The Golden Age of Blogging

I like the opening of Jonathan Sterne‘s first post back after summer vacation so much, I’m stealing it whole:

Jonathan Sterne: Greetings, loyal rss aggregators, assorted robots, and extremely dedicated readers. After a summer hiatus, this blog awakens refreshed. Sure, blogging is so passé that it’s cast as a quaint, dated practice in Julie and Julia, but that won’t stop me.

I’ve been hearing this more and more lately, but if both Julie and Julia are saying it, it must be true: Blogging is dead, alas, or at least not what it used to be. Bloggers are posting less, readers are clicking less, and nobody is getting undeservedly famous anymore. The Church of What’s Happening Now has moved on.

Mark Athitakis: I suspect that when somebody says that blogging had a “golden age,” the person means that there was a time (circa 2002) when it felt new and exciting, and the media wanted to do stories about it, and some people got a lot of attention really quickly (book deals! movie options!), and everybody got to have lively discussions and post pictures of puppies or argue about string theory, and it was a thrill because we all had a brand-new toy to play with and we knew who was reading us and we were finally, finally, getting some interesting e-mail.

To which I can only say, thank you for stopping by, zeitgeist. I was never any good at being ahead of the curve or, worse yet, of the moment. Go to your FaceTubes and TwitSpaces with my blessing, o shiny snackable media people. Behind the times is when this blog belongs.

If the Golden Age of Blogging is over, bring on the Silver Age: more apes, weirdness, and self-doubt. When I started blogging, on the first day of the 21st century, it seemed like a weird if not sordid habit. I have no real problem with it going back that way again. Blogging’s almost always been weird. Now it’s old and weird. Why do those two adjectives ring a bell?

Yes, OK, I’m on Twitter, and I can feel the lure of it. That’s where the party is this year, no doubt about that, but it’s the kind of party that feels more like work than hanging out to me. Maybe the reason “teens aren’t tweeting” is that it isn’t really all that fun? Twitter seems to be the inevitable evolution of the networking side of blogging. Content is shaved to a bare minimum, leaving only the imperative to tweet and be retweeted, work the room, work the room. It’s the Hobbesian waltz of the A-list, the wanna-bes, and the very long tail, laid bare.

Caleb Crain: The internet is inhospitable to quietness. … A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. … The internet is always saying, “Heyyy.” It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, “You know me,” in a collusive tone of voice, and “Wanna hear something funny?” and “Didja see who else is here?”

On the other hand: the telephone didn’t kill the telegraph, at least not for fifty years. In fact, the new medium became a vital feeder network for the old, the same way Twitter now channels people to blog posts and other long form articles. When television hit big in the 1950s, it didn’t kill the movies; it made them bigger and better, as Hollywood (re)discovered what they could do on the big screen that television couldn’t. A friend pointed out that the signal-to-noise ratio on LiveJournal, of all places, has gone way up since the “Which Wiggle Are You” quizzes and “25 Passive-Aggressive Things About Me” memes migrated to Facebook. (Mind you, “signal” in this instance refers to Twilight/Jonas Bros. slashfic and long pieces bashing Twitter.) What will blogs become when they no longer have to do double duty as resumes, book proposals, and online dating profiles?

Thank you, loyal aggregators, Googly spiders, and patient robots, for visiting this quiet, cobwebbed corner of the web. Stick around if you like. There is more to come.



Hide your puppies, there’s metablogging ahead. Writing that tribute to Digital History Hacks (call it data point no. 1) got me thinking, if I wasn’t already, about weblogs and their natural lifespans, about when and how they change or end, and about how you know when you are done. Oho, you say, could Rob be talking about his own increasingly cobwebby weblog? Very clever of you to spot it. But first, a few other data points:

Data point no. 2: I don’t think I can overstate how much I love the blog Snarkout–named for my favorite Daniel Pinkwater novel, and that just adds to its swelliness. I don’t even know the name of Snarkout’s author but he (I’m taking a wild guess) writes long, smart, link-lousy, digression-infested posts on just about everything under the sun. His posts start out about one thing, like how Isaac Asimov is “the boringest man ever to inspire a Japanese death cult,” then somehow wander off, like late-era Simpsons episodes, to work in the invention of the Pringles potato chip, then end up being about an insane CIA intelligence officer who insisted he was a galactic emperor and may have been the pseudonymous science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. That’s one post, you understand, and they’re all like that.

But here’s what really impresses a slow blogger like me: Snarkout’s most recent post, on the late “Thundarr the Barbarian” creator Steve Gerber (yes, he also wrote something about a duck), is dated December 30, 2008. His second-to-last post, on White Christmas, Bing Crosby in blackface, and the Little Ice Age of the 17th to 19th centuries, is dated December 25, 2007. And his third-to-last post, on the secret history of St. Nicholas, is dated December 24, 2006. The guy is posting annually. He’s like the Brigadoon of the blogiverse. This is not a blogger who obsesses about his StatCounter reports. And there’s no meta-post anywhere about how sorry he is for not blogging, or how busy he is with work and the kids, and oh woe is me its tough to be a blogger. Not even a slow blog manifesto. If you ever see this, mysterious Snarkout author, I want to buy you a beer.

