I should probably mention up front that this is going to sound like one of those “things were better in my day, young fella!” kind of discussions that old people like myself are fond of having, so if that isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to move on. The subject at hand is what us geezers used to call the “blogosphere” — which is now just known as the internet, or online media, or whatever you want to call it. On the one hand, it’s good that blogging has more or less become mainstream, but part of me still misses what the old blogosphere had to offer.
I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, but especially at those times when Dave Winer, one of the original fathers of blogging, writes about the necessity of having your own home on the social web — instead of a parcel of land given to you by one of the big silos — or when someone like blogging veteran Anil Dash writes a post like “The Web We Lost,” which I highly recommend. But it was a post from another long-time blogger, Dan Gillmor, that got me thinking about it this time.
Dan wrote about how some independent developers are working on tools that allow anyone to cross-post from their own blog to another site — such as Slate, where his post also appeared — and to pull comments from Twitter and other networks back to their site and display them along with local comments. These kinds of tools and their support for the “IndieWeb” is important, Dan argues, because:
“We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history – a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks (that would be you and me) don’t need permission to communicate, create and innovate… when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work.”
Blogging grew up — and changed
It isn’t until I see a post like Dan’s that I remember just how much has changed. When I started writing online in the early 2000s, individual blogs were the norm — blogs by people like Justin Hall and Doc Searls and Meg Hourihan of Blogger, and people like my friend and Gigaom founder Om Malik and TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington. At the time, Gigaom was just Om’s thoughts about broadband, and TechCrunch was mostly about Mike meeting (and in some cases offering a couch to) struggling entrepreneurs at his house in Atherton.
Part of what was so great about those early years of blogging was how chaotic it was — a flurry of posts linking to other bloggers (remember linking?), comment flame-wars, and endless discussion about the value of blog widgets like MyBlogLog or your Technorati ranking, or how to set up your RSS feed. Everyone was tinkering with their WordPress or Typepad to embed some new thing or try out a new theme, and there was a natural (if occasionally tense) camaraderie about it.
So what changed? Blogging grew up, for one thing — Om turned his blog into a business, and quite a successful one at that, and Arrington did the same and sold it to AOL. VentureBeat and Mashable and Read/Write and all the others did something similar, and gradually the line between blogging and regular media started to blur, although there are still flare-ups of the old “bloggers vs. journalists” dynamic from time to time. Meanwhile, plenty of individual bloggers got sucked into Twitter or Facebook and stopped blogging altogether.
Obviously, it’s good that more people have social tools with which to express themselves without having to set up their own blog and learn HTML, and there are still independent voices blogging on Medium and other sites. There’s also no question that the social element of Twitter and Facebook is powerful, and getting even more so. But I think we’ve given over much of the conversation to proprietary platforms that remove content at will, and control the data underlying the content we provide — and that is very much a Faustian bargain.
The unedited voice of a single author
Before I start sounding like a World War II veteran who has had a few too many, the other thing that I liked about the blogosphere was just how personal it was. Yes, that often meant someone was up in arms or foaming at the mouth about something — often topics that perhaps didn’t justify the level of outrage being displayed (yes, I’m looking at you, Mike) — but there was still that quintessential element of blogging as defined by Winer: namely, the unedited voice of a person, for better or worse.
That point came back to me when I was speaking with Ben Thompson, a tech analyst who recently launched his own membership-funded blog called Stratechery — written and edited and built solely by him, a kind of throwback to early bloggers like John Gruber of Daring Fireball and Jason Kottke, or Andy Baio of Waxpancake. Ben talked about how “there’s something really powerful about single-author sites that you don’t get anywhere else.”
This is also what appeals to me most about the approach that I think First Look Media is trying to take with its “magazines,” each powered by strong voices with expertise and opinions. But will they be diluted in the same way that Ben argues Nate Silver’s voice has been at the new FiveThirtyEight? Will Glenn Greenwald be as effective or compelling when he is managing a team of other writers? I don’t know. But that’s what I feel like we have lost from the old blogosphere days — that personal connection between a blogger and their readers.
I think (as I argued in a post yesterday) that this kind of connection is the most powerful thing, and potentially also the most valuable thing that digital media provides — I think it’s why we gravitate towards people like Greenwald, or Ezra Klein, or dozens of other brand names, and it’s why using social tools to connect with a community of readers is so important.
We’ve definitely gained a lot as blogs and other forms of digital media have become more commonplace: there are a lot more voices, and that’s good — and they are being listened to by more people. I don’t want to downplay that fact at all. But it feels as though we have lost the personal element, as everyone tries to build businesses, and we’ve allowed proprietary platforms to take over a huge amount of our interaction. So forgive me if I get a little wistful.