As Xark approaches its fifth anniversary (I began building it in June 2005, but its conceptual roots reached back to earlier that spring), I find myself increasingly drawn to understanding not only what it has become, but what shaped it. By extension, this reflection is actually a means of looking ahead, into the future present. To wit: What is a blog in the current context?
One thing should be obvious: A blog post in 2010 is NOT the same medium that it was in 2005, and Xark is neither the same idea nor the same entity that it was five years ago, much less five months ago. And while others may consider this topic too meta, I think an exploration of the role and meaning of blogging in the emerging context of this still-new decade is both necessary and interesting.
BLOGGING CIRCA 2005
The idea that became Xark came to me in a dream in the spring of 2005, at a time when newspapers still had to explain what a "blog" was every time they mentioned one. The ""mainstream media" was still writing stories about Wikipedia as if it were an enormous mistake that could yet be corrected if editors could gin-up sufficient public outrage. And venture capitalists (remember them?) were throwing money at podcasting, never imagining that the most valuable product to emerge from that cauldron would be something called Twitter.
In most cases in the spring of 2005, a blog was personal utterance, and popular blogs (as measured by such now quaint-sounding yardsticks as Technorati and the TTLB Ecosystem) tended toward relentless political bombast, as if the discovery of personal web publishing was just an extension of talk radio. Consequently, most blogs circa 2005 were topical monocultures or binary "you're-an-idiot/no-you're-an-idiot" sandlots.
Then again, the spring of 2005 was a unusually dark moment in America history. The second GWB administration had begun in January with palpable White House vindictiveness, the country remained largely in denial about the disaster in Iraq, and the entity we used to call "the Mainstream Media" was not only failing its stated mission of informing the public, it was overtly serving the cause of government misinformation. Many Americans, myself included, felt that we had a civic duty to make use of these new publishing tools to push back against a political and media system that we feared was on the verge of irreparable corruption.
Xark was meant to be both a contribution to that effort and an alternative to the stereotypical tone of politicized blogging. I launched it with a series of invitations to a diverse list of people I considered to be great conversationalists, few of whom had ever published a word on the Web. Most were liberal, but I invited some who were not. Most never took me up on my offer, but by 2006-2007 Xark had a stable of more than half-a-dozen regular contributors who posted essay-quality writing here on all sorts of topics. Daily traffic fluctuated, but it often exceeded 1,000 pageloads and 500 unique visitors for weeks at a time, and regularly averaged better than half those numbers.
Politics were a big part of our early conversations, but we made a concerted effort to go beyond politics in the narrow sense. Xark asserted that our attitudes toward art and music and humor and satire and technology weren't just sub-topics to the general subject of politics, but subjects of significance. Each was related, and each was valuable, and by not placing one above the other, we attempted to foster an interesting community of readers.
BLOGGING IN THE ERA OF FACEBOOK
But that was blogging in 2006-07, and the decline in participation and energy (if not raw traffic) here was noticeable to me in 2008. In practical terms, Xark has dwindled to a roster of one (me), with the occasional contribution by John Sloop. Janet spun off Xarkgirl in 2008, but wasn't able to put much time into it in 2009.
Ironically, as Xark became identified primarily as a "media blog" in 2009, its traffic increased -- even as its community faded. In the old days, a viral post meant new readers joined into discussions on less popular posts. In the new pattern, a Xark post could get 10,000 hits thanks to a mention on Boing-Boing without anyone sticking around to join our other conversations. Except for the occasional viral push around a specific post, readership here has settled into a consistent holding pattern: about 600 subscribers and roughly 100 to 200 unique visitors a day. But this isn't where the conversation is taking place.
So what happened? Well, one possible answer is that I happened, that my personality and decisions drove away other writers and turned off readers. At least one critic has made that claim.
But as I think about everything that has changed in the world since 2005, and about all the additions to our Web 2.0 world over the past four years, it makes a lot of sense that Xark has changed, and must continue to change. Because just think about all the other things that have happened:
Social Media Happened: When I launched Lowcountry Blogs in April 2006 there were 31 identifiable local bloggers in Charleston, and as we grew those numbers in the spring and summer, a question arose: Should we include MySpace pages (for the record, our answer was "no")? Because to be blunt, even though there were a lot of local MySpace pages, their number was still small enough that one could consider them part of a connectible online community.And we were only beginning to think of platforms as walled gardens.
Remember: Facebook wouldn't open itself to everyone until the fall of 2006, and Twitter's SXSW coming-out party was still a year away. No one had ever seen an iPhone. It was a different world.
So in that context, the closest thing most people had to true social media in 2005-06 was a Blogger account and an RSS feed. Since most of the bloggers in those days were struggling to do what 400 million people easily do on Facebook today, the context of blogging was personal and personally constructed in a way it simply isn't today. The links on your blogroll were tremendously significant then. They're an anachronism now.
When I look at the traffic and interaction statistics for this site, it's like looking at a data map of the history of Web 2.0. Xark was a fun place to visit and connect and talk and share things in the pre-Facebook Web. And then those conversations moved to platforms that were better-suited to the kinds of interaction and personal representation that people wanted.
