An agony of blogs
5 May 2015

As with flock, herd, murder, or coven, blogs in their late maturity should finally receive a collective descriptor. Agony, denoting a sense of public contest, a chorus observing and commenting upon the affairs of the day, and extreme pain, feels appropriate, as it captures the current discord of our civic speech. These agonies are our struggles to create meaning for ourselves and to express them in the world. They exist both in the conversations we have amongst ourselves and in the structuring of speech through information technologies. They are the trolling battles in the comment sections of newspapers, the edit wars on Wikipedia, and the virtual armies assembling to attack and silence those they disagree with through DDOS attacks, data theft, and coordinated public shaming and hate. They are also the silences of our deserted personal blogs, comment sections empty and hyperlinks broken. They are the endless and numbing stream of our social media feeds. The agonies are our moments of agreement, consilience and humor, in those times we are fully present with our communities and friends. Our agonies, as with other choruses, require harmony, yet we clearly see that the creation of an agreeable group implies the exclusion of others, just as the success of one social media platform implies the demise of others. The iron law of attention leads to winners and losers, to the dominance of first movers, to the power law curve of popularity. Our agonies are made and unmade by the same hand.

It is by now a truism that a huge amount of our speech is mediated through devices and channels. For this reason we talk of networked speech, the existence of a layer of media which we use to shape and amplify our thoughts. Blogs, social media, texts, apps, image-sharing, audio clouds, and all manner of their interleaving allow us permanence or ephemera, and any variation between them.

Yet it is too easy to declare a collective moral failure out of our attempts to create public speech that uses the language of the health of of a republic, despite the many ways we express ourselves that do not meet platonic standards of debate and reason. Likewise with strife, division, and the failure to listen across ideological, linguistic, and other social divides, it is too simple to blame the mass and social media channels through which our speech passes. Each of us, seeking an honest or empathetic connection in our mediated communities, acutely experiences the tension between our attempts to make ourselves understood and the frictions of time, attention, opposition, as well as the demands and signals of the platforms we occupy.

All our experiments with story: it’s not just that they failed. We sometimes forgot they even existed. We approached them with such enthusiasm, but soon, they were like words just out of recall. We developed a sort of amnesia for our own ideas. Instead of drawing attention, and energy, they, as with all speech online, were sucked into the energy-devouring maw of social media, converted, retold, shared, and released into the stream of the past. The iron law of attention: when we are fascinated by one thing, everything else recedes. The current was strong enough to take our memory.

What forms did we invent, and then forget? Every single personal blog? Every tool, app or prototype? Every shuttered community? The slight embarrassment, as when we open an old school notebook, and then indifference? The tools used to organize blogs: blogrolls, RSS, Netvibes, word clouds, blog aggregators, Delicious. The forms of civic and literary invention: the plane spotter tool, cop watching videoblogs, the microblog novel, the crowdsourced mapping of events.

Maybe we were never meant to hold on to these projects? Ideas fluid and and dynamic, circuits running through our brains, we retain little.

The absolute number of blogs on the Internet has increased over time. Some 25% of all sites still use WordPress in 2015, and Blogger, Tumblr, and social media networks with blogging components remain vibrant. At the same time, the self-hosted, single-author blog is in rapid decline as a demotic practice and as an ideal of internet communication. What remains are a handful of high-profile blogs and blogging communities who continue to host their own content – BoingBoing, Global Voices, the BOBs, a flourishing of commercially owned platforms competing for users and aiming for exponential usage, a growth in multi-author and communal projects, a commercially driven and competitive environment for video blogging and gaming on YouTube, and a dribble of decentralized, nonprofit, and open-source platforms struggling to compete.

And the decline is evident across the web. A few examples. Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine has seen a decline in links, at 5,000, down from 20,000. Wikipedia struggles to retain its contributors. Commenters on Global Voices shift to social media debate platforms. Clay Shirky way back in 2003 noticed the power law tendencies within blogging communities, observing that “freedom of choice makes stars inevitable,” that inequality in attention is built into design of our networked societies.

