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The Blog Is Dead.....oh no it isn't, oh yes it is...

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Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:41 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

(Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC's Technology Correspondent. He reports across the BBC and blogs at BBC Technology Blog. He can be found and followed as @Ruskin147 on Twitter. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Rory's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

Is blogging now a dying art, its perpetrators losing heart, its audience heading for the doors? Well no - or I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading it.(Hello, hello...???) Or is the original spirit of the blogosphere being diluted, as mainstream media bloggers take over what was meant to be a playground for amateurs? Oh, undoubtedly - again, see here for evidence.

The gloomy view is that this tidal wave of corporate, media establishment bilge is ruining blogging. But it seems to me that the blogosphere  is just going through the inevitable growing pains that affect any new medium - and something useful will emerge.

The life-cycle of the mainstream media's relationship with any new web phenomenon goes like this - ignorance, incomprehension, derision, hysteria, and finally boredom.
So it took some time for anyone on a newspaper or in television to realise that "weblogs" had arrived on the scene, and were distinct from the newsgroups and bulletin boards that had hitherto been the main route to self-expression online.

Then there was incomprehension, followed by derision, at the idea of anyone wanting to share their mundane thoughts, their daily activities, their prejudices, with the rest of the world - that after all was the job of the newspaper columnist. This is the stage of the cycle from which Twitter is just beginning to emerge.

Next, there is almost hysterical adoption of this shiny new idea, in newsrooms, board-rooms and think-tanks, all desperate not to miss the wave. Having instructed all of their journalists or executives or consultants onn the importance of blogging - or Facebook or Twitter - and then discovered that it is more time-consuming, complex and costly than first appeared, the establishment soon gets bored and starts casting around for the next big thing.

That of course is a parody - we at the BBC are steadfast and sensible in our use of blogging and social networking - but I think you'll agree there is a smidgin of truth there.
And while the mainstream media may be bored with blogs, I see few signs that the bloggers are going away.

The blogosphere is now a far more varied place than it was a few years ago. Blogs range from the voices crying in the wilderness about obscure issues of interest to a tiny audience, to executives meditating over corporate issues with greater or lesser degrees of frankness, to practical types using the medium to organise and discuss anything from a bowls clubs to a Polar expedition, to veteran journalists finding a new way to explore stories while engaging with the audience in ways that were not open to them previously.

What they all have in common right now is a nasty bout of existential angst, with bloggers haunted by a number of questions. Why am I doing this? Is anybody out there? Is this really a blog? And, most pressingly if their blog is in any way commercial, has anyone spotted a business model?

Bloggers are also finding out rather painfully that the interactive element essential to the medium - the testing of arguments, the cut and thrust of debate -  can too often turn into an unpleasant and unilluminating shouting match. Our own Nick Robinson has recently confessed that he's stopped reading the comments on his blog, and I'm sometimes depressed by the way the respondents to our technology blog "dot life" line up behind Apple or Microsoft, and start lobbing verbal hand grenades at each other in the most tedious fashion.

So there are plenty of reasons to be depressed about the blogosphere. It hasn't quite lived up to its early promise of a place where new voices would be heard, where reasoned argument would take place - a kind of Athenian ideal of democracy. Like just about everything else that has emerged from the web in the last couple of decades it's messy, chaotic and imperfect. But then, so is democracy - and nobody has come up with anything better than that either.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    heh, since when did "existential angst" ever result in anything "useful"?

    it seems to me that "blogging" was never, and is still not really, a "thing" that we could coherently talk about, as in, today, so-and-so is "ruining blogging", or back in the day, blogging was the thing to do and gee wasn't it great. it's always been a relatively diverse collection of relatively educated American and European technophiles, expressing themselves, to themselves, about themselves, with the added (typically Western) value that somewhere, strangers might be listening and liking what they hear. so yes, it will go on, hopefully growing more and more diverse. on the other hand, I think the parodic life cycle described here can't be fully extended to the web, if only because it misses out on the crucial generational component in the whole equation: establishment media lapse into irrelevance to the same extent that they ignore new media forms like facebook, twitter, et al. maybe the latter are fads, but that doesn't mean there won't be more, and more and more, fads (pebbles) that they'll be required to stay on top of to stay afloat (boulders). and isn't one of the attractions of FB and Twitter, et al is that they basically make big media's job easier? why, they can now outsource some of the production over to 'the populace of the web', us. i don't see them getting bored of cutting costs any time soon. also, if you and Mr. Robinson really thought most comments debates would descend into something other than tedious Apple v Microsoft debates, name-calling, trolling, spam, and the like, well, you probably spent too much time in the debate hall. to my eyes and ears, the blogosphere has indeed lived up to its early promise, it's just that those doing the early promising tended to assume that anybody connected to the web would want, and want to do, similar things. the present state of the blogosphere is certainly nothing to be disappointed about- but I guess that depends on who you're reading.

