The Blogger Versus Hive Mind

It occurred to me over the weekend that January marked my ten-year anniversary of blogging.  I'm spending this week considering the changes I've seen in that epoch of technology.


Okay, imagine if you will, a time in which information was managed by corporate gatekeepers.  In this distant dystopia (Y2K), there were lots of things in the world we didn't know anything about.  Let me rock your world.  As the new millennium dawned, we staggered forth without the light of Wikipedia.  Imagine that.  Never mind being able to Yelp the best Thai restaurant within 2 miles of our present location--we couldn't find out totally basic information, like what that rule is called when someone inappropriately invokes Hitler as an analogy for a minor crime (Godwin's law).  We were truly lost souls.

Into this world, the blogger swaggered like a little god.  She was the usurper, the destroyer of gatekeeping.  She challenged the conventional wisdom of how things were covered and perhaps more importantly, which things were covered.  This was the gatekeeper's secret, hidden power. If a newspaper decided to cover subject X in their paper, the dictates of dead-tree media meant they couldn't devote column-space to Y.  The blogger reported subject Y.  Equally as radically, the blogger was an integrationist.  Gatekeepers never had to show their work; they reported the news in that clinical Voice of God style, pretending to inhabit a Platonic plane of pure objectivity.  Bloggers, on the other hand, linked stuff.  They did the same things reporters did (the good ones, anyway), but they allowed the reader to check their sources in real time.  They were responsive to readers and used them to create dialogue--another radical departure from the MSM's purely didactic model.

For about two years, from the start of 2003 through the end of 2004, blogging upended the way we thought about information.  We went from an "experts" model to a "citizens" model.  This wasn't only a media phenomenon, experts were really under the gun then--think of the failures leading to 9/11 and the debacle of the Iraq war was unfolding in front of us.  The experts who had access to information had failed us (both media and government), and there was a battle for control over who should control information.  Bloggers by dint of not being experts had a kind of instant credibility, and for a short time, everyone was really keen to hear what they had to say. 

(Although my lens is heavily tinted by the colors of politics--the blogging I was doing at the time--this dynamic was happening in every realm.  Citizen bloggers, with new-fangled digital cameras, were becoming instant paparazzi and challenging the entertainment press; sports bloggers were covering teams with the kind of obsessiveness the fans recognized and enjoyed, etc and so on.) 

In the mid-aughts, bloggers reached detente with the MSM and actually became mainstream.  I remember getting my first press invite to a beer event in 2006.  It helped that I had previously worked for the MSM, but pretty quickly bloggers across the city were treated as regular media.  And why not?  As information moved from dead trees to the internet, stories about a brewery were accessed by a different gatekeeper, Google, and it didn't matter if the story appeared on or would find it. The distinction between blogging and reporting, by about 2008, was so small that it almost became an academic point.*

Where things really took a turn away from the citizen blogger was by the late aughts, as software developers began to harness the power of hive mind.  The problem with information had inverted itself; no longer was their too little information, guarded by a few powerful gatekeepers, now there was way, way too much information.  Developers figured out how to turn that into a wonderful tool for crowdsourcing.  One of the constant questions in an information-saturated environment is "which?"  Which car is best, which new band is best, which restaurant is best?  Bloggers lost their privileged places as ratings sites took over.  We had demonstrated that citizens' information is as valuable as experts', and thereby made ourselves (mostly) obsolete.  Most bloggers don't mess with reviews anymore, and this is why.  (I have been tasting a whole bunch of new beers and will buck convention soon with some reviews.) 

People now like to read things in very short, digestible bursts and they do it on sites like Reddit and Twitter.  They scan a stream of voices, looking for the one that interests them.  Well over half my traffic now comes from referrals from these kinds of sites.  The habit of slowly going from blog to blog looking to see if there's anything new there--what kind of nonsense is that?  The blogger will tweet and Facebook when she's got new content for me to see.  Or I'll see it in RSS. 

Tomorrow I'll discuss what kinds of blogs remain valuable and why.  But for today, I wanted to leave you with the sense of what it's like blogging in 2013 as opposed to 2003.  The world has changed, the way we consume information has changed, and media has changed.  Blogs have not changed--not much, anyway.  Trying to elbow your way through the cacophony is a completely different challenge than trying to muscle your way past a gatekeeper.  My traffic is as good as it ever was, but in the flattening of the information earth, there is a diminution that happens to us all.  We are little nodes now, pixel flashes that are but one tiny piece of an immense picture of information we consume daily.  It's a really, really different world.  More on that world tomorrow. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go tweet this post so you can find it. 
*The consequences of all these changes, profound, would make a great book.  I'll spare you.
Jeff AlworthMeta, blogs2 Comments