A question that has cropped up a good few times over the course of the last few years is whether or not social networking sites will ultimately win out over the humble weblog. Except people often use much more extreme language for this, so perhaps I should say will social networks kill blogging. Well, no, I don’t think so. In some ways they’re probably helping blogging (in the classical sense) along its evolutionary journey. And here’s why.
Back in the nineties, personal publishing on the web was, by today’s standards, fiddly at best. Initially, if you could craft some HTML, get a web host and operate an FTP client, you would whack up a page or two. And we did, in our thousands. Basic markup is relatively easy to grasp, many FTP clients had already evolved far beyond the command line, and there were plenty of hosting companies starting up everywhere. Indeed, it was common for the ISPs that were selling us our dial-up connectivity also to offer some hosting space, and were pretty good at documenting the process of putting stuff on it. And so the popular web began in earnest, and grew at an ever-increasing pace.
But, for the many, the above steps were hurdles. I was enthusiastic about computers and networks (and enthusiasm mattered more than skill back then), so I was happy to trial-and-error my way through the process of putting pages up. But there were many who did not share my technical interests.
Moreover, I happened to know a handful of people who knew more about computers than me, Mr McLellan among them. So typically any barriers to entry could easily be demolished either by the use of a new-fangled search engine, or old-fangled telephone. But, again, not everyone had access to such resources. For many, not only was the web new, but so was the computer at which they sat.
That said, the avalanche had begun. Computer literacy was rampaging through the populous. The PC was getting cheaper and faster, and were selling by the hundreds of thousands. Most significantly, the majority were already armed with a web browser and often a modem too. I believe the party really started, particularly in the UK, when ISPs were able to offer connectivity funded by the phone call alone, as opposed to a monthly subscription, and suddenly the internet was open to the masses. And, of all its offerings, it was the web that showed the most creative potential.
The snowball effect brought forth people who wanted to browse, and people who wanted to publish. Quickly, the Venn diagram of browsers and publishers overlapped more and more. Significantly, clever folks had spotted the technical hurled that stood before those who wished to publish, and began devising ways to tear them down.
Although some weblogs pre-date this, blogging took off in earnest with the availability of tools that took care of the technical aspects of publishing, leaving the user free to conceive a layout and then focus on content. Blogger, most notably, afforded its users one-click publishing from 1999 onwards, and carved out a usability model for its successors. The hurdles fell — from that point onwards, knowledge of HTML and FTP (and, eventually, even hosting) fell away. If you could use a browser, you could publish. Possibly more significantly, with no technical barriers to entry, anyone could go from concept to website in, literally, minutes.
Blogging, however, is constrained by more than just technical hurdles. Publishing a continuous stream of content requires… a continuous stream of content to publish. If you’re not a writer or journalist, it’s actually pretty hard to come up with the content. Indeed, if like me you work in the industry of producing sites or other digital assets for people, you’ll doubtless be aware that sourcing the content for a page can sometimes be one of the biggest challenges in a project. Put bluntly, writing is harder than it looks.
Enter microblogging, and the social networking sites. A tweet or status update is, deliberately, a good place for a short idea. So, not only do these sites tear down the technical hurdles of online publishing, they also remove the editorial hurdles. But does their emergence mark the coup de grâce for blogs? I’d argue not quite.
What we currently call “social networking” is itself evolving. Even though Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are commonly lumped together in such discussions, it’s increasingly clear that these companies are pulling in different directions. They are not diametrically opposed, but they are diverging.
Twitter, perhaps by virtue of being the smaller of the two, no longer describes itself as a social network, but rather a communication mechanism not unlike email, instant messaging or SMS. Facebook, on the other hand, seems more concerned with being its members’ online identity provider in the first instance. Meanwhile Google+ seems to be an effort to “socialise” an existing and perhaps disparate suite of products and services in a cohesive way.
Of course, they have common and competing functionality, of which the status update is perhaps the most obvious. While specific functionality might compete, the sites themselves increasingly do not. Slowly but surely, they’re using a similar ethos to different ends.
So what does this mean for blogging? Well, if blogging were nothing more than functionality, I’d agree that it might be in trouble. And those services that have attracted certain segments of the populous, perhaps segments who are typically less concerned with crafting more lengthy content on subjects, will likely feel a pinch. But blogging is more than a feature; it is a medium, and its strength is in its flexibility. If you want to fling a funny YouTube video to your friends, you’ll probably do so via a status update Twitter, Facebook etc. But if you want to publish something more long-form or, crucially, something more persistent, a blog post will likely win out over a status update.
Thinking back twenty years, there was email, usenet, newsgroups and the web — four ways of conveying information, each with strengths. Want to send a thing to a person? Email is ideal. Want to discuss something? Usenet or newsgroups is perhaps a better fit. But if you want to find something, or share something with the world outside of the people you know, the web had the edge.
So it is with social networking sites and blogging. Minutes after you tweet, whatever it was you said drops into a colossal haystack. The chances of someone finding your 140 characters on the off-chance, say, a year later, is pretty remote. More importantly, the chances of those 140 characters still bearing any relevance drops rapidly over time. While tweets of old are still accessible, they are mere needles in an ever-growing haystack.
Blog posts, on the other hand, persist. For a start, typically there’s typically more to them, and they commonly contain more well-formed thoughts, opinions and ideas. Their relative scale means they’re typically fewer in number, but greater in depth. Search engines have a better chance of determining their relevance to a given search term. And, of course, the author has greater control of what it is they achieve.
While the status update functionality of social networking sites, as they stand, will most likely take a decent swipe out of the lower end of blogging (in terms of scale, or depth) I believe, if anything, that this will help the blog to regain its collective identity. A blog post will imply something about itself, by virtue of its existence.
Here on BIAB, as you may have noticed, blogging has renewed vigour this year. For as long as there are bloggers, there will be blogs.