Not a year goes by without someone lamenting the death of blogging, but the nostalgia for the old web has been particularly strong these last 12 months. We’ve watched tech executive after tech executive get hauled in front of Congress, and we’ve all been horrified by the revelations of how bad actors, both foreign and domestic, leveraged platforms like Facebook and YouTube in an effort to do us harm. Can you blame those who long for the days when tech companies had less centralized power and not every movement of our mouse was being tracked by advertisers?
Writing for Motherboard, Jason Koebler recounted his own experience in high school running a blog-like website he called Jason’s Site and what drove him to embrace more centralized social networks like Myspace and Facebook. “My original sin wasn’t making a Facebook account, it was abandoning my own website that I controlled,” he wrote. “… All these years later, maybe it’s time to update Jason’s Site.”
Ernie Smith, in his Tedium newsletter, was even more militant in his call to arms. “Let’s freaking save blogging,” he wrote. “Specifically, let’s save it from the platform that’s trying to grow massive off your words and thoughts. It deserves to live, and it does not deserve to be controlled by a company that doesn’t understand that there’s value to your words.” In a separate post, he compiled a list of people who pledged to start blogging in 2019.
Consumer sentiment seems to indicate that many would be sympathetic to this argument. A Pew study found that 25 percent of Americans have deleted the Facebook app from their phones in the past year. Another survey showed that trust in Facebook plunged by 66 percent in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. A report from Tapatalk found that trust in all social networks has diminished by significant margins.
So are blogs primed for a comeback in 2019?
Well, first we should acknowledge that blogging never really died in the first place. Most people don’t acknowledge them as such, but social networks are essentially blogging platforms. If you were to visit your average blog circa 2006, most weren’t publishing longform essays. They were a mixture of short posts (typically fewer than 280 characters), links, and photos. These are all functions that are performed every single day by platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In fact, social networks simply made the act of blogging much easier. Sites like Twitter and Facebook offered a much cleaner interface than your average CMS. Sure, you lost out on customization, but Steve Jobs proved long ago that your average consumer values a sleek product with straightforward functionality over customizable tech.
Social media also offered a built-in audience. It was incredibly difficult to drive consistent readership to a standalone blog; even if you had a surge in visitors, it was challenging to convert them into repeat readers. Sure, there were RSS readers, but they had extremely low adoption rates, so much so that bloggers held an annual RSS Day in an attempt to educate internet users about the existence of the technology. Social platforms offered a centralized location where readers congregated, making it not only easier to subscribe to your favorite content creators, but also guaranteeing that you were more likely to see their stuff.
As the social platforms grew, the blogosphere got split into two factions. “The most successful bloggers are now running corporate media empires like Vox, or working for the mainstream media,” wrote The New Republic’s Jeet Heer in 2016. “The first cohort of feminist bloggers have moved on to media development and books. Conservative spleen has reinvented itself as Breitbart.com and Nazi-themed anime memes from the alt-right.” For everyone else, social media sufficed for their content-sharing needs.
When people talk about “blogs” today, they’re usually referring to standalone websites, either hosted on domains owned by the blogger or on blog-specific platforms like WordPress.com and Blogspot. In the heyday of blogging, there were hundreds of thousands of sites that fit this category, and we even had a search engine that was devoted specifically to them. Today, I’m not sure how many of these blogs exist, but suffice it to say that there are significantly fewer. A 2010 Pew survey found that the number of teens who blogged had been cut in half since 2006. There are still plenty of blogger holdouts — people like Jason Kottke and John Gruber are going strong — but the blogosphere we knew and loved a decade ago is effectively gone.
And it’s probably not going to return. While I’m sure that some people don’t care whether anyone reads their content, most of us post with the intention of reaching as wide an audience as possible, and it’s incredibly difficult to build an audience on a standalone blog. And it only continues to get harder as the major platforms tweak their algorithms so that native content is rewarded at the expense of posts that link to outside websites. Networks like Facebook and LinkedIn don’t like it when you encourage people to leave and go elsewhere.
That’s not to say that decentralized, blog-like activity doesn’t still exist. There are two mediums that remind me a lot of the old-school blogosphere: newsletters and podcasts. It feels like not a day goes by when I don’t see a web writer announcing that they’re launching a newsletter. In a 2016 piece titled “Email newsletters are the new zines,” I argued that newsletters offer an indie aesthetic and an intimacy that many content creators find appealing. “Newsletter readers enjoy feeling like they’re in some sort of exclusive club,” I wrote. “Sending a newsletter seems more like a private, intimate conversation compared to when you write for the open web.” As Nick Quah, the founder of the popular newsletter Hot Pod, told me, “I feel more connected to people in the private space because I’m able to be a little bit more authentic or more honest.”
The same can be said for podcasts, a medium that is extremely intimate and distributed in a decentralized manner. While Apple controls most of the podcast market, it hasn’t implemented any Facebook-like algorithms, choosing instead to employ a simple, reverse-chronological layout. The Apple Podcast platform carries no native advertising and keeps data collection to a minimum. And because the podcast industry is still relatively small — it only generated $314 million in 2017 — it’s not overrun by the #brands that are ubiquitous on social networks and media websites. What advertising there is is often read by the hosts and doesn’t detract from podcasting’s indie street cred.
So no, the old-school blogosphere isn’t coming back, but I would argue that the trade-off isn’t so bad. Social media provided a platform for millions of voices, many of whom belonged to marginalized demographics that were routinely ignored by mainstream media. And while giving too much power to any centralized platform is certainly bad, the viewpoints we’re exposed to are more diverse than ever before. Blogs were an important stepping stone, but they served their purpose. Though I have fond memories of my own blogging days, I wouldn’t swap our current web for the old one. The trade-off, so far, has been worth it.