Do Blogs Have a Future in the Atheist Movement? December 20, 2013

Do Blogs Have a Future in the Atheist Movement?

So what is going on with blogs these days? If you’re like me, and you keep abreast of news and opinion on technology and media, you’ve already probably been told many, many times that the blog is dead, a medium that served its purpose in the twenty-aughts, but has now been rendered mostly irrelevant by Tweetbooksnaptumblegram.

Apparently Hemant is a little bit like me too (poor guy), and he pointed me to this post at Neiman Journalism Lab by blog pioneer Jason Kottke that, despite Kottke’s entrenchment in the form, prophesies its demise, and in its place are the ephemeral and the institutional:

Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

Instead of launching blogs, companies are building mobile apps, Newsstand magazines on iOS, and things like The Verge. The Verge or Gawker or Talking Points Memo or BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post are no more blogs than The New York Times or Fox News, and they are increasingly not referring to themselves as such.

Okay, so why talk about this here in Atheistville? Frankly, it’s hard for me to even imagine a robust skepto-atheist movement without the rise of blogs. Though I don’t have a research paper backing me up, I think it’s a pretty fair guess that without the ease and lack of expense associated with publishing blogs, and how freely they allow for the spread of information, we skepto-atheists might not be as strong and ascendant as we are today. You can say that nonbelievers found each other, unhindered by geography, because of the Internet generally, but I think we did it because of blogs. Yeah, maybe a lot of supernerds were able to commiserate over their atheology over Usenet back in Olden Tymes, but for this great flowering of secular and skeptic thought to emerge as it has, we needed the medium of the blog. Forums are fine for cloistered ultra-niches, but that cross between a news article and a coffee shop chat that blogs represented allowed for anyone to stumble across content to which they might have never been exposed.

Okay, so that’s the past. What about now? What about down the road? Will skepto-atheists still be relying so heavily on blogs in ten years? I’m guessing yes. The main reason is that we are a movement and a community based largely on proving Some Big Point that most or far too many people still don’t agree with. To be extremely general, let’s say the Big Point is that magical thinking is wrong, and lots of times really bad. You can apply that to all sorts of things, from religion to alt-med to The Secret to UFO conspiracy theories and so on. And blogs are still the best way to make that Big Point.

To my mind, blogs represent the intellectual clearinghouse, the library of ideas of the community. Of course we’re active on Twitter, whether we’re sharing links or arguing or telling dumb jokes (at least that’s what I do on Twitter). Of course we do Facebook, because, you know, I think it’s now required by law. And yes, you can have substantive conversations on both platforms (and if you’re Syd LeRoy you can even make meaningful selfies on Instagram), but they are designed for a kind of transience. You post your thoughts, you share your links, and you know that they will — fairly quickly — drift down the stream into web oblivion. Yeah, you can find them again if you fiddle around, but for the purposes of daily use, those posts are pretty much gone.

The skepto-atheist community does and will continue to squeeze these platforms for all they’re worth, but they leave little to refer back to. You want to remember that awesome way Person X rebutted the argument from design? You go look back at their blog post on same. How is Atheist Luminary Y responding to a news development? Watch his or her blog. What was the blow-by-blow on that argument about accomodationism between so-and-so and such-and-such? Go look at the blogs. Yeah, you can piece together a flurry of tweets, but to read and understand what the people in our movement are thinking about, responding to, and working on in mostly-real time (and at the same time preserved for easy access in the future), the blog format remains optimal.

On the other side of Kottke’s model, you have the big institutional players, whether they be Old Media like the New York Times or The Atlantic (on which the blog format is employed as a supplement to the “real stuff,” but those lines are blurrier now than they’ve ever been), or outlets that are born of the Internet age, but are also large, multifaceted outlets for which the word “blog” doesn’t seem to apply, even if they used to be plain-old blogs. Talking Points Memo or The Verge or what have you. Why not let these dominate the skepto-atheosphere?

