What sucks about blogging and how to fix it

Andrew Sullivan’s ending of his 15 years of blogging has sparked discussion about the health of blogging in 2015. I started blogging in 2004, pre-Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. A friend and I created a group blog about foreign and current affairs. It was an auspicious time for blogging and I made many contacts and friends through the blog. At its height, we would post a few times a day, and had a decent amount of traffic. But things changed.

A few years later “blog networks” became a thing — think of Nick Denton’s Gawker network. The only way to collect on the so-called “digital dimes” was to gather together under a banner, pool audiences and centralize advertising (This has been recently happening in podcasting too). Later, news organizations started to blog. Blogosphere centralization started to set in. Professionalism of the writing (theoretically) increased, but the real number of independent bloggers began to fall (again, see podcasting).

Then social media happened.

I find blogging now to be a wholly different beast. Kottke says it is dead. It certainly has changed, mainly in terms of engagement.

For example, the media critiques I have produced recently received a fair bit of feedback… but none in the comments. All the engagement happened on Twitter and Google+ (lest we forget, I don’t use Facebook). Referring to Ben Thompson’s Social/Communications map below, engagement has gone symmetric.

Social communications map by Ben Thompson

This is a shame. On my media pieces, a lot of the feedback I got contributed to what I wrote. Rather than having a one-on-one communication with me, if the feedback had been posted as a comment on the original post, everyone would have benefitted.

The main difference between blogging then and blogging now is the disintermediation of engagement.

When you distribute your work out onto various social channels to “where your readers are”, they engage with you on those channels. RSS wasn’t interactive. Blog comments used to be a watering hole where everyone coalesced for group discussion. In the age of social media, this is no longer.

Vox co-founder Ezra Klein notes points out:

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own.

“[B]logging is a conversation,” says Klein, “and conversations don’t go viral.” Yet he is bullish on blogging, and talks about how both Vox and Gawker are “bringing back blogging” in 2015. I certainly have tried to up my output and blog more since late last year, so I am doing my part.

Okay, so old school blogging is a different modality. That’s fine. In the age of social media, how do we incentive the conversationality (even at the expense of virality)?

Novel commenting systems like what Medium uses, where comments are annotations, might be a solution. Inline comments are by definition in context. This makes comments on the post more valuable than their social media equivalents.

Another approach that I haven’t seen would be some sort of clipping service. Imagine a bookmarklet allowing a blogger to instantly send a social media post to the related blog post, appending it to the comments section. The blogger can harvest symmetric feedback, curating and aggregating the best commentary to the relevant post for the benefit of everyone.

The best solution may just be culture. Fred Wilson has no problem getting feedback on his blog. The comments section there is very lively. Using Disqus and social sign in certainly lowers the barrier to commenting on the page. But having a core group of commenters to show someone the ropes certainly helps. Like many things, the solution might be social rather than technological. From now on, when I get good feedback on social media, I intend to personally encourage those people to comment on the relevant post, and contribute to building that culture around my own blog.

To blog in 2015 like we did in 2005 takes a bit of strategy and audience education. The blogosphere now has to compete with social media. This is just another evolution of a web-native medium, and a sign of its maturity. Different is not dead.

Breaking fast

This is a follow-up post to Information Fast where I pledged to constrain my information intake for the month of September in an experiment.

Let’s start with a brief after action report:

Fast results

I consumed no football, nor any of the punditry. I have no idea what is happening to Spurs or the Whitecaps. I didn’t scroll through Tumblr, Google+, Hacker News or the like. I posted to Twitter and G+ a few times as a broadcast medium (mainly links to my blog posts), and replied to mentions, but gave up my morning and evening catching-up of the stream. I was successful in my use of App.net and enjoyed it. I watched only three movies this month, two with my daughter. I watched four TV episodes (BrBa) which I just started this weekend. This could be a problem going forward…

Failures

I wasn’t able to stick to one non-fiction book. The reason is the book I picked up at the beginning of the month was an actual paper book. It is nearly a month later and I still haven’t broken the 100 page mark. It is far too difficult to get in the right context to read a paper book for me. Ebooks on the other hand can be read anywhere. It was one of the main reasons for getting a Galaxy S3: the size of the display is very comfortable to read on. I was able to blast through a few eBooks this month including The Information Diet and Startup Communities. All the while, my poor paper book languishes on the mantle.

A partial failure was podcasts. Although I limited myself to a single podcast, I did not listen to one episode. This was because there were no episodes that interested me (Star Trek and Journey?) or others that I want to check the source material first (Small Change, Doctor Who) I didn’t listen to one episode this month. I think this contributed to my consumption of non-fiction audiobooks (see my review of Future Tense).