  • Comment number 2.

    Blimey, as one of those who explore the written word online for my own amusement and information that was a really depressing read.

    I thought the idea was that one should also apply the usual criteria of what makes a 'good read' to blogs. Be it a friend on their daily doings, someone unknown commenting on a subject of mutual interest or a well known personality reporting about momentous events.

    Surely a 'blog' is like the Speakers who used to mount their soapboxes at Hyde Park London's Speakers Corner in my youth: some were engaging orators who could rouse lively discussion in the audience. Others one walked away from after a few sentences because their subject held no interest. Their now being online in the form of Bloggers of course means we no longer have to brave weather & traffic to hear them and to shout back!

    One feels like yelling 'Pamphleteers of the Online World Unite' because some believe this new method of disseminating your views is doomed!

  • Comment number 3.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think Rory's post is being taken as slightly more negative than it was meant to be (I could be wrong - Rory, feel free to correct me). Nevertheless, it's enlivening to see people defend the blog, the blogger and the the blogosphere.

    Tomorrow we have another guest blogger posting an alternative take on the blog - from a less Western perspective - that might approach some of the issues both of the above comments raise.

    Many thanks to all. Unlike Nick Robinson (if the rumour is true), we are still reading all your comments!

  • Comment number 5.

    My blog has had a big impact on my professional life and I enjoy writing it. I've also met lots of interesting people as a result of it. Blogging used to feel like a rather splendid undiscovered village. Now it's an exciting big city. What's not to like?

  • Comment number 6.

    There are a lot of gramatical errors in this for a "professional" blog.

  • Comment number 7.

    People are messy, chaotic and imperfect, so you can't really expect anything that is created by them to be anything less. If it wasn't then there would be something wrong.

  • Comment number 8.

    Some blogs may be dying, but others are a different story altogether...

    Take the PM Blog for example. It has a core of about 20-30 "regulars", plus oodles of people who comment infrequently - usually on a very controversial topic. Admittedly it has suffered the occasional troll or two (including one that changes nickname frequently and just about stays on the right side of the House Rules), but in general the commenters are very civilised, and the PM team (presenters, editors and producers) actively read the comments - and occasionally contribute comments themselves.

    Interestingly, it has almost taken on a life of its own, with a combination of topical posts, feedback posts (the Glass Boxes), light-hearted posts (e.g. William Shatner's Emmy nomination) and even a weekly off-topic post (The Beach). Needless to say, with such a diverse range of topics being commented on at the same time, and contributors commenting on each other's comments as well as the main post, several regulars have compared it to a forum disguised as a blog, and have even nicknamed it the "Frog" (portmanteau of forum + blog).

    In addition, 36 (at the last count) commenters have even set up a spin-off Facebook group, and even more bizzarely arrange real-life face-to-face gatherings several times a year...

    Who says blogs are dead?!

  • Comment number 9.

    I know people think it is a new thing, but there were hundreds and thousands of what we now call blogs years and years ago on places like WBS and Geocities, Angel Fire and others.

    And just like now, it is millions of people talking to themselves in the most part.

    Do they have value? Well, no. Since they are unedited opinion they are meaningless

    Are they useful? If they have useful information yes, if not then no. It is the information that is useful, not the blog.

    Steve Walker's amazing book 21st Century Blues (not to be confused with the music) took as its core idea "everyone Tv" where everyone is their own TV channel and can flip around watching every one else watching everyone else.

    Blogs are like that (and things like blog TV more so). In the end, most blogs are read by other bloggers. People not interested in blogging are not interested in blogs either - and good for them.

    So, is the blog dead?

    Of course it is - it was strangled at birth by the very people who think it is important.

  • Comment number 10.

    Many thanks for the comments and thoughts so far. Intrigued by '[The blog] was strangled at birth by the very people who think it is important.' The strongest anti-blog opinion so far.

    It makes me wonder which birthday this was that it was strangled? The birth of the original nascent weblog blogs (Jorn Barger et al) of the mid 90s (which listed links and web content in a much more basic form) or the second wave of the early 00s diarist, authorial blogs?

    Our series producer, Russell, has been asking me about the period between those early iterations of blogging and the explosion of 2004. Was the blog always incrementally building towards becoming a popular form of expression, or was there genuinely a second wave big bang of blogging? And if the latter - what was the spark? Who should we be talking to about their blog?

