Thursday, December 30, 2010

The end of the Golden Age of Blogging?

I first jumped on the blogging bandwagon back in May of 2004.  A number of things led to this.  I had been reading a handful of excellent, frequently-updated and highly creative blogs since at least late 2001, even longer if you count a friend's online magazine and Penn & Teller's old, long-gone Sin City site as "blogs."

One of the things that pushed me over the edge was a brief clip I heard on NPR's Morning Edition as I was getting ready for work.  Google had recently purchased Blogger/Blogspot, and was pushing for dominance in the world of blogging.  So they were actively encouraging new bloggers to sign up and start their own blogs and see how easy it was to create an online journal using the Blogger tools.  I think I signed up before going to work that day and staked out my preferred name - "Another Monkey," a reference to the old chestnut about an "infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters."

There are folks out there who will tell you that the Golden Age of Blogging was happening just as I was jumping onboard.  Even back in 2004, TIME magazine declared it to be so, and Paul Boutin concurred in Wired magazine four years later.  Some of the best blogs I was reading had been around for several years at that point, since well before the term "blog" was even coined.  And many of the new blogs bursting onto the scene in 2004 and the years that followed had no staying power and quickly faded from the scene - or withered on the vine and stuck around like mummified grapes in mid-winter.

And then there was the rise of the crap blogs, fake sites designed to drive traffic towards other, seedier parts of the internet, sites that would steal content in order to appear legitimate or fill themselves with key words designed to attract search engines.*  In October 2005 technogeek demigod and all-around jerk Chris Pirillo, who had some time before boasted about the effectiveness of using his name to attract the attention of online searches, discovered that many of these fake blogs had taken this advice to heart and had liberally salted his holy name in their sites.  Since he is (or was, I have no idea if he's even still around) the sort who regularly checked the Internet for instances of his name being used, he was somewhat surprised one morning to discover that the Internet had suddenly been flooded with instances of fake blogs using his name.  Which naturally led him to demand that Google "Kill Blogspot already!", declaring it to be "nothing but a crapfarm" with "99% fake blogs."  And his armies of technozombie followers said "Ditto."

Blogger/Blogspot quickly became seen as the bloghetto, a very unexclusive site that allowed simply anybody in.  Lots of other blogging platforms came onto the scene, most of them requiring fees for hosting. (Chris Pirillo generously offered to waive the fee for his blog hosting if I would ditch Blogger and sign up with him.)  Some of these other sites predated Blogger and Blogspot, or at least the explosion of interest generated when Google took over and began actively pushing blogging.

And then MySpace came along, and then Twitter, and then Facebook, and then everyone lost interest in blogging.

No.  That's not what happened.  Though that tends to be the quick-and-dirty explanation given.

The term zeitgeist gets thrown around pretty easily.  The "Spirit of the Times," a collection of actions and behaviors and ways of thinking and fads and trends and memes (in the original sense of the term) shared amongst members of societies and sometimes between wholly disparate societies, something that dwells in a time and informs and is informed by that time, and then moves on, goes away.  There was a zeitgeist to blogging and the virtual world of the blogosphere that existed back in 2004 and 2005 that doesn't exist at the end of 2010.

Back in 2004 and 2005 a critical mass of bloggers was active in the blogosphere.  These bloggers weren't just posting, they were also commenting on each other's blogs and linking to each other's blogs.  How did you decide who to link to?  Sometimes you would visit a blog you liked and take a look at their "blogroll," the list of bloggers to whom they were linked and whose blogs, presumably, they read on a regular basis.  If you had interests in common with the bloggers you were reading, chances were that you might have interests in common with some of the bloggers they were reading.  And so on, and so on, and so on...

The other easy way of discovering new blogs and new bloggers was through comments.  Most blogging platforms allow you to backlink to your own blog (or any other site) when you leave a comment.  Leaving thoughtful, intelligent, coherent comments on other people's blogs was a good way of attracting some of their readers to your blog.  And having people leave such comments on your blog was a good way of having new bloggers present themselves to you.

There were other ways of finding blogs.  Blogger has a feature called "Next Blog."  Once upon a time this provided a random walk through the blogosphere, at least Blogger's chunk of it.  And what a walk it was.  You would see blogs of all sorts, some legitimate, some...umm, legitimate but fundamentally uninteresting, some fake, some crap, some just bizarre.  There were, for example, numbers blogs, blogs populated with nothing but four-digit numbers that were posted every few minutes.  (I think these may have been related to numbers stations, but I don't know for sure.)  I also discovered some of the most interesting bloggers I have ever read trough the "Next Blog" button.  Unfortunately, Blogger has changed the functionality of this button to link only to blogs that it feels are similar to the blog that you're starting from.  For my own blog, this has resulted in some disturbing and confusing results.  I'm not sure I ever want to be tried before a jury of my peers if the "Next Blog" button is determining who those peers are.