Two reasons. First, they may not have us. Growing as we are, we are still somewhat ensconced in our own corner of the Internet, chipping away at the mainstream. We can get coverage at these outlets (and if they’re “edgier” or more progressively-minded, we fair better than we otherwise might), but we rarely control them. And if we did, we’d be subject to the same market forces as they are, searching for monetizing schemes and ways to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

But more to the point, once you leave the realm of the plain-old blog and become an “outlet” or a “publication” (yes, the terminology is as blurry as anything else in this discussion, so let’s not get too hung up), there’s a shift in tone, a change in the character of the content. We move from what I think is one of blogging’s strong points, its less-formal, conversational presentation, and toward “pieces,” presented in a voice that is speaking more from the perspective of the outlet or the institution, and less from the heart and head of the individual. Note that Josh Marshall runs Talking Points Memo like a news site, but maintains on that site an editor’s blog.

Look at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. Despite the fact that it’s enormously popular, and despite that it’s actually written by a small staff, it is presented as the voice of one man. It is conversational in that it posts frequently, follows up loosely, and responds to queries and disagreements in real time. The Dish, huge as it is, is a blog.

Look at Patheos (where this blog lives) or Freethought Blogs. These are large sites filled with many different voices, but each individual blog is its own. You can seek out those individual voices and stick with them as you choose. You go to The Verge, for example, you’re probably not necessarily looking to hear specifically from one of their staffers (unless you’re a huge tech nerd like me) — you probably just want the take of The Verge generally. But if you go to Patheos, you probably already know which blogger you’re looking to hear from. You may also serendipitously discover others that share the network space, but those will be additional individuals who will rise or fall in your mind on their own merits, not on the site’s as a whole.

It’s these individual voices that are still crucial, I think, to the skepto-atheist community, which is still organizing, still deciding what it wants to be and what it wants to stand for. Hell, millions who ought to be in it still haven’t even discovered it yet! Hearing from individual human beings about their thoughts, arguments, doubts, rebuttals, jokes, what have you, is what best connects us. It’s what, well, humanizes whatever it is we are.

Honestly, though I’m making a case for blogs’ ongoing relevance to us seculars, I’m really arguing for blogs more generally. They don’t have to be dominant to have longterm cultural importance. But they need to be a large part of the media spectrum. They are now, and I bet they will be for a very long time.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Abram Larson

    The 24-7 news media loves all these new sound-bite producing social media programs: Twitter, tumbler, instagram whatever. The Huffington Post and CNN have whole articles about “look what these people said on twitter.”

    I can’t speak to what the kids are into these days, but as someone who actually likes to read more than 140 characters at a time, I won’t be ditching blogs any time soon. I still use my freaking RSS reader to consolidate them. (stupid google getting rid of Reader). I’m 31, which I realize is old in internet years, but I never could get in to twitter as there is just no substance.

  • Every commenter here reads as one blog, and isn’t a lurker, so we can expect a lot of blogging exceptionalism. But the blogging exceptionalists are right! Blogs are the best medium. They perfectly balance the participatory nature of social networks with the coherence of old media. They allow people to examine niche interests with greater depth than is available anywhere else.

    I’m willing to accept that blogs are declining in popularity. I’m fine with it, even. But I hope there will always be some room for blogs.

  • Terry Firma

    I find Twitter incredibly uncompelling, even frustrating, especially as a medium for argumentation and ideas. Shallowness is Twitter’s currency. Even though I’ve been known to tweet, I just don’t see the attraction.

    Now get off my lawn!

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    @terryfirma What? You don’t like reading…(1/3) #doblogshavefuture

    @terryfirma …discussions that are… (2/3) #doblogshavefuture

    @terryfirma …formatted like this? (3/3) #doblogshavefuture

  • SeekerLancer

    I prefer my information in more than sound bytes. Social media is more popular, sure, but it doesn’t serve the same purpose.

  • cyb pauli

    I guess Im a freak but if I want to read/find news stories or editorials about political topics that interest me or demographics Im in (PoC, feminism, LGBT especially T, far-left, atheism, etc) I HAVE to read blogs. I have NYT, NPR and other vetted news outlets in my Facebook feed and they rarely deliver the stories I get here.

  • Richard Tingley

    In this world of media that is more interested in ad revenue than the truth, I can not imagine what it would be like without blogs. They are the only true news left.

  • Guillermo

    Personally, I’ve been keeping up with your blog through Facebook. If I want to search for a specific entry from the past, I come directly to your blog and search for it. Honestly, although I don’t know very many people who still subscribe directly to blogs, I don’t see why they would die, as long as you use them together with (not replace with) social media.

