Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Whither the blogosphere?

The other day, someone sardonically quipped that "blogging is so 2006." Y'know, I think they might have been right.

What with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, it seems that the practice of starting and maintaining a personal blog has fallen from favor, at least among our circle¹. I had the feeling that this was the case, so I decided to check it out by looking at the blogs from the original League of the Underemployed gang -- we friends who all jumped into blogging in early 2005 -- and compare blogs² from July and August of 2006 to July and August (to date*) of 2009:

Viva! An Experiment: 17-8, 21-3*
Stave It Off, 1,2,3: 14-3, 9-1*
Ned Said: 11-1, 17-0*
Independence Days: No data - shuttered
Life with Jon: No data - shuttered
HKC (vs. WalakaNet): 30-6, 30-1*

Wow. I had expected a decline, but not that much. What's the deal? Have we run out of things to say? Umpossible! Were we bored with the medium? Maybe, widgets or no. Were there other outlets for expression? Definitely.

It's hard to deny that Facebook bleeds posts away from a blog. Here's an example: I rode the brand new Link Light Rail and the not-so-new-anymore South Lake Union Streetcar line, both for the first time, yesterday. Back in the day, I would have spent the time composing a nice little essay about the adventure for the blog. What did I do yesterday? I posted this status update to Facebook from my phone: "I just got off the light rail and am now on the streetcar - ain't it cool?" Not quite Proustian, that. As an added incongruity, the person I shared the adventure with, Dingo, would never see the post - because she's not on Facebook!

I don't think I am alone in this sort of practice; Facebook does allow for quick and easy updating, and it's hard to beat that convenience. It's also great for sharing photos and links, and it has the added bonus of speaking to a somewhat screened community. Setting privacy issues aside, at least you know you're speaking to people who want to hear what you have to say -- they have chosen to "friend" you and include your posts in their news feed. These characteristics make Facebook an attractive channel for the same expressions that in 2006 would have found their way onto a blog.

In some ways, this bleed-off can work to make a blog healthier; leaner, perhaps, but healthier nonetheless. I know that I think more about a wider audience when I write for this blog - posterity, if you will - and use it as a space for practicing control and writing more structured pieces. I cannot speak to the motives of my blogging colleagues, but their work seems to be a bit more considered as well. There are fewer posts overall, but what's gone are the short blurbs and the offhand remarks; what remains is the developed writing.

Well, if Facebook handles all our socializing and our blogs remain focused on essaying, is there a down side? I think there is. What has gone missing is the place for [links/observation + short commentary] - a form that comprised a considerable portion of 2006 blogging.

Facebook allows links, of course, and you can even comment on them as you post them. But considering that the typical length of discourse on Facebook is about 20 words, and that your full text comment is put behind a cut at about 40, it doesn't encourage or leave a lot of room for an even minimally developed response. But with the current refinement of the blog contents, anything less than a fully-formed text seems depauperate in that context. So where do these mid-range utterances - too long for Facebook and too short for the blog - live?

Twitter is certainly out - the 140-character limit is a step backwards from Facebook limits. It may find its place in the communicative spectrum, but this isn't its role.

We could start another blog just for these medium-sized posts, where they wouldn't look out of place, but then our friends would just have yet another place to have to bookmark.

We could follow the maxim that the middle of the road is the most dangerous place to be and commit to either brevity or magniloquence, eschewing the mid-range post altogether.

Or we could just throw caution to the winds, as I am about to do, and throw a link-farm post onto our blogs every now and again. The interweblogosphere is changing, that's for sure, but the questions till remains: how will you know what I had for lunch unless I blog it?³

One of my technological favorites has always been the pneumatic delivery tube. Seen today only rarely, usually at bank drive-up windows, these cool and steampunky systems were still very common when I was a boy, transporting receipts from cash registers to the main office in big department stores and moving documents around large office buildings. Well, there are two different engineering proposals, documented by the folks over at Wired, which, while not strictly speaking pneumatic, bring back a little of the romance of the almost-forgotten systems.

The first project is The Cargo Tunnel, a dedicated network of four-foot-wide tunnels that would house a tiny little subway for the delivery of packages to homes and businesses, complete with tiny forklifts at the terminals to handle packages up to 18" x 18". The coolest/scariest part of the proposal is that self-guided TBMs (tunnel-boring machines) would create the network without surface life being any the wiser, like an attack from the cyborg moles. What could go wrong?

