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*When* Was the Blogosphere?
What we can learn from anchoring the rise and fall of a digital future
I posed a question on Twitter last week. It got me ratio’ed — but, like, the good kind of ratio’ed (I did not previously know this was a thing). All of these interesting people showed up with thoughtful replies. If you’re interested in the subject, the thread is well worth your time.
The (almost 200) replies ranged from start dates of 1994 to 2006, and from end dates of 2005 to 2016. There isn’t one authoritative, correct response. How you answer the question depends on how you subjectively experience and evaluate technological trends.
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I think temporal exercises like this are useful because the blogosphere was, for a time period, a big part of the digital future. By that, I mean it was treated not just as a curious thing that people were doing, but as a portent of how technology was changing society. Bloggers were “crashing the gates,” challenging journalists and political parties. The blogosphere was a harbinger of a new networked information economy It was one of the main drivers of Web 2.0 and the new online participatory culture that seemed to be transforming so many aspects of social life.
Blogging is, fundamentally, just writing stuff online. Blogging still exists today. But there isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a coherent blogosphere anymore. It has transitioned from a portent of the digital future to a fond collective memory of a shared digital past — an internet of hyperlinked communities on the open web, which gave way to an internet of algorithmically-curated streams within walled gardens.
I think there’s a lot we can learn from studying how the trajectory of these sociotechnical systems ends up diverging from our public expectations — why did the blogosphere stop growing/what social forces precipitated its decline/what replaced it/which assumptions about how people use new technologies should we rethink as a result? And you can’t really draw clear lessons from the rise and fall of a technology if you can’t reach agreement on when the rise and fall began.
So I want to take a moment to summarize what I observed in the replies to the thread, and then offer my reasoning for the years that I would call the “blog era.”
I did a quick tabulation of the replies — just recording specific years that people listed. (This is, of course, a not-even-remotely-scientific survey. It’s weighted towards people who live in the US, who partook in the US political blogosphere, who are one-degree of separation from me, and who happened to be staring at their phone at just the right time on a Wednesday.)
There’s a clump of mid-90s answers. That surprised me, since I’ve always pegged the “start” of the blogosphere to Pyra Labs releasing Blogger.com in 1999. But Geocities and Tripod were functionally very similar to Blogger.com, and Dave Winer started his blog in 1994. Multiple histories of blogging list 1997 as the start date (see here and here).
There’s another cluster of answers around 2000 and 2001. There were quite a few people who remember the blogosphere as a George W. Bush-era phenomenon — starting with his election, ending with the election of Obama.
Then there’s a lot of 2002 (most popular response by a whisker), 2003, and 2004. Several people mentioned the blogosphere as a reaction to failed coverage of the Iraq War and the rise of the Howard Dean Presidential campaign.
FWIW, 2002 is my answer as well, but for different reasons that I’ll detail below.
Here’s the range of when people felt the blogosphere ended:
The three big themes I saw in the responses were (1) Competition from social media — Facebook and Twitter (2008-2009), (2) Obama administration/failure of the ACA (2009/2010), and (3) the demise of Google Reader (2013).
I think it’s interesting that two of these explanations are fundamentally telling a technological story. The blogosphere was the digital future for a half-dozen or so years, but then internet time kept moving forward. Twitter and Facebook were better-suited to the mobile web, and they crowded into the blogosphere’s niche (Twitter was initially called “microblogging.” Also, fun-fact: Twitter was founded by Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, two of the original Pyra Labs creators of blogger.com). By 2013, when Google turned the lights out on Google Reader (after the ill-fated attempt to build a Facebook competitors with Google+), it was the end of the blogosphere’s long slide.
Then there’s the alternate explanation that equates the blogosphere with the institutions it was meant to disrupt. It is the digital future during the Bush years, and plays a key role in both the adversarial citizen journalism and reactive digital activism that typified those years. I think there are some profound lessons about the way that new tactical repertoires developed during periods of political opposition have to be retrofitted when your political coalition is trying to enact new policies rather than trying to defend a threatened status quo.
With all that being said, here’s my own answer, and my reasoning:
2002: The Beginning
Let’s grant that the blogosphere is both a software archetype (writing online, with reverse-chronological posts, conversational tone, in-text hyperlinks and static sidebar hyperlinks), and a style of writing (personal/DIY/snarky/conversational), and a network of actors (the American political blogosphere was Atrios and Digby and Kos and Ezra Klein, and Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin, etc, etc…) and an intervention in/disruption of institutional journalism and its extant barriers, norms, and practices, and a (fragile) structure for funding writing, that (inevitably) proved temporary and short-lived. Sifting through your instincts about when the blogosphere begins and ends forces us to balance the multiple faces of a sociotechnical assemblage and decide which seem most relevant.
