thing; now Facebook is in its heyday. I wouldn't buy its stock, though. Soon we will move like a herd of elephants to the next New Thing.

    Podcasts! YouTube! 3D Buddhist cartoons! We are insatiable! But not to jabber in texty ways, but to experience The New. If you're standing still, you're dead. And if you're constantly on the move, you're standing still.

  3. I agree with the others about Yahoo. And also about the ever-moving nature of discussion. The seemingly endless array of options online makes it hard to keep track of everyone.

    A few things about blogging. My blog readership has plateaued. And yet, I am getting more and more invites to share my writing elsewhere, which makes me think that numbers on a single blog alone might not really be a great measure of either readership or impact.

    Secondly, there's a lot of natural attrition in blogland. Simply put, it's not easy to maintain a regular blog over a long period of time. Dangerous Harvests is almost 4 years old now. Certainly, bloggers like James and yourself Justin have been at it longer than me, but for every one of you, there are dozens who excitedly wrote for six months or a year, and then disappeared. Some ran out of things to say. Others decided it was easier to just offer comments whenever they felt like it. The well maintained blog requires discipline, and a love of writing at some level at the very least. Even for someone like myself, who has both of those, and piles of interests, I still struggle sometimes to offer a post or two every week or two.

    Third, for the most part, the only folks who keep Buddhist blogs going over an extended period of time are those who - in whatever shape and form it takes - are serious about practice. It's easy enough to have a loose interest and curiosity in it all, or to dive into Buddhism for your current short term fix, and jabber on for a year or two about the insights you are (or think you are) having, and/or the latest scandals and whatnot. However, when the something new comes along to tickle those folks spiritual fancy, or the debates about Genpo or whomever get old, those bloggers say good bye.

    Finally, I think Tom's correct that the blogosphere isn't the "hot thing" it once was. And that's fine. But I don't think it's disappearing either. Just shifting and changing some, as things tend to do.

  4. Thanks Mumon, Tom, and Nathan for your thoughtful comments. I agree that this may just indicate a shift in *where* Buddhism is being discussed on the web, but I couldn't find much evidence of this. Perhaps I don't understand the search function in facebook or it is being irritatingly playful with me, but when I search for "Pali" the first result is for Sarah Palin. The second is for a a woman dressed in underwear... I have 'liked' the Digital Pali Reader site on fb, but that isn't exactly a hotbed of discussion (though it deserves to be, as it is a fantastic resource). The Ngrams show a much broader decline (though their data ends at 2008).

    So where are these discussions happening, if the decline in Yahoo groups is just a general trend?

    Perhaps it is just happening person-to-person on facebook, G+, and so on, leaving little (or no?) trace for us to attempt to measure...

    Anyhow - great to see the three of you here at least, along with a few other blogging fuddy-duddies.

    1. The internet isn't pneumatic: we can't assume that downward pressure in one place is going to result in upward pressure somewhere else.

      The assumption (in many of these comments) that the decline in Buddhism-related-content reflects a universal decline in the use of either (1) blogs or (2) e-mail groups is simply not true. You can find statistics on both through online services like Technorati (etc.) that professionally track the (growing) use of these subsets of internet media. They are growing, partly because authors and companies have (increasingly) figured out how to make money out of a medium that started off as the domain hobbyists.

      Similarly, it would be counterproductive to have a "pneumatic" assumption about the decline of (on-paper) print media for Buddhist Studies: you can't assume that the same quality or quantity of writing will appear on the internet, simply because it disappears from paper newsletters/journals. There's real reason to be concerned when you're looking at a decline in a particular "place" (i.e., medium) --and it's false to assume an unseen equivalence materializes "elsewhere".

      Blogs in general aren't in decline; if anything, they've become a more reliable source of revenue-generation, and have become more professionalized, with explicit links to sources of funding, and traditional media (such as newspapers), and so on, in many different genres (as happened, also, with the semi-professionalization of youtube, as that made the shift from hobby to having some potential for creators to "break even").

      Buddhist studies has not professionalized in any medium in the same period of time: IMO, it has continued to degenerate.

      In my recent comments on Bhikkhu Bodhi's work (which has also made the transition to Youtube, BTW) I commented that everyone's work could benefit from an editor, and everyone's work could benefit from formal (written) criticism. These are aspects that generally disappeared with the switch from paper to electronic media --and I could only imagine that standards will be lower still if discourse is now retreating from the "public forum" of the list-serv and the blog to the entirely private forum of the Facebook group (or the circle of Twitter followers, etc.).

      I can tell you one thing that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I have in common: we both go to print without any proper editing, and without any proper scrutiny or debate from other scholars. Part of the motivation for posting articles publicly is precisely to invite debate of that kind (that can be sorely lacking in formal academic contexts, or even when Bodhi is performing a lecture in front of a Youtube camera, etc.).

