21st century, Bari Weiss, Facebook, Glenn Greenwald, John McWhorter, Matthew Yglesias, Substack, technology, Twitter, United States, WordPress
At the beginning of Love of All Wisdom’s tenth-anniversary post, I wrote: “In the span of the history of philosophy, ten years is the blink of an eye. In the span of the blogosphere, however, ten years is an eternity.” Immediately after the post went up, a thought occurred to me, which would probably have made that point even more effectively. Namely: does anyone even say “blogosphere” anymore?
I haven’t heard anyone use the phrase “blogosphere” in a long time. That in itself is no problem: neologisms come and go. More concerning is the reason it isn’t used: the referent of the term “blogosphere” has faded from view, and may not even exist at all. Circa 2010, even though I didn’t yet identify as a Buddhist, I was still in dialogue with a “Buddhist blogosphere” that contained the likes of the Bitterroot Badger and Marcus. That is, there was a network of many Buddhist blogs whose authors read each other’s. But most of those blogs are gone now, and I haven’t seen others come up to replace them.
This isn’t a coincidence. In the ’00s, when I started Love of All Wisdom, blogging was an exciting new technology – but no technology stays new and exciting for long. Already at educational-technology conferences around 2012 I was hearing people disparaging blogging as “old tech”. (I replied “What’s wrong with old tech?” But in those days edtech was too often about getting dazzled by the latest shiny thing.) It feels hard to believe now, but as Twitter started getting popular – around the same time – one of the most common terms to describe it was “microblogging”. That is, in order to explain and understood what Twitter was, people thought of it as “like blogging, but shorter”.
What happened next, of course, was that the immediacy and ease of Facebook and Twitter drove blogs to the sidelines. The positive side effect of this development was that, where blogs had been viewed as frivolous ephemera in the ’00s, in the ’10s they became a site for serious reflection by comparison. By 2012, if you had a quick and goofy hot take, you no longer needed a blog for that; you had Facebook and Twitter. Blogs, by contrast, had become a space left for serious essays. The problem, though, was that people seemed to have less attention span for that serious long-form reflection. Facebook was enough. And so, it seemed, the world came to pass blogs by. They came to seem like a relic of an earlier time.
And yet. Technology’s moving-on didn’t stop with Facebook and Twitter. Young people across the generations want to have places to interact without their parents and teachers watching, and they come to find such places in the newer technologies the parents hasn’t found. That had already been true for me and my friends in the 1990s when we started an email list together, and it remains so: once parent-age people like me got established on Facebook and Twitter, the young quickly moved on to Instagram. Now that we’re on Instagram, they’re moving to TikTok. (And to Snapchat, where they can wisely keep all their naughtiness away from the eyes of posterity.)
As for us adults, in the mid-’00s, especially around 2016, most of us came to discover just how toxic the culture on Facebook and Twitter could become. Twitter’s length restriction – without which it would not be Twitter – makes serious reflection impossible; Facebook’s algorithm actively promotes hostile interactions and delivers users to conspiracy theories. Even though the written word is a medium I prefer over pictures, I moved most of my own social media presence from Facebook to Instagram, because it turns out that the pictures were more likely to be wholesome and positive. If you must have the fast interactions of social media, better they be smarm than snark.
And in the past few years there has come a particularly interesting twist. Out of the angry social-media culture of Twitter and Tumblr arose a left-wing movement, focused on racial and gender issues, which has become the ruling tendency in mainstream journalism and is not very comfortable with opinions that dissent from it. Those who do dissent openly have often found it difficult to continue their work in established journalistic venues. For example Matthew Yglesias left the publication he founded because his coworkers there said his disagreement with them made them feel “unsafe”; Glenn Greenwald left the publication he founded because it insisted on censoring his criticism of Joe Biden during the election; Bari Weiss left the New York Times when her colleagues reacted to her dissenting opinions by calling her a Nazi and posting an ax emoji next to her name. Notably, none of these were even remotely close to the far right or to Trump; Yglesias is of the centre-left, Weiss of the centre-right, and Greenwald an unrepentant socialist.
But these various pressures against non-conforming opinions created an opportunity: in 2021 it all led to the runaway success of a new platform called Substack, which now effectively employs Yglesias, Greenwald and Weiss. Substack is a way to distribute paid newsletters, in the retro-seeming format of email distribution, and these thinkers (among several others) have made now themselves a comfortable living as independent writers, outside environments hostile to them. Substack has been growing rapidly at a time when journalism as a field is notoriously struggling. Its success even spilled back over to the mainstream media: John McWhorter, a linguist whose centrist views on race put him at odds with New York Times orthodoxy, had a Substack so successful that the Times eventually hired him as an opinion columnist.
And here’s the thing: what comes out of the shiny new technology of Substack looks a lot like… blogging! What I receive in Yglesias’s Substack email newsletter – long, informed takes on a variety of issues – would all look comfortably in place on a scholarly blog. Technologically, I’ve heard Substack described (accurately, I think) as simply “WordPress with a payment platform” – WordPress being the versatile blogging software which has always powered Love of All Wisdom and the Indian Philosophy Blog (and which now powers a large number of non-blog websites). So the exciting buzzworthy new startup of 2021 turned out to be about – blogging, via email. Blogs are alive and well today, when we call them newsletters.
I very briefly entertained the thought of moving my writing to Substack to be where the cool kids are, but there was no real reason for me to do so. Blogs retain one key advantage over Substack, which is the community that forms around a reasonably moderated comments section; there are interactions here that could not happen in an email distribution service. Moreover, I’ve never expected to get paid for my writing. I started Love of All Wisdom during a period of career transition, so I gave it a .com domain in case there was ever some way of making money from it, but I didn’t expect that then, and I know it’s not going to be the case now. By all accounts, Substack writers do not come remotely close to making a living on their work if they are not as famous as Yglesias or Weiss.