Data point no. 3: So, I’ve been using various aspects of David Allen’s new age corporate to do list voodoo system Getting Things Done since about the time I started this weblog (yes I do see the irony, you are sharp today aren’t you?). I even posted about the Golden Age GTD back in November 2004. And like many nerds, I came to GTD through Merlin Mann’s often great weblog, 43 Folders. 43 Folders had only been around for a few months, I think, when it got sky-hooked by a bunch of links from Cory Doctorow into being the internet’s number one super-productivity blog. It was full of witty advice, a world of souped-up to do lists crossed with a geeky fetish for Moleskines and index cards, and centered by a sensitive yearning for mindfulness, creativity, and Zen.

But then 43 Folders kind of ballooned outward, and got all Web 2.0 in the hizzle with bells and whistles like a forum, a wiki, and about a dozen guest bloggers. And… it pretty much sucked. One blog post a week about personal productivity is one thing. At thirty or forty posts a week, even us products of the public school system realize we’re being had. That’s the power of the Dark Side: 43 Folders became part of the very distractosphere Merlin had gone to war against.

And then something interesting happened. Last summer, Merlin had some kind of epiphany, or breakdown, or David Allen revealing he was Merlin’s father then chopping off Merlin’s hand with a lightsaber kind of moment. And so Merlin tore down the temple, with a fairly brave and angry denunciation of the whole cottage industry in productivity porn he and the Hipster PDA had built. Then his blog lay fallow for months. Only now has he gingerly returned to the form, his website stripped down to basics and its content dedicated less to the treadmill of productivity and more to careful nurturing of the creative habit.

So? So I’m thinking about those data points because they offer at least three models for shaking things up that I can respect: Bill’s “be awesome for three years, then get out”; Snarkout’s “keep the quality up, let the quantity go to hell, and never apologize or even explain”; Merlin Mann’s “tear down the suck and rediscover why you’re doing it in the first place.”

This blog you’re reading has lurched along in fits and starts for years without apparent ill effect. But I’m unsatisfied with the time the blog is getting in my life. And I’m not predicting any major increases in my free time soon. (Quite the opposite, but that’s another post.) Also I must admit, the aftermath of my post-election day post, which got a lot of nice attention but some heroic point-missing too, eroded a little of my enthusiasm for this enterprise.

So as you see, I’m having those dangerous “why do we blog don’t get me started is it art just because we hang it on the wall?” thoughts. I’m not ready to pull the plug yet, not really. Some demented part of me still thinks the world needs to hear my thoughts on Seth Shulman’s Telephone Gambit or my ideas for increasing the number of robots in American history. So I’ll probably keep trucking along in the short term. But my life, and the blogiverse, have both changed so much since I started blogging (eight years ago!), that I feel like a change could be in the wind.


Digital History Hacks

I just sent the following off to Ralph Luker to add to Cliopatria‘s Hall of Fame for important history weblogs:

It seems like just yesterday I was toasting Bill Turkel’s Digital History Hacks for winning Cliopatria‘s Best New Blog Award. Now Bill is moving on from the blog to other things, and I have the sad task of bidding DHH adieu. Let’s see what I said back then:

William J. Turkel’s Digital History Hacks goes beyond new media platitudes and internet hype to demonstrate in word and deed what history in the twenty-first century will be all about. From the nuts and bolts of spidering and scraping to the loftiest questions about what historians do and why, Digital History Hacks points the way to a brave new world with infectious enthusiasm and blazing imagination.

All that proved to be true and more. Years from now, people are going to look back at Digital History Hacks and say “Something started here.” At least, I hope so. For three years, DHH offered a crash course in the history of the future. Bill’s three-year-old posts still seem three years ahead of their time. There’s still nothing else like DHH in the history blogosphere, which is a compliment to Bill but maybe also a bit of a shame. Sure, Bill has fans and followers now. (Not that he was ever interested in fans or followers–have you noticed that DHH has no comment function? how cool is that?) He’s tight with all the digital history illuminati, he’s released dozens of new history bloggers into the world, and it’s he, not I, that anchors the northern end of the UWO-GMU Axis of Digital Evil. But there’s still nobody I can think of that thinks quite as creatively or as provocatively as Bill does about what digital history is and what it might become.

I can’t list all the things I’ve learned or all the ideas I’ve stolen from Digital History Hacks, but one meta-idea which Bill taught me is that the loftiest questions about what we do are not separate from the nuts and bolts of how we do it. As above, so below: lofty philosophical issues are practical technical questions and vice versa. Change the tools available to the humanities and you have the opportunity to rethink what the humanities are. That’s what Bill’s been doing for the past three years and that’s what he continues to do.

I’m sorry to see Bill put DHH to bed, but I’m lucky enough to be privy to some of the cool new stuff he’s doing, and I promise you will see and hear more amazing things from him before too long. In the meantime, explore the archives of DHH or try working through the exercises in The Programming Historian, Bill and Alan Maceachern’s in-progress, open-source textbook on How It Is Done.

Bill sometimes says there’s more to being a musician than posing with a guitar. What he means, I think, is that there is or can be more to being a “digital historian” than having a Blogspot account and an opinion about Wikipedia. When Bill launched The Programming Historian, Mills Kelly (no slouch as a digital historian himself) wrote, “with its release, my excuses [for not learning to program] go poof.” Digital History Hacks made a lot of our excuses go poof. If we want to be part of making our profession’s future, it’s high time to stop talking and roll up our sleeves.