Will there ever be a hobbyist blogging renaissance?

I’m proud to be a hobbyist blogger. I write to access the sheer joy of creative expression – not to make money, further political causes or buttress a contrived influencer persona. Sadly, I’m increasingly alone in this once fertile space, alienated by blogging’s transformation from spontaneous pastime to just another content marketing tool. If bloggers in general are an endangered species – usurped by vloggers, podcasters and TikTok content creators – hobbyist bloggers are all but extinct. Few people voluntarily write substantive, cogent prose nowadays, and that concerns old school veterans like me.

Blogging history

It was not always like this, of course. Back in the embryonic days of blogging – from the early-1990s through, say, 2002 – there was an unserious innocence to the online writing milieu. Technologically, early blogging was a creative fulcrum for self-confessed nerds, a logical offshoot of personal computing, byzantine forums and obscure bulletin boards. Philosophically, early blogging carried the iconoclasm of rebellious countercultures – from anti-war hippiedom to nonconformist punk rockers. And stylistically, early blogging mimicked the colloquial jocularity of edgy tabloid columnists and talk radio shock jocks.

All told, early blogging was a supernova of irreverence. People blogged to share unconventional impulses, hoping to find a community of likeminded weirdos. People blogged to broadcast their opinions, unimpeded by the stuffy gatekeepers of legacy media. People blogged to, well, blog – because it was new, hip and exciting. There was a healthy thoughtlessness to the nascent blogosphere. Few bloggers cared about personal branding, because the novel thrill of making private thoughts public was more important.

To that end, early blogs were planets in a scattered yet unified solar system. In the age of browser bookmarks, RSS readers and direct web-surfing, readers sought quality content for themselves rather than having it packaged and served to them with a dollop of manipulation on the side. Rather than hellscapes to be avoided, comment sections were once welcoming enclaves where likeminded people camped out and shared stories. There was a kinship between early bloggers, who promoted each other and made unvarnished recommendations within defined niches. Virality was a happy coincidence, wrought by digital word of mouth. There was no grand strategy to early blogging. People spewed out their souls because it felt cathartic – not because it furthered an agenda.

The dawn of professional blogging

Alas, capitalism transforms hobbies into professions, passions into products and sidelines into sales. Somewhat inevitably, that transformation affected blogging, the serendipitous genesis of which gave way to monetisation, saturation, decline and obsolescence. Google launched Blogads in 2002 and AdSense a year later, allowing bloggers to put ads on their websites more easily, and a gamut of niche disciplines – SEO, PPC, ecommerce – were spawned as a result. Once adjacent to, and reliant upon, blogging, those subterranean disciplines quickly outgrew that which inspired them. Coaxed by capitalism, blogging became subservient to content marketing, and its founding iconoclasm withered on the vine.   

With stunning rapidity, blogging was reverse-engineered by clever entrepreneurs who saw a golden opportunity to capitalise on a raw, emerging market. As blog analytics developed, spurred by technological advances, webmasters could finally see who their readers were, where they came from, and what types of content made them stick around. Hence clickbait. Hence Gawker and BuzzFeed paying writers to pump out dozens of lurid articles per day. Hence traffic becoming cash by way of advertising. Hence money inspiring bloggers, rather than ideas luring them to the keyboard.

Clickbait ruined hobbyist blogging

In my view, this switch from unscheduled hot takes to flawless prose – from unprompted tirades to conceited marketing – sullied the very purpose of blogging. Those who blogged merely to satisfy creative inclination became a threatened cohort, outmanoeuvred by slicker marketeers with more holistic, hardcore plans. Blogging was swiftly instrumentalised, and it soon became another tactical conduit to vapid commercial gain. Many originals walked away, their blogs abandoned like razed cities in a bloody war. It saddens me to consider the unfinished thoughts lost in that transition. We can never recover that insight.

Now, my point is not one of chest-thumping socialism. Nor is it my intention to vilify scions of the evolving blogosphere like Nick Denton and Jonah Peretti, who birthed an epochal business model. Writers deserve to be paid for their work. Believe me – I have fought that battle ad nauseum. And in fairness, lower barriers to entry helped blogging liberate an entire generation of writers who may previously have been muzzled. It is a wonder of modernity that writers can make a living creating things they adore. I urge anyone so inclined to keep writing.

However, in the current landscape, any notion of true blogger independence is difficult to comprehend, because even the most seemingly autonomous writer is beholden – whether to the paymasters of Google and Meta, or to the attention economy subscribers of Patreon and Substack (who, in turn, are largely derived from existing audiences forged on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram).

