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The Future of Weblogging in the Medium Run: The Honest Broker for the Week of March 8, 2015

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Glaukon: So: Blogging...

Sokrates: Indeed...

Hypatia: I would like to start by offering the floor to the Great and Good Felix Salmon:

Felix Salmon: To All the Young Journalists Asking for Advice...: I’m also very flattered by the lovely things you said... about how you’d love to have a career in journalism... do[ing] the kind of thing... I do. You won’t.... By the time you’re my age... you’ll... be doing something... nobody today... foresee[s]....The obstacles facing you are much greater than anything I managed to overcome.... The exact same forces which are good for journalism and good for owners are the forces which are bad for journalists....

I’m the happy recipient of a combination of luck and privilege... a long time paying my dues... very dry publications.... a decade learning about the real-world bond markets from the people who actually ran them.... When I found myself blogging the credit crisis, all that education paid off in spades. And the fact that I found myself blogging at all was itself an act of luck: I pretty much just happened to be in the right place at the right time... when the blogosphere was basically happy hour at The Magician....

There’s no particular reason to believe that the best route to success is to first get your foot in the door churning out listicles, and then somehow work your way up the ranks. That might have worked for a few early BuzzFeed employees, but they, too, were lucky.... There’s no particular reason to believe that the advice I’d give five or six years ago, which was basically ‘start a blog and get discovered’, still works. With the death of RSS, blogs are quaint artifacts at this point, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a really good new one...

Hypatia: What is going on here?

Thrasymakhos: Two things are going on. First, the media bosses--capital--do not like weblogs precisely because weblogs are voices. Hence the bosses are interested in ironing out voices so when the voice moves on they can keep the traffic: Nick Denton establishes not Ana Marie Cox's Wonkette but rather Wonkette. Marcus Brauchli establishes not Ezra Klein's Weblog Table but rather Wonkblog. The idea of finding your voice, building an audience by developing a reputation as an effective and trusted (and amusing) information intermediary so that then you have valuable links with that audience that you can monetize in some way is anathema to the bosses who need to make money...

Sokrates: Let's postpone that topic for a few minutes. Thrasymakhos: your second?

Thrasymakhos: I was just getting wound up! I have actually forgotten my second!

Omar Khayyam: Surely it was the Great Fragmented Specialization?

Glaukon: Ah yes! The Great Fragmented Specialization! Paging the extremely sharp Jason Kottke!

Jason Kottke: The Blog Is Dead: Long Live the Blog!: Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium…. Companies are building mobile apps, Newsstand magazines on iOS, and things like The Verge…. The blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work. If you want something to cry about, cry about the decline of the open web.... I (obviously) think there's a lot of value in the blog format... but... it's difficult to ignore the blog's diminished place…. I still read lots of blog posts... only when they... pop up on the collective radar of those I follow...

Thrasymakhos: I would point out that the decline of the open web is also in large part due to the fact that the bosses don't want an open web: a sharing information ecostructure with lots of outlinks doesn't keep the eyeballs on the site where they can be sold to advertisers. Media bosses not only want to keep their employees from developing portable reputations as effective and trusted (and amusing) information intermediaries, they also want to keep their webpages from reminding their readers from learning about E&T&AII outside their site...

Sokrates: Enough!! We will get to that later. The Great Fragmented Specialization! Mr. Thompson?

Ben Thompson: The Multitudes of Social: In the last two days I have used 10 apps you might characterize as “social”…. Twitter, for keeping up on news and commenting on tech and stratechery. Facebook, for posting personal status updates and checking in. LINE, for text messaging with my wife and friends in Taiwan. Snapchat, for exchanging photos with my wife. Skype, for instant messaging with my colleagues. Facetime, for talking with my wife and kids. Instagram, for posting cool photos. Email, for all types of content, both work and personal. Photostream, for sharing photos with my family. WordPress, for posting to this blog.... Apps: each of them has their own place. Some... for... friends-and-family, others for a[n] audience centered around my interests. Some... meaningful and permanent, others ephemeral.... Some... public... others... private. Some... photo-centric, others... text.... Hardly any overlap at all—and none with Facebook…

Hypatia: But this means that the conversation fragments, and individual voices vanish into the din. Isn't that a major loss?

