The Online Conversation That’s Dying Out

Ezra Klein acknowledges it:

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. … The incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web. The need to create content that “travels” is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share. I think we’re getting better at serving a huge audience even as we’re getting worse at serving a loyal one.

I found Ezra’s piece dead on the money. I’ll have more to say in due course, but this paradox of more and more eyeballs but less and less loyalty or commitment is a real one. The basic model for online journalism today – social media as the delivery mechanism, maximum quantity for ad money, and sponsored content to create some revenue – is one I’m deeply skeptical of. I had a chat with a young journalist at a major online site recently and he was discussing how many millions of uniques the site had had the previous month. He told me that everyone was very proud of themselves for such a total, and then confessed: “But I’m not sure what millions of uniques actually means.”

Since I’ll be out of blogging soon and won’t have to immediately recant and correct myself, let me conjecture a different future. We may be at peak scale in terms of opinion/aggregation/curation websites right now. At some point, the sponsored content machine in which magazines moonlight as advertising and p.r. companies will sputter as readers cannot tell the difference between propaganda and honest argument, and have long since forgotten which site they read anything on. A site that lacks a cohering and distinct identity can become simply a competitor for an endless and often fruitless search for links, tweets and likes. At some point, readers will want a place they know and love and trust and that they will support with their own money. And they will want a return to more of the intimacy and personality of the original blogosphere.

In other words: I think blogging will have a big revival in the near future. I think the more successful sites will be those with smaller scale and more identity and a stronger connection with readers. I think the individual voice is still the most powerful on the web. And I agree with Nick Denton that blogging is “the only truly new media in the age of the web … Blogging is the essential act of journalism in an interactive and conversational age.” I totally understand what many sites are doing on the social media-sponsored content-Twitter-fueled front. It makes sense on many levels. But my money remains on blogging, even as I’m quitting it.

Kevin Drum diagnoses how “most conversation now seems to have moved to Twitter”:

There are advantages to this: it’s faster and it’s open to more people. Blogs were democratizing, and Twitter is even more democratizing. You don’t have to start up your own blog and build up a readership to be heard. All you have to do is have a few followers and get rewteeted a bit.

Needless to say, however, there are disadvantages too.

Twitter is often too fast, and when you combine that with its 140-character limit, you end up with a lot of shrill and indignant replies. Sometimes this is deliberate: it’s what the tweeter really wants to say. But often it’s not. There’s a premium on responding quickly, since Twitter conversations usually last only hours if not minutes, and this means you’re often responding to a blog post in the heat of your very first reaction to something it says—often without even reading the full blog post first. In addition, it’s simply very difficult to convey nuance and tone in 140 characters. Even if you don’t mean to sound shrill and outraged, you often do. Now multiply that by the sheer size of Twitter, where a few initial irate comments can feed hundreds of others within minutes, and you have less a conversation than you do a mindless pile-on.

Tyler Cowen makes clear that he has “no plans to chase traffic from social media”:

The human desire to be social used to be a huge cross-subsidy for music, as young people used musical taste to discover and cement social alliances.  Now we don’t need music so much to do that and indeed music plays a smaller role in the lives of many young people today.  This has been bad for music, although arguably good for sociability and of course good for Mark Zuckerberg.

The “problem” is that the web gives people what they want.  Those who survive as bloggers will be those who do not care too much about what other people want, and who are skilled at reaping cross-subsidies.

I’m with Tyler. Be yourself. Do your work. And they will find you. And serving those readers is all the reward you need.

(Thumbnail image by William Hook)