My ultimate concern does not pertain to capitalism itself, but rather to the unintended consequences of monetised writing becoming a default in our capitalist context. Sadly, for the longest time, embracing clickbait was the most viable way to maintain a living via online writing. It is still the predominant means of blogger renumeration today. And while I wholeheartedly defend the rights of writers to explore those avenues in the guise of self-determination, I loathe the consequences of clickbait – and thus, of capitalism – among the wider culture of blogging. I want blogging to be an end in itself, not just a means to something else.

Social media killed blogging

This clear bifurcation between hobbyist blogging and professional online writing emerged in the mid-2000s, as social media snowballed. Where once it was enough for idealistic writers to publish craggy thoughts and step away from their computers, the rise of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr created an entire ecosystem fuelled by self-promotion – the high-powered Zuckosphere, we may call it, in stark contrast to the jerry-rigged blogosphere.

Of course, the internet is littered with blogging obituaries, and most cite social media as a leading cause of death. And while those requiems are broadly correct, we often overlook the underlying rationale: blogging was annexed by slicker, more accessible tools that annihilated friction. Between Twitter’s launch in 2006, and the release of its seminal iPhone app in 2010, the number of US teen bloggers halved. It was simply easier to tweet than to write an article, and blogging suffered accordingly. It was just too clunky to entice the next generation, which deemed inadequate anything that required more two swipes of an overworked thumb.

Sure, there was a halcyon period at the height of Web 2.0 – before behavioural advertising, Cambridge Analytica, and plutocratic algorithms ran amok – where social media served a reliable pipeline of traffic to blogs. For instance, many people recall The Dress as a 2015 Facebook phenomenon, but it actually began with a BuzzFeed blog post. By that point, though, a blog post without accompanying promotion – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere – was akin to tree falling in the forest. If nobody was around to hear it, did it really make a sound? Did it really matter what was published on blogs if a social media footprint was neglected? Many said no, and that etiquette became dogma imbibed by the herd.

Throughout the 2010s, then, social media became the definitive crucible of attention and consumption. Feeling obliged to engage on myriad platforms, creators had less time to actually create. Quicker modes of content creation and delivery were favoured as an evolutionary response, and the archetypal blogger became a vlogger, then a podcaster, then a meme artist, then a purveyor of shortform clips. As such, the modern TikToker shares DNA with the bygone blogger, but expedience divides their modus operandi. Blogging is admittedly cumbersome, and we may never get that toothpaste back in the tube. Future generations may simply forget to care, and that worries me as a stubborn traditionalist.

The future of blogging in 2023 and beyond

Accordingly, these are strange times on the internet – especially for writers. Gawker has died twice. Twitter has died once. BuzzFeed News no longer exists. RSS readers exist but are routinely ignored. Organic social media reach has been throttled. Recurring organic website traffic is a bygone relic. Oh, and the New York Times recently shuttered its sports department, so how is that for a journalistic bellwether?

Right now, TikTok is king, and the competition for eyeballs has never been more ferocious. Those with something to share face a gauntlet of platforms on which to maintain a presence, and the apparent success of a miniscule elite skews expectations for everyone else. Sold a seedy dream, so many beginners hold themselves to impossibly high standards, painfully unaware the system is stacked against them. A cacophony of noise masks a paucity of substance, and it is difficult to find a singular way forward.

One theory of technological evolution holds that new, sleeker things swallow their old, outmoded precursors. “The content of each new medium is the old medium,” said Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose work is newly pertinent as we approach a technological crossroads. Just as tableaus became pamphlets, which became novels, then plays, then movies, then Netflix, we are on the precipice of significant change. What will become of the iPhone in 10 years? Will Google be cannibalised by large language models? Who will bundle shortform video, AI, blockchain and crypto to create an alternate reality of interoperability? When will Zuck reduce us all to avatars? These are the storms I ponder, along with the ability of hobbyist bloggers to weather them. Or not.

It is painfully ironic, of course, that blogging itself was once the paradigm-altering force. Early bloggers broke the conventional news cycle, which for decades orbited daily newspaper print runs and nightly TV bulletins. In my world of baseball writing, Peter Gammons begat Bill Simmons begat Jared Carrabis. One day, somebody will surpass Carrabis and cover the Boston Red Sox through an as-yet unconceived medium. Maybe they will sit behind home plate at Fenway Park and let millions chime in vicariously via mixed reality goggles. Do not rule it out.

