How To Save Blogging From Itself

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I didn't want blogging to be like this, to be honest. I didn't want it to be so much like publishing. I thought it was going to be more like talking to each other.

But at massive scale, it seems like money has the effect of making all forms of online communication just mediocre enough to exist. Blogging, talking, photography, whatever it is, it's all available to everyone now in just-awful-enough form.

Investors realized that mundane communication could be made into a mass medium supported by advertising, and we got "Web 2.0" social networking. That competed with High Publishing for attention. The competition squeezed on the ideals of both kinds of communication, the line got hazier and hazier, and now it's all a big blur: communication, publishing, marketing, advertising.

What's the difference between those things right now? I'm begging you for an answer to that question.

Fully Mediated

There's a wide, hazy line between communication and entertainment. That's the line walked by online media industries. Communication is useful and entertainment is fun. People pay attention to a message to the extent to which it's either useful or fun. Who can blame them?

Now that we're "fully mediated," as the founders of ReadWrite's parent company like to say (pun intended), every single second of the day is an opportunity to mediate someone. That's mediate as a verb meaning "to inundate with media," in case that wasn't clear.

Attention is scarce. Communicators and entertainers are in an arms race to spend effort and money capturing attention. If your message isn't more useful or fun than everything else when it reaches it's recipient, it was a waste of your time. So news, entertainment, marketing, all of it goes for the lowest-hanging fruit.

Welcome to the downward spiral of making shit for the Internet.

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Commoditized Conversation

I wanted blogging to be more like Ender's Game. In that fictional future, the web is this giant global coliseum of ideas that compete through the dazzling rhetoric and personality of their authors' characters. If the character is good enough, the networks pay you just to be that character, to syndicate it around the world. All the champions write back and forth to each other, and the world watches.

In that book's vision of future media, the author's identity is not important, just the message. In fact, the two blogger characters are pseudonymous kids. That's why I started when I was a teenager. I wanted to be like Demosthenes and Locke.

In 2003, two high school friends and I started a Movable Type blog on WiredOpinion.com, (which we shouldn't have let expire, so we could have sold it to Wired Opinion, but that's another story). We used our real first names, but we didn't reveal our ages or identities. We just wrote about the 2004 election season. We had our points of view, and we wanted to be part of the conversation. And we were.

I'm not saying that world is over. There are a few pseudonymous characters like Kontra who are doing it solo, driving the conversation in their fields, and those in the know hang onto their every word. It's still theoretically possible for anyone to join the conversation. But isn't it telling that Join The Conversation™ sounds like a cynical buzzphrase from a digital marketing firm?

I don't think we've lost our chance to have this kind of web. But we might have to dig it out of the rubble. At the moment, all the media money is being thrown at rebuilding the old world all over again, and the prognosis isn't good.

The Web We Lost

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Maybe Anil Dash can help. He helped make Movable Type (back when he was at Six Apart, which is now Say Media, which is ReadWrite's parent company. But no interests were conflicted in the making of this blog post). I read his posts in December about the web we lost and how to rebuild it, and I couldn't help but feel guilty. Here I am "shovel-blogging," as Merlin Mann calls it, and people like Dash who were part of the invention of blogging are just slowly shaking their heads.

So I asked him how this came to be.

Jon: Why has the web as a market — and the tech audience in particular — come to favor a press comprised of enthusiast brands rather than one of independent experts blogging together?

Anil Dash: It seems like the online media market has forced formerly-independent writers to band together simply because of the business models around advertising (and to a lesser degree, subscription), which only worked at scale.

Though we may be in the waning days of the traditional page view-based economy, advertising networks basically only work if they're bundling together a big number of writers/creators, and that's easier to do on a few sites than across a lot of independent sites.

Jon: Is there a way we can use this centralized press relationship to bring about a better web instead of just maintaining the status quo?

AD: It seems like it must be possible to hack the current cycle of coverage where a huge number of me-too companies pay a small number of PR flacks to spam an even smaller number of key media outlets.

Part of me imagines independent voices joining together into something akin to the web rings that used to be popular in the early days of the web, and having a centralized pitch queue where inbound requests for attention are shared between them in a way that makes the pitches public.

