On Blogging

A few thoughts on Medium, micro.blog, and the open web.

January 04, 2017Filed under Tech#open web#writingMarkdown source

My wife is out of town and I had coffee at our church small group tonight, so I’m wide awake and up late, thinking about blogging. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. (And what follows is, appropriately, as you will see, blogging in the old style—which is to say: a bit rambly. I apologize. It’s the coffee.)

A friend at our small group meeting tonight mentioned his intent to start blogging this year. He had a lot of good reasons for jumping in, and I strongly encouraged it. Blogging is not for everyone—we’ll get to that—but blogging is good. This newish thing, writing-on-the-web-in-a-log, has been a part of my life for over a decade now. I wrote my first post on Xanga in the fall of 2005, and I have not gone more than a matter of weeks between posts since. It is not hyperbole to say I cannot imagine not blogging at this point. (The sheer number of words I published last year should serve to drive home that point: even in a year which was full to the brim, I somehow ended up publishing almost 70,000 words.)

And yet, blogging is not at all like it was in when I started in 2005. Both for good and for ill. The mid-2000s were in many ways the height of blogs’ power and reach. Individual sites still hosted all their own content; blogging networks were nascent; and the ability of small content providers to outdo the old guard was beginning to be felt at all levels. Bloggers made a difference in the 2004 election not so different than the way Twitter shaped all sorts of politics in 2016.

Twitter. That brings us to one of the things that has changed. Microblogging is new. And social media more generally has changed a great deal. Facebook was still the fledgling upstart nipping at MySpace’s heels when I published that first post on Xanga. Today, Facebook dominates the web, and Twitter—not even a product at all in 2005—has taken enormous chunks of the time and attention of the would-be writerly class (journalists especially).

I first took my own blogging seriously on the Blogger site which first ran in parallel with and then displaced that Xanga. And Blogger, too, evokes a different time: when individuals setting up blogs was trendy, and when the competition between WordPress and Blogger could be called a competition. (Much-neglected Blogger trucks on still, but WordPress powers perhaps a quarter of the sites on the web.)

But for all that, some things haven’t changed. Business plans still matter—and Ev Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, still hasn’t figured out something truly sustainable. Attention-driven advertising of the same sort that powered Blogger then and now, and which powers Twitter and Facebook equally, continues to be a race toward the bottom. Sustainable publishing on the web is a mirage for all but a few, because content is plentiful and distinguishing features few. The Daring Fireballs of the world are notable, these days, not least for how few of them there are.

In some ways, there is something real to mourn in the passing of the web of those early days when I started blogging. People did own their own content (at least, to a far greater degree than now). Blogs linked to each other, using ping-backs to let sites know when they’d been linked. Comment sections flourished.

But that era also required a level of technical knowledge that was simply too high a bar for most people. To be sure, anyone could set up a blog with enough grit, and WordPress and Blogger lowered the bar. But subscribing to another blog meant wrangling RSS and learning the arcana of managing Google Reader (which soon swallowed all competitors before its own too-delayed demise). Twitter’s “follow” button seems a revelation by comparison; it is no wonder at all that first Tumblr and then Medium embraced the idea of blogs-as-social-media, “following” and all. Being able not only to respond, and only if the author so allowed, but also to initiate with anyone else on the service… the first time you @-mentioned someone well-known in your circles, and they responded—that was (and is) a heady thing.

Centralization is often a function of convenience. Facebook and Twitter make it simple for you to “connect with” or “follow” whomever you like. No digging for RSS feeds, wondering if they have a non-standard symbol for it or hoping desperately that it’s at the root of the site + feed.xml, or (if you really know the secrets of the web) that they set it up as a <link> tag with a rel='alternate' tag so it could just be discovered automatically by a smart-enough feed reader…

You see? If you aren’t technical yourself, your eyes just glazed over in that paragraph, and that’s the point. The technical details make sense if you understand them. But understanding them is hard; and more to the point, they don’t matter for what people actually want to accomplish.

This is the fundamental mistake of Manton Reece’s new micro.blog project (which I like in principle, and whose goals I clearly share). People as a whole don’t even know there might be a reason to prefer the open web, where everyone owned their own content and there was no central clearing-house of information. Facebook offers real value to people: it shows them things they’re interested, and keeps them coming back precisely by tailoring its algorithm to make sure they don’t see too many things they don’t want to see. (The polarization that helps foster may be dreadful, but it’s very good business.) The same goes for Twitter, regardless of the structure of its timeline: people self-select into their lists of whom to follow. Manton’s project is a good one in many ways—but the problem it solves is a Winning Slowly kind of problem, and one that takes a lot of selling when the problem Facebook solves is obvious: I want a new story and a picture of my cousin’s kid and a funny cat video. Decentralizing, whatever its benefits (and again: note well my bona fides here), makes those basic tasks harder. I’ve followed what is now the micro.blog project from a distance for years now—and I’ve always had this one, nagging but oh-so-important question. How does this solve a user problem?

The answer, if there is one, is a decades-long play. It’s a hedge against technological oligarchy. But how do you get people to care? What’s the pitch? The technical problems are easy compared to that—and the technical problems are not easy; they remain almost untouched in the last decade, and micro.blog has no intent to address some of the core issues. Real-time interaction is what makes Twitter Twitter; ping-backs aren’t even close. And that’s just Twitter; Facebook outstrips it by far.

And Medium? Medium doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up (and it never has; the same as Twitter). As a second pass at Blogger, it has better aesthetics and something like a mission. Ev writes:

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

That’s a lovely-sounding sentiment. It’s also—for today, at least—contentless business blather. “Building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day” sounds great, but it doesn’t mean anything. Medium is a beautiful product without a reason to exist. (How often do you see a founder basically admit: We have no idea what we’re doing here? But that’s roughly what Ev did.) That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. It just means no one has thought of a good reason for it to just yet.

Medium as a centralized, social medium for longer-form writing is better than nothing. I’ll take Medium + Facebook + Google over just Facebook + Google any day. But is there something lost when every blog post looks the same, and when everyone is locked into one more centralized platform? Yes. Just as there is something gained by people having a place to look. The questions are: whether the costs are indeed higher than the benefits; and even if so whether people can be persuaded of those costs when they all take a decade to appear, and Medium is really pleasant to scroll through right now.

By whatever quirk of temperament, I’m old-school about blogs. I’d love for the open web to win out over all the centralizers. That’s not going to happen: centralization provides too much value to users. But we can hope the open web will flourish alongside centralized sources. And, far more importantly, we can work to that end.

We can show people why it matters, and teach them how to own for themselves even the things you publish on Facebook. We can make philosophies like POSSE easier to implement (because right now it’s just plain hard). We can let Twitter be secondary and our own blogs primary as a way of setting an example. We can do the hard technical work of figuring out something like real-time, decentralized, better-than-ping-back commenting-and-threading-and-responding for all sorts of content on the web.

But even solving those technical problems will require us to recognize that the bigger and more important problems are human problems. It’s going to require distinguishing, for example, between the web we have to save and mere ephemera. If there are goods of how-blogging-was-in-2008 that are worth keeping, what if anything do they have to do with whether the content of nearly any Twitter account is “owned” by the user who generated them? Will the user care, two decades from now? (Or two days?)

Put another way, we need to care about the open web not in some general or abstract sense, and certainly not just on its technical merits, but instead—and quite specifically—as one means of serving other people. If we cannot express it in those terms, we show that we do not understand the real problems at all. It wouldn’t be the first time a bunch of technically-oriented nerds missed the boat.