The “death” of blogging

The title is not meant literally, guys. It comes wrapped up in British irony. But I did write this piece in the current issue of The Economist about the topic.

I don’t usually use this book blog to point to my (day-job) articles. But I did get a few responses after the deadline from interesting people I tried to interview for this story. So, why not include their views here?

The tongue-in-cheek thesis of my little article is that

Blogging has entered the mainstream, which—as with every new medium in history—looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death …

Blogging, in fact, may “die” as PDAs have died–by becoming invisible and ubiquitous, as a feature in almost every mobile phone today.

Evan Williams

Evan Williams

Here, now, is what Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger and now boss of Twitter, emailed me on the subject (excerpts). There is confusion, he says, between two things:

1) There’s also now a commercial blogging world. Commercial blogs do not get most of the traffic (in aggregate), but they’re what a lot of people think of when you say “blog.” But the commercial blogosphere and personal blogosphere are really different worlds. Obviously they overlap, but the motivations and activity of one does not reflect that of the other. Gawker’s cost cutting has nothing to do with Cheri Block Sabraw‘s desire to write things for teachers.

2) There are now more casual ways to scratch the same itch that blogging has done for many people. I.e., Facebook, Twitter, and a slew of other social software alternatives. This is definitely effecting the personal blogging world. It has effected my personal blogging — and that of many people I know. Twitter is now my go-to place to share a thought or a link. I still blog on occasion when I have something I can’t squeeze into 140 characters, but that’s rare, and for many people Twitter (or something else) will suffice nicely on its own. However, does that mean they’re not blogging? We’ve never labeled Twitter a “micro-blogging” service, but that’s certainly one of the primary use cases.

This gets to your point of being nowhere and everywhere, I suppose. There are tons of active blogs on MySpace and on Facebook (even though they call them “Notes”). Maybe these are just the new blogging platforms (among other things). I suppose it is PDA-like that blogs are being subsumed into social networks, like PDAs got subsumed into smartphones.

But PDAs went away as stand-alone devices, because there came a point where they held zero advantage over a smartphone. With stand-alone blogs, that may be true for the most casual users, but not for millions of otheres. There are still many advantages to a stand-alone blog: Your own brand, domain, design, etc. Creating a meaningful, independent voice on web, on which can be launched a movement, a brand, a career, or simply a good story, is best done with a stand-alone blog.


Charlene Li

Charlene Li

I also pinged Charlene Li, who is perhaps the best social-media analyst out there, formerly at Forrester, now at Altimeter Group.

If you think about blogging as a specific content publishing tool and formatting of content, then yes, it is being usurped by businesses and traditional media companies. In fact, traditional online content management systems and collaboration suites like Sharepoint are integrating blogging into their platforms.

But if you think of blogging as a “mindset”, then it’s not only healthy, but growing by leaps and bounds. In this way, I distinguish between a corporate blog that does nothing more than publish their press releases (but has not comments) and a blog written from a personal perspective but clearly associated and benefiting a company. Likewise, there are Twitter feeds from companies that are just RSS feeds, while @comcastcares is a genuine person at Comcast who is establishing a relationship with other Twitterers.

In the end, blogging grew because people used it as a way to connect with people and develop relationships. If it *evolves* into new formats, then it’s staying healthy, rather than stagnating.

Chris Alden

And I pinged Chris Alden, the CEO of Six Apart (WordPress’s biggest rival). Excerpts from his reply:

While the hypothesis that blogging is past its prime may be provocative,
it’s not supported by the facts. Our products continue to grow across
the board — we’ve seen more demand for blogging than ever before — and
I believe our competitors are growing too.

It may be that blog “hype” has passed its prime, as blogging has
followed the typical hype cycle and is now in the enlightenment phase
according to Gartner, but that is usually when the real growth actually

We are seeing an explosion of ways in which people and corporations are
using blogs, both for internal and external purposes, and individual
blogging, alive and well, is also evolving. Publishers, businesses, and
individuals now look to blog software and service to run much more of
their web site, in some cases using MT for their entire web CMS
platform, and integrate blogging and social media in a more profound

It is of course true that newer services like Twitter have captured the
time and attention of many bloggers, and some have slowed their
traditional blogging in favor of communicating with friends through
tweets, not blog posts. But we view these as complimentary, not
competing, trends. More often than not, Twitter works in conjunction
with blogs, and many bloggers use Twitter as a new form of RSS — a way
to alert friends that there is a new blogs post. Very often Tweets refer
to blog posts, and vice versa.

We believe that blogging will have as disruptive an impact on the
mainstream social networks as it had on mainstream media. When it comes
to media, blogs were once seen as an adversary, but are now indelibly
part of the media landscape. The same type of adversarial thinking seems
to be in vogue where folks are assuming that we are seeing replacement
technologies battling it out. It sort of reminds us of the bricks/click
debates of the late 1990s. Of course we learned then that the answer
wasn’t either one or the other, but both.