Conclusion

Overall, this experiment was a success. I found myself with much more time to think, and even kindled in me a thirst for knowledge that I haven’t felt for a long time. Before, I was consuming much more information, but I was not synthesizing it into healthy knowledge. Basically: empty calories. By choosing carefully and thinking about what I consume, my brain muscle feels stronger after only a few weeks.

One thing that makes me happy is that my blog output has increased. I did not put out a ton of posts (mostly due to me spending time converting my blog to Octopress and redesigning my personal site), but later in the month I was able to write some substantial pieces. In all I wrote about 3800 words for the blog this month (including this post). That is a huge increase.

I did feel out of the loop concerning All Things Apple, especially since the launch of the iPhone 5. But it was actually refreshing. I have lived that life non-stop for five years. I think I can let other people take over for me now.

Next steps

So, the fast is over. Now to construct a healthy information diet. As mentioned above I am starting Breaking Bad finally, which means I will have to watch that I don’t fall back on passive consumption rather than reading at night again. I also have the new season of Doctor Who queuing up as I write this. I must be vigilant or my “attention fitness” will suffer.

As for taking Clay Johnson’s advice, I am considering a few things:

  1. Twitter: I quite enjoyed just using it just for broadcast, but I might try bringing reading back by only checking the Tweets of the people in my community. App.net I will continue with because I want to support it. Maybe someday my community members will move to it and I can drop Twitter altogether.
  2. News: I am going to experiment with local news sources. I am not sure what is available for Kelowna that is good, but I intend to find out. I will start up Intigi again in the near future, only because I found it helpful in surfacing news about space that I could not get without much trawling of RSS and Twitter.
  3. Podcasts: The Incomparable and You Look Nice Today for sure. I might consider listening to Critical Path again, since I don’t get a chance to read the blog, and I learn lots about business from Horace.
  4. Apple blogs: Nope.
  5. Books: Focusing on one at a time is much easier if they are eBooks. Lesson learned. Will continue with this.
  6. TV and Movies: Stick to my plan of BrBa and later Doctor Who. I might not have time for many movies which is okay.
  7. Meetups: More of this. Actually interacting with others is important for synthesizing ideas. I will probably post about this again.

Information Fast

The pledge:

For the month of September I pledge to limit my media consumption. This means no Twitter, Google+, Path, Tumblr, Hacker News, Popurls , Intigi or Zite. It means no Apple blogs. It means no football podcasts or watching MOTD. I am limiting myself to 1 of each of the following sources:

  • 1 Non-fiction book at a time
  • 1 Fiction book at a time
  • 1 Social network for interaction (App.net)
  • 1 Podcast per week (The Incomparable, approx. 1hr)
  • The occasional movie

My goal is to throttle my media consumption to:

  1. Find out what media sources are truly valuable to me; and
  2. Gain more time to think.

The result will hopefully be more blogging of original material.

@replies only

One caveat I reserve is to check mentions from social networks. I do not have comments on my blog and garner reactions from my posts on Twitter and Google+. I get notified when I am mentioned and I pledge to only check these mentions, and not to wander down the ratholes of other people’s conversations.

Time to think (revisited)

Harjj Taggar removed email from his iPhone. Some choice quotes:

Having time to think is precious to me and it’s also incredibly important if you want to achieve anything close to original thought. … Once I realized the power of this I went on to delete more than just email. Facebook, Twitter and Quora apps have all been removed (for me Twitter has been the one I’ve missed the most). It’s been the best decision I’ve made this year and would highly recommend it.

I was just talking about this with @scdaustin, telling him about my idea about having a social media free week. My concern was my lack of reading books. I spend all day reading Twitter, Google+, App.net, Tumblr, Popurls, Hacker News, Zite and Intigi… it isn’t like I am not reading anything. Furthermore, I had to up my Reading Challenge 2012 on Goodreads from 30 to 40 books. But it is all an illusion… most of my “reading” is done with audiobooks. For books you want to get really deep into and annotate, you need text.

Almost exactly four years ago I had a similar realization

I learned how to increase web consumption efficiency by using (hundreds of) RSS feeds. I turned my “downtime” into “productive” time by listening to lectures, audiobooks and podcasts while doing chores, commuting, etc. Everywhere I went I had my iPod plugged in. I thought I was learning when I was actually just consuming. I was so effective at packing each minute of each day full of articles and books that I squeezed out any quiet time just to sit and think.

How am I to come to terms with my overconsumption? Why… read another book of course! Check out Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet:

So, I think rather than simply auditing my social networks, I should pause them all for a bit and spend time thinking about my consumption habits so that I may recover more time to think.