Can blog communities avoid extinction by reinventing their methods? Following on from last week's discussion of The Extinction of Blogs, this week focuses on possible ways to mount a rescue operation. We can start by asking: what kinds of systems would allow for community akin to that of the blogging heyday...
In or out of social media?
The first challenge is to accept that the technical landscape has indeed changed because of social media. So there is an immediate choice between retreat and engagement. The best options would be those that are ambivalent to social media, since this leaves it up to individuals to determine their presence in or out of social networks. But an immediate consequence of this is that no solution can rely upon such forms of communication for their operation. This suggests what ever might work should be agnostic about its relations with other social media.
The counter argument is that the momentum of the social networks can and must be subverted by any blog revival that hopes to succeed. On this logic, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter would form part of the funnel bringing bloggers into the community by design. Part of the success of Corvus Elrod's Blogs of the Round Table (BoRT) was that bloggers were pulled into it by reading other blogs who participated – this funnel worked beautifully while bloggers were primarily reading each other’s blogs. To replicate this effect might require an uneasy alliance with the social networks.
Regular or Intermittent?
Two kinds of community exchange happened inside the blog clusters: random exchanges sparked by a blog post of interest (almost always a polemic), and regular exchanges such as BoRT (which occurred once a month). The issue here is exceptionally troublesome. Human community (and sanity!) is stabilised by habit, which suggests regularity would be key. But the unceasing pace of BoRT made it easy for many bloggers (myself included) to drop out when Corvus stepped down.
A look at the numbers can be revealing. In the blogging heyday, I posted about 4 times a week, roughly 200 posts a year. BoRTs monthly schedule invited 12 posts, I usually submitted about 10. BoRT was thus about 5 % of my output. But now I blog weekly, about 50 posts a year. To be part of BoRT now at the same pace would be 20% of my output. That’s a vastly greater commitment! This may suggest a quarterly schedule, like an academic journal, would work better than a monthly schedule. The alternative, actively trying to foster intermittent exchanges, might require some kind of support logistics to prevent it from fizzling.
Closed or Open?
Terra Nova was (and is) a closed community of online world academics, constructed primarily from invitation. During the golden age of blogs, this worked to keep all the air in one balloon and discussions at that website were always brisk. Conversely, BoRT was entirely open – if you had a blog, you could take part. The two approaches have different strengths and weaknesses.
Closed benefits from the institutional effects of membership. Terra Nova's sole requirement (if I remember correctly) was that members would post once a month. This again served to keep the balloon inflated, at least until social networks dissipated its community momentum. The cost is that if you’re on the outside you can only comment and can never lead the conversation. But on such a specific topic as the academic study of online worlds, this was a small price to pay.
Open community benefits from greater flexibility but at the cost of institution and hence habit. While anyone could participate with BoRT the majority of contributors were regular – it was a crypto-members club without any doors or walls. But the open format leverages the greatest advantage of blogs – the complete freedom they provide the individual. In particular, a new blogger could join in at any time without having to feel in any way obligated. There is much about this approach to admire.
Static or Dynamic?
Both Terra Nova and BoRT were static in their underlying architecture. Their internal systems belonged to their owners. This gave a clear sense of ownership and responsibility, but may also have contributed to their downfall: when Corvus stepped down, many bloggers (myself included) took the opportunity to bow out. Of course, the writing may have been on the wall already, it’s hard to be sure. But it is worth considering whether a dynamic solution would work better. One example of this is The Philosopher’s Carnival, which changes host blog each month. But as the blog clusters dry up, the availability of hosts has dwindled and this blog community is now beginning to stumble.
It might be possible to mount something dynamically without it being entirely as hoc. The drop down box for BoRT could, in principle, have been operated and set up by anyone (with some brief instruction). This system was particularly effective because the drop-down was available from every post in each round table entry. This meant a wider funnel, and an elegant means of navigating and revisiting the discussions. Although originally an owner’s feature, it points at how a dynamic blog community might organize itself.
What follows are three potential directions that could be explored. They are provided as little balsa wood mock ups as the beginning of a wider discussion, that hopefully can be picked up on other blogs. And of course, get your own glue and cardboard out and build your own prototypes for discussion!
Prototype 1: Chain Blogging (Chogging)
This concept takes as its template that most irritating of time wasters, the chain letter. The basis of these was that each recipient was invited (or metaphysically threatened!) to send a copy to (say) ten of their friends. Of course, the chain letter was entirely free of content – it was just a format. But imagine a blog chain letter that began with an idea and then invited ten bloggers to respond. This is the basis of what I’m calling chogging.
