The wheel turns

by John Q on July 8, 2023

Not quite 20 years ago, I got an invitation to spend a week as a visiting blogger at an exciting new group blog called Crooked Timber. In the manner of the most catastrophic house guests, I managed to turn that into permanent residence.

Looking back at posts from that time, it’s startling how active we were; with multiple posts most days. That’s ebbed away to one or two posts per week, but we are still here to celebrate our 20th anniversary, unlike most of the people who were blogging back then.

It’s easy enough to see why this was so. Back then, although the term ‘social media’ wasn’t in widespread use, social media was blogs and not much else. There was no Facebook or Twitter and mainstream media maintained an air of snooty disdain.

Once these commercial platforms arrived, and began attracting millions, then billions of users, the writing was on the wall for traditional blogging. Their features made them accessible to lots of people for whom blogging was just too difficult and, at least initially, their reliance on advertising seemed like a small price to pay. Blogs carried on, but as bloggers moved on or passed on, or just got tired, they mostly weren’t replaced by new entrants.

The deal for users got worse and worse over time, in the process Cory Doctorow calls ensh*ttification. But network effects worked powerfully to keep us all locked into the platforms where our families/friends/interlocutors remained.

Until recently, there was no end in sight to this process. But, as Stein’s Law has it “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” In the last couple years, we’ve seen disastrous mis-steps from both Facebook and Twitter, as well as a sharp decline in public opinion of the tech giants and their products.

That’s allowed the emergence of alternatives to advertising-driven networks where “algorithms” (they’re really just models) determine what you see and what you don’t. The most important examples, for me, at any rate, have been Mastodon (non-commercial Twitter alternative) along with the larger Fediverse, and Substack, a platform for subscription-supported newsletters.

We don’t yet know what will become of all this. But we have seen a version of this movie before. The original Internet, built by academics was strictly non-commercial. The introduction of the .com domain produced an explosion of commercial offerings and a speculative mania unsurpassed in scale and silliness, at least until the advent of Bitcoin. A crucial part of this was the attempt by portals like Yahoo and AOL to created “walled gardens”, where uses would remain while they were online, rather than wandering the wilds of the Internet.

The original weblogs, from which we got the unlovely abbreviation ‘blogs’, helped users to escape the walled gardens by linking to interesting sites, typically with a sentence or two of commentary, much like Twitter and other ‘microblogs’. But as posts got longer, blogs started linking to each other, and engaging in lengthy discussion. The arrival of comments extended the process. The rise of blogs was one of the factors that broke down the original walled gardens.

The wheel has turned again. It’s unlikely that blogs will ever again play the central role that they did in the early 2000s. But, we can hope we are on an upward phase in a long-running cycle, rather than the inexorable decline that seemed to be our fate until recently.



Russell Arben Fox 07.08.23 at 1:35 pm

But, we can hope we are on an upward phase in a long-running cycle, rather than the inexorable decline that seemed to be our fate until recently.

My hope as well, sir. In the meantime, keep up the great work!


Luis 07.08.23 at 1:56 pm

In searching my old comments here to find favorite posts for the 20th, I was struck by how many of the oldest posts were… well, basically just tweets – a single link, 1-2 sentences of comments.

I knew this intellectually, of course (same impact on my own not-entirely-quiet blog!) but seeing it again was a bit of a shock.

Anyway, happy 20th!


LFC 07.08.23 at 8:31 pm

I’ve only skimmed the OP, but my own experience w the internet has been different than the one JQ describes. Specifically, I’ve never been a user of ‘social media’ (have a Twitter account technically but have never really used it, ditto Instagram). But I have commented on blogs and have had my own. (I didn’t have a high speed internet connection until 2008, which was arguably a handicap since the blogs that started in c.2003 had already seized most of the audience — but frankly it didn’t matter much in my case since even if I’d started in ’03 I prob wd have had only a slightly less small blog audience).

I’m a bit mystified by JQ’s suggestion that using Twitter is easier than blogging. Twitter seems somewhat complicated to me: feeds, mentions, followers, who wants to be bothered w all that? By contrast, blogging is simplicity itself. You just a set up a site, which if you’re using a standard platform is not hard, and start posting. If you want to write a one-sentence post linking to something, you do that; if a paragraph, you do that; if a longer piece, you do that. If you don’t have anything to say, you stay quiet for a while. What cd be easier?


Akshay 07.08.23 at 8:34 pm

The blogosphere was/is, as far as I am concerned, the best social medium in terms of content and expertise! Let’s hope it has a great future; perhaps it could pick up some tricks from the (decentralised) newer social media.


engels 07.08.23 at 9:21 pm

The “new blogs” are on substack (with some honourable exceptions, like LFC’s, which I must check out) which is alright for now but seems like it could be a waypoint towards everything being paywalled.


engels 07.10.23 at 11:53 am

I also think this misses the extent to which the “blogosphere” was a kind of unofficial walled garden, in that everybody seemed to energetically link to and hype everybody else in that small and clubby network, mainly at the expense of the “legacy media”, result of which was a fair amount of unremarkable writing getting exposure it didn’t really merit (present company excepted ofc).

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