Reports of blogging’s death are…

Just in time for me to include somewhere near the end of my book, there’s a little wavelet of argument out there suggesting that blogging is, well, over.

From Paul Boutin in Wired comes the simple form of the argument: Blogging’s no longer hot. The cool kids are all playing with Twitter and Facebook. The blogosphere has been “flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge.”

Boutin seals his case by reference to Jason Calacanis’s much-ballyhooed retreat from his blog to a mailing list. Boutin somehow buys Calacanis’s public rationale — “He can talk to his fans directly, without having to suffer idiotic retorts from anonymous Jason-haters” — which sounds great until you think, uh, couldn’t he have just turned off the comments?

Then there’s Robert Scoble, who now reserves his blog for longer essays and can be found in many other spots on the Web distributing links and videos and tweets. Scoble’s choice seems perfectly sensible to me; he is a restless early adopter and experimenter, but he’s not exactly abandoning his popular blog.

Boutin’s piece betrays a nostalgia for what it explicitly refers to as a “golden age” of blogging, which apparently occurred circa 2004 and was led by people like Calacanis and Scoble. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my book research it’s that each of us locates blogging’s “golden age” in whichever era it was that we discovered the phenomenon. For me, it was probably 1998, when I found my job as Salon’s technology editor incomparably enriched (and also assisted) by the first flowering of the tech and web-design weblog movement. For many others, it was the early days of Blogger in 2000-2001, or the explosion of political blogs and “warblogs” post-9/11.

There were, in other words, at least three — and probably several more — waves of bloggers preceding Boutin’s version of a “golden age,” each of which felt they were discovering something new. (See Rebecca Blood’s “law of Weblog history.”) And, inevitably, after our personal “golden age” experiences, whenever they were, we tend to get disillusioned. Some will gravitate entirely away from blogging; others achieve some peace with it despite its limitations and problems. I guess Boutin is somewhere in that cycle now.

I share his distaste for the way that the commercialization of the Technorati Top 100 has turned a certain type of blogging into a rat race, but I don’t see that as having ruined blogging for the rest of us. Nor do I see a phenomenon with tens if not hundreds of millions of participants as dead. Of course the Silicon Valley early-adopter crowd has moved on — that’s what they’re supposed to do, once something they pioneered has gone mainstream. Boutin, meanwhile, is now a full-time blogger at Valleywag. Perhaps that dismal gig is what’s got him so down.

A broader epitaph not so much for blogging itself but for the promise blogging made of widening our democratic discourse comes from Nick Carr (on his, er, blog, of course). Carr writes about the changes since he started blogging in 2005: apparently in that distant halcyon time, Technorati could be reliably used to track discussions in the blogosphere, but now, Google does a better job. Google Reader, too, has supplanted Bloglines as the RSS reader of choice for many (me, too). Back in 2005 the Web was “centrifugal,” pulling us away from centers of gravity, but today, as Google becomes the center of so many Web services, the medium has once again become “centripetal,” Carr argues. He is smart enough to admit that centrifugal forces remain — enterprising sites and bloggers that still employ “deliberately catholic linking” — but says they’re weaker than the centralizing forces.

“For most of us, most of the time, the World Wide Web has become a small and comfortable place. Indeed, statistics indicate that web traffic is becoming more concentrated at the largest sites,” Carr writes.

I recall reading identical passages a decade ago, when the first flush of Web novelty had worn off and the portals were taking over. Then, as with Carr’s observation today, we were told that the Web’s innovative days were over, its disruptive potential was used up, and the big media conglomerates were back in charge. At that moment, you could still count the number of weblogs on your fingers (and maybe toes); Google hadn’t even been founded yet.

I continue to bet on the flexibility of the Web as a platform for personal expression that will keep mutating and surprising us. Blogging has been a central part of that phenomenon for a decade. Of course it will continue to evolve. But I don’t see it diminishing in importance.

Consider the case of Merlin Mann, whose excellent 43 Folders blog rose to stardom during Boutin’s “golden age.” Mann’s experience made an effective case study for how a blog could grow from a personal obsession to a profitable small business, but over time he grew disenchanted with much of what “pro blogging” had become. As he wrote last month:

the popularity of small blogs like 43 Folders contributed to the arrival of a gentrifying wagon train of carpetbaggers, speculators, and confidence men, all eager to pan the web’s glistening riverbed for easy gold. And, brother, did these guys love to post and post and post.

Mann didn’t just go off in a corner and sulk; he decided to reinvent his blog, transforming it from “personal productivity” coaching to a broader theme of helping creative people think about how to focus on what’s important to them. Kottke wrote a bit about Mann’s changes here.

I’ve come to enjoy Twitter, and made my peace with Facebook, and I don’t doubt there are plenty of people who will prefer to use these services rather than start a blog. But as long as blogging remains a form that can absorb the energy of people like Merlin Mann and serve as a creative outlet for millions of others, I will treat all reports of its demise as unreliable.

Or maybe, as Matthew Ingram Seamus McCauley suggests, Boutin was just trolling.

