How do blogs need to evolve?
16 March 2012
This is a subject that is near and dear to me. It is a bit clich to say this but I've been blogging since before it was a common verb. I've watched, very closely, as the blogging world has evolved over the last decade and even took some small part in that evolution.
It wasn't that long ago that I wrote that I thought that blogs were ripe for disruption. And I still think we're on the cusp of that. Or, perhaps, it is happening right in front of my eyes and I am simply not noticing it.
In a recent discussion between Anil Dash and a few other veterans of blogging Anil mentioned that even something as simple as a status update or tweet could be considered blogging. Although Twitter is rarely referred to this way today it was, at its inception, called a microblogging service. So maybe blogging has already evolved and we just haven't noticed. The frog in the boiling pot comes to mind.
Although the conversation seemed to focus a lot on commenting I would have liked to have seen much more discussion around the topic of ownership. Some of the participants felt that ownership was important. Others not as much. If you look at how the party split it was split between the platform-builders and service-builders. Ev and Meg built services (Blogger, Kinja, Twitter) while Anil worked on a platform (Movable Type). I think there was much more to say on this topic.
Meg Hourihan on ownership:
But I'm not convinced people view what they're doing [on social networks] as producing content, nor thinking it's something they should own, anymore than I want to "own" my phone call with a friend. (Sure I don't want someone to record it and sell it, but that's different.) My call is ephemeral, and it's about conversation and communication, not content.
While Meg believes that she's seeing the world as it is I think she's really just identified the problem with these social networks. Twitter and Facebook have permenant URLs for every single tweet and status update that people post. Those links are not ephemeral as Meg describes. She may feel as though they are because Twitter doesn't give you access to your entire stream but - in reality - these tweets do not go away.
And that's where Anil nails it.
So that point is very, very interesting, Meg: What if the phone company gave you free unlimited phone calls but they could record, monitor and sell your phone calls and information about what you said on them.
I do agree so much of why people don't value ownership in social media is that they see it as conversation, not content, but that's often because we don't *know* in advance when it becomes meaningful.
In other words, people are viewing Twitter and Facebook as conversation platforms more than they view them as publishing platforms. Facebook and Twitter are finding value in what we all consider to be valueless conversation. They are making money based on what we are saying, what we're interested in, and what is happening in the world. If they find value in our "content" why don't we? And, if they treat this information as permanent why aren't we?
Back to the evolution of blogs. I don't think there is much argument about whether or not Twitter and Facebook can be considered blogging platforms. So we should lump them into the conversation of how blogs need to evolve. Which brings us full circle back to ownership. I think that people should own their own content. And they should know, up front, that they will own the content if they use a particular service or choose to host it themselves. It shouldn't matter. They should also feel as though the content they post to any service is to be considered permanent - not a phone call that is soon forgotten.
I don't think that a blog needs to run on software that you install on your own server in order for you to feel as though you own the content. WordPress.com and WordPress.org are nearly identical services with the same import and export capabilities yet one is a service and the other a platform. So you can use either of these products and feel pretty confident that you own the content and that the information you post there is permanent.
So how does this particular aspect of blogging need to evolve? I think other services such as Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and (fill in the blank) should do a better job of making your content searchable and accessible (read: exportable into a readable format) right out of the box. Not hidden somewhere in a Mac-only application or three-levels-deep in an API doc. One click easy.
The next aspect of blogging that I believe needs to evolve is the reverse-chronological homepage. In May of 2011 I wrote:
I believe the blog format is ready for disruption. Perhaps there doesn’t need to be “the next” WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogger for this to happen. Maybe all we really need is a few pioneers to spearhead an effort to change the way blogs are laid-out on the screen. There are still so many problems to solve; how new readers and also long-time subscribers consume the stream of posts, how people identify with the content of the blog on the home page, how to see what the blog is all about, how to make money, how to share, and how interact and provide feedback on the content.
Imagine you landed on /blog/ here at my cdevroe.com URL. What you'd find there would be what the typical blog homepage looks like. Just a list of posts from newest to oldest. It'd be very difficult to find out what I blogged about based on only the last few posts. This is why I chose to put my about page front-and-center. I believe that is a better way to get to know me, what I'm up to, and what my blog is about.
I don't think the blog format is broken but it is certainly stale. Someone needs to come along and give us a new way to look at things. And not just in a novel way like tiles or something else that is pretty and neat to look at - I'd like to see something that is valuable, makes it really easy to see what the blog is about, perhaps what is popular now, or what was at one time popular. I think of the currently most visited URLs here on this blog. They are not the most recent posts. Not by a long shot. My top URLs on this blog are a few links that I've posted in the past that have somehow found their way to the top of the search engine rankings. Would that be important to show on the homepage of a blog? Or, what about the fact that a few of my posts have had hundreds and hundreds of comments? Would that be important to show?
Sidebar "widgets" sprang up years ago as ways to solve some of these issues. Related posts, popular posts, most-used tags, and other widgets made it easier to discover content that has already been pushed off of the homepage. But I still think that someone, somewhere has an idea of how to fix these issues and that one day we'll wake up and someone will have made something better.
One last issue that I would have liked to see discussed in regards to what aspect of blogs that may need to evolve would be the use of databases. This is a more technical topic than the others but many platforms and services suffer from downtime whenever a post goes viral or hits the mass media. This simply shouldn't happen.
Each platform and service chooses to handle content management in their own unique ways. Blogger and Moveable Type, for instance, used to publish HTML files (I have no idea what they do nowadays) while WordPress opted to use a simple database to host the content and serve those pages dynamically. Each approach has their pros and cons. But one thing is certain - it is far easier to serve a static HTML file millions of times than it is to request content from a database millions of times. Today's web is one where at any moment an URL could be plagued by millions of visitors. Modern day blogging platforms and services should take this into consideration regardless if it was manually installed or hosted.
Blogger, Tumblr, WordPress.com, Twitter, Facebook all have extremely capable infrastructures in place to handle these issues. With WordPress.org you're on your own to setup WordPress properly to handle load. It has taken some heat for this and while the argument could be made that people that are installing software on their own server should know better - the argument could also be made that by simply pre-bundling one of the many caching plugins into the core codebase this issue would be all but solved.
Tons of traffic to any particular post shouldn't be thought of as an edge case. If you're a blogger it will happen. Even if you've been writing for 40 years and it has never happened to you. It will. You shouldn't have to worry about whether or not your blogging product of choice will crumble under the pressure of today's web. Ever.
I could go on about this topic all day. The rest of the discussion is fantastic and I suggest that anyone with even a passing curiosity about the world of blogging - where it has been and where it is going - should give it a read at your next opportunity.