It is no accident that nearly every big-budget Hollywood movie follows one of only a handful of formulae. These basic plots have proven to be more popular than most others, and by giving the audience what they've consistently proven they want to watch, the odds of success go way up. The most innovation you'll usually see is a combination of two or more basic formulae. Leave the groundbreaking new ideas to the indies.
Similarly, I've noticed a handful of formulae in blogging which seem much more likely to lead to a high-traffic weblog. Nearly all of the most popular sites follow one of these basic formulae, or a combination of them. Execution matters, too: good writing, regular updates, and something unique. But giving the audience what they've consistently proven they want is essential.
The Sex Blog
The easiest way to achieve explosive popularity is to write about your sex life in intimate detail. It helps (but isn't essential) to be female, very active, and a bit perverted. Sex blogs have been known to explode from zero to all-star status in a matter of weeks.
Why it Works: Everyone likes sex.
Examples: Belle de Jour, The Good Wife
Aggregators don't necessarily write much original content, but they post constantly, with links to interesting posts elsewhere. Some are updated dozens of times a day, so there's always something new. Most Aggregators are focused on a specific topic, but some (like Boing Boing) range widely across the Internet. Aggregators are often the biggest of the big, the most widely read blogs in cyberspace, but they take a lot of time to maintain and in some cases (like Wonkette) are literally a full-time job.
Why it Works: There's always something new.
Examples: Boing Boing, Wonkette, and of course Slashdot, the granddaddy of them all
Sometimes a genuine Expert graces the Blogosphere with his or her presence, someone with true credentials in whatever field he or she writes about. Needless to say (for those who spend any real time reading blogs), this is rare, but when it happens, everyone benefits, and the blog often winds up with a healthy readership. Experts are allowed to stray somewhat from their field of expertise, but not too much, lest they become Zealots, Aggregators, or worse, a blog which follows no particular formula.
Why it Works: Despite appearances, blog readers can often distinguish real expertise from shouting.
Examples: Lawrence Lessig, EconLog
A Zealot never lets facts interfere with his opinion. Fortunately, there are so many facts today that it is easy for the Zealot to find the ones which support his or her position. Zealots often write constantly, updating their blogs several times a day, breathlessly uncovering the latest news or rumor to advance the cause. This being an election year, the most prominent Zealots are writing about politics; but other topics like computers, Microsoft, games, etc., are just as capable of supporting Zealotry.
Why it Works: Agree or disagree, reading a Zealot can be highly entertaining. Until you get sick of it.
Examples: Glenn Reynold's InstaPundit, Little Green Footballs, Atrios, Daily Kos
This is more of a hypothetical formula, since to my knowledge there are no true A-list celebrities who write genuine weblogs. But supposing Bill Clinton, Meg Ryan, Viggo Mortensen, or some other true offline celebrity were to maintain a blog, it would almost certainly be among the most popular. Even though there are no true Celebrity blogs, there are a number of C-, D-, E-, F-, and G-list celebrities who maintain blogs, some of whom are also Zealots, Experts, etc., and use their minor offline fame to enhance their readership (for example, Lawrence Lessig is truly an Expert, but his status is certainly helped by being very well known in certain circles).
Why it Would Work: Offline fame transfers online, even if it doesn't go the other way.
Many popular blogs are not a single formula, but a combination of two or more. Glenn Reynolds is a Zealot, but with a strong dose of the Aggregator and just a whif of Expert (he would be more of an Expert if he stuck to topics in which he has Expertise, rather than writing mainly about partisan politics). Lawrence Lessig, as we already saw, is an Expert, but with a bit of Celebrity added to the mix.
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