All of the technical affordances of blogging existed prior to 2002. All of the major software services (Blogspot, Moveable Type, etc) debuted before 2002 as well. For techies, who generally could write code and were earlier tech adopters, the blogosphere comes together earlier. For political folks and other publics, it comes together later. So what makes 2002 special?
For starters, 2002 is the first year that is entirely post-dotcom crash. The blogosphere was a forerunner to Web 2.0 (which was itself a load-bearing branding exercise). The people web-logging on Geocities in 1999 weren’t being hailed as a prototype of what the digital future would look like when it arrived/became evenly distributed. All that attention was directed at NASDAQ-indexed companies going public for insane valuations despite having no business model whatsoever. The Internet of the 1990s was hailed as part of a broader project of neoliberal globalization. The Cold War was over. History had ended. New communications technologies were going to unlock a new era of economic abundance and informed, engaged citizens. After the double-impact of the dotcom crash and 9/11, the ebullient confidence of prominent digital evangelists was seriously dampened.
I think the blogosphere temporally can only begin once we’ve gotten clear of the dotcom crash. 2002 is when internet intellectuals/evangelists/investors/journalists start asking what comes after the crash. Blogging starts breaking into the public consciousness because blogging becomes the budding story of the next big internet thing around 2002.
2002 is the first year that blogging is mentioned in WIRED magazine. I think the WIRED back catalog is a solid indicator of when parts of tech culture start to push their way into the broader public imaginary. And 2002 is when Rebecca Blood publishes The Weblog Handbook, which became a very popular text that got people into blogging.
Also, critically BlogAds gets started in 2002. BlogAds was how virtually all of the large-scale blogs monetized their traffic through sidebar advertising. During the heyday of the blogosphere, when blogging looked like it could be a sustainable full-time job (and when the rest of the media business was in a revenue death-spiral), that was because of BlogAds and a few other companies that briefly, tenuously dominated digital advertising.
Setting 2002 as the beginning also defines the digital publications and online diaries of the 1990s as prehistory. Online publications like Suck.com pioneered a lot of the irreverant/snarky/rude tone that later defined the blogosphere, but they called themselves webzines back then. I think we should view sites like Suck.com and networks like Geocities as a template and a testing ground for what would later become the blogosphere.
(By the same token, I think it’s worth looking at what people are co-creating on VRChat today as a precursor to what the Metaverse could be, but I’d vehemently insist that the Metaverse does not yet exist in any meaningful way. VRChat is prehistory to an imagined Metaverse that I doubt will actually materialize.)
So I think 2002 is when the blogosphere starts to be treated as the digital future. The technical architecture had existed for a couple of years, and there was enough interesting experimentation and community-building for Rebecca Blood to write a manual and Andrew Sullivan to declare the start of a blogging revolution and Henry Copeland to start a company that could sell ads on blogs. I think 2002 is when all the pieces start to fit together. Then it builds for a few years, and becomes the next big thing, and becomes one of the main drivers of “Web 2.0.”
When does the blogosphere end, though? And who or what kills it?
I think there are three interlocking trends that bring about the end of the blogosphere. (This is a bit I’ve been working on for a while actually — my sense is that there are generalizable themes here.) We can read the end of the blogosphere as a technological story, a financial story, or a story of institutional counteraction.
The tech story is the most obvious. The blogosphere was built for an internet of laptops and wifi (he says, while blogging this on his laptop in a coffeehouse). It was an internet of Search Engine Optimization and Google Adwords and so-many-tabs-open-in-your-browser. RSS feeds/Google Reader added a “push” dimension to the otherwise “pull” medium that is the web.
Beginning in 2008, with the second-generation iPhone (which, importantly, includes the app store), the way we interact with the internet starts to change (and by “we,” I really mean “people in the global north who advertisers routinely pay to reach through surveillance capitalism/tech entrepreneurs imagine as their potential users/customers/tech journalists treat as their assumed readership”). Twitter and Facebook were both founded before 2008, but the shift to mobile is central to their dramatic rise in popularity. We get an internet of Social Sharing Optimization, and doomscrolling, and the constant refresh.
