Why (I Hope) Blogs Still Matter in 2014

I started this blog less than six months ago, and for the first three months, I had fewer than a hundred page views. But my readership grew in fits and starts, with a retweet here and a link there, even an occasional block quote, until finally, I arrived home after work a couple weeks ago to find a link to something I wrote on Kottke.org.

Kottke-fucking-dot-org (the New Yorker of blogs, as far as I’m concerned).

My page views went up to 12,000 in a single day, small potatoes for some I’m sure, but a big deal to me. People were starting to follow me on Twitter, sending me messages about how much they enjoyed my writing. After nearly a decade of working in public radio, and then several years writing and struggling to publish a novel, I felt as though blogging was finally giving me a platform and an audience I could call my own.

So imagine my surprise when, just a few days later, in a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Kottke himself announced that, “The blog is dead.” He hedged a bit in a post on his blog, but stood by his main point:

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

I’m not quite forty, but I do have kids, so I found this unbearably depressing. Apparently, I have found the right creative platform for myself at precisely the moment it’s fallen out of fashion.

Except I don’t really believe that. And Kottke doesn’t seem to either. The footnote in his blog post about Tumblr (and whether Tumblr blogs are actually blogs) bears this out.

If you asked a typical 23-year-old Tumblr user what they called this thing they’re doing on the site, I bet “blogging” would not be the first (or second) answer. No one thinks of posting to their Facebook as blogging or tweeting as microblogging or Instagramming as photoblogging. And if the people doing it think it’s different, I’ll take them at their word. After all, when early bloggers were attempting to classify their efforts as something other than online diaries or homepages, everyone eventually agreed. Let’s not fight everyone else on their choice of subculture and vocabulary.

So it’s the terminology that’s changing rather than the impulse. And while these alternative services are undoubtedly siphoning off casual users of what used to be blogs, the reason those users are leaving is that blogging platforms don’t provide the easiest access to the intended audience. My wife and I once used personal blogs to share pictures of and stories about our kids. Now we do that on Facebook because Facebook is where the friends and relatives are. If you want to communicate with your social group, you go to the service where your social group congregates, where your message will be conveyed to the largest number of people you know.

But I want to communicate with people I don’t know. And that’s why I think blogs, or personal websites, or single author web publications, or whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-them, still matter.

Rewind about four years. I had just quit a terrible associate producer job in public radio and was failing to make it as a freelancer. That fall, I went to a public radio conference and got to meet one of the Kitchen Sisters (I was so star-struck, I didn’t even know which one she was) and other amazing producers like Kara Oehler and Joe Richman (when he asked me how freelancing was going, I said, “Teaching at a technical college is going pretty well.”) But the most interesting conversation I had that night was with a guy who had been working behind the scenes for most of his career, helping different radio shows find their own unique production style.

I was telling him how I wasn’t sure I could sell the kinds of stories I had been making before the economy crashed, stories about ordinary life with no real news hook. The only show that still had a large freelance budget was Marketplace, and I didn’t want to change my style to suit them. This guy’s advice? Start a podcast. Just make the kinds of stories I wanted to make and put them out in the world, and if the stories were good, the audience would eventually come to me. He cited Jesse Thorn of MaximumFun as a model.

I didn’t follow that guy’s advice (a podcast seemed like too much work), but he did. That guy was Roman Mars. He went on to create and host the amazing show 99% invisible. Not only did the audience come to him, but he recently raised more than $375,000 on Kickstarter to fund the fourth season of the show. His experience echoes the words of Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich, who offered similar advice in a commencement address to the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care. No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

I had those words in mind when I started my blog six months ago, and I’ve had them in mind whenever I think I should be pitching one of my blog posts to an online publication like Slate or Salon or The Magazine. I’d like to get paid for what I write, but there’s something wonderfully satisfying about owning and controlling my own work. I also don’t want to wait to see if someone will publish it. I want to publish, and see if the audience comes to me.

This is what blogs still offer.

When I first read Kottke’s post on the death of blogs, my knee-jerk fear was that it meant fewer and fewer people would be reading blogs in the near future. What I now think he means is that fewer and fewer people will be writing blogs in the near future. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the rise of social networking platforms will function like a brush fire, clearing out the forest for those of us who want to do more than share a picture, video, or link—those of us who actually want to read, analyze, reflect on, argue with, and write thoughtfully about the stream of information we’re all trying to navigate. Those are the blogs I want to be reading in 2014, and beyond.