    Many thanks,
    Dan

  • Comment number 11.

    I still object to the term "blogosphere." It's ridiculous.

    Firstly, if we must have a hideous portmanteau it should be "blogpshere." There need be no "o", since the "o" in other -sphere words is exclusively from the first half of the compound. Example: stratosphere - from the French stratosphere, in turn from Latin stratus (a spreading out) + spharia (sphere). Atmosphere - atmos + spharia.

    Secondly, a perfectly good word already existed for the "blogsphere" - namely, noosphere, "the sphere of human thought." That is, since blogs are essentially online diaries on various topics, and diaries are collections of thoughts, nous + spharia - "mind sphere". This is, I feel, a far superior lexical analogy.

    End of rant.

    On topic, people like to pretend that blogging was a new phenomenon, but it really wasn't. It was just a decentralization of forums into individual websites or small sections of websites, themselves a decentralization from Usenet into... individual websites or small sections of websites.

    Blogs are just forums with a smaller contributor pool.

    As I've stated elsewhere: nothing on the internet or the web is new. All is old, with a new gloss of paint to make it prettier, faster, or shinier.

  • Comment number 12.

    May I also observe that the reason for this decentralization from forums -> individual blogs (and group blogs) was, in fact, for a reason you mention in your article: people fear adversity. By having "their own" blog, much in the way early forums grew up because there was no easy method of moderation on Usenet (and from their heritage on bulletin boards even earlier), people can control who comments and what comments we see. It is easier to appear right when you can remove those who say you are wrong.

    Hence blogs' popularity rising above that of forums, where the only way to silence another voice is to goad them into breaking rules.

  • Comment number 13.

    Oh, and there is something better than democracy: sociocracy.

    It is, however, even messier. ;)

  • Comment number 14.

    But surely Athenian ideal democracy excluded hoi polloi, women, slaves etc? Surely this isn't what the BBC wants? The problem with democracy is that it enfranchises a lot of very dim people: Nick's solution is good (ignore them) but I wonder how we might extend it to general elections?

  • Comment number 15.

    Re: 12. At 10:44pm on 17 Jul 2009, Auqakuh1123

    This hits upon a topic we're very interested in - that of confirmation bias; that we arguably have access to vast swathes of information and opinion online, but are drawn towards those opinions that reflect and complement our own, rather than challenge us (see music services that play you other stuff you think you'd like, not music that might break you into new ways of listening).

    If, as you say, blogs gained appeal over the open forum as they created a walled garden to afford the author greater control over dissent, then is this tendency echoed throughout the web?

    Am I right in thinking that search engines too become better at knowing your interests and preferences and become adept at delivering the news / info that it thinks you are more likely to click through to? Arguably a better service in many ways, but also channeling your search into grooves, that may become troughs...?

    Dan

  • Comment number 16.

    4. 'Many thanks to all. Unlike Nick Robinson (if the rumour is true), we are still reading all your comments!'

    I don't blame him. His is has many more contributors than anyone else's who possibly feel they can influence the BBC's political editor. Is the word 'Blogsphere' being so similar to the homeworld of the Vogons, the 'Vogsphere' a coincidence?

  • Comment number 17.

    RE: 15. At 3:29pm on 18 Jul 2009, Dan Biddle

    As a web designer (and, more critically, developer) myself, this is a subject very much of interest to me.

    I feel in some ways - and very frustratingly - that the end user often comes onto the web looking not for the new, but more for a kind of mirror they can hold up to themselves. When they look at the news - and even more so, opinion pieces - they seem to want to know that people agree with them, that people are on "their side" on any given issue, and that they're part of a strong group.

    These groups then tend to interact very poorly. A good example of this - although unrelated directly - is religion vs atheism. You have any religious topic and the religious folks and the atheists with very few exceptions will pair off into groups and anything the Other says is wrong because they're the Other, not because the argument is poorly constructed or just doesn't ring true. It's frustrating for debate and frustrating when moderating.

    This then ties into my earlier point: blogs are great because you only have to moderate your own discussions. It's easy to care about what you write, because you wrote it; the users are not the only weak link that has damaged forums over the years. The moderators tend to become more and more jaded, more and more prone to taking extremer measures because they've seen all the bickering they ever cared to see in the first place.

    To use a horrible analogy (I can't stand analogies but can't seem to avoid them either), they hold the mirror up and find it isn't half as cloudy as they'd prefer.

    Blogs allow everyone to stick inside their own niches. Only the argumentative are likely to venture onto a blog run by someone completely opposite their own viewpoint.

