Today marks the 14th anniversary of my first post on ReadWriteWeb, on 20 April 2003. Every year I do a post about it, but this year I’m adding my thoughts about the meaning of blogging in 2017. Do blogs even matter now? I think they do, but in an Internet landscape dominated by Walled Gardens (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and so on), it’s undeniable that blogging on the Open Web has suffered.
Do you remember what made blogging so exciting ten or fifteen years ago? For me it was the comments, trackbacks (a reciprocal link to another blog), links inside the post, blogrolls (a list of blogs you liked), subscribing via RSS, visiting your RSS Reader and favourite blogs every day, your post archive, and tags. All these things built a community: a group of people who visited your blog in order to read about a topic they loved. Then, if a reader was so inspired, they would leave a comment or write their own blog post in response to yours. It really was a beautiful thing, blogging and being part of a topic-focused community.
The other aspect of blogging that was unique at the time was that a blog was usually the result of one person’s passion. A blog was the online persona of an individual, yet it wasn’t ego-driven (or at least the best blogs weren’t). The blogs I used to love reading were driven by passion, for a particular topic or type of thinking. Some of those blogs evolved into group blogs; “professional blogs” was the term for it. But they were still blogs, because they stood for something specific and the writers had a shared passion. I’ll of course use ReadWriteWeb as an example.
I started ReadWriteWeb in 2003 because I was excited about what was happening with Web technology, and in particular that the Web was evolving into a two-way, “read/write” medium. RWW began transitioning into a group blog from the second half of 2006 and into 2007 (for example, Alex Iskold became a regular from September 2006). Things got really serious when I started hiring full-time bloggers in 2007; Josh Catone and Marshall Kirkpatrick were the first two. The common theme during this period was that each new writer who joined the team shared my passion for Web technology. They also shared my values: for forward-thinking analysis, quality over quantity, focusing on products and trends (rather than personalities), thoughtful opinions and not rants, and a kind of idealism about what the Internet was capable of becoming. That shared understanding of what RWW meant – what it stood for – turned RWW from a one-person blog into a topic-focused media brand.
This is a key point about blogging: even though by late 2006 it was no longer just me, RWW was still a blog. It continued to use the blog template – comments, trackbacks and so on. But more importantly, the site also retained the DNA of my original blog persona. I mention all this because sometimes I hear people say, oh a blog is just one person’s opinions. No it’s not: RWW and other pro blogs of that era (Techcrunch, Gigaom, Mashable – to name just a few) all proved that blogs could be much more than that, without losing their essential ‘bloginess.’
Let’s jump forward to today, the era of Facebook and Twitter. I believe we’ve lost those core values of blogging which I just described. Today’s social media is not a place for passion or analysis. It’s been replaced by ego and ephemera. Okay, that’s partly because the read/write, two-way Web vision (of Tim Berners-Lee, Dave Winer, and other giants whose shoulders I stood on) actually came true. When I started blogging in 2002, you could count in the hundreds the number of people who ‘wrote’ on the Web via blogs. It was a small community, those early bloggers. But now, fifteen years later, billions of people share their thoughts on the Web via Facebook, Twitter and similar tools. By any measure, the Read/Write Web (the trend, not the blog) was an astounding success. Except…it maxed out our attention spans. Now, nobody reads or listens – we just write or talk into the ether, each of us stroking our own ego.
There’s another aspect of blogs I really miss: archives. A blog was regularly updated, but its foundation was the archive. In the early days we used to store posts in monthly archives, category archives, and (once “tagging” became a thing) into hashtagged archives. All of this was made easy by the tools: Blogger.com, Radio Userland, Movable Type, WordPress, and others. Indeed one of the pleasures of discovering a new voice in the blogosphere was trawling through their archives, looking for posts about a particular topic you were into at that moment. Seeing what that person, or group of people, thought about that topic.
Sadly, content on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t tend to stick around – at least not in any meaningful way. Sure you can search for something in social media, but unless a hundred other people are also searching for (and have unearthed) that same piece of old content at the exact time you have, it has no “social currency.” It’s worthless, in terms of its Facebooking or Tweeting value. Social media is inherently ephemeral, which is a shame. Because the foundation of a great blog is its archive, and it was usually well organized (via both time and categories).
There are still bloggers out there in 2017, of course. The guy who most influenced me at the start, Dave Winer, continues to post regularly on his blog, Scripting News. In my RSS Reader (yes I still use one!), Feedly, I have a group called ‘Bloggers’ that includes old-school bloggers like Kottke, Waxy.org, danah boyd’s apophenia, and Joho the Blog. Sadly, many of these OG bloggers post less often than they used to (except for Kottke). The reality is, many of the bloggers of my era have now moved their online thoughts to Facebook, Twitter, or the blog-like but bland Medium.com. I wanted to like Medium and gave it a chance by posting there for a while. But even though it was founded by the guy who created Blogger.com, Evan Williams, Medium is oddly homogeneous. Everything looks the same and there’s little room for individual personality. In short, it lacks the charisma of a blog persona and so I just can’t get excited by anything published on Medium.
I’ll finish up by going back to ReadWriteWeb, which is celebrating its 14th birthday today. Although, I have to admit it’s quite far removed from the ReadWriteWeb I knew and grew. The ReadWrite of today (it ditched the ‘Web’ in October 2012, the same time I left the blog) is exclusively about the Internet of Things. A niche topic I blogged a little about around 2009, but it’s not as exhilarating as the trendy topics of today (AI, VR, biotech, etc.). So even I struggle to find much to read on my old blog now, although I appreciate its continuing efforts.
I don’t have any dealings with RWW these days, since it is onto its third owner. The company I sold it to in December 2011, SAY Media, onsold it to a company called Wearable World in 2015. I believe Wearable World has now re-named itself ReadWrite Labs, so the brand name lives on – if little else. Oh and I still get multiple email pitches a day from PR people who obviously haven’t done their homework and think I still work for ReadWrite. I suspect those emails will never end and I’ll be getting them in my retirement village, decades from now.
So, happy birthday to ReadWriteWeb – the memory of it, the current iteration of it, and the idea of blogging that it represented to me (and many others) for a long time.