UPDATE: Two useful comments (from Twitter):

Paul Kedrosky: current wired piece by paul boutin about death of blogs is silly. only reason 30-author blogs exist is because of ad bubble. that’s over.

Anil Dash: Dear tech blogosphere: Paul Boutin blogs for a living in a competitive market, and just said you should stop blogging. Guess why he said it?

It should be noted that Dash’s “The Blog Cycle” is an authoritative description of the “golden age” phenomenon I described above.

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Comments

  1. I loved Nick Carr’s post, even though I didn’t agree with every point he made. The Wired piece struck me as half-assed and silly. Just because Valleywag publishes posts that almost look like tweets in their brevity, volume and shallowness doesn’t mean that the two mediums even begin to compare for most bloggers. I use tweets when it’s not something I care enough to blog about. To say that twitter or facebook could replace my blog is to ignore the benefits that blogging offers us.

  2. Ehud

    Self-answering question: The depth, or lack thereof, of the two tweets you quote beautifully shows the limitations of that medium…

  3. I started blogging (very infrequently) in mid-2003 and I felt like a latecomer at the time. But I’m a counterexample to your perceived trend of people liking blogging when they discover it but becoming disillusioned later. At first, I thought blogs (personal blogs, at least) were painfully boring and self-absorbed: I do not care what you had for lunch! Those silicon valley early adopters were not particularly good writers, generally speaking. It wasn’t until liberal-arts types discovered the medium that we started to get more well-written blogs.

    So I actually think right now is the golden age, and I expect things to get better as time goes on and more people blog. The percentage of blogs that are good probably will not go up, but the absolute number of them will.

  4. Twitter is just another form of the same thing.

    And saying there was a golden age of blogging is as silly as saying there was a golden age of letter writing or typewriting or creating word processing documents. It’s a kind of document. About as controversial.

    And Technorati was always a crock of shit, ranking these things is inevitable and irrelevant (and I was #1 on Technorati for the first couple of years).

  5. I’ve been in this golden age and even now with two blogs furrier.org and broaddev.com; one is my personal blog and the other a collaboration blog of friends….all consultants who’s ideas promote collaboration hence lead gen not page views.

    Blogging has always been about access to information and ideas; fresh voices; and collaboration of ideas with the spirit of developing something (product, idea expansion, opinions, debate,..etc) – not a walled garden arbitrage like we see with megablogs- Paul K is right on the money (pun intended)

    http://furrier.org/2008/10/21/future-of-blogging-blogging-is-changing-for-the-better-its-about-collaboration/

  6. Csual blogging may be dead but not useful blogging. Bloggers are mailing me if I stop writing even for a single day. Content should be useful- that is the secret of success. Social networks are lazy people-this the perception among the serious readers.

  7. Scott Rosenberg

    I don’t doubt Paul is having fun, in his own way.

    The “dismal” here is very much in the eye of the beholder!

    If your blogging involves a constant focus on the metrics and an obsessive hunt for stuff that’s mocking or belittling, I don’t see how that’s sustainable in the long run. The mistake is to assume that everyone else is blogging with the same objectives in mind.

  8. bowerbird

    > which sounds great until you think,
    > uh, couldn’t he have just
    > turned off the comments?

    well, if he wanted to stop listening to his
    audience, yes. but why would he do that?

    he wants to talk with people with a stake
    in the conversation, not the drive-by asses
    who only care to sabotage the interaction…

    listserves might be old-fashioned to some,
    but they are the multi-way communication
    that the web is supposed to be all about…

    blogs, on the other hand, seem to me to be
    a multitude of _one-way_soapboxes_ that
    occasionally appears (to some participants)
    to be multi-way communication, but which
    never really attains that goal in large part…

    and part of the reason is because there is
    such a status difference between the posts
    and the comments. heck, with most people
    using r.s.s. readers, they don’t even _see_
    the comments, so it’s fully a one-way talk.

    i applaud a move from blog to listserve,
    where the community is on equal footing.

    but do i expect most bloggers to give up
    their position of privilege? of course not.

    most people would much rather prefer to
    be a big fish in their own small pond than
    be a small fish in a bigger communal lake.

    -bowerbird

  9. Scott Rosenberg

    Bowerbird, I’m with you on the value of old-fasioned listservs. But that’s not what Calacanis has created: his mailing list is one way! You and I can’t post to it. All we can do is send Jason email, which he may or may not choose to excerpt or mention in one of his messages to his list.

    Which is pretty much exactly what happens on a blog where there are no comments: readers send the blogger email, and the blogger decides what to recirculate. (Josh Marshall does this very effectively.)

    Of course, if you’re a blogger, you’re also always free to post on your own site about what Jason says on his list, or what some blogger w/no comments facility has said, too.

    It’s always a tradeoff: yes, blogs privilege the author. This inhibits the free-flowing debate of a traditional mailing list; it also can, under good circumstances, enable individual voices to be heard more clearly.

  10. bowerbird

    > that’s not what Calacanis has created:
    > his mailing list is one way!

    oh, well then i agree that’s full-on stupid.
    at least blogs are in the open, indexed by
    search engines, and thus “on the record”,
    whereas many listserves are in a black hole.

    -bowerbird

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