Blogging has been declining. I don’t have much evidence, aside from Google trends, but it’s fairly obvious from personal experience. For example, atheist blogs used to be a huge cultural force, with big celebrities and countless indie blogs, and now it’s sort of a backwater with a few networks of marginal relevance, and a mostly dead indie space. And no other blogosphere has replaced what atheist blogging once was.
Maybe his just has to do with my personal circles? As a reality check I tried looking up the question. I learned, according to Google, that blogging is bigger than ever, and is still a great way to make money by advertising your product! Okay, so I should specify that I’m not interested in all blogs, because marketing blogs can go die in a fire. I’m talking about personal blogs, and more specifically essay blogs. Essay blogs are declining, that’s what I meant.
Essays aren’t dead though, because it is now popular to present essays in video format. The video essay is a booming genre, and I for one think it’s great, for the same reason essay blogs are great. But there are also some significant differences.
What makes blogs—and video essays—great?
More than any other form of social media, blogs encourage—or at least enable—thoughtful and effortful engagement with ideas. Much of this has to do with what I’ve called content granularity—the “size” of each chunk of content is fairly large. Compare to forums, which tend to fill with idle chatter; Twitter, whose tiny bite-sized content is the point; Tumblr, whose reblogging system drags content granularity down; Reddit, which focuses more on community contributions rather than dedicated individuals.
Video essays also come in large chunks, and often larger than blogs ever did. Popular video essayists tend to update once a month with videos nearing an hour in length. And many of those essayists treat it like a full time job, with a team backing them up. A lot of labor goes towards production and editing, but if they’re putting that much effort in they ought to also be spending time on research and writing. Obviously not every video essay is going to be great, but there are quite a lot which are very high quality.
So that’s why I love video essays. They don’t just offer the same deep engagement that I’ve always appreciated in blogs, they frequently beat blogs at their own game. But there are definitely other major differences between the formats.
By far the most significant difference between blogs and video essays, is that video essays make a lot more money. Some bloggers, I’m sure, make enough money to make a living, and most video essayists are not popular enough to make any significant amount of money. But from the perspective of a follower, it’s likely that many of the video essayists you watch are making money, but most of the bloggers you read are not. Many of the video essayists I follow have quit their day jobs, or have hired additional people to help.
There are definitely some advantages to this situation. The hobbyist nature of blogging makes it most attractive to financially stable people with a lot of spare time. In contrast, the potential profitability of video essays makes it more attractive to people who are in greater need of money. At the same time, producing videos is very labor intensive and extremely risky as an investment, so it’s generally not attractive to people who have better sources of income available. What I’m trying to say is that the money factor means that video essayists may come from a broader range of perspectives. I mean, we’re talking about essays, so we’re still going to get a lot of overeducated geeks. But I find it interesting how many popular video essayists have backgrounds with a lot of education as well as financial troubles.
Of course, there’s a dark side as well. For every successful YouTuber, there are surely countless others with ambitions but no such luck; video essays are built upon the backs of their broken dreams. It constrains essayists to talking about things that won’t chase away their audience, or demonetize their videos. And as jobs go, making videos for YouTube sounds like a shitty one.
Among the blogs I follow, WordPress tends to be most popular, but there are definitely some oddballs, as well as blog-like platforms such as Tumblr, Pillowfort, or Medium. It’s difficult for a single platform to truly dominate, because there’s little barrier to following blogs spread across multiple platforms.
In contrast, YouTubers can’t get away from YouTube. I’m aware of competing services like Nebula, Twitch, and TikTok, but YouTube drives the views. This is obviously bad, as video essayists are beholden to a corporate monopoly, and must occupy themselves with the idiosyncracies of the YouTube recommendation algorithm, content guidelines, and comment system.
Of course, YouTube does come with the advantage of at least having a recommendation algorithm. Blogs are immensely difficult to build audiences for, requiring long term presence, and the accumulation of countless Google searches and words of mouth. Most blogs die fairly quickly, as bloggers learn how arduous it is to build something more than a ghost town.
One of the properties of blogging as a format is the separation between writer and reader. If we want effortful content, someone needs to make the effort, and we hold those people accountable by choosing to follow or ignore them, and through comment sections. But the writer/reader hierarchy is frankly bad. It generates a certain kind of elitism, where we hold up the views of a few writers as especially important, when they aren’t, actually? And then there are weird fights where people align themselves for or against this or that popular blogger, as blogger personalities clash.
I feel like video essays have it worse. For one thing, you can often see essayist’s faces, and hear their voices, making personalities more front and center than ever before. And though YouTube videos have comment sections, they have a poor reputation and simply aren’t that impactful. YouTube also has publicly viewable metrics, such as view counts, like/dislike ratios, and subscriber counts, which makes the hierarchy of YouTube channels rather more transparent than is healthy. It also encourages those bizarre dick-measuring contests where people compare the relative popularity of YouTube channels they follow.
Why was atheism so big in essay blogging in the 00s, and why is media analysis so big in video essays today? To some extent, the video format is more amenable to media analysis than text is. But I think this is largely a historical accident. Blogs were popular in the 00s, and so was new atheism. Media analysis is popular today, and so are video essays. If essay blogging were to come back into style, and have a second wave, a different set of topics would hog the attention today. If video essays are still popular in a decade, they may no longer be focused on media analysis.
I’ve already said that YouTube video essays have even larger chunks of content than blogs do, but let’s think through the implications. First off, video essayists have a harder time fitting in smaller bites, which are needed for announcements, corrections, responses, or just additional chatter. So video essayists often resort to supplementary means of delivery, such as Twitter, or YouTube comments.
Another consequence is the lack of timeliness. Retrospective analyses abound, but covering ongoing events is quite difficult unless an essayist has relatively fast turnover.
Most significantly, it makes drama difficult. Drama typically occurs in the faster media like Twitter, Reddit, or Discord, and then the later videos often feel like aftermath. Obviously you can never entirely avoid drama, but as someone who mostly just watches the videos, I greatly appreciate the ability to turn down the volume.
What do you think, fellow blog fans? Do you also like video essays? What differences between blogs and video essays seem significant to you?
Lassi Hippeläinen says
Writing fluently in a foreign language isn’t hard to learn, but video essays rule out 90% of non-native speakers.