The Atlantic just announced that it’s “bringing blogging back” to the magazine’s website, in a version modernized for the age of social everything — reimagined as “a hub connecting a real-time magazine with itself and its readers.” That’s good news. The question is: Where did blogging go? Somehow, within 15 years, blogs went from quirky first drafts by cat-lovers and other amateurs to an accepted part of mainstream culture.
What a shame.
When blogging first came to public notice at the turn of the millennium, the mainstream media often described it as a type of quaint, if not failed, journalism: columns by amateurs who lacked skills, editors, or responsibility.
Of course that’s not how it appeared to us early bloggers. The fact that most of our posts were so obviously written by amateurs we took as a sign of the democratizing effect of the Web. Anyone could talk, even though not everyone was as skilled a rhetorician (or even grammarian) as the professionals populating the pages of professional newspapers. The imperfections of our posts, we hoped, would help legitimize a more human, less controlled form of public speech.
But, we thought, the most important challenge blogging posed was to the idea of the self in self-expression. Blogging was more about connecting with others than about expressing ourselves. Truth, we thought, was more likely to live in webs of ideas and responses than in the mouth of any one individual braying from soapbox, whether that soapbox was The New York Times or a blogger read by five people. By linking and commenting, we were consciously building a social space for voices in conversation.
It worked, at least for a couple of years. I made lasting friends with bloggers I’d never met. You could post that you were going to a new city, and within hours have put together a real-world dinner with other bloggers you knew only from their posts.
So what happened?
Mainly, Facebook happened. Constructing social networks by blogging takes work. You have to read, respond, post. You have to stay on top of the topics sweeping through what used to be called the “blogosphere.” Facebook is much better at building social networks for people. And you don’t have to spend serious time writing essays. Twitter lowered the character count further.
Then, blogging went mainstream. Most media outlets now feature less formal, more personal columns either by their official columnists or by a cadre of writers who can’t be fitted into the limited space of a print newspaper or magazine. Even so, when the media refer to “bloggers,” they often mean unschooled amateurs unaffiliated with respectable publications — people who are obsessed with the trivial, full of hate, and unfamiliar with spellcheck.
Yet delve into almost any field of research and you’ll find webs of bloggers joined by their common interests, whether it’s cooking, policy, or contemporary philosophy. We bloggers are still there, connecting, learning from one another, and speaking in our own flawed human voices. The leading blogging site, WordPress.com, hosts 37 million of them, although not all are personal or still active. Tumblr claims 252 million blogs and 99 billion posts, mainly short form. We’re not noticed as much outside of our webs, and we are no longer considered a “phenomenon,” but we’re there.
In fact, blogs now often are where the most interesting ideas are surfaced, argued, and appropriated into a discipline’s discourse. Unlike the output in scholarly journals and magazines, in these webs of blogs we get to see ideas emerging from conversation among people sharing what in the old days we’d take as early drafts. These webs allow participation by people regardless of credentials, enabling voices to rise to their own level of credibility.
No one questions whether there’s a place for edited professionalism. But there’s also a place for the sound of the individual’s own flawed voice in open conversation with others, building something bigger than itself.
Blogs may not be trendy, but they still live.
David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.