  • Rain

    Twitter is okay depending on the twitterer. Leonardo DiCaprio? Boring constant activist tweets, zero sense of humor. John Cusack? Funny guy, but totally kooky what with the lizard people and UFOs and whatnot. (Wow.) William Shatner? Total. Awesome. (I guess. Apparently.) Regular normal people have the best tweets of all. Yeah, the regular folksy people you fancy-pants self-interested people would never follow in a million years.

  • WallofSleep

    It’s perfectly suited for the Palin’s of the world, though, whose entire political philosophy can be summed up in a wingnut bumper-sticker or two.

  • bearclover

    I’m actually going in the opposite direction. I used to rely on Facetube to keep me updated, but have found with their new algorithms, I dont get a reliable feed. So now I’ve gone back (or try to as time permits), to subscribing to rss feeds and the like so I don’t miss a post.

  • Rain

    Speaking of which, I just saw this person on twitter. It’s hard to know if they are for real or not. Somebody help them if they are fore real.

  • CanadianNihilist

    I have no idea what you just said.

    I used to be hip and with it. But what’s it changed and what I’m with isn’t hip anymore. Now everything scary and new to me,
    It happened to me and it’ll happen to you too!

  • articulett

    That’s what I was thinking. Teens are generally not great writers, nor are many people interested in what they have to say. From my perspective, the only people interested in teens are younger teens. Let them cut their teeth on facebook and reddit and refine their writing in school.

  • Dan

    The fact that young people are not starting blogs is a sign of the medium maturing, not going away. You may remember the time when lots of young people created their own websites: “This is a picture of my dog. Here is me playing my guitar. My favorite movie is Star Wars. Thanks for visiting!” The fact that they mostly stopped doing that didn’t mean web pages had no future! People just realized that creating a compelling website took effort. Now they post their content on websites that already exist and get visited.

  • Matt E. S.

    I think a lot of tech writers may be overeager in their doomsday prognostications for blogs; I’m 16, and I find myself using frequently, them not just as a way of of educating and informing myself but also as a means of entertainment (anyone here read the Comics Curmudgeon?). I have a blog of my own, and so do at least a few of my friends.

  • Not liking Twitter or Facebook, I spend far more time in blogs reading something intelligent.

  • Jay

    I took a real stab at Twitter and Facebook, but neither could capture my attention for long. Like you, my lawn is beautiful until the damn kids walk all over it. That said:

    Twitter: 140 characters is not enough for me to express my thoughts. I’m far more verbose, and I want to read substantially more verbosity. “But Jay, the kids say, how will you keep up with breaking news?” With my rss feed, I reply. The one that shows me 140 characters but then expands into pages of text upon command.

    I like to think. I like to ponder. I like both those things far, VASTLY FAR MORE than consuming. Twitter can’t fill that need. It’s ADD in electronic form. Always begging for attention, never delivering enough to satiate.

    Facebook: Connecting with my friends and family is good. Until they start posting more than I’d get out of our normal interactions. Then it’s bad. Combine that with liking things for me when I abhor them, pestering me to play the same games as those I know, and trying to do all that you can to suck me in, link every click I make, every word I read to one profile, and I’m not interested. I’ll email. I’ll pick up the phone and call. Or if they’re interested, they can read….my…

  • There is very little in the way of valuable content to be found on Twitter, FB, etc. At best these provide some people with pointers to actual content… typically some sort of online article. Call that a blog, or whatever you want.

  • I don’t update my blog as much as I have in the past, but still prefer it for posting thoughts that require more context and explanation that does well on the lower attention span forms of media.

  • Drew M.

    There is a site to help with that, which I find hilarious since it defeats the whole basis of Twitter.

  • B Dallmann

    Blogs are dead? Shit. I JUST jumped on the blog bandwagon a few months ago…

  • jdm8

    A lot of these platforms have their own merits. It seems Facebook and Google+ are the most similar to blogs, they allow similar use.

    A problem is that you have to live by their system, though you are living within Patheos’ system, so maybe it’s not that different. But the social media platforms mean that users have to buy into the system in order to access your stories and participate.