Sokrates: Indeed it is, and that is why Mr. Thompson believes that in the end the weblog will endure in spite of its defects:

Ben Thompson: Blogging's Bright Future: The entire history of social media… is a story of unbundling the old-school blog. Twitter has replaced link-posts and comments, Instagram has replaced pictures, and Facebook has replaced albums and blogrolls; now Medium is seeking to replace the essay. None of this is a bad thing… the ease-of-use… characteristic of any service that seeks to focus on one particularly aspect of communication, a big contrast to a blog’s ability to do anything and everything relatively poorly...

Hypatia: But it is a bad thing! The conversation loses nuance, voice, context, and depth. In fact, it ceases to be a conversation--just a lot of stand-alone nuggets. That is not a well-functioning public sphere...

Thrasymakhos: But capitalism does not value a well-functioning public sphere. Capitalism values easily-replaceable labor in which media bosses have had to make only very small investments in human-specific firm capital. Capitalism values not intellectual engagement and thoughtful ideas but rather linkbait and eyeballs sold to advertisers...

Sokrates: Enough!

Glaukon: Perhaps we could let Mr. Thompson continue?

Ben Thompson: Blogging's Bright Future: It’s fair to ask just what a blog is good for anyway…. Despite the great unbundling, the blog has not and will not die… to say someone follows a blog is to say someone follows a person…. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that more and more consumers are coming to grips with the reality of online media: when everything is free, you too often end up getting exactly what you paid for. If you consider the time wasted reading clickbait, a few bucks a month for content you trust isn’t such a bad deal. Forgive me if this article read a bit too much like an advertisement for Stratechery…. I believe that [Andrew] Sullivan’s The Daily Dish will in the long run be remembered not as the last of a dying breed but as the pioneer of a new, sustainable journalism that strikes an essential balance to the corporate-backed advertising-based “scale” businesses that [Ezra] Klein... is pursuing…

Aristokles: Hold it: Andrew Sullivan? Ezra Klein? Who are these people?

Andrew Sullivan: A Note To My Readers: I’ve decided to stop blogging…. I’ve now been blogging daily for fifteen years straight (well kinda straight). That’s long enough…. I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again…. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book. I want to spend some real time with my parents, while I still have them, with my husband, who is too often a ‘blog-widow’, my sister and brother, my niece and nephews, and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither because I’m always tied to the blog. And I want to stay healthy…

Ben Smith: My Life in the Blogosphere: I first really understood the secret power of the early 2000s political blogosphere in February 2005, when Josh Marshall was hot in pursuit of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay…. Josh [Marshall] really changed the politics of the mid-2000s with his intensely focused, crowdsourced, narrative-building single-minded crusades--the U.S. attorney scandal was the third--Andrew [Sullivan] was more esoteric, building long, iterative cases over time for everything from the distant dream of marriage equality to the beauty of bearded men and the real nature of Catholicism. He was a wonderful assignment editor... that question--what would interest Andrew?--was always a bit in my mind…. First, Josh Marshall made a rational decision that... ultimately undercut... [his] influence... building his own aggregation, and then reporting, operations, linking first to their own back page, capturing the audience, and sending a trickle rather than a flood of traffic to the aggregate...

Thrasymakhos: See? 'I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But... individuals... are... embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests... relations whose creature[s] they socially remain...' Josh Marshall had to make his nut, and that was inconsistent with the open blogosphere, and it will be inconsistent with the open web...

Sokrates: Sigh...

Ben Smith: Andrew Sullivan was one of the few who rejected the choice between being an influential portal and a more contained media company, staffing up in a modest way, linking out, and participating meaningfully in the national conversation…. Few blogs drive the traffic they once did, and reporters hope their stories will be widely tweeted, rather than linked…. Some bloggers have suffered from the same nostalgic attachment to WordPress that newspaper editors did to their printing presses. I share a lot of that nostalgia…. Here at BuzzFeed and at BuzzFeed News, we also try not to weep for the old blogosphere, and most (though by no means all) of our top editors have roots in it…

Kevin Drum: Blogging Isn't Dead. But Old-School Blogging Is Definitely Dying: Professional blogs prefer to link to their own content, rather than other people's. Josh Marshall's TPM, for example, links almost exclusively to its own content, because that's the best way to promote their own stuff. There's nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect sense. But it's definitely a conversation killer…. Most conversation now seems to have moved to Twitter… even more democratizing… often too fast, and when you combine that with its 140-character limit, you end up with a lot of shrill and indignant replies…. I miss old-school blogging and the conversations it started. But I also recognize that what I'm saying about Twitter is very much what traditional print journalists said about blogging back in the day…. As with everything, it's a tradeoff.... The world moves on...

