All it takes is the retirement of one blogger — namely, Andrew Sullivan, founder of The Daily Dish and long-time thorn in the side of the liberal blogosphere — and the social web explodes with a mixture of praise, recriminations, eulogies for the death of blogging as we know it, and righteous indignation about whether he was one of the first or not. I don’t think Andrew’s departure is the end of the world, but I confess that it did make me stop and think about the nature of blogging, and where it has gone, or is going.
One of the reasons it made me think is that Andrew (who I consider a friend) said he decided to stop blogging in part because the pace of publishing multiple items a day had worn him down after 15 years, and he was getting too old for such things. As I looked through his bio, it suddenly occurred to me that I am a year older than he is, although I have only been blogging regularly for about 10 years or so (I had a website that I posted links to before that, but didn’t think of it as a blog). But enough with the self pity!
Blogging as business
The other thing that got me thinking was the wide variety of reactions to Andrew’s decision: some said it was about time, since he had become a parody of himself, while others said they would miss his willingness to debate. Some said blogging as we know it died a long time ago, when blogs started to become businesses (as Gigaom and many of its contemporaries such as TechCrunch and Read/Write Web did). But others said that the spirit of blogging lives on, through people like blog pioneers Dave Winer, and Jason Kottke, and Andy Baio.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith is one of those who argues that blogging is gone forever, a case he advanced in a long (blog) post in which he described his own adoption of the medium as a way to rise up through the media ranks as a reporter, using early political bloggers like Josh Marshall (who hasn’t retired, but continues to run Talking Points Memo) and Sullivan as his assignment editors, pursuing stories that they were interested in. But in the mid-2000s, he says, things had already started to fall apart:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”First, Josh Marshall made a rational decision that destroyed these silent assignments and ultimately undercut, in a way, the influence that he and the others wielded. He started building his own aggregation, and then reporting operations, linking first to their own back page, capturing the audience, and sending a trickle rather than a flood of traffic.”[/blockquote]
In other words, Ben is saying that some bloggers stopped thinking as much about being part of a larger ecosystem — one in which they linked to and sent traffic to other bloggers, and in turn relied on their resources and links — and started thinking about becoming their own independent media entities instead. In effect, they turned inwards, and became more concerned with creating their own content and building up their readership, and turning that into a business.
Conversation vs. viral
At Vox, co-founder Ezra Klein talks about something else that he thinks helped accelerate this transformation: namely, the rise of the social web, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In a market where the most important thing is to have your content “go viral,” he argues, there is less and less value in what blogs used to specialize in, which was a kind of multi-threaded, networked conversation (and the gradual decline in value of blog comments has arguably been a part of the same phenomenon).
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”At this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.”[/blockquote]
In a piece for The Daily Beast, another early blogger whose opinion I respect — Ana Marie Cox, the founding editor of the Gawker blog Wonkette — writes about Andrew’s decision as mostly being a stylistic choice, since he will presumably continue to write in other forms. She also says that she never really understood why there had to be a specific term for writing online. “A blog is a tool or a medium, it’s not a thing one does,” she says. In other words, it was just a term for a specific form or style of writing.
The voice of a person
I’m not sure I agree with Ana Marie, however. The blogs that I have always liked, and continue to like — like Jason’s or Andy’s or John Gruber‘s, or Union Square Ventures’ founder Fred Wilson’s blog, which is a classic of the genre — all conform to Dave Winer’s description of blogging as being “the unedited voice of a person.” That lack of a filter, and the back-and-forth with other bloggers that usually resulted, was what made blogging magic for me, and still does, even though it is much less common than it used to be.
But where I think Ana is right is that these elements of what we called blogging are all around us now, in a thousand different ways. When blogs first showed up, there was no other economical way to write and share your thoughts and hear from other writers or readers, but now they are everywhere. We can tweet and Snapchat and Instagram, and post things to Facebook or Google+ or Medium or dozens of other places. As she puts it:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Today, the advantages and limitations that shaped blog writing into an even notionally recognizably form don’t exist. Blogging was once the fastest form of one-to-many publishing available; today, there’s a kaleidoscope of options: Facebook (which in the early days of blogging was still limited to people will specific .edu addresses), Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Snapchat, things the kids are using that I haven’t heard of.”[/blockquote]
Blogging is everywhere
Clinging to a specific form like blogging is an anachronism, Ana argues — like wearing spats, or driving a Model T roadster when there is a perfectly good Porsche in the garage, or referring to driving as “Model T-ing.” And she has a point: publishing on Medium or Facebook is as easy as blogging ever was, and probably has the chance to reach orders of magnitude more people. Newspapers like the New York Times have done away with many of their blogs, and incorporated that content into the paper.
At the same time, though, I miss the days when you could reliably find the writing or thinking of a specific person in one place — their blog. And as I mentioned in a previous nostalgic look back at the “good old days,” one of the best parts of that era was that you owned your own real estate, rather than renting it from Facebook or Twitter or Medium. That’s why I enjoy movements like the Indie Web, which is trying to recover some of that, and the connectedness that the early blogosphere shared.
Ana is right that the spirit of blogging — the desire to share your thoughts or links or commentary with the world, in something approaching real time — lives on, and in fact is far more widespread and available than it ever was. And that’s undoubtedly a good thing (even if it has led to an alarming increase in noise). But it can’t stop old farts like me from getting a little misty-eyed when someone we admired decides it is time to hang up their blogging tools and put the Model T back in the garage.