    The danger of this fragmentation is that we all end up more distanced from each other ideologically, which seems fantastic for diversity but I think in the long term leads only to a -lessening- of diversity - because, as with your search engine comment, the groove becomes a trough and it becomes all too easy for many people to just lazily roll on into it and settle.

    Search engines, too, bother me more and more. I personally do not use google as it doesn't offer me enough choice. I prefer clusty - a metasearch engine. For those who don't know, it searches all of the major search engines and then collates the data into groups - clusters - under seperate topics. Searching for elephant may get you "African elephant" and "Asian elephant" and "Elephant welfare" and so on. I feel this is a much better way to do it as... well, I don't like the mirror held too close, if you see what I mean.

    I think if the web really must be a mirror (argh! analogy!), everyone should stand just a little further back.

    But yes - I feel that the same tendency is applied all over the web. IRC, for example, is and has been falling to the wayside for years because it's too "unexpected" for the end user. You never know who you might meet. ICQ, one of the forerunners of the instant messengers, originally had good ways of finding -new- people, not people you already know... but for some years has been moving away from that model to more of a way of getting at people already in your particular groove or trough... thus ensuring people aren't exposed to people -too- much in opposition to themselves.

    Hence my remarks on fragmentation.

    ...that was longer than I originally intended. Perhaps I should've just blogged about it and linked. ;)

  • Comment number 18.

    I read and contribute to NR's blogs. The fact that he himself reads them has always seemed to me to be highly unlikely and, really, so what? Those blogs are far more like a forum and a very interesting one too if you are able to identify, and ignore, the trolls.

    It tends to drift off-topic but the debate is usually good. My own opinion has been changed or, at least, influenced more than once by other bloggers. To those who consider that blog's moderators to be harsh, I have to say that I think the opposite is true. They will frequently permit a long discussion or debate to blunder it's way to a conclusion, and as far as I'm concerned that is far more useful, interesting, satisfying, educational, enjoyable, call it what you will than anything that could be gained from knowing whether or not Mr. Robinson reads his own blog. I wish it long life.

  • Comment number 19.

    Isn't it also true that now the BBC has latched onto the idea of user participation and blogging that some posts are just 'bait' for comments; those that attract few stay prominent for long periods, those that attract none or few get replaced quickly.
    Is a blog about the blogger's views, or more about the number of comments it attracts, regardless of any quality?

    I'd also be interested in your opinions (and those of journalists from other media) about any increases on your workloads?

    I asume that there is now an expectation from your employer that those in certain posts are expected to blog, blog regularly and attract comments (evidence of an engaged readership). Do you post just to keep up your 'post rate'? If you just stopped what would happen?
    What impact does this have on you? Are you competitive about it? Go on, be honest.

    Would Nick Robinson still write his pieces if they were: a) Presented as opinion pieces with no opportunity for comments? b) Not required as part of his job - would he think of still continuing blogging when he retires?

  • Comment number 20.

    Sorry, meant to say above (19): 'those that attract MANY stay prominent for long periods', those that attract none or few get replaced quickly.

  • Comment number 21.

    I think that blogs are still a brilliant way for ( for example) artists like myself to display work to the entire globe ... my favourite recent experiences ? Posting a painting on my blog - and within 2 minutes someone in Vietnam viewing it, artists in Bulgaria discussing work with me , building on-line friendships with other artists on all continents - all whilst sitting in my house in plymouth. I only took up painting after a long break last year - my blog has earned me 4 commissions in that time. I think visual artists generally appear to have been quite smart in seizing the opportunities presented by blogging.

  • Comment number 22.

    21. At 8:41pm on 22 Jul 2009, MyDogAteArt wrote:
    I think that blogs are still a brilliant way for ( for example) artists like myself to display work to the entire globe ... my favourite recent experiences ? Posting a painting on my blog - and within 2 minutes someone in Vietnam viewing it, artists in Bulgaria discussing work with me , building on-line friendships with other artists on all continents - all whilst sitting in my house in plymouth. I only took up painting after a long break last year - my blog has earned me 4 commissions in that time. I think visual artists generally appear to have been quite smart in seizing the opportunities presented by blogging.

    That's not blogging, it's marketing.

  • Comment number 23.

    22. At 10:39am on 23 Jul 2009, Its_an_Outrage wrote: "That's not blogging, it's marketing."

    So no writer ever markets themselves via a blog ?

  • Comment number 24.

    @shefftim 'I'd also be interested in your opinions (and those of journalists from other media) about any increases on your workloads? '

    It's certainly increased mine! :)

    Interesting question though. I'll try to spread your comment to the news teams in hope of some replies from the journos who blog (and those who don't)

    Dan

  • Comment number 25.