Omar Khayyam: It seems to me that Kevin has lost track of the end. The end is to have a vibrant, democratic, and informative public sphere. If a thoughtful blogosphere degenerates into tidal waves of llama tweets intermixed with twitterrage spasms, a great deal has been lost...

Hypatia: That Sullivan could not make it work--could not find a way to keep his network entity going into the future--is a point for Felix Salmon's institutional pessimism about the future, I think...

Sokrates: But some of those who have benefitted most from the new social media internet ecology are trying somehow to push back--to restore voice, conversations, depth, and a situation in which one does indeed have the highest incentive to become an effective and trustworthy (and amusing) information intermediary:

Ezra Klein: What Andrew Sullivan's exit says about the future of blogging: Andrew Sullivan is leaving blogging. Crap. Sullivan--alongside Josh Marshall--basically invented the political blogosphere.... Blogging isn't dead. I know, because I read a lot of blogs these days, and they're fantastic…. Daring Fireball, Slate Star Codex, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Freddie DeBoer, Noahpinion, Marginal Revolution, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig, Paul Krugman, Digby's Hullabaloo, Jared Bernstein, Brad DeLong, The Incidental Economist, and Kevin Drum, to name a few…. The blogosphere lives…. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale…. social traffic… Facebook…. Blogging is a conversation, and conversations don't go viral….

As an editor, I miss blogging, too. Early in Vox's life, we made a halfhearted effort at launching some. There was my Blag. Matt's Live Journal. Dylan's Xanga. As the names suggest, the experiment was drenched in nostalgia. But they weren't really blogs and, for a variety of reasons, they didn't really succeed. And I don't really think the other efforts to bring blogs back to large organizations will succeed either. I don't think blogs--at least in the 2005-era sense of the word, the conversational blogs Sullivan was the protector of--work in these large organizations. And I think this is a problem, or at least a manifestation of a problem…. At Vox, we have some cool ideas that we're going to roll out in the coming months to try to chip away at this problem, but I don't think we're anywhere near a solution.

Glaukon: But there are young whippersnappers on the make who say that weblogging does too work these days:

Noah Smith: Blogging After Andrew Sullivan: What is dying is the idea of the blog as a news source…. Twitter has basically killed that…. With blogs, you can do something that news can’t easily do -- you can carry on a conversation. Reading modern blogs, you see that back-and-forth dialogs are now a huge part of what bloggers do…. What this means is that more and more, bloggers will be specialists…. The trend toward longer blog posts and more specialization doesn’t mean that bloggers will  talk only about their fields of expertise. I’ve written posts about clinical depression, about the racial politics of the movie "Django Unchained,"  and about stereotypes of Japanese culture…. Blogging 2.0 will be more focused on longer posts, high-level discussions and specialized expertise, while retaining the focus on distinctive voice and free-wheeling subject matter that made Blogging 1.0 so fun. It’s a great time to have a blog.

Thrasymakhos: Noah Smith is an academic--U. Mich. Ph.D., tenure-track appointment at SUNY-Stoneybrook...

Glaukon: There are more:

Paul Krugman: Floor Waxes, Dessert Toppings, and Blogging: Ezra Klein… and others are offering various encomiums. You’ll pardon me.... I remember [Andrew] Sullivan declaring that the “decadent left” was poised to become a fifth column in the war on terror--and of course I remember the campaign of character assassination he waged against yours truly for daring to criticize his then-beloved George W. Bush and his wars.... What was interesting in Ezra’s piece was the suggestion that a golden age of blogging... has passed. That seems... incomplete…. One one side... you’re missing a crucial part… if you fail to acknowledge the importance… of right-wing warbloggers… where Sullivan started… cheering on the Rumsfeld doctrine and giving it to lily-livered liberals…. On the other side… there’s still plenty of room for independent bloggers who bring real expertise to bear….

Ezra suggests that social media have undermined the original version of blogging, in which a blog was a personal conversation between the blogger and his or her audience; now pieces have to be stand-alones…. But... it seems to me that there’s less conflict involved than Ezra suggests…. You can, with effort, maintain a blogging style that makes regular readers feel that they’re part of an ongoing conversation yet makes individual posts meaningful to people who aren’t reading everything you write… a floor wax and a dessert topping, if you work at it…

Thrasymakhos: Paul Krugman is not only an academic, but a tenured academic, with a large medal from Sweden and a perch at http://nytimes.com as well. His viewpoint is a rarified one...