This goes some way to explaining the decline in the single-author blog as a mode of practice, if not in absolute numbers. Obvious culprits include the changing of habits that led to the demoting of the linkback, the blogroll, the personal comment, and the ease of use of social media platforms and apps. Blogs may not die, but they have settled into a middle passage, a contest between hope and futility, created, abandoned, revived, loathed.

Early blogging platforms, of course, were also owned by companies: Blogger, WordPress, Typepress, Livejournal. A hand-built CMS was only for the brave and technically literate few. But blogs on newer corporate platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Medium present other concerns: their lack of inter-operability or conventions for linking; their ability to set restrictions for behavior for their users, from real-name policies to nudity restrictions; their uneven ability to manage harassment, hate speech, or speech deemed illegal by governments; their unequal attention to different languages and their cultural conventions; their algorithmic mediation black boxes, and their restrictions of access for citizens of some countries that are deemed supporters of terrorism, such as Iran by other counties where many commercial platforms are made, such as the US.

Today we also face a confusion of forms and abundance of platforms, driven in part by venture capital flowing into platform creation, which is in turn driven by attempts to participate in or capture attention markets. For the internet user, it is now clear that attention is for sale, and that those with resources have an advantage in the attention game over those without. For the online activist, obscurity is now a bigger problem than anonymity. Silence is also a response of a loss of a sense of a defined social space. For whom are we writing or speaking? This is not just a failure of social software, it is a failure of the social. All forms are available to us, and those we don’t have we can invent to serve. The larger condition, of futility, of an echoless space, is not a necessary agony, but it is pervasive.

Finally, we have seen a cultural shift from thinking of the internet as a space of optimism and engagement to fear and harassment. In fairness, the optimism was only ever warranted for the talented, the connected, and those of us lucky enough to live in countries with rule of law and a measure of democratic governance. Pervasive surveillance, online terror, mass trolling and shaming, human flesh search engines today occupy a significant portion of online life. I don’t mean a decline in civility — because that assumes more civility in the past — but more visibility within platforms has led to a mass of online hate and intolerance that too often shuts down people with marginal views and identities. The threat that many feel when attempting online speech has become a norm. And that threat is not abstract. At Global Voices we too regularly see the effects on our friends, colleagues and communities: the murder of Bangladeshi bloggers for voicing their expression, the imprisonment of the Zone9 blogging collective in Ethiopia, the restrictions on speech in Russia, the imprisonment of online activists in Egypt, and their disappearance and death in Syria.

What is left? This is another kind of agony. Perhaps we have forgotten more than we knew – link rot tells us this. Perhaps the agony of indecision has led to a tipping point. Our debate over forms of speech seems to dominate our online discussions. We daily receive newsletters filled with navel-gazing Medium posts that discuss internet design and functionality, marketing and self-promotion, self-control and the evils of online addiction. We begin with technology rather than with people, and encounter stories that seek, obscurely and desperately, to sell us something.

In any case, the migration from single-author blogs to corporate platforms is nearly complete. A shift from journaling to essay-writing, from capturing the ephemeral to a need to say something that fits within a market niche. From a space in which a blog showed the many facets of an individual’s interests to one in which we agonize over branding and message. Original ideas are rare and quickly subsumed, adopted and remixed and their value suspect. Our machines can class and categorize our work and show us the endless, repetitive loops we follow in our heads. We write for those machines, rather than for readers, listeners, peers.

Again, what is left? We rush toward the extreme. The inevitable act of terror as literature. The final agony of terror as beauty, in the Greek mode, delivered just for us. 20th century terror was created for a mass media audiences, acts of grandeur to be witnessed on our television screens, driven by epic narratives such as airport bombings; its nadir the destruction of the World Trade Center. 21st century terror is to be viewed alone, on our mobiles as we commute, or walk, or shit, or during some other daily banality. Terrorists and mass shooters now regularly film themselves in the act of slaughter, and a terrorist can shift the direction of a war by depicting an unspeakable moral transgression and broadcasting it. A collective agony with the swing of a blade and a public beheading: a medieval punishment for a journalist who embodies rational thought, civil debate, and the impartial search for truth.