Could the whole decade-long explosion of blogging have been a mere fad — the transitory adolescence of a Web destined to grow up? Rebecca Mead's 2000 New Yorker piece about Blogger and Meg Hourihan and Kottke had referred to blogging as "the CB radio of the Dave Eggers generation." Nicholas Carr, meanwhile, compared the blogosphere to the flourishing of ham radio in the early days of broadcasting. It had taken roughly two decades for "social production" of radio to be absorbed into "corporate production," Carr observed. Now, he maintained, with only the slightest hint of regret, the same thing was happening somewhat more quickly to bloggers, as the amateurs got pushed to the periphery by the pros.
Historically, the succession of media forms and technologies follows a predictable pattern: every innovation arrives with a fanfare announcing that it will replace its predecessor. But when the dust settles, the newcomer almost always winds up having redefined that predecessor rather than eliminated it. Radio did not kill off the telegraph. (Although it is now, finally, dead — Western Union shut down telegram service in 2006 — it was the Internet that delivered the final blow.) Television killed off neither radio nor the newspaper. The cinema failed to kill live theater. Home video did not shutter the movie theaters. The Web may be wreaking havoc on the newspaper industry, but it is unlikely to wipe out all publishing on paper in the near future.
Similarly, as people have flocked to Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, they will not stop posting to or reading blogs — but their patterns of blogging will change. The social networks turn out to be an easier and more efficient channel for casual messages intended for a handful of friends. If what you want to tell the world requires only 140 characters, you may well choose to say it on Twitter instead of in a blog post. As a result, some unquantifiable portion of the world's blogging has already started to change, to become a little more deliberate, a little less telephonic in nature.
But there is scant sign of mass abandonment of the form. There's likely to be a long future in which a great number of people who wish to communicate online find the unique characteristics of a blog irresistible. Next to the traditions and constraints of older media on paper or the airwaves, blogging tends to look anarchic and ephemeral and superficial. But next to the crowd-driven networking on Facebook or the stream of Twitter snippets, blogs appear far more substantial and free-standing and powerful. A blog lets you define yourself, whereas on a social network you are more likely to be defined by others. Sure, blog readers can write comments — but the blogger can delete the comments, or disemvowel them, or turn them off entirely. Sure, a blog is dependent on the links you point outward and those that others point in; but it has its own independent existence in a way that no amount of messaging and chat and interaction on a social networking site can match. A blog is not necessarily better than a Facebook profile, nor is it worse; it is, simply, different.
So, while there is no question that the energy that has poured into Facebook and its ilk in the latter part of the 2000s has drawn some of the excitement and media attention that bloggers formerly took for granted, it is also true that the rise of the social networks clarifies exactly what characteristics made blogging last. They are the same traits that once excited its earliest pioneers. A blog lets you raise your voice without asking anyone's permission, and no one is in a position to tell you to shut up. It is, as the journalism scholar Jay Rosen puts it, "a little First Amendment machine," an engine of free speech operating powerfully at a fulcrum-point between individual autonomy and the pressures of the group. Blogging uniquely straddles the acts of writing and reading; it can be private and public, solitary and gregarious, in ratios that each practitioner sets for himself. It is hardly the only way to project yourself onto the Web, and today it is no longer the easiest way. But it remains the most interesting way. Nothing else so richly combines the invitation to speak your mind with the opportunity to mix it up with other minds.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Scott Rosenberg.