Is blogging dead (again)?
Every year that question takes a new angle.
The latest apparent threat is Medium. The platform combines the publishing power of a blog with the reach of a social network.
But that's nothing new. Social networks have always essentially been blogs:
- Twitter is a microblog.
- Instagram is a photoblog.
- F-book is a shitty blog.
Far from being dead, the blog format now drives the web.
But Medium might be the first social network that can be looked at as a viable alternative to the traditional blog. It functions like a prototypical blog, and is built for long-form content.
It's just one example of how a new wave of content creators are beginning to look at social media. They're starting to see advantages to publishing their primary content to a social network.
What's behind this shift? And where does it leave the old school blog?
Unless you're the reincarnation of J.D. Salinger, chances are you want your work to be read. And whether your goals are financial or creative, you want feedback that leads to practical results.
Traditionally comments sections were a main source of feedback. But ever notice how comments sections are disappearing?
It's a trend that was recently noted by Wired magazine. The reasons vary, but generally large blogs don't want to bother moderating trolls. Smaller blogs get few comments anyway, so many leave the section turned off.
In any case, comments aren't the most reliable source of feedback for bloggers.
So we go to where the most vibrant conversations are: social media.
If you run a blog, you know the drill:
- You write a post.
- You post a link to Twitter or F-book.
- If people dig it, you get likes and shares.
- If it's engaging, discussions happen.
- You build an audience and your list.
But what if this process could be bypassed? What if the publishing platform and social network became the same thing?
Publishing Where Your Audience Is
Recently Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) moved their 15 year-old blog Signal v. Noise to Medium. As founder DHH explains in this post:
... Medium has a wonderful community and readership that reaches far beyond our natural sphere of influence. Between just RECONSIDER and The day I became a millionaire, I’ve had more than 500,000 people see those articles. We just weren’t getting those numbers hosting Signal v Noise on our own island.
Basecamp already had a well established brand. The average blogger would not see this level of traction in moving to Medium. Medium is also home to Basecamp's target audience: those immersed in entrepreneurship and tech.
Still, Basecamp saw more opportunity in moving to Medium than keeping Signal v. Noise an independent blog. It came down to tapping into a community.
Another example — Recently on the Fizzle Show, the hosts shared the experience of their member Emma Davies. She explained how her content got more engagement on Instagram than her own blog. Emma gives photo tips, so her work is a perfect fit for Instagram.
Emma polled her audience: Would they rather get photo tips through Instagram or through her blog? Her followers unanimously voted in favor of viewing her content through Instagram. No big surprise there, it's more convenient for them.
Emma still links to the landing page with her mailing list, but currently posts her content on Instagram.
The examples of Signal v. Noise and Emma's photo tips are very different. But what they both share is using social networks to publish their main content. Instead of funneling readers to their blogs, they publish where their readers hang out.
So does this mean we don't need a traditional blog at all?
Practical Reasons for Having Your Own Blog
The common argument against using a closed platform goes like this: What happens if the platform make changes? Or even goes away? For instance, what if Medium becomes the next GeoCities?
This argument is based on a lot of hypotheticals, and isn't very relevant to those benefiting from a closed platform right now. It's also not likely to convince a beginner experimenting with writing on the web.
Sure, you can make predictions and point out how you don’t control your content and Medium can put advertising on it at any time. But until they actually do anything like that, predictions are just hearsay. Nothing has happened yet to break user trust. So why immediately default to distrust?
He then points out how Medium is a good thing because it gets casual users interested in writing long-form content. When they're ready, they can move to a platform that gives them more control:
When a casual user wants a quick place to write, they have Medium. When a serious user wants to build out a full publication and control their whole site and subscriber-base, they have Ghost.
Eventually content creators want to build a brand around their work. This is where having your own blog has a clear advantage. You have the ability to influence the look and feel. That way your readers associate your content and the site with you, not a massive social network.
Usability is also a factor. Often closed platforms make design decisions that are not in the best interest of users (Twitter's been accused of this lately).
But to paraphrase the TV classic The Outer Limits: with your own blog, you control the horizontal, and you control the vertical.
- The layout and colors
- Buttons, navigation, etc.
- Location of your email signup
- The software your blog is built on
Most of all, any links to your posts point back to your domain. This gives your site SEO juice and authority, rather than handing that value to another platform.
Why the Traditional Blog Still Matters
Dave Weiner recently wrote:
When you give in to the default, and just go ahead and post to Medium, you're stifling the open web. Not giving it a chance to work its magic, which depends on diversity, not monoculture.
While I think Medium does serve a purpose in certain cases, I agree with Dave that the open web fosters more interesting and diverse content. If most long-form content on the web is filtered through one network, it will inevitably end in a bland monoculture.
This is where the high engagement on a social network actually works against it.
Users of a social network seek likes and shares. This leads to them sharing similar memes, topics, and views. New users come in and adapt to this process, watering down the content.
Call it content gentrification.
When you seek the pavlovian buzz of approval, it can't help but to effect creativity. This is why the metaphor of the blog as an island isn't a bad thing. It serves as a buffer from the noise, a place to stand apart from the herd for awhile. It's a place to explore novel ideas.
Think about some of the standout blogs on the internet. Can you imagine Brain Pickings or Wait But Why being exclusively published on Medium? These voices are too idiosyncratic to be contained within a network. After all, you can't click a turtle on Medium's footer.
There's been much talk about finding your tribe online. It's also important to find your island.
Why Blogging Will Have to Evolve
So in the end, there's no one way. There are certain cases where pushing your content to a platform like Medium makes sense. But for content creators who want to take ownership of their vision, nothing will ever beat the traditional blog.
That doesn't mean the old school blog doesn't face challenges. Sites like Medium and Tumblr will continue to increase in popularity because of the cool factor of social engagement.
To stay competitive, open source blogging platforms will have to find cool factors of their own: improved usability, fresh features, and better ways to involve a community.
But I see little reason to worry. The state of open source platforms prove that traditional blogging is evolving. WordPress is taking some interesting directions, and continues to make 25% of the web open source. The Ghost platform (which I use) has an elegant design and a cool markdown editor, which makes for one of my favorite writing experiences.
Those of us who create content for the web also have to evolve. Do we just create filler content to get easy clicks? Or are we creating something meaningful or informative that truly engages visitors? The blog is a medium with unlimited potential, but only if we show up and push it forward.