I spent considerable time this week mulling over what this blog means and what blogging means in general. Specifically, I refer to the increasingly valid concern about the state of blogs today. They are so vastly different from what they were a few years ago, and almost nothing like they were back when weblogging started, that I ended up with two conclusions: one, blogging in the form that it started is either evolving or dying, depending on how you look at it; two, the spirit behind blogs, the core interests they brought to the table are being resurrected, albeit painfully slowly.
These two statements may at first seem counterintuitive, but they are not. In any case they demand further explanation. Luckily enough, over the course of this week I came across two interesting writings on this issue. One is a short post published on Seth Godin’s blog, and the other is an article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic, published earlier this year, titled What blogging has become. (On a side note, I have found articles in The Atlantic to be increasingly more interesting than The New Yorker of late.)
Mr Meyer writes about blogging as a victim to corporate consolidation:
Open up an old blog and it was a list of posts in “reverse-chronological order”… Meanwhile, in the right rail, there was a list of other blogs read by this one. Things were generally chummy… Very, very few people do that anymore… For a couple years now, it was clear we were going to lose the reverse-chron, single-URL game… in return, we got Twitter and Facebook… They adopted the chatty tone of blogs, and they unified the hundreds of streams of content in reverse-chronological order into just one big one… a writer didn’t have to attract and maintain a consistent audience in the same way anymore.
His argument leads up to how Medium, the blogging network, is taking on the role from (or alike?) Facebook and other social networks in an unexpected turn that is slowly reviving the blog format. Following recent updates, he points out, things on the platform “just look bloggier (sic) now”. This is in stark contrast to how it used to be built around “collections” of themed articles rather than collections of articles by one writer. This is what differentiated Medium from a regular blog, but with the death of collections, this is now no longer true. And all this, in my opinion, leads us right back to blogging. It remains a fundamental method of sharing information: you have a platform, you write, you send out links and draw interesting people to read it. Everything else, in my opinion, is a twist on the same.
Medium is now a platform and no longer the network it intended to be. Whether this is a good thing or not is a debate best kept for another day. But are they not all blogging platforms? Facebook and Twitter too have reverse-chronological updates written by people in various lengths, from one character to a thousand. And, like Medium, they too have “streams” of content waiting to be devoured; the only difference is in how they began — Facebook started as a place for writing something personal, Twitter for sharing interestingness quickly, and now Medium is like a platform for people to look trendy. But today, are all three are little more than burdensome social marketing tools where everyone has vested interests and over half of all spoken words are either influenced by corporations or ooze dishonesty to portray life like people want it to be rather than like it is.
It was in this context that Seth Godin wrote his recent blog entry on why blogs matter, perhaps more now than ever before. “Good blogs”, he rightly says, “aren’t focused on the vapid race for clicks that other forms of social media encourage. Instead, they patiently inform and challenge, using your time with respect.” This about sums up blogging for me. The reason why blogs have lasted until the present time is quality — and I say this because, while a couple of decades might not be long by most measures, it is a few lifetimes on the internet, and that, I think, is something we should pause and absorb when we see how long blogs have lasted: nearly the entire lifetime of the modern internet. The fact that a blog belongs to a person quite naturally makes it a responsibility, unlike social media; and the fact that a blog belongs to a person also makes it a representation of that person, unlike social media (how many people visit the profiles of everyone they follow everyday?) and this quickly makes blogging something that, to the blogger, has immense value. And it is precisely this value that a reader of said blog will reap.
That is not to say all blogs provide value or are worthwhile. On the one hand this is a subjective issue, and on the other the internet has an unintentionally inbuilt system that weeds out low-quality blogs (low traffic due to bad content leads to lower traffic much like high traffic due to good content will lead to even higher traffic). This ensures that only good blogs survive or, at least, that only good blogs reap the benefits that make them worth updating regularly. Such a habit of offering quality content without seeking anything (read, personal tastes and product usage patterns) in return has made blogs the enemy of social networks in some manner. “Google doesn’t want you to read blogs”, points out Mr Godin, citing how the company shut down its feed reader service, “And Facebook doesn’t want you to read blogs either… but RSS still works. It’s still free. It’s still unfiltered, uncensored and spam-free.”
Indeed it is no surprise that RSS has long been my sole means of following my favourite blogs on the web. And what I find most interesting is that the “right rail” that Mr Meyer talks about (or a sidebar as it is better known) still exists almost religiously on all physics-based blogs that I follow. Understandably a majority of the blogs I follow are written by fellow physicists, and nearly every single one of them has a dedicated blogroll — not necessarily maintained, but not taken down either, despite the fact that WordPress (the largest software powering weblogs today) pulled the plug on blogrolls a long time ago. I used to have a blogroll too, but decided to keep it private. The link sharing and follow through to other blogs, which was the role once played by such lists, is now accomplished by a liberal use of links and citations — at least on my blog and on several of those I have seen.
To believe that blogs matter to the average reader, however, would be pompous. The collective community of well-written and fully functioning blogs — the blogosphere — most certainly matters, but individual blogs rarely do (unless you know the blogger otherwise, often personally). However, to look at this as the insignificance of a blog would be just as wrong. Blogs still carry a raw, personal feeling, a brutal honesty in words of the sort one only ever utters in the private walls of a home. This is a benefit few magazines can offer. By restricting oneself to a magazine restricts one’s perspective, causing it to lean towards that of the magazine; to subscribe to several magazines will soon become too expensive to justify. Blogs, therefore, are the answer. The only complaint — the quality of content — becomes moot because if one searches enough, they will almost certainly find bloggers whose quality is on par with any magazine. The discussed, thought-out, and merged perspectives of a board of editors can be afforded by following several blogs and, in the end, using them to think for oneself.
I have often said this and will say it again: blogs have a unique place on the Web, and they will continue to. Until a radically new form of expression comes up — one that can trump writing, which is no small challenge — blogs and magazines will co-exist, the latter offering investigation and coverage only their large funds can help realise, and the former offering perspectives and opinions only possible by someone not influenced by corporations and establishments. So read blogs; good blogs can be incredibly rewarding.