Can We Bring Back Blogging?
A request for reader feedback on our ongoing experiment.
“I miss the blogs,” — New York Times media analyst Ben Smith, April 27, 2021.
Same here, Ben, moi aussi.
I try not to be too much of a grumpy middle-aged man lamenting the lost thrills of yesteryear but I have to say, I miss the thriving blogging culture of circa 1999-2012. People blogged before and after those dates, but that was a period where blogging really had an outsized voice in shaping political and cultural conversation. Many of the voices that came to the fore in that era of course are still around, and some of them — notably Matt Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan — are ever here on Substack.
But the golden age of blogging was about more than just this or that voice, it was a digital party, where bouncing around through hyperlinks was always bringing in new writers and new perspectives. It was a time of discovering fresh voices and also of changing minds. Immediately after 9/11, a contingent of warmongers dominated the blogosphere but in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003 there was a revitalized anti-militarist arguments.
One of the interesting things about the blogosphere was that you could see people change their minds in real time as they grappled with contending claims. More than a few of the most strident voices supporting George W. Bush turned against the war.
In other areas as well, the blogosphere opened up debate, especially in the 21st century revival of feminist, anti-racist, and socialist politics. In a very real way, the blogosphere was the seedbed for political changes we’re still living through.
There were a lot of factors that led to the decline of blogging. In the golden age of blogs, a sizeable contingent of mid-level writers were able to earn a decent living from ads, something that dried up when Google and Facebook ate up that revenue. Social media like Twitter and Facebook also provided a new way to micro-blog.
One reason I started this Substack was that I wanted to see if some of that old blogging energy could be revived. This meant for me a forum not only for contingent, provisional thinking, but also one where I could (as the bloggers of old) display different facets of my interest, writing not just on politics but also culture.
One week in, I wouldn’t mind getting some feedback. I’m still finding my sea legs as a Substacker. I want to know what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s some recent posts:
In particular, I want to know if my attempt to mix a blend of political and cultural posts on the same day works. Does it make sense for “Fighting Vaccine Imperialism” to also include a discussion of a 1946 Frankenstein comic book? Or would they be better separated?
I’m not sure whether blogs can be revived to what they once were. It could be that the social forces of polarization and fragmentation make any large scale blogging culture impossible.
Even if they aren’t, I’ve found it re-energizing as a writer to try and work out the possibilities of this format. I’m very grateful for all those who are supporting me in this and would love to get some feedback on how things are going.
This makes me wonder: did blogging die off because the tools changed?
Everyone had their own space on the internet and the internet itself was the medium which opened up the conversation. I could use WordPress while someone else might have been on Blogger, Moveable Type, Live Journal, TypePad, or something they made in HTML themselves.
Now it's all siloed off into tinier spaces where content is trapped for eyeballs and engagement and there's not nearly as much space for expression. Some of the conversation is broken up into 280 character expressions on Twitter, some on Instagram, and now people are aggregating content inside Substack. Substack at least has a feed I can subscribe to and a free form box to add a reply.
I appreciate Jeff's comment about the "flywheel of social media". We're definitely going to need something like that to help power any resurgence of the blogosphere. I also like to think of it in the framing of "thought spaces" where the idea of a blog is to give yourself enough space to form a coherent idea and make an actual argument. Doing that is much harder to do on a microblog where the responses are also similarly limited. It just feels so rude to post 250 words in reply to a sentence or two that probably needed more space to express itself too.
I suspect that if we want a real resurgence of thought and discourse online, we're going to need some new tools to do it. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously conceded to his friend Heinrich Köselitz “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.”
It would help if we could get back to the bare metal of the internet in which to freely operate again. Substack at least feels close to that, though it could be much better.
Can we have a conversational medium that isn't constrained by a handful of corporate silos that don't allow conversation across boundaries? Can we improve the problems of context collapse we're seeing in social media?
I'd like to think that some of the building blocks the IndieWeb movement has built might help guide the way. I love their idea of Webmention notifications that allow one site to mention another regardless of the platforms on which they're built. Their Micropub posting tools abstract away the writing and posting experience to allow you to pick and choose your favorite editor. They've got multiple social reader tools to let you follow the people and content you're interested in and reply to things directly in the reader. I presented a small proof of concept at a recent education conference, for those who'd like to see what that experience looks like today.
Perhaps if more platforms opened up to these ideas and tools, we might be able to return, but with a lot more freedom and flexibility than we had in the nostalgic blogosphere?
Yet, we'll still be facing the human work of interacting and working together. There are now several magnitudes of order more people online than there were in the privileged days of the blogosphere. We're still going to need to solve for that. Perhaps if everyone reads and writes from their own home on the web, they're less likely to desecrate their neighbor's blog because it sticks to their own identity?
There's lots of work to be done certainly, but perhaps we'll get there by expanding things, opening them up, and giving ourselves some more space to communicate?
(Practicing what I preach about data ownership and online identity and blogging, I originally posted this reply (with supplementary links) on my own site at: https://boffosocko.com/2021/05/13/55791124/ )
That's why I'm experimenting with the Fediverse (Mastodon, ActivityPub protocol...). I had an active blog on Music & Africa in 2008 (in French). After I moved to WestAfrica in 2016, I created a new one (on WordPress), where I mix "fun" stuff (music, cats, art...) and more serious content... With ActivityPub, my blog is an existing "persona" on the Fediverse, where people can comment, reply... from their favourite platform without the need to open the blog by itself.