The second project is actually called the Urban Mole, and it applies the same principle to an existing network of tubes -- the sewer system. That's right, drop your parcel into a little carrier, seal it up tightly, and let it make it way through the thick and turgid waters of the sewers until it pops out at its destination. The article provides no details on the disinfectant bath that would have to be in place at the receiving terminals, but I am sure they have thought of that.

Y'know, maybe pneumatic tubes weren't such a bad idea after all.

I ran across a little online application called Personas our of MIT that attempts to represent your online presence graphically. You tell it your name and it searches for occurrences, using some kind of algorithm to rate and rank the surrounding words to determine the context of each instance. Then it squishes all the information together into a color bar. Here's mine (click to embiggen):

This looks pretty accurate; at least, there are no big surprises. But my name is extremely rare, if not in fact unique. (I go egosurfing fairly frequently and I have never encountered another me.) For anyone with a more common name, the results can be quite distorted. The Personas group says that this is a feature, not a bug, and that the process "demonstrates the computer's uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name. It is meant for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world." So, there you go: reflection is the goal, not accuracy. Try your name and reflect away.

1. Special interest blogs, such as Let's Not Talk About Movies and Quiet Girl Gallery, as well as commercial blogs, still seem to be thriving.

2 Lowcoolant came and went as a Blogspot blog during this time, but TormentedbyDemons had been and continues to be active on his MySpace page. Since MySpace is a social networking site, this seems to align with my point, albeit obliquely.

3. I de-cobbed some leftover corn, mixed it with some leftover mashed potatoes, frozen peas, three cut-up veggie link sausages, and some slices of Red Torpedo onion that Dingo gave me to create a sort-of shepherdess pie. Mmm-mmm.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Part of this is that the focus is the self-described "League of the Underemployed," who are now more employed and have less time.

Part of this is that the dedicated blogs are precisely that: dedicated. They have a purpose whether linked to a business or an obsession.

John said "Blogging is so 2006" a couple weeks ago. The next day he probably said something different. He does, after all, keep blogging.

I find Facebook extremely dissatisfying, and use it mostly as a tool for fine-tuning LNTAM. It also focuses my blog-reading so I'm not playing "Favorites" all the time. Of all the friends that I've re-friended on Facebook, I find I have just about the same contact with them I did before with a couple exceptions. And frankly, a lot of people's contributions to the page just go right over my head as I have no context and no explanation. Fairly worthless to me. I started out inquiring what people meant, and then realized if they didn't give a damn to write anymore, asking for more would just be an annoyance. As far as Twitter, I'll leave 140 characters to the Japanese/Chinese for whom it's the most efficient (How useful is Twitter to a pharmacy, do you imagine?).

If the idea is to communicate, I think Blogging is the most useful. If the idea is to display wit, Facebook is probably the ticket(and you'll notice I replied on Blogger, rather than Facebook. Why? Because it's possible!)

Juliet said...

Blogging sometimes makes my brain hurt--my brain is an old out-dated pneumatic delivery system... By the way I unfortunately share my name with a porn star.

Walaka said...

Well, yeah, but she's a 71-year-old legendary icon of the golden age of porn, so there's that.

lowcoolant said...

Wither the blogosphere?

John said...


Marc Burkhardt said...

Tumblr works pretty well for the off-the-cuff posts that once filled a good portion of my defunct blog ... if I want to post a picture of Batman punching somebody's lights out then I know where to go. Twitter kinda sorta works for very short, off-the-cuff stuff like my brief jag on the '90s Punisher.

But blogs do scratch a certain itch and I'm very close to re-entering the fray ... although not at the same level as before. The new blog should be up this week, and I'll give you a holler when it appears!!

Walaka said...

Great, Marc! I'd love to see what you do next. I do have a Tumblr space, but I'm not sure how successful the diversify-by-type-of-post approach might be - even my devoted friends won't check several sites!

wheylona said...

For me the purpose of my blogging was to share the schtuff of my new far away life with family and friends and get a bit of interaction going since I am so far away and horrible at emailing (and calling is expensive and challenging with the time difference). As feedback waned over time, so went my motivation for blogging. I wish I could be more 'lofty' about it all and blog because I want to hone my writing skills or simply express myself to the world or whatever drives the artist, but such things are a far second. So, as things stand now, I pretty much only blog when I *don't* care so much about getting feedback from/some interaction with my peeps--thus the low, low numbers.