    With all of this talk of Blogs, nobody ever seems to mention Vlogs & Vlogging. I often wonder why this is. Is it bias, or a lack of knowledge?
    I have been vlogging (video blogging) for nearly 3 years now on YouTube, not a site usually associated with this type of activity. Maybe that explains the lack of knowledge. There is more to YouTube than meets the eye, believe me.
    Blogging naturally requires a degree of talent with the written word. But, a lot people are far happier talking, than writing. I know i am. This is where vlogging comes in. It allows anybody with a video camera to talk about their lives, or share their thoughts & opinions with the world.
    One difference with vlogging, is that you can see the person who's talking & look into their eyes. That makes it far more personal & intimate. Because of this a community of vloggers has built up at YouTube. I have made some great friends via this medium & have even travelled to the USA to meet up with fellow vloggers.
    We suffer some of the same problems as the bloggers do with hateful comments etc. But, if you can put a real face to the name, that makes a great difference.
    It would be good if vloggers were also recognised in the same way that bloggers are. Maybe we're just ahead of our time?

  • Comment number 26.

    @andymooseman - point taken. I suppose we're either including a vlog as a blog with video, or treating it as a different style of broadcast - as one might a podcast. Is a podcast a kind of blog? Can these lines even be drawn? They are between books and movies, though less so between newspapers and TV news... Does the web blur these lines even further?

    When does a vlog become online TV (for want of a better term) - when the quality of content / broadcast tech reaches a certain level? If so what is that tipping point? Sponsorship? (Doesn't Google Ads allow almost anyone to host a commercial element?

    Or is it not the medium but the message? Does a vlog need to be factual and centralised around the thoughts of the vlogger, or can it be interviews, travel vlogs, reviews, narrated fiction...?

    Is Leo Laporte a vlogger? Are David Mitchell's Soapbox 'shows' vlogs? He describes them as podcasts on the show I just watched, so I've only served to confuse myself further...!

    My one thought is that these aren't amateur outputs, in as much that Mitchell and Laporte both have established themselves in other broadcast markets before taking it to the web (insert your Mitchell and web gag here), which is kind of what Aleks' initial blog post was about - the great level playing field online simply isn't nor ever could be so.

    I think of Lauren Luke's makeup videos. Vlogs now or before her success?

    I suppose, what I'm wondering is whether 'blog' can be assumed to cover these other forms - vlog, podcast - when we discuss matters of mass empowerment / broadcast opportunities, or do we need to make greater distinctions when discussing blogs and citizen journalism, say.

    If so, it would be great if you could provide examples of some vlogs to consider.

    Dan

  • Comment number 27.

    @DanBiddle
    I agree that, for me anyway, a vlog is basically a blog with video. As a podcast can be a blog with audio. In fact 'AudioBoo' is a good tool for short audio blogs & one that i've used myself.

    I guess a vlog becomes online TV when the creator is trying to entertain, as opposed to just wanting to put their thoughts & ideas "out there".
    Your point about sponsorship & AdSense is a very relevant one. Some people are now changing how they make their videos & compromising the content, to try & appeal to more people, because of the potential ad revenue. I am totally against that. A vlog should be "real", not contrived. Maybe i'm just a bit of a purist?

    There has always been a debate amongst vloggers & video makers as to what a vlog actually is. My personal view is that it's whatever you want it to be. As long as it's a "talking head" type of video, that's ok with me. Other vloggers will naturally have a different opinion.

    I have made several travel type videos & even done album reviews. I would not consider them to be vlogs, more entertainment videos.

    As to your examples. I would class Lauren Luke's videos as more a "how to" type, rather than a vlog.
    The David Mitchell videos are more like mini tv shows really. Relevant & well made, but not vlogs, in my opinion.

    As you say about Mitchell & Leo Laporte, they have come to video via other media. This is often thought of as bandwagon jumping by some people.
    What i like about vlogging & YouTube in particular, is that it can be done by anyone with a webcam, or video camera. It creates a level playing field where anyone can join in. I know this type of thing is despised by a lot of people & does create a lot of bad video. But, it allows everyone to have a go. To me, that's partly what the Internet is all about. It's open to eveyone.

    For examples of vlogging, i would naturally point you towards my own YouTube channel:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/andymooseman
    That should give you a fair snapshot of what i'm trying to say here.
    Another type of vlogger is this guy:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/renetto
    He's American & very popular on YouTube. But, he has just started to record his life using video & the new iPhone video facility. An interesting development & an aspect of amateur video making that i find fascinating.

    I hope this all makes sense. As i said earlier. I find it easier to talk, than write. Hence the vlogging.

 

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