With Andrew Sullivan giving up his blog, there are fewer and fewer of us old-school bloggers left. In this case, “old school” pretty much means a daily blog with frequent updates written by one person (or possibly two, but not much more). Ezra Klein thinks this is because conventional blogging doesn’t scale well:
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.
Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. “I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion.”
I’d add a couple of comments to this. First, Ezra is right about the conversational nature of blogging. There was lots of that in the early days, and very little now. Partly this is for the reason he identified: traffic is now driven far more by Facebook links than by links from fellow bloggers. Partly it’s also because multi-person blogs, which began taking over the blogosphere in the mid-aughts, make conversation harder. Most people simply don’t follow all the content in multi-person blogs, and don’t always pay attention to who wrote which post, so conversation becomes choppier and harder to follow. And partly it’s because conversation has moved on: first to comment sections, then to Twitter and other social media.
Second, speaking personally, I long ago decided that blog posts needed to be standalone pieces, so I’m not sure we can really blame that on new forms of social media. It was probably as early as 2005 or 2006 that I concluded two things. Not only do blog posts need to be standalone, but they can’t even ramble very much. You need to make one clear point and avoid lots of distractions and “on the other hands.” This is because blog readers are casual readers, and if you start making lots of little side points, that’s what they’re going to respond to. Your main point often simply falls by the wayside. So keep it short and focused. If you have a second point to make, just wait a bit and write it up separately not as a quick aside open to lots of interpretation, but with the attention it deserves.
And there’s a third reason Klein doesn’t mention: professionalism. I was one of the first amateur bloggers to turn pro, and in my case it was mostly an accident. But within a few years, old-school media outlets had started co-opting nearly all of the high-traffic bloggers. (I won’t say they co-opted the “best” bloggers, because who knows? In any case, what they wanted was high traffic, so that’s what they went for.) Matt Yglesias worked for a series of outlets, Steve Benen took over the Washington Monthly when I moved to MoJo, Ezra Klein went to the Washington Post and then started up Vox, etc. Ditto for Andrew Sullivan, who worked for Time, the Atlantic, and eventually began his own subscription-based site. It was very successful, but Sullivan turned out to be the only blogger who could pull that off. You need huge traffic to be self-sustaining in a really serious way, and he was just about the only one who had an audience that was both large and very loyal. Plus there’s another side to professionalism: the rise of the expert blogger. There’s not much question in my mind that this permanently changed the tone of the political blogosphere, especially on the liberal side. There’s just less scope for layman-style noodling when you know that a whole bunch of experts will quickly weigh in with far more sophisticated responses. Add to that the rise of professional journalists taking up their own blogs, and true amateurs became even more marginalized.
All of this led to blogs—Sullivan excepted—becoming less conversational in tone and sparking less conversation. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but partly I think it’s because professional blogs prefer to link to their own content, rather than other people’s. Josh Marshall’s TPM, for example, links almost exclusively to its own content, because that’s the best way to promote their own stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect sense. But it’s definitely a conversation killer.
In any case, most conversation now seems to have moved to Twitter. There are advantages to this: it’s faster and it’s open to more people. Blogs were democratizing, and Twitter is even more democratizing. You don’t have to start up your own blog and build up a readership to be heard. All you have to do is have a few followers and get rewteeted a bit. Needless to say, however, there are disadvantages too. Twitter is often too fast, and when you combine that with its 140-character limit, you end up with a lot of shrill and indignant replies. Sometimes this is deliberate: it’s what the tweeter really wants to say. But often it’s not. There’s a premium on responding quickly, since Twitter conversations usually last only hours if not minutes, and this means you’re often responding to a blog post in the heat of your very first reaction to something it says—often without even reading the full blog post first. In addition, it’s simply very difficult to convey nuance and tone in 140 characters. Even if you don’t mean to sound shrill and outraged, you often do. Now multiply that by the sheer size of Twitter, where a few initial irate comments can feed hundreds of others within minutes, and you have less a conversation than you do a mindless pile-on.
I’m not really making any judgments about all this. Personally, I miss old-school blogging and the conversations it started. But I also recognize that what I’m saying about Twitter is very much what traditional print journalists said about blogging back in the day. You have to respond within a day! You have to make your point in 500 words or less! Whatever happened to deeply considered long-form pieces that took weeks to compose and ran several thousand words? Sure, those conversations took months to unfold, but what’s the rush?
Well, they were right to an extent. And now conversations have become even more compressed. Some people think that’s great, others (like me) are more conflicted about it. When I respond to something, I usually want to make a serious point, and Twitter makes that awfully hard. Writing a coherent multi-part tweet is just way harder than simply writing a 500-word blog post. On the other hand, the tweet will get seen by far more people than the post and be far more timely.
As with everything, it’s a tradeoff. I miss old-school blogging. A lot of people say good riddance to it. And the world moves on.