Hypatia: Do you think he doesn't know?

Paul Krugman: Now, econ bloggers may be something of a special case. All of us have day jobs; for all of us the payoff to blogging is somewhat hard to pin down, although having a blog that a lot of people in finance and government read has a very real impact on which doors open when you knock. But I don’t think the lesson is unique to any one field…. Think of this as a conversation with a few people I like and respect. There are lots of ways to do this thing well, but stuffiness and pretentiousness won’t fit into any of them...

Thrasymakhos: Again, that is very easy for him to say...

Hypatia: It could well be that thoughtful weblogging by those who want to become effective and trusted information intermediaries shrinks down to a core of tenured professors and others with independent incomes, while working journalists alternately compile listicles in the hope that one will become viral or go the extra mile to accommodate the quirks and bigotries of Rupert Murdoch...

Thrasymakhos: Or the financial interests of the oil-and-gas lobby...

Glaukon: If only there were some way to make weblogging not just full of voice and trust, but also social, so that maintaining a voice, being generous with outlinks, and earning a living were not incompatible...

Sokrates: That, I think, is my cue to turn it over to the team of Ev Williams, founder of Blogger, of Twitter, and now of Medium:

Michael Sippey: Blogging on Medium: tl;dr: you can’t do it today. and i think you should be able to. Hi. My name is Michael, and I’m a blogger…. I’ve been trying to blog on Medium the past couple of months in Stating the Obvious. And while I’ve loved writing the weekly filtered pieces, it really hasn’t felt like blogging…. The fundamental unit of the blog is the stream…. I’m building a corpus of standalone stories, there’s no way to read them together and have that stream tell a story. So we started to brainstorm a bit about what blogging on Medium would look like, and how we could support both #longform and #shortform in one platform…. We started at the simplest place: the user profile…

Ev Williams: A Less Long, More Connected Medium: I love a professionally reported 17-minute article about an important and surprising topic. Or a 10-minute technical mystery by a professional designer. And who doesn’t enjoy a 91-minute interview between a media entrepreneur and a journalist? High-production value, lengthy stories are what Medium is best known for. And I’m glad we’ve provided a home to so many great ones. It was always our intention to create a platform that provides a superior creation and reading experience for meaty stuff…. It was not our intention, however, to create a platform just for “long-form” content or where people feel intimidated to publish if they’re not a professional writer or a famous person (something we’ve heard many times)…. That’s why, today, we’re making some pretty big changes…. Inline Editor: We wanted to make it easier to start writing whenever you have an idea — and also to make it feel like less of a big deal to do so…. The Stream: To complement the inline editor and make reading a more seamless experience, we redesigned post listings. Now you can start reading a post and get a better sense of what it’s about without having to click through…. Tags: Lastly, we’re introducing tags to help posts written by anyone be more easily connected and discovered…

Thrasymakhos: So what incentive will people have to spend time on Medium?

Sokrates: The same incentive people have to spend time editing Wikipedia...

Hypatia: So the idea is to combine the increasing-returns social features of Twitter with the voice-creation features of blogger and have a truly social weblogging platform in which the twenty-first century public sphere can flourish?

Sokrates: Perhaps...

Glaukon: How is it going?

Robison Meyer: What Blogging Has Become: For a couple years now, it was clear we were going to lose the reverse-chron, single-URL game…. But in return, we got Twitter and Facebook and whatever your other favorite social-media tool is…. The startups of the mid-Aughts figured out how to take the best parts of blogging and bring them together in one place, while cutting the parts that had made them so hard…. There have been side effects to corporate online consolidation…. In this future, what publications will have done… is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry….

Into that ecosystem enters the New Medium…. Ev Williams explains the changes by saying the company has become known for longer and well-produced stories and that, while that’s nice, it really wants to be a home for all kinds of writing — long, short, and, um, middle-length. That makes sense, but I think that’s the MacGuffin…. Collections… have been… rechristened Publications. And user profiles just look bloggier…. Medium feels more like a social network… a design-y Tumblr for people with startups….

Medium’s new product bets that there’s some juice left in the old voice-driven web. It’s a testament to how much the Internet has changed that I can’t tell if that’s a solid tactic or middle-aged nostalgia…. We still care about that old writer-driven web, though, and Medium seems to talk the same talk, so we keep coming back to it…

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