But Substack didn’t just take off because of the money. From a reader’s perspective – aside from the obvious pent-up need to hear dissenting voices! – an advantage of Substack is that its posts get pushed to that other now-hoary technology known as email. Blogs are generally viewed as something that exists on the web, such that you have to go to the blog’s website to read it. There’s an advantage to that view with respect to old posts; many many people have found Love of All Wisdom on the web with Google searches about Asperger’s syndrome and philosophy or the difference between modernity and modernism. But only a real die-hard is likely to remember to actively visit a website every two weeks to find the new posts. Substack gained its success by sending its posts to you.
Luckily, WordPress can do that too! It requires a little technical work – Google killed the FeedBurner tool that I used to do it with, and the replacement tool was buggy for the first few weeks – but WordPress is quite capable of email distribution with the right plugins, and that is the case here. The sidebars on Love of All Wisdom and the Indian Philosophy Blog each have an option where you can enter your email address to sign up to receive new posts as they come out. Instantly, a blog becomes a newsletter. (If you prefer; it can also still remain a blog, from which you receive updates by old-fashioned means like Facebook and Twitter.) If you want to get newsletter-style email updates from multiple blogs and manage them in one place, there’s also a site called follow.it that will let you do that.
So I end this post with an advertisement of sorts: if you like the posts on LoAW and/or the IPB and you’re not already getting them in your email, why not go to the sidebar(s) and sign up for them? It turns out blogging is cool again when you receive the posts by email. And if you were already receiving these blogs’ posts by email, well, I guess you’re ahead of the curve.
Cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog.
The question “Whither blogging?” is, I think, closely related to the question “Whither the Web?”
In 2010, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote an article for Scientific American titled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”. The deck of the article said: “The Web is critical not merely to the digital revolution but to our continued prosperity—and even our liberty. Like democracy itself, it needs defending.” On social media, I remember someone saying of Berners-Lee that he was “still a badass”.
A strong argument could be made that we still need the Web of “open standards and neutrality” as well as (not the same thing but also important) free and open-source software like WordPress (for blogging and other kinds of Web sites) and Open Journal Systems (for scholarly journals) that allow relatively easy do-it-yourself publishing.
Substack does not strike me as very innovative—it’s the gig economy for writing. If you’re a writer who can make some money from it, good for you, but it’s not much of an innovation in discourse. Since I think libraries and archives are important, I also worry about any writing that is behind a paywall and is not also available in a form that libraries and archives can acquire—how is all that stuff going to be preserved for posterity? At least the open Web can be archived in the Internet Archive. Public libraries and the open Web and the Internet Archive also provide a “public option” for reading. Serious writers who use Substack need to consider how their writing is going to enter what librarians call the “collective collection”, of which the scholarly subset is the “scholarly record”.
An innovation in discourse on the Web within the last decade that I would mention is the rise of Q&A sites. The most successful and technically innovative of these is, in my opinion, the Stack Exchange Network (SE), although there are some lesser-known open-source alternatives. In many ways SE reminds me of group blogging, but it has an organization closer to a wiki. Indeed, many items (questions or answers) on SE are marked as “community wiki” posts, which means that authorship is attributed to the community instead of to an individual. But most questions and answers on SE retain individual authorship and voice, even though they can be edited by others, and can have comments just like blog posts, and can be up- or down-voted. An SE site often serves very well as a collective knowledge base while preserving individual voices—an intriguing combination of individual and collective authorship. So I consider SE to be an innovative step beyond emails, listservs, and blogs as a way for people to think together in writing, at least for some purposes.
There are still so many unrealized possibilities for improving the way that people think together in writing on the Internet. For example, software could be designed to help people construct, connect, analyze, and evaluate arguments. See, e.g., Floris J. Bex, Mark Snaith, John Lawrence, & Chris Reed (2014), “ArguBlogging: an application for the Argument Web”, Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web, 25, 9–15.
But wherever blogging goes in the future, the basis for it all is Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web of “open standards and neutrality”.
Amod Lele said:
I generally agree. There’s nothing technologically or even conceptually innovative about Substack: it just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and therefore became the Next Big Thing. I take it up as important because it shows that blogging is not dead: the hot tech that’s growing rapidly and generating buzz turns out to be blogging with a few minor tweaks.
I’m a big fan of Stack Exchange. I’m not sure how I would have made it through my computer-science degree without it!
I’m glad there’s a slow return to long form content myself, if only because I recently started a blog to encourage people to learn Southeast Asian languages. Yet even then there’s seemingly no way of avoiding social media.
I recently hired a consultant to advice on how I should do blog outreach, and they suggested going on social media and joining the conversation on twitter/instagram/tiktok. “It’s the way people find blogs now”. Sure, maybe, but I’d rather let my blog be hopefully found by someone rather than join the conversation on social media. I just don’t think it’s worth the sanity cost.
Another reason why I still wish to avoid social media is because anyone who wants to learn a language well would likely be people who don’t mind long form content in the first place — If one doesn’t like reading, is one likely to learn another language? Even if said person is willing to, they wouldn’t use my resources anyway because it’s very wordy.
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Nemo. I do have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed for the blog, because that is indeed a way people find blogs, and that’s important. But they’re automatically generated by a WordPress plugin so that people see them; I don’t try to start conversations there. I will join conversations there about my posts if they happen. But I agree that I’d rather not get too entwined in those conversations; the very last thing I’d want is to become Twitter’s main character. I would much rather that conversations happen here, where more thoughtful reflection is the norm – and where I can moderate.