Are Blogs Dying?

Mark Tracy delivers a premature eulogy for the blog at the New Republic. He takes as his starting point the move by the New York Times to reevaluate all of the blogs they’ve hosted on their site and to shut some of them down (not Nate Silver’s 538, though; it reportedly gets a huge percentage of their hits).

How did we get here? The trajectory of any of the bloggers Smith mentions would work, but let’s take Andrew Sullivan. In the 1990s, he was fully ensconced in print institutions (among other things, he edited The New Republic). When he started a blog, it was on his own—other than a small handful of strange, Web-only creatures, in 2001, what magazine wanted a blog? By 2005, the answer to that question had changed, allowing Sullivan to ensconce his blog in larger institutions—Time, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast, in chronological order. This was the golden age of the personal blog: The Internet had empowered a few strong writers to create their own brand (if you were idiosyncratic—say, if you were gay, English, Catholic, and heretically conservative—then all the better) and a few strong big brands to create their own small brands (Media Decoder was launched in 2009, and finds its roots in TV Decoder, a blog that was started when the Times poached writer Brian Stelter, who like Sullivan, Klein, et. al had built a following on the Internet as a personal brand). Meanwhile, readers interested in reading the best that had been thought and said on the Internet had no choice except to follow along—the best they could do was to use RSS to focus on the feeds they tended to find interesting.

But today, Google Reader is dying, Media Decoder is dead, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish is alive in new form. This year, Sullivan decided that he was a big enough brand, commanding enough attention and traffic, to strike out on his own. At the beginning of the last decade, the institutions didn’t need him. Today, he feels his best chance for survival is by becoming one of the institutions, complete with a staff and a variety of content. What wasn’t going to work was continuing to have, merely, a blog.

We will still have blogs, of course, if only because the word is flexible enough to encompass a very wide range of publishing platforms: Basically, anything that contains a scrollable stream of posts is a “blog.” What we are losing is the personal blog and the themed blog. Less and less do readers have the patience for a certain writer or even certain subject matter.

Sullivan, who more than anyone else has established and redefined what a blog is, replies:

My own view is that one particular form of journalism is actually dying because of this technological shift – and it’s magazines, not blogs. When every page in a magazine can be detached from the others, when readers rarely absorb a coherent assemblage of writers in a bound paper publication, but pick and choose whom to read online where individual stories and posts overwhelm any single collective form of content, the magazine as we have long known it is effectively over.

Without paper and staples, it doesn’t fall apart so much as explodes into many pieces hurtling into the broader web. Where these pieces come from doesn’t matter much to the reader. So what’s taking the place of magazines are blog-hubs or group-blogs with more links, bigger and bigger ambitions and lower costs.

That seems to describe Freethought Blogs pretty well, doesn’t it? Of course, when I started the network I didn’t really give any thought to the future of blogging. I just wanted a place where I wouldn’t be censored by National Geographic, which took over Science Blogs, and where we could build a community of like-minded people working to further the goals of freethought, secularism and social justice.

The truth is, this whole blogging thing was a big accident for me. I only started my blog because my girlfriend at the time was, I think, tired of me ranting to her about the issues that get me fired up and suggested that I rant at other people instead. I chose the name because I had earlier written a monthly column in a small magazine published in Ann Arbor under that same name. And I never imagined — hell, I didn’t even think to imagine — that it would ever turn into this.

8 comments on this post.
  1. rorschach:

    I think what might be dying is the startup top-100 blog. It’s simply too late now to find a niche big enough to be of any relevance, barring an extraordinary networking effort and publishing of at least 5 posts a day. There will still be blogs, because as you say, rather than blathering on to their friends and family people decide to bore the public, but you can only have so many cooking, atheism, alt-med or politics blogs with any relevance. People’s time to read all this is limited, after all.

    So while I don’t think that the blog as a form of expression is dying anytime soon, being of any relevance as a blogger may become harder and harder to achieve.

  2. Ben P:

    So while I don’t think that the blog as a form of expression is dying anytime soon, being of any relevance as a blogger may become harder and harder to achieve.

    I think this is partially correct.

    What’s going on now and what I think will continue in the future is most “casual blogs” so to speak will be merged onto larger platforms rather than stand-alone platforms, whether that be blog-netwoks like this, facebook, twitter, etc.

    I think you’re correct that there’ll be a fairly limited scope of big network blogs, but I think we’ll also see, for lack of a better word, reddit-ization of news sources. Take the boston bombings for example. A few of the early sources were true professionals, but what happened is that people with cell phone pictures took them, published them individually, then they were picked up by broader sources.

  3. Erik:

    This also seems largely focused on political and culture-related blogs, the contents of which often become stale in no more than a couple weeks–often no more than 24 hours. Tech blogs, and especially programming blogs, still definitely have a role in the future. Although only a handful of superstar developers are going to gain regular followers, anyone can write a blog post about a useful trick or clever hacks they discovered. And if it’s useful to somebody and has the right keywords it WILL show up in Google searches and garner page hits, and also just be genuinely useful. There are also sites dedicated to aggregating the best content from programming blogs, and sites like Hacker News and (ugh) reddit can also act as powerful signal boosters.

  4. rorschach:

    And if it’s useful to somebody and has the right keywords it WILL show up in Google searches and garner page hits, and also just be genuinely useful.

    Very true. For example, any post I do on my struggle with a particular kind of hardware and how to get it to run in Linux will generally get more pageviews that any of my posts on say atheism or medicine. But that’s because as I said above, all those niches are already taken up. If you didn’t get your foot in the door by 2005, or at least 2008, as a blogger, you’ve missed your chance at fame.

  5. D. C. Sessions:

    A challenge to anyone proclaiming the end of personal blogs:

    Explain Ana White.

  6. Nemo:

    Obviously blogs aren’t the Hot New Thing anymore, but I don’t see them going anywhere. People who think Facebook and Twitter are replacements for blogs and RSS are out of their minds, not to mention they’re putting all their eggs (and privacy) into two corporate baskets. And I don’t know quite why Google is discontinuing Reader, but I suspect it’s mostly a misguided attempt to push people towards Plus.

  7. caseloweraz:

    Did you mean Ana White, the Alaskan homemaker who blogs on DIY furniture? She blogs at http://ana-white.com/ .

  8. jnorris:

    I haven’t seen any blogs dying, well, except that time a bit past when you changed the colors of your logo.

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