Hopefully shame would be a good enough deterrent to raise the quality of some of the pitches, and similarly the peer pressure of other writers working in parallel would force the worst writers to improve their skills.

Jon: It strikes me that there's a parallel between the enthusiasm for this kind of content and the enthusiasm for the kinds of content delivery we've gotten in this era of the web. That is, "The Web We Got" has info silos full of ready-made, processed content, and "The Web We Lost" was better organized for independence, collaboration, and expertise. Does the nature of pro-blogging emerge from the more fundamental economics of the web? And does that mean we have to change the whole web business if we want to change the press?

AD: Yep, seems like your question here touches on the point I arrived at at the start — our industry gets the journalism that its media economics optimize for. Fortunately those economics are being radically shifted, so maybe that will lead to a new period of innovation and some fresh voices.

That sounds beautiful, but there's so much inertia preventing us from getting there. There's just so much attention out there to be mined, and the marketing forces behind the media companies are scrambling so hard to get at it. How's that going for them?

Old Media Monsters

The flexible form of the blog has been adapted to the fossilized, utterly finished media empire mentality, emulating the old media brands that were big and strong enough to survive the digital transition (so far). But the results are so goofy. Look at team tech blogs. Look at us. Why are there dozens of us? What are the differences between us? I see a red one, a green one, a blue one, an orange one. Are there any more substantive differences?

Well, sure. There are different people at each one, each with different talents (although so many of us [but not me!] have worked at multiple others previously). These brands — if they even have enough character to deserve to be called that — are all stages for a rotating cast of characters. But are these characters the least bit interesting? No. They're Nerds Like Us™. But that's a ruse. Real nerds have their own blogs, write about what matters to them, and don't have to prove anything to anyone. Tech Bloggers™ are attention farmers. We don't do nerdy stuff for a living. We do entertainment stuff about nerdy stuff.

Tech blogging started as a form of personal blogging just like the political blogging I was doing as a kid. The tech blogs that are still interesting are still exactly the way they were then. Others, like ours, went big and sold out. We took the guise of the medium developed by the real nerds, and we turned it into what tech blogs are now: enthusiast brands, umbrellas for confederacies of barely informed writers tied together into a mutant super-organism.

This is what is called Tech Journalism™. What is journalism?

We're All Journalists Now

I read a lot more about media than I do about tech, to be honest. And why shouldn't I? Like I said, that's what I actually do, as opposed to what I do it about. And much of the pixels spilt about media these days are spent on the scary, French-sounding word Journalism™.

Journalism™ is something very important that big, ad-supported entertainment/classifieds ads companies used to subsidize in order to command more respect. It was a public service to get to the bottom of things and tell the truth, an essential function in a democratic society. When the sources were few and the demand for attention was relatively low, it was a good thing for media companies to spend money on. In the Fully Mediated™ world, it's not so clear.

Some tech bloggers love to call themselves Journalists™. Others refuse that lofty mantle. I could go down a deep rabbit hole right now talking about what is or is not Journalism™.

But I'm not going to. It doesn't matter.

Journalism™ is an elitist stick to beat people with. Do you know what the word journalism means? I mean, what it literally means, like in the French words it's made of? It means "writing down what happened today." Now that we're Fully Mediated™, we're all writing down what happened today all the time. We're all journalists now. If we all do the right things, spend our time in interesting ways, and write about it, we'll have good Journalism™.

As old media business models race to the bottom, we'll eventually figure something else out. Maybe it will work like the clean, well-lighted über-web-ring Dash describes. Whatever the case, the problem is more basic than a problem with Journalism™. All communication is awash in noise. These days, the signal gets out by old fashioned word of mouth. No matter what kind of communication we do, all we can do is concentrate on making good signal. We'll make it sustainable once we figure out how. We have to.

This is what I tell the uncountable number of people who want to get on the blogger stage. I can't tell you how many emails I get from people who are doing the exact same thing I do every day, but doing it in obscurity, wanting to know how to "get into blogging." I tell them, "Go out, talk to people, get their stories, write them up, then publish them. People will notice, and then they'll hire you. That's what I did."

Photos by Jon Mitchell (except Anil Dash's headshot)