This would be intermittent, dynamic and somewhere between closed and open (in that each chogger would get to choose who to throw into the next link of the chain). Each time you chog, you would link the post you are responding to at the start of your chog-post, and ideally also link in any blogs that respond to you at the end of your chog-post, so that interested parties can follow the conversation(s) by clicking through from the links at the end of the source chog.
But this shows up a difficulty in how chogging would operate in practice. How would the chain propagate? Would it be necessary to email other bloggers? This doesn’t seem to take great advantage of the form. Social networks could be used for propagation instead, and the communities sustained in these could thus be leveraged (Twitter seems ideal for this purpose). This might put chogging into an uncomfortable middle ground, but it is only the awkward position that blogging itself is now in.
An additional issue is how many people must be chogged in each link of the chain in order for conversation to function. Chog too few, and you get no replies. Chog too many and the chain dries up too quickly – unless of course you can be re-chogged at several points in the discussion. It might work better if there was a central source of information on choggers – a directory of bloggers who chog, and on what topics. But then storing contact information centrally is asking for spambot attacks.
Overall, something like this method could be used, but the overheads in terms of administration (flagging the next set of choggers) might be high, and the risk of potential parallel trains of discussion might fail to operate as a successful funnel. It can be assumed that whatever blog revival technique might work, it should benefit from the effect of funneling participants into the same digital spaces, rather than creating arcane chains of conversation.
Prototype 2: The Round Table Revisited (BoRT2)
Another option is to tweak the existing Blogs of the Round Table format and attempt to resurrect this as “BoRT2” (or “Daughter of BoRT” or maybe “Another BoRT” so it can abbreviate to “ABoRT”). In the context of videogames, there is already such a thing over at Critical Distance, but I confess to not really being able to follow it. For instance, for a BoRT call that went out on 12th May, where are the posts? Have they not been collated yet? Again, this returns to the importance of the drop down box for the original BoRT, which enabled the community to operate without a central hub once the relevant code was established.
I have to think that a BoRT2 would need to find a way to restore the drop down box or find something similar – there seems to be something like that going on at Critical Distance with the BoRT Linkomatic 5000, but I couldn’t get it to work for me. It either produced no effect, or brought me to an error page over at Darius’ Tiny Subversions. Really not sure what to make of this.
On the whole, I don’t favour BoRT2 as a strategy because by its very nature it must be constrained by topic. I love that BoRT is still running, and thank everyone at Critical Distance for their efforts in doing so, but if the goal is to preserve the blog clusters I’m not sure that subject-based methods are the way to go. On the other hand, they might be all we have left right now…
Prototype 3: The Bloot (Blog Moot)
One final suggestion is the Blog Moot or “Bloot”. This would be something of the bastard child of BoRT and chogging, intended to be intermittent, open and dynamic. The premise is straightforward: one blogger posts a question or a firestarter or some other post intended to be the focus of a discussion. The invitation is then open to all other bloggers to respond. Then a mechanism such as the BoRT drop down is used to tie together all the discussions into one common thread so that anyone can follow it and join in using a unique keyword identity that can be easily edited in the code.
It can immediately be noted that this post here is a bloot since it is a topic-driven post intended to foster blog responses. But as it happens, I’m doubtful that it will, and not just because there is no convenient code widget to allow for the cross-blog intersections to be collated automatically. The problem is, only a small number of bloggers who read this post will respond after reading, and after a few days this post will be entirely lost in the shuffle of content that is being vomited out of the endless supply of channels out on the internet.
Perhaps the bloot could avoid this by inviting a number of bloggers to participate in a bloot at the outset (not unlike chogging, but without the continuing ‘chain’), making it essentially a closed format. But then, how much work is involved in such a process of negotiated invitation? To require a pre-prepared blog posse for each bloot pushes away from the core strength of the blog as a medium, which is precisely its freedom of expression, its open and dynamic ability to produce content without restriction.
Conclusion – in More Than One Sense…
So I am left without any confidence in the prototypes I am suggesting, and even less confidence that this bloot will establish any significant discussion of our predicament or our options going forward. Perhaps the internet has already lost its capacity to be a locus of meaningful discussions, because commercially-operated sites have managed to be more entertaining, diverting, and addicting than more substantial forms of community engagement. Perhaps, as I lamented last week, the blog clusters are already destined for extinction. It would be nice, at the very least, if we could go down fighting…
What are your thoughts on these prototype blog revival formats? Would you be willing to engage? How could these ideas be improved? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments, and I would especially appreciate blog posts responding to this bloot – leave your link in the comments and I will add them to the list above.