Group blogs became publications: Yes, there were other group blogs (can anyone say Boing-Boing?) back in the day, but blogs still felt novel in 2005-06, and group blogs felt downright zeitgeisty. They had more comments, more conversation, more of a sense that you were participating in the creation of a new culture.
Of course, in this new decade, a blog tends to stand as a long-form information channel or a short-form, newswire extension of another brand. In 2006 I was teaching media professionals how to use Blogger (a marketing director once pointed to the composition screen and asked "Is this where I put my rant?") and fending off hostile questions from the bosses about the "journalistic ethics" of allowing people to comment on things. In 2010, every TV anchor has a blog and a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and the same media bosses who once snidely opposed every "irresponsible" innovation we brought them are now acting to all the world as if they invented the Internet.
So when I come across group blogs today, I'm not surprised when they are essentially co-branded collaborations between long-time online writers who share a common subject and have figured out they can get more traction by working together.I'm not surprised that blogging is a primary activity of consultancies, think-tanks and magazines.I love some of these. But they aren't what Xark aspired to be.
We won: A big part of what motivated the Left in the middle of the last decade was the sense that the Republican Party had stolen the country and trashed the Constitution with the willing acquiescence of Mass Media. And though the mass-media image of a blogger was typically wingers from Powerline and Little Green Footballs besting Dan Rather in 2004, the quiet reality of early blogging was that the Right tended to cluster around a few big-blog celebrities, while the Left tended to be more distributed, conversational and cooperative.
Consequently, as social media took off, the Left adapted to it far more quickly and adeptly than the celebrity-seeking Pajamas Media punditry. While right-wing bloggers obsessed over their intramural attention-whoring contests, we were figuring out how to influence events in meatspace. Creative use of web media, from fundraising to clever video mashups, helped to elect a president who continues to obliterate the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt tactics so favored by the Right's 101st Fightin' Keyboardists.
Having done so, I think most of the left wing of the blogosphere moved on to other things, as is both well and good. Today much of the energy in the blogosphere is the manic rage of the Teabaggers, but rather than figuring out ways to get things done, they remain stuck on acting-out their adolescent psychodramas. Thank goodness.
140: THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
Before the spring of 2007, 140 words would have constituted a short blog post. A year later, the Twitter revolution had reduced that standard to 140 characters, and anything much longer ran the risk of being tagged TLDNR ("Too Long, Did Not Read").
There has been much hand-wringing about this among the professional writing class, which predictably and pathetically assumed that this increase in brevity meant less bandwidth for making their subtle points.
But the notion that the Web is somehow about shallowness (a hyperlink may be brief, but it's the opposite of shallow) missed the important change. Our social media connections represent a spaghetti bowl of decentralized networks for the distribution of content, but the meat of that content typically resides behind a bit.ly link to a site or a blog.
In other words, Twitter and Facebook and Friendfeed gave us a means of circumventing the broadcast-pipe advantages of mainstream media, but these channels weren't themselves always the thing being communicated. The best perspective on this change came from Robin Sloan, writing at Snarkmarket in January:
There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three-thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.
But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:
- Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
- Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.
And this is how we have to understand blogs today. Four years ago they were flow, and for a lot of news organizations, they're still viewed as little more than low-grade, ephemeral dross. But in the real world of the Web, where we are relentlessly building a new-media economy and culture whether we openly acknowledge it or not, blogs are now the stock.
Blogs aren't the only stock out there, of course. Books remain a form of stock, as are quality long-form articles published in any medium. But the truth of the matter is that schlock is schlock, whether it's commissioned by Demand Media or AOL Seed or the features section of your local paper. Schlock may have ephemeral value and brand recognition, but it isn't stock.
Hence, an irony. In the 2005-07 period, people used to tell me that Xark posts were too long. Intimidating. In the post-Facebook age, however, Xark's longer posts are now perceived as what they were all along: essays. No one complained that 2020 Vision: What's Next For News was too long, because the post was stock, and the flow that promoted it took place not here, on Xark, but across multiple sites, all connected by social media.
INTO THE NOW
With these ideas in mind, Xark changes in several ways today.
Gone are the blogrolls, the badges, the real-time RSS connections to other media.
Gone is the Xark Essentials book list, which once represented a collection of life-shaping titles that were suggested by all the authors who once wrote here.
As for Xark's identity as a group blog, well -- that needs to change, too. It's not that I wouldn't enjoy this being a group blog-- it's that calling this a group blog when I'm the author of 35 of the most recent 36 posts (and after that I stopped counting) is simply misleading. Consequently, I've kept John Sloop and Janet Edens on as authors for those moments when they have the time an inclination to write here, but I've closed out the inactive accounts and decided not to recruit a new group of writers.
In other words, after almost five years, Xark is what it is. It's a blog, in transition, trying to follow the Dave Winer integrity dictum: be what you appear to be. It's not clear to me what Xark will become, but I can no longer view its value through the lens of what it once aspired to be, years ago in a world I am grateful to have left behind.