Remember back in 2003 when blogging was going to take over the world? When we were writing odes to blogging, building popular tools to map the blogsphere, actually using the word blogosphere with a mostly straight face, and wringing our hands over every new entrant in the field and every Google index update?
Sure, the component parts of blogging are everywhere now. The Internet is drowning in self-publishing, link-sharing, articles scrolling by in reverse-chronological order. It's no coincidence that the most popular CMS on the public Internet, by a pretty ridiculous margin is a blogging platform.
But somewhere around a decade ago, the soul of blogging died. The heterogeneous community using syndication technologies to create collaboratively-filtered networks of trust and attention between personally-curated websites, forming spontaneous micro-communities in the negative space between them? That’s the thing we were all saying would take over the world, and instead “blogging” dwindled back to being a feature of corporate websites, a format for online journalism, and a hobby of techies who like running their own web pages.
Going back over fourteen years of my own blog history was an interesting lesson in how this blog changed over the years. There are entire classes of post that filled the pages of this site in 2002, but that were not to be seen five years later. Some of this was due to me changing behind the blog. Many were due to the Internet changing around it.
So what happened to blogging?
Digg stole its community.
And then reddit and Hacker News, but Digg did it first.
Kuro5hin demanded users share substantial things they wrote themselves, everything else was “Mindless Link Propagation”. Digg took MLP and changed the shape of the Internet with it.
In doing so, Digg created a devoted platform for one of the core activities, and most common entry-points of blogging: holding conversations about things written elsewhere. Their platform was far easier to get involved in, far easier to set up, and solved that one big question of blogging newbies: “How do I get anyone to even read what I’m writing?” with centralisation and gamification.
Bloggers didn't jump ship for Digg, but equally Digg didn't contribute to blogging. Visitors from aggregation sites notoriously never looked deeper into the sites they were visiting than the single article that was linked, and the burst of syndication subscribers a blogger would normally get if one of the hubs of their community linked to them just never came from aggregation sites.
Bloggers did, however, find themselves having to take part in these communities. At first because more often than not aggregators were where the conversation was happening about the things they were writing, and writing about. Later, because they’re where readers come from. For many people trying to make money writing on the Internet today, links from reddit are how you survive.
For their part, aggregation site users tend to hold bloggers in the lowest of low esteem, even when linking to them. Blogging is narcissistic. Who are they to remain aloof from the community like that, to share links and posts on their own website instead of contributing them to the centralised collective?
It is this sense of community that even turned some aggregators into creators, beyond the surfacing of links or crowdsourced comments about them. Like “Ask Slashdot” before it, some of the most popular communities on reddit are built around user-contributed posts. Overall, though, links still rule the site.
Users of aggregators tend to reserve their greatest vitriol for sites that aggregate or republish things from their website, whether it be something that was original to the site, or even if it’s just a link they found “first”. For sites built around monetising other sites’ labour, aggregator users get mighty tetchy when the same thing is done to them.
Twitter stole its small-talk.
Bloggers might not have jumped ship for aggregators, but they dove into Twitter head first.
It takes a lot of time and inspiration to write a long-form article, so most blogs filled the gaps between with links, funny pictures they had found around the Internet, short pithy commentary, snippets of conversation, interesting quotes, jokes, and in one case from a blogger now worth more money than you can count, an enthusiastic two sentence review of the porn site “Bang Bus”.
With Twitter you could do that on your phone, have it pushed to your friends/subscribers in real time, and have the same done back to you with equal ease. It wasn't even a competition.
Twitter still has the “How do I get people to notice me?” problem, and later developed the even more disturbing “How do I get people to stop noticing me?” problem, but that didn't stop it sucking the remaining air out of the blogosphere in the course of surprisingly few months.
What about Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and the like? Well, from my perspective they weren't so much the successors to blogging as they were the successors to Livejournal.
Tumblr stole its future.
A curmudgeon might say I should also file Tumblr under “successors to Livejournal”, but I disagree. Tumblr sites tend far less towards being amorphous personal diaries aimed square at the author’s existing social network, and far more towards expressing the author’s interests in public, and joining the larger community that arises around them.
From one perspective, Tumblr is blogging. At today’s count they host 244 million blogs making a total of 81 million posts per day. That’s about four posts per year for every human being on Earth. Users can contribute their own posts, but just as importantly they can reblog and comment, forming spontaneous, distributed communities of interest around (and in the spaces between) the things they share from others.
From another perspective, Tumblr stole blogging. The syndication and sharing tools, the communities built within Tumblr, everything stops dead at the website's border. The tools seem almost contemptuous of the web as it exists outside Tumblr. To quote JWZ:
[Tumblr pioneered] showing the entire thread of attributions by default, and emphasizing the first and last -- but stopping cold at the walls of the Tumblr garden. To link to an actual creator, you have to take an extra step, so nobody bothers.
These may seem like small glitches, but the aggregate effect is huge. They’re what makes the “Tumblr Community” a real thing people talk about in a way you'd never hear about, say, people who happen to host their sites with Wordpress.
Centralisation and lock-in won.
In the end, the distributed, do-it-yourself web was just too hard. Not just for newcomers facing a mountainous barrier to entry, but even to incumbents looking to shave a few sources of frustration from their day. Just ask anyone who excitedly built RSS/Atom syndication into their product in the early 2000s, only to deprecated the feature gradually into the power-user margin over the ensuing decade.
In every case, a closed, proprietary system took some ingredient of the self-publishing crack bloggers discovered in the early 2000s and distilled it into a product that was easier to use, and that people were willing to adopt even though it meant losing the freedom of openness, interoperability and owning your own words.
Leaving behind a landscape of those for whom that sacrifice either was not commercially attractive, or those of us who are just sufficiently set in our ways that the idea of not running our own website feels alien.