Is blogging over? Last year, Chris Wanstrath, one of the hottest developers currently walking, said to stop reading feeds and get back to work. A few weeks ago Twitter guy Alex Payne, in Fever and the Future of Feed Readers, considered Chris’ arguments; he isn’t sure that blogs are dead but says that feed-reading software is in terminal decline. And then this week The New York Review of Books, which sits near the intellectual center of the English-speaking world, published The News About the Internet by Michael Massing; it more or less amounts to the mainstream of the writing class recognizing that the blogosphere, while imperfect, has important things to offer.

I’d advise reading all three pieces even though I think they miss a central issue, the one in the title of this piece. But before I get to that I’ll do a little surveying.

My Experience · My blogging production has diminished but, although I gave up years ago on trying to measure readers, my gut feel is that the audience grows slowly and steadily; I slide down the top-site rankings, of course, as the proportion of people online who are geeks continues to fall.

The vast majority of hits on this server, over 75%, are retrievals of the Atom feed. Just a moment while I run a couple of Ruby scripts over my logfiles... we’re talking about tens of thousands of subscribers.

I still use NetNewsWire to read feeds; here’s how. I think that any committed professional whose work depends crucially on knowing what’s going on needs a tool something like this.

Best Guesses · Here are my own personal hypotheses; I’d love it if someone did some actual quantitative research, even if it proved me wrong.

First, serious blogging, measured by the number of people who keep at it and post regularly and build a noticeable audience, has never shrunk. There was a period of wild enthusiasm there when tons of people were plunging in who shouldn’t be allowed near the medium, because it was Flavor Of The Month; but from what I see, the introduction of serious new voices (which isn’t that fast) somewhat exceeds the attrition of existing ones (which also isn’t fast).

Second, feed-readers aren’t dead; it’s just that they never moved out of the domain of the obsessed information junkie, which means, along with geeks, mostly the politics and finance communities.

Third, the amount of online discourse has grown explosively; it’s on Facebook and Twitter and a million wikis and forums and other places where conversations happen. The proportion that’s on blogs has as a side-effect fallen.

Finally, one crucial thing that’s changed, as I argued in Less Like Oration, is that for the first time, short-form and long-form information are competing on a level playing field. Length matters; The experience of a juicy pithy tweet, a well-written five-paragraph blog piece, and a novel are radically different, all of them are useful, and none of them are going away. The fact that Twitter and Facebook are the new hotness, both of them ultra-short-form publishing systems, may have distracted attention from what really matters, and it’s not length or whether you’re using a feed-reader or whether you think you’re a blogger.

What Who Matters? · At the end of the day, the most crucial thing that’s changed is that almost all the new voices are intensely personal. If you want to be a well-informed citizen of the world, you have to choose who you’re going to listen to. It isn’t about newspapers vs. the Web, or Facebook vs. Twitter, or feedreaders vs. aggregators. It’s about the voices that you choose to hear.

This is your responsibility and you can’t escape it. It’s hard; there’s not the time to read everyone who might say something useful, and nobody likes unsubscribing or unfollowing or unfriending. My own philosophy, to use business jargon, is quick-to-hire, quick-to-fire. I notice two or three really valuable pieces from some source and I’ll subscribe. But then anybody who goes wrong or weakens my trust in them, out they go, it’s two clicks in the newsreader. These are judgment calls and they have to be made.

You don’t want to be your own aggregator, you say? Fair enough; outsource the job to the New York Times or Mike Arrington or Matt Drudge or whoever turns your crank. But you’ll never be as well-informed as someone who invests the time to read primary sources.

The wonderful thing is that in A.D. 2009, the option of reading primary sources is open to anybody who’s willing to take a little trouble.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: len (Jul 30 2009, at 07:02)

Then there is the power or personality or reputation of the author that collects quality commentors. These aren't fans or even friends precisely. They become a small community more like a kaffeklatsch with their own norms. I see this particularly on blogs like Jon Taplin's where because of his background as a road manager for Dylan, movie producer for the Band and Scorsese as well as financial associations and professorship at UCLA, he has a unique collection of famous (say T-Bone Burnett) and infamous commentors. He picks topics relevant to global issues and the commenters tear into them. He has a regular crew.

It is an aspect of blogging that attracts me to sites now: how good are the comments, do they thread, are they consistent, do they handle the trolls, and so on. In very many cases, I follow the comments threads closer than the author.

A variation one doesn't see as much these days is the self-owned website such as Arlo Guthrie's in operation since the late 90s and variations before that. He keeps a very tight personal community going and though he has Facebook pages (personal and fan), all the action is at arlo.net. This is a lightly moderated site but healthy and constantly churning. Whereas one gets short but not very deep comments from Arlo on his Facebook site, on his own site he is articulate and razor sharp engaging the members on a variety of topics.

To blog well, one has to engage. As I like to say, bands who hide in their buses suck.

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From: Gordon Haff (Jul 30 2009, at 08:25)

Your experiences align pretty well with mine. I find that--if I'm really wrapped up in projects or whatever--aggregators, twitter, etc. more or less ensure that I'm not going to miss any particularly big news, events, and so forth that I really ought to know about. But, as you say, blogs are still the primary research and I'm going to miss things if I depend solely on other people to highlight them for me. There are only so many hours in the day, of course, so that may be an acceptable tradeoff from time to time but I don't want to solely rely on crowdsourcing and editors to discover what is important for me.

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From: D.S. Morse (Jul 30 2009, at 13:51)

Not sure if your log files show google reader hits as just one pull of the ATOM feed, but within google reader alone you have 7,694 subscribers.

I would assume most feed readers do some caching and pooling of pulls, therefore the overall decrease in RSS/ATOM pulls may be an indicator that people are finding them useful and using products like google reader or bloglines

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From: Fabian Ritzmann (Aug 07 2009, at 06:05)

> But you’ll never be as well-informed as someone who invests the time to read primary sources.

For many important events there may be very few primary sources to which only the likes of the New York Times have any access.

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