John Scalzi over on his blog Whatever just posted his yearly summary of readership statistics for his blog for this half of 2017, and it brought up some very interesting questions and insights for me.
He mentions how his site views seem to have halved since 2012. But then he points out how the way social media sites address linking to content obscures many views and distorts the picture from the viewpoint of his built-in WordPress analytics package.
Whereas in the early 2000s, blogging was a rather distributed and free-wheeling hobby, nowadays it has been corporatized and hedged in by so-called “walled garden” platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. A walled garden is a platform that creates inward pressure on users and makes interfacing with outside platforms and media difficult. Usually to preserve it’s userbase by requiring you to be a member/user of the platform in order to access or interact with its content. This means that even though there may be links pointing outside, most of the discussion happens within the garden, and if the content creator wants to respond to comments on their content, they must have an account on the walled-garden platform. And when a garden gets sufficiently large enough, like Facebook, the dilemma then arises: why go to all the extra work of maintaining an external platform such as a blog or website, when the audience all have say a Facebook and the content creator does, too–why not just post straight to Facebook?
And Mr. Scalzi is not the only blogger noting or struggling with the issue of how monetized platforms and walled gardens have altered blogging and the web in general. In fact, many blogs, including many I used to follow closely, have closed their doors or switched formats to keep up with these changes.
And beyond the walled garden issue, part of this has to do with how we access the internet today. Mobile devices make up a much larger share of web viewing now than they did when blogging and the internet first became popular. And because these are mobile devices, they have many limitations: screen size, processing power, input methods. A site or blog that looks great on a PC is going to look mighty odd on many mobile devices. It would be almost impossible for me to type out this post on my phone’s touchscreen keypad. Complex sites with lots of doodads load much slower on phones, though the gap has closed a bit these days. Certainly, it’s nicer for me to read a long blog post on my laptop than my phone. These things, too, have contributed to the decline of the blogosphere compared to its earlier days.
And I don’t like that. For the things I use the blogosphere for, from my own posts to reading essays and such by people such as John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, or others in various fields, I much prefer a good blog post to a Tweet, or a Facebook status. I like long-form prose writing, and I don’t feel like I can get the same things out of a tweet or even a tumblr post in many cases. That’s not to say those things don’t have they’re uses; they’re just different uses in my case.
I often wonder whether things might change back a little once we develop technology like laser keyboards and augmented reality or just mini-projectors that could let phones break out of the limitations of their size. Is it merely that the medium is so different that forces these changes in media? Does Twitter rely entirely on the artificial restrictions of mobile technology for its popularity? If I could set my phone on a table or my lap, and have it mimic a keyboard and a computer screen, would I find that I wanted to use it like a more convenient laptop more often? Or are the changes social changes. Is it really that people don’t like reading 200-word blog posts anymore? Or is it just that a 140 character Tweet is a lot less stressful when I’m on my tiny phone screen in the airport?
To get a bit more spec ficcy, do people just love Facebook and Twitter that much, or would we break out of the garden if we took down the walls a bit? If there was an open-source freeware social media network that could access and display your Facebook data and your myspace data, and your Google posts and your tweets all in one platform/app–if it could convert a post/status so that your Google+ post would be accessible on your friend’s Facebook feed would people be more willing to step outside the single platform? It takes a great deal of energy to manage even one active social media account. I know I wouldn’t want to have to triple-post to Facebook, Google+, Ello, and then push a link to Twitter, just to reach all my possible audiences. But what if there was a bridge between these castles that would do the work for me? Because controlling every aspect of the garden is great for the companies behind Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But it’s not quite so great for the regular user, and it’s definitely not great for the community as a whole. The democratization of the web is one of my favorite features, and Facebook and Co. work hard every day to kill that democracy and carve a monopoly from its bloody corpse.