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.
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