Back to Old School Blogging?
An awful lot of forces seem to be pushing folks back to blogging. Is it 2002 all over again?
Via Brad DeLong, I see that John Scalzi wants a return to the “artisan, hand-crafted web” that was the old-time blogosphere. If everyone owned their own site and posted once a week and read and linked to each other, Scalzi thinks the world would be a better place:
Now, why should we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web? Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that’s not run by an amoral billionaire chaos engine, or algorithmically designed to keep you doomscrolling in a state of fear and anger, or is essentially spyware for governments and/or corporations? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have ads shoved in your face every time you open an app to see what your friends are up to? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that when your friends post something, you’ll actually see it without a social media platform deciding whether to shove it down your feed and pump that feed full of stuff you didn’t ask for?
DeLong likes the idea but notes that it ignores good old-fashioned incentives:
[Scalzi] is, of course, at some level, completely correct. But calls to virtuous collective action need to be carefully crafted to not ask more of the audience than it will be willing to deliver. In this case, that means that we need to have an accurate theory of what caused the Fall of the Blogosphere in the first place. Why did the audience—and, yes, the creators too—succumb to the Siren song, and wind up doomscrolling through clickbait so that their glued-to-the-screen eyeballs could be sold to advertisers convincing them that the worse is actually the better product as they sell their fake diabetes cures and crypto grifts?
When I talk to people, they shrug and say "attention economy” and “human rapid, response, dopamine loops”.
This already feels like a first-generation blog post, so I’m going to fall back into old habits and disagree vehemently with DeLong! [God, this feels so good, so right!—eds. Don’t start.] The incentive structure might be shifting back to blogging! [Does that include Substack?!—eds. I say yes even if it means not owning one’s website, because that was true back in the days of Blogger as well. Furthermore, Substack does not to my knowledge contain ads within its posts. Also, enough with the callbacks! You all work for me now!]
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As I noted in Spoiler Alerts last year and in my conversation with Dan Nexon and Robert Farley on the Lawyers, Guns, and Money podcast released earlier this year, three things killed the old blogosphere good and dead. The first was money. Big-time bloggers were willing to “take the Boeing” and work for more established media outlets. The second was Twitter, which (compared to blog updates and comments) was a far superior focal point for finding quick links, reactions, and responses to those reactions. The third thing was the advent of the smartphone — not just because of the dopamine hit, but because the vertical shape of the screen made normal-sized paragraphs look like tedious blocks of unindented text. This further encouraged tweet-length ideas over anything longer.
As it turns out, each of these trends has now been partially reversed. A lot of mainstream media outlets that had previously embraced blogs are now spurning them. I left the Washington Post because the Post didn’t want to renew my contract. WaPo’s more recent decisions suggest that this was part of a larger trend to focus on news and investigations at the expense of analysis or commentary. At the same time, the Substack phenomenon has enabled some to earn an income without the constraints of mainstream media editors.
As for Twitter, well, there’s no need to recap what is happening there since Elon Musk took over, just read here and here. It ain’t good. The site has not completely crashed but it’s starting to get pretty buggy. An awful lot of the folks who made the site entertaining for me have taken their ball and gone to Mastodon or Post. I’m at those places too, but the proliferation of microblogging sites dilutes the focal point advantages of Twitter and makes old-style blogging a more viable enterprise.
Finally, Substack’s subscription-based distribution has also conquered the phone problem. Folks read blogs as newsletter emails straight to their phone. I know it seems like a trivial difference, but if folks read emails on their phone they’ll rad Substack posts in the same way. That makes it more accessible to general readers.
So in conclusion, DeLong might be wrong! Maybe incentives are shifting back to a world of blogosphere reacting to the mediasphere, the academy, the policy wonkosphere, popular culture, and each other.
And yet…. it is not in fact, 2002, but 2022. Which means that maybe I agree more with DeLong now than I would have back in the day.
For one thing, maybe the money hasn’t shifted all that much. I have my doubts about the sustainability of the newsletter economy. My podcasting partner-in-crime Ana Marie Cox has her doubts as well, and she knows this world at least as well as I do.
Subscribe to too many newsletters and one starts drowning in text. Maybe there is a sufficient market for folks to scatter the loot amongst a wide array of bloggers, but the current moment also feels a little bit like the proliferation of streaming services that occurred just before a lot of them started to lose money. Substack and other sites might replace the longer blog posts, they don’t work well for the shorter tweet-like posts that contain only a link or two. And Vox’s Sara Morrison has a point when she concludes, “Twitter probably will endure in some form. It’s become too important for all of its users to just pull up stakes and leave.”
For the old-time blogosphere to be revived, the superstars will have to endure, and I don’t know if that is possible in such a polarized political climate. Consider that the original bloggers back in the day were folks like Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, and Josh Marshall. It’s hard to imagine any of them having a civil conversation these days.
I’ve been listening to Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri’s If Books Could Kill podcast as of late, and towards the end of their episode on Outliers they doubted that old-school, general-interest bloggers could reclaim their mantle because they can now be fact-checked by real experts. I think this underestimates the expertise some first-generation bloggers brought to the game, but they are not entirely wrong either. There are bloggers who command a large amount of attention in 2022, but they don’t generate the same kinds of conversations that happened twenty years ago. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not, but it is definitely different from 2002.
I want Scalzi to be right and DeLong to be wrong. Heck, I’m on Substack, so I must think there’s some virtue to this enterprise. After 20 years of public writing, however, I think DeLong might be correct after all.
The underlying problem with all the various means of sharing content is that, generally speaking, human beings aren't all that interesting. No platform can fix that. Pine trees are actually more interesting than human beings, but because we aren't that interesting, we don't see it.
The other fundamental problem is that human generated content in all forms of media has become like the air we breath. Content is everywhere at all times and free, and while being important for our survival, we no longer value it, because it's just too accessible.
And so, no matter what we write, the average reader is going to power scroll through the piece, jumping randomly from here to there, typically on the hunt for something they can lazily reject, without having actually read most of that which they are rejecting. It's the human condition. I do it too. I'm doing it now. My guess is that the best writers have long since left us, because they finally lost faith in their audience, and got tired of talking to themselves.
What's really happening in the world of writing is that for most of us, most of the time who we are really writing to is we the writer. Like the rest of the human experience, what usually engages us the most is our inner conversation with ourselves.
Perhaps this formula might sum up the situation?
The more insightful an article, the smaller the audience.
But you have to pay for Substack subscriptions to get the full content in a lot of cases and it's expensive. It's in no way comparable to old-school blogs in that regard, from a reader's standpoint. They were all free! I love reading people's Substacks but it's frustrating because you can only pay to subscribe to so many. It's just frustrating to read what seems like an interesting post and then get cut off, so it’s always tempting to pay for more subscriptions.