So the tech story is one where the blogosphere turns out to be fragile because technology keeps changing. By the time Google retires Google Reader (2013), Google has already tried and failed to build a Facebook competitor (remember Google+?). Google is turning the lights out on a mostly-empty building.
The financial story is, I think, the least well-understood. At the height of the blog era, there were millions of occasional hobbyist bloggers, but there was also thousands of full-time professional bloggers (themselves a precursor to today’s influencer economy). As my colleague Matt Hindman demonstrated in The Myth of Digital Democracy, blogging had made self-publication essentially free, but there is a huge gulf between speaking and being heard. It was only the professional blogs that attracted mass audience and held the (ultimately false) promise of disrupting the existing institutional order.
During the peak years of the blogosphere, endless digital ink was spilled discussing how blogs were disrupting journalism and remaking public life. The New York Times cost too much to operate. Paywalls would never work. Blogs were the future.
In retrospect, what we didn’t recognize back then was just how financially fragile these elite blogs were. The blogosphere was built on individual revenue streams (sidebar advertising, in the case of companies like BlogAds). And the financial success of blogs led, inevitably, to the rise of spam blog (splogs) — the botnets of that era. Spamblogs artificially inflated the prices charged for sidebar ads, precipitating a collapse in sidebar ad revenues. Independent bloggers who could make a nice living in 2006 found themselves barely scraping by with the same traffic in 2007.
That leads to the institutional story. By the time I started studying the political blogosphere (2007-2008), the dividing line between blogs and other online publications was already blurred. Was TalkingPointsMemo a blog or a news organization? It had already won a Polk Award for its political coverage, and it was hiring journalists away from traditional news orgs. When Ezra Klein was hired to write online columns for the Washington Post's “Wonkblog,” which side of the blogger/journalist divide was he on?
This is a theme that I think the acolytes of “disruptive innovation” constantly forget. Over time, existing political/economic/journalistic/cultural institutions will respond to the promising new disruptor. Of course, in retrospect, instead of the blogosphere replacing the New York Times, the NYT just hired a bunch of bloggers! Of course, in retrospect, the most successful political bloggers became political operatives. Party networks are both flexible and durable. They don’t just sit there and wither away.
The blogosphere stopped being the digital future as the existing elite institutions adjusted in response. By the early 2010s, former bloggers were starting new digital publications like Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight.com. These publications carved out a niche within political journalism, but they were institutionally quite similar to the old journalistic organizations — they had editors, and HR departments, mastheads and advertising departments.
In this sense, the blogosphere era ends when the people who came up through the blogosphere start building new post-blogosphere organizations. The blog revolution lasted just long enough for the leaders to become the new institutionalists.
So there you have it. R.I.P. blogosphere: 2002-2011.
Your mileage may vary. My sense of the rise and fall of the blogosphere is pretty directly rooted in my old U.S. political blog research and my current WIRED archive research. It’s also more rooted in the blogosphere as a cultural phenomenon than as a technical artifact.
I think cases like this are useful for helping us to think more clearly about present-day predictions about the “digital future.” Consider Substack: At the technical level, Substack is basically just blogging plus an email distribution list and an optional funding mechanism. But Substack is also a time period. I’d say it runs from 2020 until now-ish. The company was founded in 2017. Its Series A funding round was 2019, and some of that money went to attracting big-name writers. 2020-21 was when it seemed to be everywhere, and was hailed by media reporters as the next great-or-terrible thing happening to journalism.
I think Substack has already plateaued in 2022. Even before the tech bubble started to seriously deflate, Substack’s Series B funding round failed, an attempted pivot got no traction, and major authors decamped for mainstream outlets. What seems to be happening is that (1) technologically, Substack just isn’t that special, (2a) financially, it can support plenty of free hobbyists but only a small group of full-timers, (2b) once the VC money runs out, it isn’t clear how sustainable the business model will even be, and (3) existing journalism outlets are inviting those full-timers to bring their newsletter-writing talents in-house. …So the Substack revolution ends with a predictable.
I’m nostalgic for the old blogosphere. It seems a lot of people in or around my age bracket are as well. The open web of the 2000s was, I think, more fun and less toxic than the Internet we have today.
But, more than my nostalgia, I’m keen to learn from the blogosphere’s ultimate shortcomings. Things didn’t turn out how we expected. They never do. If we pay attention to how digital futures’ past turned out, I think we can ask better questions about the Web3/artificial intelligence everywhere/metaverse futures that are being hawked so relentlessly today.
(But that’s the subject of a whole other essay. Stay tuned…)
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