Sunday, November 22, 2009

Blogging c. 2010: The State of the Art

Blogging is dead (2007), and dead again (2009), providing occasion to comment on its next interval of aliveness. Here are twelve related assertions, some obvious, hopefully some original (number 6 is the heart of the matter). Rebuttals or amendments welcome.

1. Blogrolls barely matter anymore. Updating them is tedious, and rarely do they reflect a given blogger's current reading habits. They've been replaced by feed aggregators such as google reader, which do accurately reflect reading habits.

2. The quick "check this out" post is less relevant. That's what sharing on google reader is for. I usually only post what I find interesting here if I think it fits the niche of this blog, which facebook has declared "uncategorizable."

3. Hit counts are becoming increasingly unreliable as more readers are relying on RSS feeds rather than clicking through to favorite blogs (see point 1). Hit counters have, accordingly, been replaced by RSS count.

4. Blog design is still important, but less so. I'm due for a redesign (and perhaps I will undertake one, suggestions welcome). But with most traffic coming from google reader, slaving to create an interesting design may not be that important.

5. The bane of blogging was (and to some extent, still is) narcissism, as so well evidenced by the film Julie and Julia where the gracious Julia is far preferable to her blogging counterpart. And yet, the what-I'm-up-to post still has a certain appeal. Twitter and facebook have not killed blogs, but have quarantined that sometimes helpful daily update aspect into a more appropriate forum. If you care what a given blogger is up to on a daily basis then friend them or follow them on twitter - but they have less excuse now to bore you with that information on their blogs.

6. The aforementioned quarantine of personal detailing has, at least in theory, liberated blogs to abound in actual content. Hence, the potential birth, not dearth, of blogging at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Granted, one might outsource the best stuff to alternate forums (notice, eh hem, my "offsite articles" category on the left sidebar). Furthermore, at least when it comes to academia, there is little reason to post specialized academic work online - that's for conferences, talks and publishing. But, my professional interests will often lead me to encounter things which can't be squeezed into, or wait upon, the normative academic process. So, for shorter reflections, choice flickr photos, a photo essay, or when one reads a brilliant paragraph somewhere and wants to share it with a brief comment, there's the blog. Doing this for a while leads to an invaluable personal, yet public, archive which can often serve as a launching point for larger projects. In short, for posts somewhere between a bona fide essay and a tweet, blogging is perfect.

7. For those of us who make our living (or, more accurately, our stipend) by reading and writing, a strong case can be made for a blog as a personal hub or aggregate point. Twitter, amazon, flickr, facebook, shelfari, etc.: A blog is where they meet, gathering up the diaspora of one's online identity. Blogs consolidate web presence, help you control (to the extent possible) where people end up when they search your name, and can go much more in depth than facebook. Why burden facebook acquaintances with your extended reflections? Just provide a link to your blog in case they're interested, which - realism insists - they may not be.

8. Most importantly, blogging is about writing well, or at least learning to write better which only comes from writing often. The allure of an audience, however meager, is just the spur some of us need to do so more often. The exercise may or may not lead to fascinating content or gorgeous prose, but will certainly hone anyone's writing skills. As Augustine said, "I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress - by writing."

9. Comments still work. Personally, I cherish them, and while I know they don't necessarily indicate the relevance or popularity of a given post, I can't shake the sense that, to some extent, they do. Web overload means comments are rarer, but they can still generate interesting discussion on a specific topic in a way that a group email, facebook comments, retweets, or something else cannot.

10. Ours is the era of the blog merge, when larger sites pick up smaller blogs or like-minded friends band together to create a blog, which happened before, but seems to happen more often now perhaps as a result of the changes in the medium listed above. I don't know what to make of this. I have friends I'd like to guest post here, and I have had invitations to guest post elsewhere. But the autonomy of one's own blog is a valuable asset, and I rarely have enough content to fill more than one blog. More importantly, one should not write for the internet at large, but for a particular audience. I usually have a given group of friends or individuals in mind. No doubt cross-posting (posting the same material at different sites) can be done with integrity, but the directedness of given material to a particular audience is why I have slight reservations about the practice.

11. Fame has proven fickle. The best place to be is on the verge of being discovered, with interesting content that should have a wider audience, but doesn't; as opposed to less-than-interesting content that has a wider audience than it should. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

12. The criticism that the architecture of blogging privileges new over best content can, to an extent, be answered. This can be done through a good "best of" list (see "millinarcissism" to the left), solid categories, or through the new feature linkwithin so nicely modeled by A Bloomsbury Life. One day I'll fix my home-rolled defective HTML and see if I can get that going here. There are ways to encourage depth of engagement.

What all this means for this blog: If you want to see what I find interesting on a daily basis, enable my shares through google reader. If you care what I'm up to, follow me on twitter or friendify me on facebook; I try to only post relatively interesting status updates, but I won't bore you with that here. If you're not on my blogroll, don't worry, I rarely check it anyway. If you read this blog, your comments are never solicited, but they are always welcome, and your reading along all these years (going on six) is warmly appreciated.

All in all, in case things get interesting, a blog is a good thing to have around. The informational homesteader still does well to cultivate an autonomous plot on the virtual frontier.