Blogging, Blockbuster and the power of nostalgia

Nevertheless, as technology advances, there are people who lurk at more comfortable levels – for reasons nostalgic, philosophical, ethical or functional. For instance, there are currently still bloggers who do not monetise their work. There are crafters who do not sell their Taylor Swift friendship bracelets on Etsy. There are fishermen who shun FishOMania. Yes, these self-sequestered dinosaurs recede into obscurity, then drift into obsolescence, then become ironic tribute acts, but that does not make them irrelevant. That does not make them insignificant. In fact, the obdurate refusal to change can be a poetic celebration of antediluvian artforms – from fanzine-writing and haberdashery to trainspotting and busking. It takes all sorts of weird and wonderful people to keep life interesting, and we should oppose the homogenisation of hobbies – stoked by big tech – that threatens to blunt human interest.

Think of the old Blockbuster video stores. They were cutting-edge in 1985, when VHS tapes were en vogue. They peaked in the early-2000s, when DVDs supplanted videotapes. Then Netflix pioneered streaming in 2007, and by 2010, Blockbuster was bankrupt. By 2018, from a zenith of 9,000 units, the world was left with just one Blockbuster store – in Bend, Oregon – whose proprietors license the iconic brand from bankruptcy buyer Dish Networks. Still, that store survives. In fact, it thrives as an alternative tourist destination. That makes me very happy, and I yearn for a similar outcome for blogging.

Here in 2023, the hobbyist blogger is akin to the movie buff who finds any excuse to visit Bend, Oregon, for a trip down memory lane. The hobbyist blogger is the ham radio enthusiast who persists in the shed despite podcasts proliferating. The hobbyist blogger is the home moviemaker who continues to film Christmas, oblivious to YouTube. The hobbyist blogger is the hardcore Nirvana fan who pores through every vinyl store in town, seeking rare albums despite the band’s entire back catalogue lurking on Spotify. They are all kindred spirits – purists who preserve pastimes they adore, ‘progress’ be damned.

Therefore, as I wrote in March, we should always retain hope – no matter how minuscule or delusional – for a renaissance in hobbyist blogging:

‘Perhaps future generations will adopt blogging as a knowingly ironic, wilfully anachronistic fashion statement, akin to the current revival in chunky Fila trainers plucked from thrift shop anonymity. Maybe someone will invest in a cosy blogging time warp, like the hopeless romantics who periodically open mock Blockbuster stores as community cafés. There is undoubtedly a fuzzy nostalgia to blogging that will always lurk in subterranean countercultures, but the extent to which that passion can be resurrected and repopularised is deeply unclear.

Yet for all the talk of convenient updates and seamless technological evolution, it is worth remembering that peak blogging included a whole load of friction – and we did it anyway! Old school blogging was a labour of love – tangled in charger wires, frozen in unresponsive windows, and steeped in buggy HTML errors. We ploughed right on through and published more than ever before. Maybe that is the true takeaway here. Maybe we became so besotted by efficiency and quick wins that we forgot the cathartic bliss of being messy and spewing out our souls. Maybe social media transfixed our addled brains, but what about our beating hearts? What about fun and enjoyment, freedom and expression? What about writing?

Anyone can spout in front of a microphone. It is easy to post a 15-second TikTok. Tweets are quick to concoct and quicker still to forget. But there must always be a place for nuanced, passion-led writing from those who write because they want to, not because they have to. There must always be a place for creative experimentation, not only for creative cataloguing and shameless monetisation. There must always be a place for dilettante bloggers, whose rebellious zeal enriches our discourse regardless of status or renumeration.’

We are rushing headlong into the era of Web 3.0, which will rely on decentralisation and federation as first principles. The legacy faucets of mass attention – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others – are crumbling, and smaller niche communities will rise from the ruins. To longtime bloggers, that sounds vaguely familiar, of course. Once upon a time, blogs were hubs of bespoke community. And if segmented platforms like Discord and Reddit are well-placed to survive the coming erosion of social media, maybe blogging can make a comeback, too. If you squint hard enough, you can certainly see the potential.

Importantly, though, this is not just a technical problem, nor is it a technology problem. Apps and platforms alone cannot save us, nor can they rekindle hobbyist blogging overnight. For the blogging zeitgeist to return, we must break down the cultural walls constructed by social media. We must encourage sharing, cross-pollination and mutual support – symbolised by mothballed blogrolls and utilitarian linking – rather than protecting our insular fiefdoms – epitomised by wilful ignorance and endless self-promotion. If we work together, honestly and compassionately, blogging can be saved from the abyss. And if we cannot? Well, a few of us will carry on regardless. After all, blogging is our Blockbuster. Be kind, rewind.

Sources


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