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The decline of blogging, and what replaces it?

You, by definition, read blog posts. But the era of lots of individual personal web sites seems to be on the wane. It used to be everybody had a "home page" and many had one that updated frequently (a blog) but I, and many other bloggers, have noticed a change of late. It can be seen in the "referer" summaries you get from your web server that show who is making popular links to your site.

The change is that they aren't doing that so much. Now, the vast majority of outside readers to this site come from places like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Google searches. One might explain this as a fault of my own, but others are reporting the same thing. Dedicated readers through RSS or sites like bloglines are still there but RSS subscription is on the decline too.

RSS subscription (a rather kludgey replacement for the mailing list) is not hard to understand. To RSS subscribe to somebody is to look at everything they produce. In our world of information overload, there are really only so many feeds you have time to look at all of. This blog does 4-5 longish articles per week when I'm not on the road, others can be 20 short items a day, but no matter how much you might like it, there's a limit.

The replacement for "serial" publishing (like RSS, mailing list and newsgroups) has become "sampled" reading. Twitter and Facebook are examples of that. You dip your toe in a stream, either reading what's happening now, or an attempt to figure out what the most relevant things are that have flowed by recently. There are endless arguments (particularly on Facebook) over how that should work but without question the normal user misses most of the updates from their friends if they have a typical set of friends or people they follow.

That doesn't sit well with longer pieces. There is the TL;DR mentality which seems to have given us all shorter attention spans, and the harsh reality that reading even a 4 minute article is out of place in a stream of single paragraph or single sentence tweets or updates. It is frustrating to see a single sentence (often a question) generate apparently much greater engagement (comments, likes, etc.) than a much deeper essay.

Many bloggers have also moved off their own sites to places like Medium, though it's never been quite clear why. (Medium offers better Google pagerank than your own site might have, but I presume for most writers does not point many readers to you if you don't reach their front pages.)

The value of the serial

As I come up to 40 years of internet life (joining my first Arpanet mailing list in 1979 though participating in BBSs and other email interaction since 76) I am perplexed at how online media have failed to embrace the serial well. In fact, I am not sure it has been done better than USENET, itself almost 40 years old. The thing that's been missing has been the essential component of serial media -- understand what you have seen and what is new. As we've moved to information volumes that nobody can handle, we don't seem to have married the serial and the sampled very well. Facebook has some sense of what you've seen, but it's mostly a frustrating one when you are trying to find things. It keeps showing you the same thing repeatedly if it's getting active commenting, rather than just highlighting the new comments.

News has also missed out on this. When I built ClariNet, which used USENET tech to provide a very high-volume serial news experience, my goal was also to rank all the stories so you could come to it and say, "I've been away from the news for 4 days, show me what I've missed, ordered by how important it is."

Another thing that's been missing is an understanding of the value of the infrequent but valuable posting over the frequent and brief one. To realize that if a columnist writes only once a week but makes it good, you want to see all or most of those, but if a tweeter puts out 50 tweets a day, you will want to define what fraction of them to see.

The rule of Facebook

Everybody has also noticed that people greatly prefer to comment on stories in the place they read them, in particular on Facebook, instead of on the story itself. In one way this is strange -- a comment left on an original posting should be seen by all who come to it from different locations. But a comment on Facebook lets you discuss with a selected subset of people (friends of your friend) rather than the general audience, and people prefer that. It is also easier, since blogs tend to need anti-spam burdens on their comments.

As such more and more people move their writing and commentary to Facebook, increasing its monopoly. Another trend I am not fond of.

So what's the next step for online writing? Does it centralize completely or will something decentralize it again? Decentralization of media is no longer seen as a universal good in the era of propaganda and hoax news, but it still has many virtues. What do you hope for?

Comments

Hi Brad,

Love reading your writing. I’m a big fan of the RSS and blog feed. Having it all collated in my RSS reader (I use Feedly) is like having my own curated newspaper everyday. I’m anti-mailing lists simply because I like to keep my mail free for work / personal stuff rather than bulletins.

Perhaps we’re a smaller audience but dedicated readers nonetheless. Hope you keep on keeping on.

Regards,

Dougal

I moved all my writing over to Medium for two reasons. First and foremost, spam. I had a WordPress site for a couple of years, it had 10 or more spam comments for every legitimate comment. Even with Wordpress anti-spam plugins, it was just too much work to manage. Medium does all of this for me.

The other thing I like about Medium is it's minimalist aesthetic and lack of clutter. They care about typography and page layout, with the written content taking center stage. Almost the polar opposite of MySpace.

However, I've been resisting their monetization model - all of my articles are un-paywalled, and I am not a subscriber.