Blogrolls, and comments, and randomly discovered blogs.  These weren't just nice features of blogging.  They were also fundamental to how blogging functioned.

Things started to fall apart in my corner of the blogosphere a few years ago.  Even before I had heard of Facebook, and even when it was obvious that MySpace was moribund and pathetic.  Bloggers started to drop out and back off.  Some might blame the recession, some might blame the zeitgeist that arose from political and social changes.  But...these were bloggers from all over the world.  The North Atlantic and the South Pacific.  Philadelphia and North Carolina.  Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.  Everywhere.

It's not like these people are abandoning blogs in favor of tweeting on Twitter or posting updates on Facebook or anything like that.  Each person has his or her own story and own reasons for having stopped blogging.  In many cases it's like they have simply grown up and moved beyond the world of blogging (and Twitter and Facebook, too.)  But these are people, as I have noted, from all over the world, of all ages and walks of life.  All deciding the same thing at more or less the same time.  I wonder if it was ever anything more than a fad to them.  And yet, some of these people had been blogging for years before me. 

I once came across a screed in a very unlikely place lambasting web site authors who chose to close and remove their web sites rather than just leave them up and inactive with all of their old links intact.  The Internet, this person complained, was a delicate web of interconnections based on links given on millions of different sites.  Break some of those links and the integrity of the entire web was threatened.

So it was with blogs.  As bloggers dropped out of the game and took their blogs with them, their blogrolls vanished.  Links that were taken for granted one day were gone forever the next - along with entire archives of online writing, and all the associated site links contained in all those deleted posts.  The web of interconnectedness that made up the blogosphere began to unravel.

Some old sites became cybersquatted.  I just discovered that one of my favorite old blogs, one of many blogs created and discarded by a sort of serial blogger, had been cybersquatted and taken over by a kilt fetish site.  Makes me wish I had thought of that first.

Comments have become few and far between on many blogs.  I can't say what is behind this trend in general.  I do know that in my specific case I am reposting my blog posts to Facebook, and there they are garnering many comments.  But Facebook has an inherently linear structure:  what is posted today gets covered over by what is posted tomorrow, and the next day, and the next - with no easy way of accessing what has come before.  My posts remain in the neatly indexed structure of my blog, but the comments on Facebook quickly vanish in the mist.

With the fundamental interconnectedness of the blogosphere compromised, things fall apart.  The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  The blogosphere has not collapsed, not yet.  But it is not what it used to be.  The Golden Age of Blogging is over, and has been over for some time.

But blogging isn't over.  There are still some great blogs out there, blogs being updated regularly, blogs that show a depth of insight that is the hallmark of great blogs.  And there are still crap blogs out there.  Five years ago I came across a blog written by a seventeen year old girl who wrote with a maturity and depth of experience that suggested she was many years older.  Three months ago I encountered a blog written by another seventeen (or maybe eighteen, depending on which post you believe) year old who occasionally shows flashes of insight but more often has an output that resembles arts and crafts being produced by institutionalized emotionally disturbed children.

I miss my old blogfriends, very very much.  I miss the first blogs I started reading.  Most of those older blogs are gone now, or have been reduced to sporadic posts interspersed with long stretches of downtime.  I have filled in the gaps with other blogs, some by friends I met though the comments on Adam Felber's now-silent site, some by folks I met through The Comics Curmudgeon or even the Life In Hell fansite

A while back ...tom... introduced me to the blogger who calls herself Dr. Isis.  Her original blog has gone into stasis, but she is one of the most prolific posters in the blogospere via her current blogPhil Plait and recent addition Paul Krugman still grind out posts on a daily or near-daily basis, though their blogs tend to focus on specific topics (Astronomy and skepticism for Phil, Economics and politics for Paul) and not the more general "life blogs" that I first came to love.

Last week, as I was working on an early mental revision of this post, a friend on Facebook introduced me to the blog Hyperbole and a Half by way of this post.  Even though this is a blog that - of late, anyway - only does a handful of longform posts each month, it still gave me some hope for the future.  That maybe there are more people out there who enjoy blogging, and are willing to share their lives and stories with the rest of us.

And, of course, I go on.  I will take the occasional break, sometimes by choice, sometimes because life is making other demands on my time.  But I don't see myself dropping out of blogging anytime soon.

For further reading:
*This is now known as "search engine optimization" and is considered a legitimate practice by the sort of people who have no qualms about robbing little old ladies dry. 

1 comment:

christy said...

Kind of an interesting topic for the last few days of the year... thought-provoking, for sure. I'm definitely glad I found this blog.