In fact, blogging and social networking actually started together.
LiveJournal had both blogging and friending features, and was created in
1999. It so happens that blogging services, such as Blogger, TypePad,
and WordPress, then emerged focused on the publishing side. Then another
branch grew from that tree when Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook
focused on the social networking aspect…

The story isn’t about the passing of one trend to another, but the
evolution of blogging, and in some ways a return to its roots, and the
integration of blogging with many other forms of social media. …


Thanks to all three of you, and sorry I didn’t have time to get you into the article. (Two of you are mentioned, however.) I actually think that the four of us agree almost entirely, and that you’ve colored in the subtleties.

I mean, how could blogging be “dead” if even … Malaysia’s Mahathir now blogs!!!!

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The schizophrenic blogger

That’s me, at least for the time being. Which is to say, I’m in two minds about blogging about my book, depending on whom I’ve asked for advice last.

The “pros”:

On one side, there is an army of tech-savvy, media-savvy, modern, sophisticated, worldly people who say to me: Blog! Bloooog! For book authors, obscurity is the enemy, not piracy, theft or plagiarism. So blog, build a community, learn from that community, and then let the community help you when the time comes to launch.

One person whose example sticks out in my mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is Chris Anderson. His first book, The Long Tail, began as an article in Wired (of which Chris is the editor), then became a book-deal, then a blog, and then, well, the book.

I ran into Chris the other day and asked him if he had any regrets at all, and Chris said Nope, blogging about the book has been entirely for the better. He’s actually learned a lot from his blog’s audience (“crowdsourcing” is the fancy new term for that), and it built buzz for the book’s launch.

Intellectually, Chris has also thought about giving entire books away, free, on blogs or otherwise, and this is becoming something of a micro-trend.

The book, it should be said, did rather well. On the other hand, I should also say that I personally, having read the original article and the blog (and finding Chris’s idea profound and spot-on), did feel that I didn’t need to read the book when it came out. I was comfortable that I already knew the ideas behind it very well.

Chris has a lot of support. Tim Sullivan, who is not my editor but an editor of books, at Basic Books as of this week, told me that:

I’m all for divulging in blog-length entries. You can really work through some issues, and I think that it encourages sales rather than depressing them (in most cases). I also think you end up with a better book, in the end, if you can generate involvement from a group of interested outsiders

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff (left) wrote their new book, Groundswell, using the blog to test and refine ideas and seem to have loved the process.

Jeff Howe (right) has been blogging his book Crowdsourcing, and using the blog in part, well, to crowdsource. (Meaning: to make “open calls” on the anonymous audience to contribute knowledge, in the hope that the best-qualified people may be hiding in the crowd.)

The “cons”:

My mom is a con. Now, it’s no fair poking fun at moms–they are the people whose intentions toward us are purest. So I won’t. I take her concerns seriously. And she has support: Virtually all of the, ahem, “older” people I know react with dread: Are you crazy? Somebody will steal your best ideas! You undermine the element of surprise! Don’t do it! If you must blog, don’t give anything good away.

Then, there is…

Everybody else:

That category, obviously, includes a lot of people. I’m in it myself. Among my colleagues at The Economist, for instance, there is Tom Standage, author of several books, the latest of which is A History of the World in Six Glasses (right). He is one of the most tech-savvy and media-savvy people in the world, and yet he resides slightly toward my mom’s end of the spectrum. He puts up a “teaser” about his book and some updates about the process–launch, book tour and such–but otherwise leaves it to the book itself to make the splash. I take his advice very seriously, especially since his genre of book and style of writing is much closer to mine than the tech-centered books above.

There is also Edward Lucas, who had a blog for many years before he sold his idea for a book on Russia, the New Cold War (left).

Ed says that yes, he did crowdsource. Exactly once, in fact. He had to fact-check a detail during pre-launch production, and put it out there. Within an hour, several people got back to him with the answer.

But beyond that, he says he did not give away much from the book on the blog, which he uses mainly as a personalized and running anthology of The Economist’s Russia coverage. When he tried to have discussion boards on individual chapters, the results were disappointing–“mostly Russians posting obscenities.” He thought about putting the introduction online, and maybe a few chapters, but then decided against it. “The book must promise that it gives you something you can get nowhere else,” he said to me.

And on and on. Everybody has a different view. Basically, nobody knows.

And that leaves me… schizophrenic. Which is not a good thing for a blogger. It’s like blogging with one arm tied behind your back–possible, but tedious.

Within the coming weeks, I will sort out my thoughts on this and decide one way or the other. You’ll know when that happens, because the blog will show it.

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