I wrote this article about blogging in 2011
(I think it was for Fraser Lewry at the late, lamented Word Magazine)
DIARY PRODUCTS Where have all the bloggers gone?
Bloggers have inherited the role of the essayist, of the sceptical observer taking aim from the outside, a hugely influential part of contemporary media
Remember the blogs? Online journals kept by web media pioneers in the old days. Five years ago, they were going to change the world. They were going to overturn the bloated, unaccountable media hierarchy and replace it with a vigorous publishing grassroots — a kind of distributed fourth estate with none of the baggage of the old one.
By now we were all going to be blogging.
It didn’t happen. The social networks cut the blogs off at the pass. The emergence of Myspace, Bebo and then Twitter and Facebook did for the blogs. They cut away at the blogs’ emerging mass audience, robbed them of their value as day-to-day journals and — worst of all — soaked up the attention necessary for anything like a universal culture of opinion and expression. It’s simple economics: if you spend half your day updating your timeline and scanning your newsfeed you don’t have time to build a micro-publishing franchise, to develop your blogging voice.
The open, essentially freeform platform for expression that the blogs represented has been”. Jaron Lanier, tech visionary of the old school, in his 2009 book You Are Not A Gadget says that when we fill in our Facebook profiles we diminish ourselves, shrinking our personalities to fit the Facebook template: marital status, employer, location… He thinks it’s inevitable that what we say in this constrained environment will be diminished too. That we’ve surrendered to superficiality and phoniness.
The blogs, remember, promised the opposite — a veritable speakers’ corner of oddball communication and expression — a flowering of wisdom and provocation unconstrained by ownership, publication schedules, censorship, circulation and the other daily worries of proper publishers.
But the idealistic vision of everyone a writer, everyone a free voice in a society of free voices, has been suspended while we get on with the less challenging business of developing our friends lists, checking in at Starbucks and tweeting amusingly about Eurovision.
But the blogs, of course, still exist. And what they’ve been doing while about a quarter of the planet’s population stares slack-jawed at our newsfeeds and timelines, as if they might at any moment yield inspiration or a conversation or some truth, is evolving into an actual thing. An authentic, grown-up, sophisticated platform for the creative, the opinionated and the obstreperous to tell their stories. Blogs have quietly become socially and culturally important, part of the contemporary media. Not on the universal scale promised by the pioneers but hugely influential nonetheless. There’s no area of human endeavour beyond the reach of the bloggers — from triathlon tips to retro camper vans — but the hotspots are, as you might expect, politics, technology and music.
And there are real parallels with the rise of other, much older media forms. The essay, for instance, which became a thing itself way back in the 16th Century, wasn’t, on the face of it, much different from the immediately preceding forms — sermons, exegeses, improving texts and so on. But it spawned practically the whole humanist critical tradition — learned, inquiring, opinionated, ironic. And when we look back on this end of the 21st century we’ll remember it as the moment that the essay’s successor, the blog, took hold.
For Bloggers have inherited the role of the essayist, of the sceptical observer, taking aim from outside the mainstream. Often introspective — not to say self-obsessed — but providing an independent commentary on the news, on life or on art that has become invaluable. And as the comment and leader pages of the newspapers lose their status as the conscience of public life (as they surely will), the blogs can only gain in stature.
Political bloggers like Iain Dale and Slugger O’Toole are providing something new — politically partial content from outside the party camps that serves increasingly disillusioned audiences. Audiences who hate the dissimulation, spin and sensationalism they get from the mainstream political media. Slugger O’Toole’s growing franchise covers UK and Irish politics together, for instance, something no newspaper has tried.
And the tech world’s big voices have been building something formidable too. Michael Arrington, a pugnacious (and often maddening) former Silicon Valley executive, has built such clout on his TechCrunch blog that he can afford to offend just about everyone, especially the bumptious CEOs of the web startup businesses he covers — a privilege only a handful of newspaper columnists retain (it remains to be seen if his recent buy-out by fading online major AOL will change that). And one-time newspaper exec Jeff Jarvis has built a personal franchise as a new media pundit that sees him at the top table routinely. He too has earned the right to an independent voice.
In music, bloggers — usually through years of thankless graft addressing audiences an editor wouldn’t get out of bed for — have gained the kind of influence that makes them the bemused target of a thousand increasingly desperate PRs. Blogs like Drowned In Sound and Music Like Dirt have taken the reverse chronological blog template and built on it something new and vital — new bands, old passions and lots of trashy pop culture. Not high-minded but authentic and passionate.
The blogs, because of their independence and energy and the sense that anything is possible, have defied the irrelevance threatened by the social networks. They represent the richness and value of human subjectivity and the potential for open and honest communication, even in the age of collapsing business models and fading media behemoths. I could suggest that you go out and support your favourite bloggers, but they don’t need it.