This is a reply to Chris Bateman’s post “The Extinction of Blogs”.
I remember how Chris and I first ‘met’. It was on Twitter (I’m @qwallath, he’s @SpiralChris), and as these things go, I was planning to embed the original tweets below this paragraph, nice and easy. However, since the conversation happened at least a year ago, if not two, I’m having difficulties locating them. Scrolling through my list of Twitter mentions is a hellish task, and besides, they don’t seem to go back more than a few months. In other words, let’s not bother with the historical sources.
Through the haze of memory, then, allow me to paraphrase. Chris said something to the effect of “Applying evolution to cultural phenomena is a dead-end street”. I didn’t know or follow him at the time, but the tweet was retweeted by @taleoftales, who I did follow, so it ended up in my timeline. Since I deal with evolutionary approaches to language (a cultural phenomenon in my book) in my research, I replied that I didn’t agree. Since this was Twitter, I’m pretty sure we didn’t end up in a very convenient conversation, but at that point I did find out that Chris was writing a book about the pitfalls of evolutionary myths in science, religion, and so forth; that book is the commendable The Mythology of Evolution, which I discussed earlier on this blog. Since then, Chris and I have had more regular conversations, often on Twitter, sometimes over on his blog, Only a Game.
This anecdote illustrates a few points about the nature of online communication and conversation. I’ve found that Twitter is a good place for getting in touch with people you don’t know yet. Retweeting someone to your followers is sort of like introducing them to your friends. In other words, there is something of a surprise factor involved, which can lead to nice discoveries and new acquaintances. At the same time, the difficulties of Twitter conversation show that the real action (or ‘content’, if you like) is usually elsewhere; it’s in the place you link to using a tweet.** An exception to this is the ‘tweet-for-tweet’s-sake’, a 140-character joke, anecdote, poem, etc. These are powerful thanks to, not despite, Twitter’s character limit.
As Chris illustrates, things have changed in the past ten years or so when it comes to online conversation. I would say it has evolved in a certain way, if only to be a pest. I remember roughly ten years ago, when nearly all my online conversation took place on forums. They were generally organised around a theme (music, scene, interest), and while they theoretically allowed for long articles and expositions, most of the conversations began abruptly. Someone introduces a topic, other people weigh in. All the conversations were neatly organised by topic/thread, and it was relatively easy to look up older threads, to see the chronological order of the conversation, etc.
It feels almost too banal to describe a forum structure, but comparing it to the organisation of most social media nowadays, the difference is significant. I’m having difficulty expressing that difference, but I feel that Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and the like are far more ephemeral, or rather, what you post on it is. Other people need to read it soon, or it’s lost in an ocean of digital shouts from other people. If you do get replies to your post, it’s a bit easier to keep track of it (notifications and all), but this won’t generally expose the post to new people. Again, the retweet/share/reblog is an exception, and it may prolong the shelf life of a post. Of course, extremely busy forums are a competitive environment for a post as well, but for me it is telling that its main unit of organisation seems to be the thread/conversation, rather than the individual posts that they are composed of.
I should actually be comparing social media to blogs, since that is what Chris’ post revolved around, but I couldn’t help dragging in forums, since I didn’t start blogging long after I has started writing on forums. Anyway, blogs are still a very relevant medium, in my opinion. They can occupy a sort of sweet spot between the popularity of magazine articles, the seriousness of a scientific paper, the privacy of a diary, and the familiarity of a conversation over tea or coffee. This alone makes them unique. However, as Chris indicated, the function of a blog as a conversation medium seems to be on the decline. Since I came late to the blogging party, I can’t really speak from personal experience, but I do agree that for some reason, conversation and interactivity is shifting away from “visiting someone’s page and responding” to “seeing everything in one place (i.e. a social networking site) and replying there, if at all”.
This shift towards reliance on social media for new things to read on the internet has made it harder for individual blog posts to get noticed, even if they are explicitly shared on a networking site, since they have to compete with so many other posts. In addition, because blog posts are generally longer, they are more likely to be relegated to the perilous read-it-later pile. How many of those ever end up actually read?Incidentally, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!
Speaking from my own experience, I think there is a good reason for that, and that is convenience, surely one of the most powerful selection criteria in human cultural evolution (sorry). I’m the kind of person that likes to stay in touch with many different kinds of people and for some reason many of those people have gravitated towards different online presences. If I want to keep in touch with all of them, I need: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Livejournal, RSS, Google+ (though perhaps this one is redundant), and old-fashioned e-mail — there may be more. Obviously, going through each of these individually is pretty much undoable if you also want to get something of your own done during the day. Ideally, RSS would be able to tie all of these channels together into one convenient collection of things to read. However, some of the social media probably happen too fast (i.e. the posting frequency might be too high) to really make RSS convenient, and crucially, Twitter doesn’t seem to have an RSS connection at all anymore.
For the moment, then, we will have to jury-rig solutions. RSS works fine for keeping track of the ‘slower’ media. I generally use it whenever possible, as long as there are no more than ~10 posts a day per account I am following. Of course, most individual blogs only post a few articles a week or less, so RSS is perfect for making sure you aren’t missing any of those. Still, the bigger your RSS collection gets, the more likely it is for competition to set in there as well. Maybe there just is no way of having your cake and eating it?
As a final thought, perhaps it will be useful to take a more historical perspective, and compare our plight to that of the prolific letter writer. Broadly speaking, a (say, 19th century) letter writer has two networks: the local one, relying on face-to-face contact, and the paper one, relying on back-and-forth letter writing. The easiest way to make contact is to hang out in the local pub and see what conversations emerge over a tankard or two with the people who happen te be there. You won’t have time or opportunity to develop longer conversations with everyone though, and of course if someone doesn’t live near you, face-to-face isn’t an option at all. Both longer face-to-face and longer paper conversation require selection on your part; they force you to ask yourself the admittedly harsh question: who among all these people is worth a larger investment of my time? You can only spend so much time each day writing letters, and if you want to maintain deeper conversations with some people, you will have to be short with others, or even push them aside for a while.
The advent of social networking sites has mainly made it easier to maintain short, superficial conversations with many different people, and the requirement of face-to-face communication is gone. Twitter and Facebook are the virtual pub, if you will. They can lead to some wonderful acquaintances, and these have the potential to develop into deeper friendships. But again, if we want to maintain more in-depth conversations with some people, we will have to make a conscious effort, and allocate our time and attention accordingly. New technologies haven’t changed that basic principle.