  • Actually I think the most similar platform is Tumblr. Tumblrs are practically blogs, except that by default there’s no comment system, and “reblogging” is encouraged as a substitute.

    FB and G+ are connected to social networks which are primarily used for other purposes (like keeping track of friends). This makes a big difference in who follows who, and what people are willing to talk about. Or at least, I think so.

  • Rob

    I saw the signal in the sky: someone is wrong on the internet.

    Irony abounds, if only in a single instance. What separates blogs from all other non-www media is the ability to convey complex and subtle ideas to Everyone, AND seed an equally complex conversation (with up to 100s, even 1000s, of participants) on the chosen topic.So this blogger uses a blog to convey an idea more appropriate to one of those self-destructing media, eg. Vine!

    Or put it this way: If he’s right, he’s likely predicting the end of complex discussions per se, not just the many blogs that host them. So I hope he’s wrong!

  • Rain

    I can’t believe all the people ignored this. You’re a all full of bullshit!

  • Mark Walter

    Blogs have a somewhat unacknowledged manner of modifying behavior: they give us space to think, room to breathe our thoughts. We are currently immersed – as a society – in a 140 character lifestyle that champions the ‘pivot’, exalts candy-striper apps, and funds the gospel of quick thinking and snap decisions. Shallow-end living inevitably rebalances in favor of a yearning for something deeper, more profound and wise. Balancing between objectivity and subjectivity, between the rational and irrational, between right and wrong, has always been a lonely place. Whether your blog has no readers or ten thousand, then perhaps at its best its role is that of the monastic cave high on the mountain.

  • Olde School Blogger here. i gave it up, after many years of punching out 8 or more posts a day, every day, on my (political issues) blog. we did pretty good when i was writing there, got linked to by “real” news orgs like the Guardian and NYT, as well as other places that are ‘famous’ in the blogging world. at one point we had tens of thousands of unique daily hits, and back then that was a big deal. i’ve been a blogger and commenting type since the mid 90s. /GOML

    i’m not too worried about the ‘death of the blog.’ if the kids like the twitter, that’s fine. eventually, they will mature and find they have more to say, or more they want other people to know, beyond “Ur favorite twitter feed Sux!!!elevnty” as a technology, the “long form” post isn’t going away any time soon. if anything, it’s growing and evolving and the short form post is just another development in that process.

    people who want to read, will. people who want to react, will. people who want to do both at different times and situations, will.

    what is more interesting to me is how blog communities have ossified, to a certain extent. anyone else remember “blogroll amnesty day?” that was a fascinating exercise in self-purging for equally fascinating and disturbing reasons, in political blogging. but these days, most communities are so self selecting i wonder if people realize just how much they aren’t seeing, living in little echo chambers. i’m guilty of this myself, being old and tired. 😉

    meh, don’t worry about it, Paul. keep on keepin on. the world is a big place with billions of potential readers and you never know when something you throw into the ether will “go viral.”

    as the Artists say: the need to create is its own reward. real artists will produce art, regardless of (financial, media, etc) demand.

  • John Gills

    Put me down as a member of the “Fogies for Blogs” society!

  • MadSat

    That may be the truest statement ever made about twitter. Twitter is the equivalent of the comments on a blog post, with no post.

  • I had exactly the same experience, when suddenly phones had buttons and clocks had no hands. The good news is that since then i’ve lived more than half a century with everything new and scary, and I’m fine. You get used to it.

  • rg57

    I agree that atheist blogs will have a long future. I think places like FtB or Skeptic Ink wont, because of the heavy-handed nature of their owners/management. But places like Patheos seem to be run smartly, even if they aren’t strictly atheist blog sites.

    I think the blogs with the brightest future are those that are simply run by individuals, not affiliated with a network or collection of other blogs. Atheists generally respect independence. So while I do read Friendly Atheist, I also read about 30 atheist blogs that aren’t affiliated with any larger group. They’re just scientists, philosophers, activists, and average folk who have something to say about the universe, justice, politics, and life. They have a long future.

    In contrast, and with any luck, Twitter (in any form) will be gone in five years. The entire concept is a kludge on a broken communication system. Once text messages are fixed in the next generation of phones, Twitter becomes irrelevant. Some tiny tweaks to Disqus easily make it the Twitter-killer.

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