Mid to late December saw a broad online conversation around Jason Kottke’s “The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog”. I didn’t catch up with that current1 until I read Duncan Davidson’s newsletter recently. Amid links to the Kottke essay, Alexis Madrigal’s thoughts at the Atlantic, John Scalzi, and Frank Chimero on “Homesteading”, Duncan writes
My own homesteading thoughts have lately turned not only to how to structure things on a website, but also how to share ongoing information in a way that’s timely. RSS feeds seem to continue to fade in importance and while they’re probably not going away entirely anytime soon, it’s clear that they solve only a portion of the problem.
The decommissioning of Google Reader is critical to all this. Reader was without question the hub of the reverse-chronological blog ecosystem, and Google’s discontinuing of the service created a significant sharing problem that also substantially amplified the extant trend toward “long form” writing and designery pieces like Snowfall, on one hand, and streaming social platform services, on the other. Google’s move underscores one critical piece of the story that Alexis Madrigal hits on, that “the stream is a creation of particular companies and thinkers” and not a natural product of the Internet. Whereas in 1997 “wired teens” (per Kottke) were proto-blogging with the shell accounts, ftp and web hosting provided by their colleges and ISPs, the advent of Blogger and later Google Reader would shift blog publishing and reading to a massive media landscape scale.
In the Reader+RSS era, a million ways to publish proliferated and Reader generally let them all bloom via RSS.2 I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that this infrastructure enabled what would become the Wordpress and Moveable Type empires; likewise the glut of shared web hosting services that somewhat tellingly are much more consolidated and cloud-service-oriented than they once were. I’m not trying to draw straight causal lines here, because many of these currents were on the rise prior to Reader becoming the dominant distribution and reading model, but I think it’s clear that as contemporaries they were all part of a particular technically-faciliated ecosystem that would eventually sit with Reader at its core.
Fundamentally, Reader+RSS was mostly plumbing; the services and platforms that are replacing it are not. So while we are (maybe) in a great age of diverse platforms we no longer have a unified way to consume them,3 and that’s a dilemma for people who want to read as well as people who want to create things. This may pose the largest impact to casual writers, the kind who might have fired up a hosted blog on a whim or periodically posted something of narrower or specialized interest. So much of the engagement once available to those authors has mostly dried up — while there is a bounty of ways to produce stuff, the ad hoc federations of interest collections is just harder to create and maintain without a dominant structure to put it all into. The kind whose writing is not short or pithy enough for microblogging or Twitter, not connected or viral enough to hit Medium or another curated platform4.
I have no illusions about this very site not being square in that category, but this isn’t meant to be a pity-party, only an observation/suggestion that the tools and infrastructure that for a time enabled a kind of media by the masses have again bifurcated into the micro-social and the truly mass media, and the kinds of things that survive in either of those environments are going to be different, except for blog-format sites that already have a mass readership (Daring Fireball among tech blogs, say, and Kottke and plenty of others). Everything else using that form will persist as a labor of love, an adjunct to a “more engaging model,” or a holdover from the pleistocene of the “home page.” As Scalzi writes, for those of us who want to own the things we produce and decide on our own how to present ourselves, the hobby home page is still something valuable:
I don’t see myself ever not doing Whatever, because at the end of the day I want to control my own space online and say what I want to be able to say, unencumbered by character limits or SEO-driven advertisements in the sidebars or any other sort of distraction. But if it turns out that it’s just one part of an overall online presence portfolio, well, that’s no different than it ever was … and it’s part and parcel of the fact that my presence is distributed in other ways as well
It’s clear that that function is no longer completed by that single site alone. Duncan Davidson’s newsletter prompted this post so I might as well bookend it with another of his remarks: On this shift from blog to something else, Duncan writes that “Whatever structure one uses, the urge to have one’s own presence online is certainly compelling.” For those of us who have been doing this since the 90s, that’s exactly right — and we’ll have to keep discovering and creating new ways to be expressive and find the social community to engage with.
Self-conscious “stream” reference there, yes. ↩︎
Notably, while publishing platforms proliferated, the Reader web interface was, to my fuzzy recollection, the by far dominant method to read one’s news feeds, despite a great variety of other good clients that used Reader as their backbone. ↩︎
Technically, many of these publishing-platform islands do provide and support RSS, even if you have to look for it, but without the centralized service to update and access them it’s just too difficult for most users who have not migrated to feedly or feedbin to read them across their various machines and devices. ↩︎
There’s a notion that this is all democratizing technology allowing everybody to have a voice, and that’s still true to an extent, but mostly in only the strictly technical sense; there’s a stratification of voices and a real class system out here. ↩︎