I get moderate spam. Since I do rel=nofollow on links in comments, and I explain this when you make a comment, the spammers are wasting their time (and mine) but they still do it, but not quite as much. I presume these are paid human spammers in low income locations who get paid even when they do a useless spam, which is annoying of course.

I have seen many switch to medium. I presume of course one can double post on your own site and on medium, possibly even do it automatically via RSS?

Congratulations! Hacker News just sent me here from what somebody posted "two minutes ago". I was on Usenet in comp.ai.philosophy back in 1997 and a guy named Jorn Barger announced that he was going to start somerthing that he called a "weblog", with the name of Robot Wisdom. I went and looked, and it was a bunch of links with Jorn's minimalist comments. Nobody knew back in 1997 that Jorn Barger's first-ever weblog would multiply into millions of "blogs". Now you lament "the decline of blogging", but the blog is far from dead, so cheer up, kiddo, and just keep on blogging. Bye! -Arthur

A blog is really just a personal online serial publication. The idea goes back to mailing lists. If the "w" means it has to be on the WWW, then the first blog is the USENET group mod.ber I think. (USENET is and was part of the definition of the WWW put out by TBL.) That's from 1984. If you include email, I don't know who made the first personally curated mailing list for people to subscribe to.

I follow a few twitter accounts (not a member, but simply bookmark their URL) and a number of them simply add a short summary of any new articles and link to their blog site.
They have of course also noticed the drop off in blogging reading and publication.
They also have the ussue that the responses are spread across twitter and the blog site.

BTW. I read all of the robocar related articles, and I have found surprisingly little in the way of other commentators who have actually thought about the topic in depth.
Almost all not only missed the possibilty for near universal Transport as a service, but showed almost no ability to determine the state of the various competitors technology.
Your efforts are appreciated in this cirner of the world.

It is now even getting hard to find an RSS reader that keeps track of what you read and didn't. Feedly makes is hard to use a read/unread model, and dumps old unread articles off the edge of your feed sometimes.

So we get in a spiral where content creators know that some of their stuff will get sporadically missed, so they they produce repetitive content to make sure they get it into one of your sample windows, so reader get more overwhelmed with the growing flood of mixed new and repeated info, etc...

Of course platforms like facebook and twitter want you to waste time on their systems, so encourage all this.

Seems like an opportunity here to throw some Bayesian filters and ML at your incoming pipes and show you a coherent stream of new info, sorted with stuff you are most likely to read first. I'd happily pay significant money for this service.

Google Reader made RSS easy for everyone, and millions of people used it. If they had added social sharing features they would have done a lot better than Google+. But every post you view in an RSS reader is an ad you don't necessarily see.

"Google’s decision to kill Google Reader was a turning point in enabling media to be manipulated by misinformation campaigns. The difference between individuals choosing the feeds they read & companies doing it for you affects all other forms of media.... The point is not that huge numbers of people used Google Reader. It’s that lots of people who *make media* did. Instead, they look at a feed generated by an opaque, unaccountable algorithm whose board member thinks nothing of destroying media companies & funding misinformation." -- Anil Dash

I've been blogging since 2000 - first with handwritten HTML, then Blogger, Moveable Type, and finally Wordpress. A few years ago I moved to Medium due to it's nicer interface and presentation, and the hopes of reaching a wider audience. After a few years, while it was impossible to tell if my readership was any larger than if I'd stayed on my blog, I certainly wasn't gaining any regular readers - and speaking personally, I rarely remember the name of any writer I read on Medium; instead I think "Oh, I read that on Medium."

One of the greatest strengths of blogs and decentralised media is the ability to make your own site/content distinctive, not just visually but also in terms of layout, structure, etc. With your own site or mailing list, you also gain the ability to know who your readers are, whereas Facebook/Medium make that difficult, if not impossible (and certainly they make it very difficult to 'export' your readers).

I feel that there's a wave back towards self-publishing now. Not a big one, to be fair, but big enough to convince me to restart my own blog. The promises of Medium in particular have not been fulfilled, and I've been pleasantly surprised by how good Wordpress has gotten in the intervening years. So I hope that this continues, and that you continue to blog, Brad!

I do agree that what "won" about decentralized media was the "million innovators" bonus, so many people doing different things, competing and inventing, in full control of their own sites so they could come up with new ideas and try them. But a move back to decentralized media may be countered by the fear of fake news which is pushing people to centralized media for solutions.

" In fact, I am not sure it has been done better than USENET, itself almost 40 years old."

Indeed! Which is why I still spend time on usenet. Yes, I also follow blogs (via RSS), but usenet is much more efficient.

https://xkcd.com/1974/

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