I owe my journalism career to blogging. I blogged daily from 2004 to 2006; that got me noticed by editors at sites like Ars Technica, which enabled me to quit my day job and become a full-time freelance journalist in 2007.
The online news landscape has been transformed in the last 15 years. Today, the blogging community that helped launch my journalism career barely exists. The 2000s-style blogs that still exist are nowhere near as central to the online conversation as they were in the George W. Bush years.
Social media plays a central role in this story. In the early 2010s, big tech platforms—especially Facebook, but also Google, Reddit, and Twitter—became the most common way many readers found news stories. That profoundly shaped the incentives of an emerging class of web-first professional journalists—many of whom were former bloggers.
One big consequence: blogging became less social. It became much less common for writers to recommend and critique one another's work. Twitter picked up much of the resulting slack; the kind of intellectual discussion that once happened on blogs now largely happens on Twitter.
Some early blogging looked like tweeting
It's interesting to jump in the Internet Wayback Machine and see what blogs actually looked like in the mid-2000s. For example, Matt Yglesias was one of my favorite bloggers from that era. Here's what you would have seen if you'd visited his blog on June 3, 2006:
Some of these posts are literally short enough to be a 280-character tweet. Others would fit comfortably in a two- or three-tweet thread. Only one of these posts—the one in the upper left—has a "read more" link that reveals a substantial article.
Matt wasn't an outlier. One of the most popular blogs at the time was Instapundit, a right-leaning blog that featured a lot of tweet-sized posts (he's still at it). There's a reason people called Twitter a micro-blog platform in its early years.
This short, frenetic style was popular because it was widely seen as necessary to build an audience. In the earliest days, people would bookmark their favorite blogs and visit them one by one. Conventional wisdom held that you wanted readers to see fresh content every time they visited your site—writing short posts made that possible.
Blogging was social
Not all blog posts were so short, of course. Another common type of post is shown in the upper-right of the Yglesias screenshot: a blockquote from some other blogger followed by a few paragraphs of analysis. The feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte did this a lot:
This was another strategy for creating content quickly. If you block-quoted someone else's work, it saved you the trouble of fully explaining the topic yourself. You could just focus on adding your own commentary.
Bloggers were constantly linking, block-quoting, and critiquing one another's articles. And this created room for upward mobility. A key way for new bloggers to expand their audiences was by writing posts that would get recommended—or torn apart—by other, more prominent bloggers.
Most blogs were written primarily for a core group of loyal readers. The goal wasn't necessarily to maximize the number of clicks on any given post. Rather, bloggers were trying to maximize the number of people who liked the blog enough to come back to the site regularly.
As the blogosphere matured, more sophisticated readers stopped visiting individual bloggers and instead used RSS readers like Google Reader to follow dozens of bloggers.
Bloggers like me hoped this would become a major way people got news. In our utopian future, everyone would use an RSS readers. The typical reader would have a few favorite bloggers who would introduce them to the most interesting content elsewhere in the blogosphere. We naively thought the social nature of blogging provided something of a quality-control mechanism, with prominent bloggers amplifying the most credible and insightful content and ignoring the rest.
That's not exactly what happened.
The professionalization of blogging
In 2013, I took a job at the Washington Post. Ezra Klein had been hired a few years earlier as one of the Post's first bloggers. By the time I arrived, his blog had evolved into Wonkblog, a substantial operation with around six full-time reporters. Wonkblog was so successful that the Post wanted to franchise the concept, so they hired me to create a sister blog called The Switch that focused on tech policy.
A key lesson I learned from my new colleagues was that we couldn't cater to our regular readers the way many classic blogs did. Our salaries were supported by advertising. To make the whole project financially viable, we needed a lot of readers. Practically speaking, that meant bringing in a lot of new readers.
Old-school blogs assumed a fair amount of background knowledge. Posts often tried to make an incremental contribution to an ongoing conversation among other bloggers. Someone who only read one post would often lack the context necessary to fully understand it.
So instead we tried to make our posts self-contained. That meant providing more background and context—and engaging less with other bloggers.
Up to a point, this was just a natural process of professionalization. The conversational style of early blogs was fun for a small community of weirdos who spent all their time online. But the audience of non-weirdos is vastly larger, and it made sense for successful bloggers to look for ways to reach them.
The Facebook firehose
But around this same time, news industry insiders started to notice that Facebook was driving more and more traffic to news sites. A new generation of sites like the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy were attracting vastly more Facebook traffic than stodgy publications like the Washington Post.
If a story shared well on Facebook, that could sometimes generate more traffic than all other traffic sources put together. In 2013 and 2014, news organizations spent a lot of time thinking about how to make news stories more shareable on Facebook.
I'll have more to say about this in future posts. A lot of what we now call "clickbait" grew out of attempts to game Facebook's algorithms in this period. But for now the key thing to note is that linking, block-quoting, or critiquing other peoples' blog posts was rarely a formula for success on Facebook or other social media platforms. A Facebook (or Reddit) user who wasn't already a fan of a particular blog was unlikely to find a conversation between two bloggers all that interesting.
As a result, many of the most prominent voices in the 2000s blogosphere stopped participating in the free-wheeling conversations that had made the blogosphere a community—at least in their professional work.
Twitter, the micro-blogging platform
These free-wheeling discussions didn't go away, however. To a large extent, they migrated to Twitter. Indeed, Twitter today has a lot in common with the early blogosphere:
- Early blog posts were often short.
- Early bloggers would frequently blockquote a paragraph and comment on it. On Twitter, people do the same thing with quote-tweets and text screenshots.
- Early blogs often featured sprawling discussions where anyone could jump in and add their thoughts. Twitter does too.
In short, Twitter provides a substantially better user experience for the social aspects of early blogs. Twitter forces users to be concise and its threaded reply model makes it easier to follow sprawling conversations.
If you wanted to publish a brief thought about something you read in 2006, you'd write a short blog post. If you wanted to do the same thing in 2016, you'd write a tweet.
Not only was that less work for the writer, but it was likely to reach a larger audience too. Twitter has cemented this shift by making it easy to chain tweets together—allowing people to write tweet threads that are basically blog posts broken up into 280-character chunks.
Some people have described the rise of email newsletters as a resurgence of old-school blogging. I think there's a lot to this. Like some classic blogs, many newsletters feature in-depth articles about esoteric subjects written for a loyal audience.
But the more social and ephemeral aspects of blogging have largely migrated to Twitter, and they're unlikely to go back. Instead, Twitter has become a key way for writers to build audiences they can then sell newsletters to. It's not a coincidence that a number of successful newsletter authors are also popular Twitter personalities—and that some of those folks got their start as bloggers.
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay.