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What Were Blogs?

The demise of also marks the end of the utopian promise of blogging. Here's what killed them.


For the media-savvy members of a certain generation, who came of age as news consumers in the era of 9/11 and are now facing the prospect of middle age, the shuttering of marks more than just the end of an entertaining site that focused on media and political commentary (whose merits and sins can be endlessly debated). With Gawker gone, we have to face the prospect of the end of blogging and of the utopian enthusiasms of our youth.

We were all bloggers, or so it seemed circa 2003. Blogging was where those of us who didn’t trust the Bush administration’s push to war got alternative takes from Juan Cole, Marcy Wheeler, and other informed sources. Or if we were conservatives, blogging was where we fisked (remember fisking?) the lamestream media. Blogging was where a new wave of feminism was born on sites like Jezebel (a surviving Gawker Media property), launching writers like Irin Carmon and Anna Holmes. But blogging wasn’t just for the young. It also energized older writers (Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus) and gave them a much larger audience than they’d had before.

At the height of the blogging craze, there were even utopian claims made on its behalf: Blogging would give us (finally) the Republic of Letters that the Enlightenment promised, a world where everyone could be a writer and find an audience—an interconnected network where, in true McLuhanesque fashion, a divided world would become a unified global village. Thanks to blogs, 
journalist Trevor Butterworth wrote in the Financial Times in 2006, power was shifting from the gatekeepers of the traditional media to a more open, fluid information society.” 

When protests broke out in Iran in 2009, conservative writer Michelle Malkin framed it in terms of the revolutionary potential of blogging: “In the hands of freedom-loving dissidents, the micro-blogging social network is a revolutionary samizdat—undermining the mullah-cracy’s information blockades one Tweet at a time.” Malkin was, of course, right to see Twitter as “micro-blogging,” but what she perhaps didn’t realize at that time was that Twitter and other social media were about to render traditional blogging old fashioned.

Blogging was fun, and it broke the rules. As founder Nick Denton said in a 2013 interview, “The basic concept of Gawker was two journalists in a bar telling each other a story that’s much more interesting than whatever hits the papers the next day.” Which is another way of saying Gawker tried to harness the conversational informality of blogging, the way the medium bypassed the codified rules of print journalism. But Gawker is dead, undone (depending on which interpretation of history you believe) either by its own hubris or by the vindictiveness of its billionaire foe, Peter Thiel.

A funeral for blogging itself feels not far off—or at least a mid-life crisis. Blogs still exist, but they lack the youthful vigor of 2003. “It seems like the new young people aren’t very interested in blogging,” Kelly Conaboy lamented Tuesday at The Hairpin. It’s not so much that blogging is dead, but that it’s splintered beyond recognition. Almost every publication you can think of has blogs, but the impact is very different than the blogs of yore.

The most successful bloggers are now running corporate media empires like Vox, or working for the mainstream media. The first cohort of feminist bloggers have moved on to media development and books. Conservative spleen has reinvented itself as and Nazi-themed anime memes from the alt-right. Mickey Kaus is now a Trump-thumping Twitter ranter. Andrew Sullivan is an aging rock star, largely quiet although he occasionally appears in New York magazine, where he’s a contributing editor, to warn about the dangers of Democracy or to live-blog political events.

Countless other bloggers are now podcasting or creating GIFs. The classic blog was a writer’s medium: It was all about voice. What made Gawker distinctive (despite its multiple authorship) was the snarky, knowing New York tone that every writer who worked for it seemed to have picked up from Denton and his editors. But we’re in a post-print world, where social media moves at the speed of images, not at the slowness of words.  

The Japanese have a word for blogs that have fallen into neglect or are altogether abandoned: ishikoro, or pebbles. We live in a world of pebbles now. They litter the internet, each one a marker of writing dreams and energies that have dissipated or moved elsewhere.

Many of the classic blogs do persist. You can still eavesdrop on learned conversations at Crooked Timber, or benefit from the political wisdom of Brad DeLong, Digby and Corey RobinBut the feeling of community and camaraderie in pioneering a new medium—the fellowship of the hyperlink—is no longer palpable.

What changed?

Twitter killed the blogging star. For writers who want to make a splash, the Twitter essay (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) is the micro-blogging form of choice. But Twitter is just a stand-in for larger trends: media consolidation and co-option by the establishment. Blogging still exists, but not many people today entertain the 10-year-old utopian fantasies that it will change the world. 

How apt, then, that Gawker’s great nemesis was a billionaire who made his money from social media (Facebook, as it happens). As former Gawker editor Max Read rightly notes in a recent piece for New York:

Twitter and Reddit and a dozen other social networks and hosting platforms have out-Gawkered Gawker in their low thresholds for publishing and disregard for traditional standards, and, even more important, they distribute liability: There are no bylines, no editors, no institution taking moral responsibility for their content. Or, for that matter, legal responsibility — U.S. law protects social networks from liability for the content posted by individual users. These sites had hollowed out a space below Gawker just as Gawker, with great reluctance, had become a real media outlet, one large, rich, and slow-footed enough to be held to account — and taken down. 

To judge by Read’s account, both Gawker and blogging were victims of their own success, albeit in very different ways. Gawker got big enough to earn a frighteningly powerful enemy, a relentless and unforgiving man who deployed his vast resources and the legal system to crush the publication. Blogging got so popular that it caught the attention of the mainstream media, which bought up the best talent, and of Silicon Valley, which recast the writer’s medium from an intimate platform that was all about voice to a social network all about clicks and shares. Banks are lucky enough to be too big to fail; Gawker and blogging were too big to succeed.