    2. Eisel,

      While I agree with you that blogging in general is not in decline, it would be questionable to assume that translates into the Buddhist blogosphere. At least in English. Where I'm not seeing the kinds of professionalization or monetizing that ave occurred with bloggers of other topics. There was also a time not too long ago when new Buddhist blogs appeared regularly in my feed, being recommended by other bloggers. Where the rolls on shared blogs would sometimes double overnight. Where I, myself, frequently offered posts introducing new blogs I had found. None of this is happening anymore. Some of the better or more well known Buddhist writers have developed more professional looking sites to promote books and articles, and others of us have continued along. And new blogs trickle in now and then. But I'm not at all convinced that the general upward tick and professionalization of blogging is happening in the Buddhoblogosphere.

      I'm with you about editing and basic writing standards. The internet has the capacity to offer creative ways to approach all of this, but folks need to put some time and effort into coming up with those creative solutions. I'm not sure simply trying to apply paper editing and standards is the right way to do things. There's a tension between those of us who have some allegiance with the "old ways" and those who either don't know those methods, or simply are disregarding them in favor of a wide open, democratic playing field. A field where anyone can write anything and get taken seriously, if they figure out how to spread the work.

    3. Nathan: we entirely agree, but you've misread me, and you don't realize that we agree.

      My point is precisely that (1) blogging in general is not in decline, but (2) blogging about Buddhism (in English) in particular is in decline. I think you've mistaken my intent on point #2.

      I was relating this to the decline in publications on Buddhism in other media (including paper), etc.

    4. Ah, yes, I missed that the first time around.

  5. Interesting topic. Some discussions are occurring on forums. The two that I'm aware of are and I can't comment on general trends, but they both seem to have a healthy level of activity.

  6. Eisel, I wasn't meaning to imply that Buddhist jabber/jousts/journalizing was a constant mass (that just moves around) or was like having sex withLenina.

    I do think what happens on the Internet is more difficult to measure than you suppose. But whatever is happening it's probably pretty close to what's appropriate and there isn't anything to worry about. Maybe Buddhists are invading Starbucks and jabbering over Caramel Frappuccinos.

    If there is something to worry about, it may be that things are becoming too professionalized and those who are mega-degreed with all matter of certificates in high-order philosophy are taking over and the hoi palloi Buddhists are left in the gutter to suck their toes [the poor tortured contortionist Buddhists].

    To my mind, if the Internet just, wholly becomes another Market Street, paved in electrons, we are all the worst off for it.

    1. Keep in mind that I'm only talking about what's on the internet as an indirect indication of what is off the internet. I can offer you anecdotes (from years of research) about how terrible the situation is for Buddhism in Laos, Cambodia, Yunnan, etc., but I can't summon up a bar-chart to display that change. By definition, an abstraction provides you with much less information than the things it is abstracting from; however, charts such as the declining use of the word "Theravada" (shown through Google Ngram) do provide us with a tangible referent to center these discussions.

      Some further thoughts on the issue were posted today, here:

    2. Eisel, I CERTAINLY appreciate [especially so after having read your blogpost] that you are doing in-depth thinking on this matter.

      I guess the central arena where I differ with you is in with the idea of "flourishing." Whether or not Buddhism is expanding, Buddhism can be (and I think it is) flourishing.

      In 1997, I think it was, two Buddhist movies hit the screens [7 Years in Tibet & Kundun], and from that many thought Buddhism's Big Move into the heart and minds of the English-speaking world was afoot. And maybe so. Maybe Buddhist did gain more casual (and keen?] adherents. When D.H. Suzuki's works hit the stores THAT make for a big Buddhism push. When Siddhartha was first popular THAT caused a big push. Kerouac caused heightened interest in Buddhism from several of his book. These instigators of interest in Buddhist are, in many ways, disappointing. Hunky Brad Pitt makes a movie and makes people have the hots for Buddhism? How lasting an interest is likely to come from that?

      But if interest in Buddha is tepid (in a sense) nowadays, maybe that is just fine. The dharma is simply not going to disappear; I think Buddha promised that, for what little that's worth.

      Interest in Buddhism is what it is. Maybe the buddho-blogs that there are are getting an enormous number of hits, in comparison to readership past. Fewer blogs, but more reading. At least from what's available today, you can scarcely miss knowing about Buddhism if something relating to it is of interest to you.

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  8. Google search trends clearly supports the notion that popular interest in Buddhism has been falling since at least 2004. That fall appears to be plateauing out. So rather than a general decline I would suggest that in the years and decades prior to that, there was a surge in popular interest that didn't last and has now dwindled somewhat.

    We should be cautious of seeing causation when there is only proof of (inverse) correlation, however it's interesting to see that the graph shape of searches for "mindfulness" are nearly a mirror image of the one for "Buddhism".

  9. This was in the NYTimes today:

    A global study of religious adherence released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that about one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation....

    The study also found a wide disparity in the median age of religious populations, with Muslims and Hindus the youngest, and Buddhists and Jews the oldest. The median age of the youngest group, Muslims, was 23, while the median for Jews was 36. [A graphic with the article showed Buddhists being 7% of the population of the world (which is approx half a billion people), with a median age of 34. The median age of all those polled was 28.]...

    The study, “The Global Religious Landscape,” is a snapshot of the size and distribution of religious groups as of 2010, and does not show trends over time.

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