January 6, 2020
I was aimlessly surfing Pinboard when I chanced upon a post at Nieman Lab on the return of blogs in 2020 by my old friend Joanne McNeil. (It had escaped me that she’s got a new book on the history of the Internet from the user perspective coming out next month. Pre-ordered!) She writes that in many ways newsletters are the new blogs.
The web interface of any given public Substack is basically that of a blog. You can even set up comments. And there are subscription apps like Stoop that organize newsletters’ content as RSS readers did for blogs.
I hadn’t heard of Stoop, but I use a similar feature inside the wonderful RSS reader Feedbin. The service assigns you an email address that you can use to subscribe to newsletters and issues will appear in your feed. So I also basically treat newsletters as blogs.
But they aren’t the same. From a writer’s perspective I think newsletters feel more formal given their push nature. Because when you hit publish you’re about to insert yourself into the inboxes of maybe hundreds or thousands of people, it better be good. That has certain virtues, like imposing discipline on the writer, which as a reader I appreciate. But the flip side is, of course, that you lose the informality and frequency that made blogs so conducive to free-thinking and experimentation. Joanne goes on:
It’s been long enough now that people look back on blogging fondly, but the next generation of blogs will be shaped around the habits and conventions of today’s internet. Internet users are savvier about things like context collapse and control (or lack thereof) over who gets to view their shared content. Decentralization and privacy are other factors. At this moment, while so much communication takes place backstage, in group chats and on Slack, I’d expect new blogs to step in the same ambiguous territory as newsletters have — a venue for material where not everyone is looking, but privacy is neither airtight nor expected.
I think we will see something of a blog renaissance as a reaction to the current state of social media, which Saku Panditharatnerecently and aptly described this way:
Twitter has been a mix of both [decline in relevance and quality], riding the technology wave for the first half of the decade, but by 2019 the /#discourse became not only, as they say, toxic, but intellectually bankrupt as well. Overrun with shallow moralizing and self-help gurus, there really isn’t much left on Twitter outside of the snark, but we’re all stuck there because it’s such a great networking tool.
I have a hunch that people who want to have more serious conversations will turn away from social media and toward slower and longer form media like blogs and podcasts. This blog is certainly an example of that. After more than one bad experience on Twitter last year I’ve more or less given it up and I can certainly say my mental health is better for it. As Saku says, though, the network effects are too good to pass up.
Something I do to try to have my cake and eat it too: I use another feature of Feedbin that lets me subscribe to individual Twitter feeds and, again, see updates in my feed along with blog and newsletter posts. I don’t see any replies, etc., and if there’s a linked article in a tweet it gets expanded so I see the full text. At the moment I have subscribed to only five people whose updates I find interesting and high signal to noise and I intend to keep that set pretty small. We’ll see if I dip my toe back in and tweet again this new year, but if I do I suspect it will be to broadcast new posts here and and engage with thoughtful commenters.
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