Sometimes you have no idea why you’re doing something. That’s how it was with me and blogging. I did it because a good and trusted friend advised me that I should be doing it – but I had no idea what I was doing or why. But it rapidly became apparent that I was taking part in something both old and new, something very like the exchange of letters in previous centuries, but out in the open where anyone could – and frequently would – participate.
It was apparent from the outset that even though I didn’t know who I was talking to, I wasn’t just shouting at a wall. Indeed, in my golden age of blogging it was clear I was part of a very distinct community – what I called my blog cluster – and I read their blogs just as the read mine. This exchange of ideas was what kept blogging vibrant, and was epitomised by Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table (a descendent of which still lives on at Critical Distance). This monthly game-themed event declared a topic and linked together everyone willing to discuss it. A smashing success for many years, it began to be held up by the increasing demands of employment or parenthood for everyone in Corvus’ cluster of bloggers.
In principle, that we were getting too old to blog like we used to shouldn't have mattered, as a new generation of bloggers would have picked up the torch. But what we didn’t know was that there was only going to be one generation of blog clusters, even though blogs still exist and new bloggers constantly appear. What changed was the mechanism of social connectivity. It ceased to be the wildly chaotic community we were used to and became formalised, institutionalised. Facebook moved in the direction the wind was blowing but it was only with Google+ that every blogger could see the writing on the wall. The blog cluster as we had known it was toast.
Why was Google+ toxic to the blog clusters? After all, it made it easier to share blog posts, and simpler to manage comments from random passers by. True enough. But it also sank the concept of engagement with another person’s ideas by transferring the locus of community from the blog to the social network. Bloggers do all the work for Google in posting ideas or sharing links, but Google sells the tickets to this three-ring circus, monetizing the data and the social connectivity. With my cluster, I could blog at any moment and the other bloggers I was in a community with would read soon enough, using Reader or visiting the blog directly. But with Google+, posts linked at the wrong time are all too easily lost in the shuffle, weakening asynchronous communication and decreasing the signal to noise ratio. No wonder Google had to kill off poor Reader – it was keeping alive a form of life that was drawing away from Google’s core business model for social networking.
Part of the problem is wider than just the death of blog clusters, though – it is the terrific information overload the internet drops at everyone’s doorstep. After all, why settle for listening to just a few people when you can let Google, Facebook, and every other network propagate the stories with lowest common denominator appeal right to your thirsty brain? Why talk to just a few people when you could have shallower conversations with so many more people? Google+ leverages our craving for attention, and obfuscates the cost of turning virtual community into managed water coolers. Some see this as progress – and understandably, since this watchword of the previous century has turned local communities into strangers outside the internet as well.
So now we few bloggers who have kept the faith are left with a demonic bargain: stay with Google+ to earn better search engine ratings but eviscerate everything that made blogging virtuous – or go it alone and find ourselves shouting vainly at an empty room. Most have chosen the former – better to be a well-stroked pet than a lunatic alone. But we are not mad, certainly not for craving meaningful discourse, and we should not let the potential for profit steal away everything we worked to establish. If this battle is worth fighting, our valiant battlecry could be: ‘Bloggers of the world re-unite! We have nothing to lose but our revenue chains!’
Or perhaps I am wrong – perhaps Google+, or whichever social network you choose to blame, is actually a massive improvement over the old system. They have certainly acquired all the traffic. But I am slow to jump from the premise ‘the social networks have everyone’ to the conclusion ‘the social networks must be better’. For me, if for no-one else, they are a huge step down from what the best of the old blogging communities achieved – what Terra Nova and BoRT could do for games, for instance – and I am keen to find ways to resist losing this space entirely. Asking Richard Bartle about the slow decline of Terra Nova, he expressed his view that the conversation always moves and his confidence that it would reappear somewhere else. He may be right – but wouldn’t we have a better chance of that happening if we took charge of this problem ourselves? If a revival is possible, if we can find ways to preserve everything that was good about the pioneering blog communities, we owe it to ourselves to make the attempt before it is too late.
Next week: Prototypes for Blog Revival
- "On Blogging & Online Conversations" (Sub Specie/Oscar Strik)
- Your blog post here!
Agree? Disagree? Your comments are welcome in the comments, and I especially welcome blog posts responding to this post – leave your link in the comments and I will add them to the list above.
The opening image “Dominaludus Sexagentaquad, 2009” by Christopher Locke is taken from the blog post Modern Fossils over at Genetologic Research. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.