6.1.19

WHEN IT BECOMES TOO MUCH LIKE WORK, BUT WITHOUT THE REWARDS?

Chad Orzel meditates on what happened to web logs on the road from Next Big Thing to ... obscurity.
I can still remember the early days of blogging as a Thing, when there was a lot of talk about how it was going to Change Everything. While I would agree that Everything has unquestionably Changed, it’s not clear that blogs had all that much lasting influence; they certainly never got adopted as widely as many people hoped, and it’s interesting to poke a bit at why that is.
Part of the change might have been the purveyors of Traditional Media identifying Rising Stars and co-opting them.
One of the bigger factors is a sort of professionalization of blogging as a form of communication. Way back in 2002 when I started, blogging was very much a thing that people who primarily did something else would pick up as a hobby. That was the glorious thing about it, in my view– what you got from blogs wasn’t stories from writers who dabbled in other things, it was professionals from other areas dabbling in writing.

At some point in the latter part of that decade, things turned a bit. The best writers from the hobby blogger era got book deals and jobs in media, and “run a successful blog” became an accepted stepping-stone on the path to a writing career. You started to see more blogs that were clearly from future journalists specializing in some area, and they kind of crowded out hobby blogs. The quality of the writing almost certainly improved, but there was a certain homogenization of the style, and a kind of loss of authenticity.
That's part of it. There's a passage in Tom Sawyer that might be germane.  "There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign."

The social media platforms might have changed the incentives for developing readership as well.
Another major factor limiting blogging is that, as the social-media universe got bigger (both with blogs growing and becoming more mainstream, and the beginnings of Twitter and expansion of Facebook), the stakes started to get higher. When I started in 2002, I relied on security through obscurity to protect my academic career: I always wrote under my own name, but trusted that the people I worked with were highly unlikely to stumble across my blog. Near the peak of the blog era, a few years after the launch of ScienceBlogs, academics were advised to blog pseudonymously because if a tenure committee noticed your blog, they might think you were wasting time and hold that against you. These days, the danger of being active on social media (blogs included) is that somebody’s going to find something you wrote offensive and whip up a mob that will ruin your reputation, try to get you fired, and even send you death threats.
Social media mobs might be one hazard; perhaps the greater hazard is that the social media platforms practice their own form of censorship, and the algorithms they use to fill your news feed make the likelihood of somebody stumbling across your posts even smaller, and sometimes it's in the sources you stumble across, or that stumble across yours, that leads to the insights.

Bad writing, though, does not get read.
You have to enjoy communicating through the written word in a way that isn’t all that common. Even in academia, where people’s careers are built on the production of text, you don’t see many people who are actually good at the sort of communication needed for blogging. That’s part of why there are so many tedious meetings that could’ve been emails, and so many stupid faculty-email-list fights: a large fraction of the population, including most professional academics, find it a distasteful chore to type words into a computer and share them with other people.
Could that be because the task of typing words into a computer to be shared with other people is ... work?
There’s a reason why the vast majority of blogs have a dozen or two posts with the time between them increasing until they just sort of… stop. It’s the same reason why most Twitter and Facebook feeds are dominated by reshared memes and thoughts from others. The weird thing isn’t that more academics don’t blog, it’s that people like me and Matt Reed keep blogging over the span of so many years.
That's Matt "Dean Dad" Reed, who observes,
Still, the point of the enterprise wasn’t really careerism.  (If it were, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym for all those years!)  It was to help people understand a reality that they frequently get wrong, in the cockeyed hopes of helping to make it better.  It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if it has helped or not. But the educator in me has to believe that putting truth out there in digestible form, for extended periods, has to do some good, somewhere.  That’s what classroom teachers do. This is my version of teaching, even if I’m figuring it out as I go along.
Bet on emergence. Traditional teaching has in common with contemporary social media platforms an excess of curation, to the detriment of offering challenging perspectives on reality.

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